Abbott Says He’s About to Score on School Vouchers, but … Really?

School vouchers would divert public education dollars to pay for private school tuition (Photo by Getty Images)

Gov. Greg Abbott is claiming the school voucher scheme he’s been pushing for over a year is “on the one-yard line,” but critics say he’s far from scoring.

Abbott made the claim during a speech on Thursday night to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the group that has worked to weaken the state’s public education system for 30 years. He said his aides are negotiating with members of the Texas House on a complex, 180-page bill that will allow parents to take money from public schools and use it to pay for private school expenses.

Teachers, school officials, and members of the Democratic Party hope that Abbott is bluffing. These groups remain united against vouchers and hope the House Republicans who joined them to defeat the scheme several times in this year’s regular legislative session will stay strong. “Everything I’ve heard so far is the rural Republicans – sometimes you hear people describe them as the 24 Republicans – are still together,” said Michelle Smith of the nonpartisan public school advocates Raise Your Hand Texas. “I’m really grateful they have continued to stand their ground.”

Abbott’s comments came hours after the Senate passed SB 1 on a party-line vote. SB 1 would take money from public school funding to give parents $8,000 for each kid they move to a private school, prioritizing kids who currently receive reduced-price lunches, require special education services, and are poor. The bill is essentially the same one that was defeated during the regular session.

Though SB 1 focuses on children who need special education, many have noted that the bill explicitly warns that private schools don’t have to accept these kids. The bill requires private schools to place this message on their websites: “a private school is not subject to federal and state laws regarding the provision of educational services to a child with a disability.”

Smith emphasizes that even if parents of special ed kids use a voucher program and find a private school to put their kids into, they would be entering a system with none of the federal safeguards that require public schools to provide an appropriate education. Private schools are just that, she said: private – meaning they can write their own rules.

“It is the Wild West and it’s a really expensive Wild West. There are about 50 schools in Texas that say they cater to special education students,” she said. “The average cost of those private schools is $19,000 a year. So if you’re getting an $8,000 voucher, parents are going to have to come up with that difference. And the reality is, for some of our special ed kids in the public schools, the cost to educate them is $50,000 a year, $100,000 a year.”

Others have criticized SB 1 for the small number of students it applies to. The bill specifies that, for the first school year, it will take $500,000 from public schools to use on vouchers. That sounds like a lot, but after subtracting administrative expenses it would cover 60,000 children. The state’s public schools teach 5.5 million students. So only 10% of kids would have access to vouchers and 90% of those must, by the bill’s provisions, come from low-income families or need special ed. The percentage of kids outside these categories who could actually use vouchers? About 1%.

So the bill is both very broad and pitifully constricted. And Smith says that further expansion of the program would be ruinous, not just to public education in Texas but to the state’s finances as a whole.

“If they wanted to blow the doors off of it and put in a whole lot more money, it would just become incredibly expensive,” Smith said. “And that’s what we’ve seen in other states. They get their foot in the door with a really small program, and you look up two, four, six years later and it’s out of control. I’m thinking of Arizona, where, right now, their governor is saying they may have a budget deficit at the state level, because the voucher program has become so bloated.”

Smith said that Texas is the last Southern state in the nation without vouchers, so the push for the program isn’t just coming from far-right extremists in the state but from national forces as well. “There’s a lot of PAC money coming into Texas, so they’re putting a lot of pressure on our state leaders to say we want to go big,” she said. “But Texas is different than other Southern conservative states. We just really value our public schools. They’re the heartbeat of our communities, they’re our communities’ identity. You know, when people talk about Friday Night Lights, that’s a real thing.”

Smith, like Abbott, used football to describe where we are at the moment: “I feel like this is a loose ball on the field. There are so many things going on between the House and the Senate and the governor, and nobody seems to be any closer to an agreement. I think there’s a possibility that we get to the end of a couple of special sessions and nothing is passed.”

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