Gov. Abbott wants a school voucher plan. Can he win over rural Texans?
At a stop in Corsicana last week, Gov. Greg Abbott laid out his vision for education in Texas to a crowd of supporters at Calvary Worship Center — a stop on his "Parent Empowerment Night" tour across different parts of the state.
Much of the governor's focus centered on priorities the governor laid out last month in his State of the State address. Among them: a plan to let parents use tax dollars for private and home schooling.
Abbott told the crowd these Education Savings Accounts were a key part of his plan to expand "education freedom" in the state.
“Without that freedom, parents are hindered in their ability to help their child succeed," Abbott said. "That must change this year."
But while the Corsicana crowd showed its support for Abbott's agenda, experts say the governor will have a harder time making his case in more rural parts of the states — areas that have traditionally voted Republican, but where lawmakers have seen resistance to school vouchers.
"It is not about school choice. We already have school choice," said Michael Lee, executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools. "The question that people need to answer is, 'are you in favor of taking public, taxpayer funds to private entities without any accountability and without any transparency?'"
It's unclear what specific bill Abbott will back in the legislature this session, but under one such proposal, families would receive the equivalent of what it costs to educate a child in Texas public schools on average. That's about $10,000, according to the Texas Tribune.
But Lee said he and his colleagues generally feel the same way: vouchers leave public schools with less funding.
Booker ISD enrolled a total of 357 students across two campuses last school year, according to the Texas Education Agency. Lee said enrollment in the school district, which he called the heart of the community and its largest employer, has fluctuated over the years because of the oil and gas industry. He also knows what it's like for schools to be short on money.
"When you lose funding and when you lose students, you cut staff, you cut programs," Lee said. "Those are the decisions that you have to make because, you know, 80% of your budget is going to be made up of salaries, and the other 20% are hard expenses that you can sort of reduce, but not by much."
The idea of using public money for private and home schooling is nothing new. The former Ronald Reagan advisor and conservative economist Milton Friedman pushed for the concept in the 1950s, and it has its roots in the belief in laissez-faire free markets.
But despite its roots in conservative thought, Republican leaders in Texas have struggled to make vouchers a reality. Former Texas governors George W. Bush and Rick Perry pushed similar plans, unsuccessfully.
The popularity of "school choice" in rural communities — or lack thereof — is the subject of ongoing research for Leslie Finger, a political science professor at the University of North Texas.
"The question I'm looking into is literally, 'why doesn't Texas have private school choice?'" Finger said. "Because you would think it does. Most red states do."
But while employment and economics are one explanation, Lee said her research points to another answer: how much social value a community places on its public schools.
"You see that schools that have the most action going on after hours — which we could suggest means the schools are really important to the community — seemed to be represented by members who vote against private school choice," Finger said.
Abbott's Corsicana event wasn't the first stop for the governor. He gave similar speeches at Christian institutions in Temple and Corpus Christi. Abbott has also been promoting what he calls his parental "bill of rights" in response to some conservative parents who've criticized the teaching of topics like race and gender in public school classrooms.
It's possible those debates over school curriculum might give a potential voucher policy a better chance of passage, Finger said. But she added that she's been tracking similar bills across multiple legislative sessions, and they've historically faced a lot of opposition.
"[Abbott]'s definitely trying to use the so-called bully pulpit here and make a big push to change opinion," Finger said. "I don't know if it's going to work."
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