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Pushing for “school choice,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz splits with Gov. Greg Abbott in his endorsements for Texas House runoffs

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Pushing for “school choice,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz splits with Gov. Greg Abbott in his endorsements for Texas House runoffs” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz are finding themselves increasingly at odds as they try to shape the next Republican majority in the Texas House, splitting their endorsements in a host of primary runoffs in which candidates appear to differ on “school choice.”

In recent days, Cruz has endorsed five opponents to Abbott-backed candidates in primary runoffs for the state House, all within a couple weeks after the governor announced his endorsement in each race. Cruz had already endorsed a challenger to an Abbott-backed incumbent before the primary, tallying six total runoffs in which they are now on opposite sides.

The dueling endorsements are raising eyebrows since Abbott and Cruz tend to align politically. But both are ambitious Republicans — each has left the door open to running for president in 2024 — and Cruz appears to be flexing his well-documented affinity for candidates who support school choice, a term Republicans have used for several years to describe programs that give parents state money to send their kids to schools outside of the state’s public education system.

“Sen. Cruz believes that school choice is the most important domestic issue in the country,” Cruz spokesperson Steve Guest said in a statement. “He doesn’t hesitate to endorse and support candidates in primaries that will fight for school choice across Texas.”

Most notably, Abbott and Cruz are on opposite sides of two runoffs in which incumbents — state Reps. Kyle Kacal of College Station and Glenn Rogers of Graford — face challengers who would be reliable votes for school choice. Abbott has backed the incumbents while Cruz has endorsed Ben Bius, who is challenging Kacal, and Mike Olcott, who is running against Rogers.

In a sign of how important the runoffs are to school choice advocates, a national group called the School Freedom Fund is launching TV ads Wednesday against both Kacal and Rogers. The 30-second spots bash Kacal as the “most liberal Republican in the Texas House” and tell voters that Rogers is “beholden to education union bosses working against you,” referring to his support from groups like the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

The School Freedom Fund — which is aligned with the Club for Growth, a national conservative group — said it is spending $220,000 in the Kacal-Bius runoff and $92,000 in the race between Rogers and Olcott. It’s airing the ads on Fox News and radio stations.

​​“Standing against school choice is standing on the wrong side of history,” School Freedom Fund’s president, David McIntosh, said in a statement.

Also driving the tension is the fact that two of the runoff candidates that Abbott has backed — Justin Berry in House District 19 and Barron Casteel in House District 73 — were endorsed in January by the Texas AFT, a union that school choice advocates see as an obstacle to their cause. Cruz has endorsed both of their opponents — Ellen Troxclair, who is running against Berry, and Carrie Isaac, who is running against Casteel.

Cruz has spoken openly about his thinking when it comes to endorsements. In January, he said that if someone voted against school choice, the chances of them getting his endorsement are “essentially zero.” And if someone supports school choice, Cruz added, he will consider “engaging and engaging hard.”

Abbott’s runoff endorsement strategy is not as obvious and his picks have left some school choice activists frustrated. He has generally supported the concept and, earlier this year, he predicted that in the next legislative session Texans will see a “stronger, swifter, more powerful movement advocating school choice than you’ve ever seen in the history of the state of Texas.”

Abbott’s picks in the runoff are largely seen as the more mainstream Republicans in each matchup. And they come after Abbott weathered more than a year of nagging criticism from his right — over his pandemic response and his legislative agenda — that ultimately culminated in a decisive March primary win.

“Governor Abbott supports the best candidates for office who will fight for the people of Texas, defend our conservative values, and secure the future of our state for generations to come,” Abbott campaign spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement for this story.

The broad concept of school choice is popular among Texas Republicans. In the March primary, 88% of voters approved of a ballot proposition that asked voters whether they agreed with the statement, “Texas parents and guardians should have the right to select schools, whether public or private, for their children, and the funding should follow the student.”

But the issue divides Republican lawmakers when it comes to school voucher programs, which would let parents use public money for private school education. Rural Republicans are often the most outspoken opponents, voicing concerns that such initiatives would hurt the public schools that are the lifeblood of their tightly knit communities.

The Texas House has long been a firewall against voucher proposals. During the last regular legislative session, the chamber voted 115-29 on a budget amendment to ban school vouchers, with a majority of Republicans siding with Democrats.

Still, school choice advocates took encouragement during the last regular session from the passage of a bill that expanded grants allowing special-needs students whose schools closed due to the pandemic to seek support services elsewhere. And some believe Republicans’ growing focus on increasing parental involvement in the classroom — whether it be over determining COVID-19 policies or curriculum on race and gender — has also been helpful for the cause.

They may still not have the numbers in the House, but school choice groups like the American Federation for Children scored a victory last year when Brian Harrison, a former Trump administration official, defeated former state Rep. John Wray, a Republican of Waxahachie, in a special election for his old House seat in rural North Texas. Cruz had endorsed Harrison.

AFC also picked up another ally several weeks later when San Antonio Republican John Lujan won a special election runoff for a previously Democratic-held seat.

“We do see that school choice and parental freedom and empowerment is a driving issue in these [runoffs],” said Mandy Drogin, AFC director in Texas. “We see that parents now more than ever are engaged across the spectrum.”

The runoff debate over school choice was on full display during a forum Monday between Casteel and Isaac in the Hill Country’s House District 73. Abbott supports Casteel for the open seat, while Cruz has endorsed Isaac.

Minutes after the event started, Casteel got a question about the Texas AFT endorsement, and he promptly disavowed it. He said the local congressperson, Chip Roy, had brought the endorsement to his attention and he “immediately went to their website, where it is clear that I cannot even remotely begin to agree with a number of the things they propose.” Casteel said he “contacted them and asked them to take back their endorsement.”

Isaac and Casteel offered slightly different answers when asked about school choice. Isaac gave an answer broadly approving of “education freedom,” saying she supports the “right for parents to choose the best education for their children.” Casteel’s answer was more careful, focused on public charter schools as the main alternative for parents.

“I think that we need to continue to allow for more options, more accountable options, and I will continue to work for that,” he said.

While he repeatedly distanced himself from Texas AFT, Casteel boasted his Abbott endorsement, saying he was proud to have the support of the “most conservative governor in the United States.”

Abbott is not without high-powered allies in his runoff endorsements. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has also endorsed Casteel and Harris. As the leader of the chamber, Phelan can also be expected to defend incumbents Rogers and Kacal.

Phelan said in a statement he was supporting candidates “who have proven records of championing conservative values and being trusted leaders in their communities.”

Disclosure: Texas AFT has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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