School choice advocates have had a successful year for their movement and will be working to end on a high note as Texas begins a special session Monday dedicated to implementing a universal education savings account (ESA) policy.
Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called the legislative extra innings after Texas failed to pass an ESA measure earlier this year as more than a dozen states implemented or are preparing to implement new school choice policies.
ESAs have become the new North Star for school choice advocates. The accounts provide money to families to spend on alternatives to public school, such as private institutions or homeschooling.
On Thursday, Abbott signed a proclamation for the session, calling for state lawmakers to give ESAs to every child in Texas.
Anita Scott, policy director for Texas Homeschool Coalition, said her group is feeling “positive about this special session” because “Governor Abbott has been on a parental empowerment campaign since January, February — visiting schools all across Texas to advocate for parents to have the right to decide where their children attend.”
Although it comes in a Republican-dominated state, Abbott’s goal will not be easy to accomplish. Earlier this year, the Texas Senate approved a bill that would give ESAs to all public school students, but the legislation dwindled in the House to 800,000 students before it died completely as lawmakers failed to act before a deadline.
The holdups including rural Republicans who have concerns that school choice could take away money from their schools.
Bob Popinski, senior director of policy for Raise Your Hand Texas, says the state already has a “great public school choice [program] that holds our schools accountable under our assessments” and that Texans “don’t want to abandon them through a voucher program.”
The program includes the Public Education Grants, which allow students in low-performing schools to transfer to other public institutions in the state.
Scott says her group does not see the fears of rural Republicans as something “to be dismissed.”
“The same way in Texas when charter schools became a new reality outside of public schools —there was a concern that charter schools would sort of decrease the student population and public schools. And it’s actually created a healthy competition that raises the standards and raises the rigor, so we’re inviting our rural Republican friends to remember that reality and inviting them to be ready to expand even more opportunities.”
The track record this year stands strong for advocates as Arkansas, North Carolina, Iowa, Utah and Florida created universal ESAs, while other states implemented other school choice policies.
But others foresee the session ending in some sort of compromise, especially due to the levels of funding involved in such a large state.
“The appropriation is 500 million. So it looks like it will probably be a limited program, and we prefer that it be an ESA prioritizing low-income kids and children with disabilities. So that’s what realistically it looks like it will be, and we’re very happy with that outcome,” said Laura Colangelo, executive director of Texas Private School Association.
Along with school choice, the legislative session will also look at immigration policy and the border wall, areas where Republicans are more likely to stand united.
President Biden’s administration this week announced it would allow further parts of the border wall to be constructed and would resume deportations to Venezuela.
The issue could provide more leverage for negotiations to get rural GOP legislators on board with school choice.
“It’s possible that those can be combined into some sort of compromise where you could get — maybe rural Republicans to say, ‘Well, we’re not totally on board with school choice, but we will vote for that to maybe get something we want on the border,’” said Neal McCluskey, director for the Center for Educational Freedom at the CATO Institute.
Meanwhile, school choice opponents have been working hard to ensure no ESA measures are passed.
Troy Reynolds, founder of Texans for Public Education, was set to hold a protest on the issue Saturday.
“We’re going to walk to the governor’s mansion afterwards, and since the theme is ‘Boot Vouchers 2023,’ we have asked people to bring boots, old boots, that they’re willing to part ways with, and we are going to leave those on the governor’s doorstep,” Reynolds said.
He said he has confidence the legislature won’t pass a school choice bill, saying the money is simply not there.
It is “such a ridiculous demand that they very obviously don’t have the money to support. I think it appears to me he’s giving up on it and killing his own bill,” Reynolds said.
School-choice supporters say that, regardless of what happens in Texas, their movement has had a great year.
“You don’t need Texas to see clearly that this year has been a major victory for school choice, because I think it’s now nine states have universal ESAs or others school choice programs,” McCluskey said. “Most of those were passed this year, so this might be more like the icing on the cake than the cake itself.”