Point Austin: Vouchers, Borders, and Critical (White) Race Theory

photo by Jana Birchum

From 2005-2020, now-retired Austin Chronicle News Editor Michael King wrote about city and state politics from a progressive perspective in his weekly column, “Point Austin.” We’re pleased to bring back his column whenever he’s inspired to tackle the state we’re in.

Thank God for high school football. Back to that in a minute. First, let’s congratulate Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who (whatever his other flaws) has thoroughly demonstrated that he’s not a quitter. Indeed, Abbott seems determined to set some kind of a record for legislative obstinance, and to become the living embodiment of that neo-Victorian bromide, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again …” Earlier this month, Abbott called the Legislature into its fourth special session, at a price tag – for legislators’ per diems alone – of roughly $1.2 million per session. He can also claim a new state record for the number of specials called in the same calendar year. And he’s vowed to keep doing it, until the Republican majority grants his demand of imposing private school vouchers on the Texas public education system.

The policy’s proponents call it “school choice.” Yet there is literally nothing under current law prohibiting parents from “choosing” any accredited school for their children … including private schools, as long as they are willing to pay the additional freight. Whether they’re called “education savings accounts” or “picking the taxpayers’ pockets,” vouchers are in fact a not very sophisticated method of privatizing public services, while directly undermining the public schools that would still be educating the vast majority of Texas students. While donating a considerable public subsidy to parents already sending their children to private schools, vouchers would also mean shifting public funding away from our commonly supported public education system – even in areas (throughout much of Texas) where there are no private schools to educate those students.

According to the Austin research group Every Texan, if only 5% of current students accept vouchers and leave public schools, the statewide result in the first year would be $2.5 billion lost to public schools, which receive their funding based upon student enrollment. Beyond the financial hit – which would grow as the program expands over several years – is the broader assault on public schools as central community institutions, especially in smaller towns where school districts are a centerpiece of community life.

Indeed, if it weren’t for high school football – and the prospect that the defunding of public school systems across rural Texas would permanently dim the sanctified glow of those Friday Night Lights – there would likely be plenty more Republican legislators bowing to Abbott’s demands and siphoning funding out of public schools.

Yet as of Friday, Nov. 17, a sufficient number of GOP House members were still rejecting the latest shade of lipstick on the voucher feral hog, as they voted to remove the vouchers component from a larger school spending bill. Perhaps they’ll continue to hold out. Perhaps not.

A voucher bill has already passed out of the Senate (aka Dan Patrick’s Boiler Room), and a significantly different bill passed out of the Education Committee for consideration by the full House. But before they took that up, the House paused briefly for yet another Abbott priority: making life more difficult for immigrants. New laws would spend more money on border barriers (Abbott desperately desires his own Trumpian wall, accented by razor wire) and create new state crimes for border-crossing – whenever it occurred, meaning undocumented immigrants who have lived in Texas peacefully and productively for years would be in even greater danger of arbitrary arrest and deportation. Since immigration is a federal government responsibility, the new laws are almost certainly unconstitutional – but that objection doesn’t carry much weight under the Dome.

It’s possible that a combination of bribery (a nominal increase in public school funding) and threats (contested primaries for any balking GOP legislator) will enable Abbott to finally succeed where he has failed repeatedly before. And if not, he vowed that legislators will be “spending December here, maybe January here, maybe February here” until he gets what he wants. That’s how representative democracy works in Texas.

Thank God for high school football.

You might be wondering why the two “priorities” currently driving state government are vouchers, on the one hand, and immigration on the other. Might they have anything in common? For decades, both issues have been Republican perennials in their political arsenal. In addition to simply being wedge issues designed to polarize voters and drive hard-right turnout heading into next year’s elections, both have also become default weaponry in what might be called CWRT: Critical White Race Theory.

CWRT dates back a long way, at least to the Texas Constitution of 1876, which established the state’s responsibility to “establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” As long as the schools were thoroughly segregated and unequal by race, the white majority and state leadership was content with the status quo. More recently, as the Texas population has grown more numerous and more diverse, especially among school-age children – state leadership (and white folks more generally) have grown increasingly reluctant to spend money on educating mostly minority schoolchildren.

Meanwhile, at the Mexican border, if a few more refugees get caught in razor-wire, or drown in the Rio Grande, or are driven backwards to poverty and danger – well, that’s just the cost of CWRT. Maintaining white supremacy in Texas is expensive – in blood and treasure – expensive to taxpayers, yes, but most expensive to those (no longer minority) Texans who must endure directly its humiliations and brutality.

We’ll soon learn how successful Abbott has been, this time, in imposing his will upon the Legislature and all Texans. Perhaps the Lege will still be meeting in February, wrestling over the latest incarnation of CWRT. But the governor might instead recall the wisdom of W.C. Fields, on the diminishing returns of beating dead horses: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.”

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