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After school voucher bill falls apart, supporters and opponents get ready for future fights

By Maia Pandey, The Texas Tribune

After school voucher bill falls apart, supporters and opponents get ready for future fights” 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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Many public school educators and advocates saw the Texas House’s vote blocking school vouchers last month as a forceful rebuke that should signal there’s no path forward left for Gov. Greg Abbott’s top legislative priority this year. But pro-voucher advocates, including private and religious school educators, say they will keep fighting for vouchers — both in the Texas Legislature and at the ballot.

The House voted 84-63 on Nov. 16 to strip education savings accounts — a voucher program that would give families taxpayer dollars to pay for their children’s private schooling — from House Bill 1, a massive education bill that also included teacher pay raises and increased public school funding. As the current special legislative session nears its end, it seems increasingly unlikely that a voucher program will pass before time runs out.

Twenty-one Republicans, all from rural districts, voted against the program. Despite Abbott’s efforts to sway voucher skeptics in the House, the bloc of rural Republicans against the measure remained mostly firm.

Two dozen Republicans opposed the program during a House test vote on vouchers in April. After two legislative special sessions and threats from the governor to go after voucher opponents during next year’s primary elections, in the end just four of the GOP holdouts on vouchers flipped on the issue: Reps. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Brooks Landgraf of Odessa, Angelia Orr of Itasca and David Spiller of Jacksboro. Public school advocates also gained a new anti-voucher vote in Rep. Ed Thompson of Pearland.

Paige Williams, legislative director for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said advocates felt confident about defeating vouchers after speaking to rural Republican lawmakers throughout the past few months and realizing many felt the same way they had in April.

“We were thankful for the people who took a very hard public vote and who were willing to stand up and speak,” Williams said. ”But not much had changed since the original vote was taken, with the exception of the pressure that’s been put upon all the members of the House.”

The House vote assuaged public school advocates, who worry that a voucher program would divert funding from public schools. But with only a few days left in the special session, the measure’s defeat also means public schools won’t get additional funds for long-awaited teacher pay raises and inflation adjustments. Abbott has said he will veto any public education funding bill that does not include vouchers.

After the Legislature failed to pass public school funding in this year’s regular session, despite a record budget surplus, many school districts were forced into deficit budgets to keep up with costs. Underfunding has forced some districts to close cafeterias, cut extracurricular activities, and in some cases, shut down schools altogether.

Williams said this trend is likely to continue if public school funding has to wait for another shot until the 2025 legislative session. Some districts may even turn to parents and community members to help raise money for expenses like teacher pay raises, she said.

Jerrica Liggins, secondary curriculum director for the Paris Independent School District, said her district went into a deficit budget this year and will probably stay in one next year because the district is unwilling to cut teacher pay to make up funding gaps.

Still, Liggins said waiting another legislative cycle for increased funding was an acceptable price for the defeat of vouchers. She and her fellow public school advocates are now preparing to come out “full force” for school funding — both in the next legislative session and in supporting pro-public school candidates in next year’s primary elections, Liggins said.

“Eventually our government is going to just have to do something because this isn’t going to go away,” she said of public school funding. “We have over 5 million [public school] students in Texas. They’re not going away.”

Kristen Harris, a humanities teacher in the gifted and talented program at Walnut Grove High School in Prosper ISD, said she was encouraged to see the number of House Republicans who voted against vouchers.

But she said it’s still frustrating to see public school funding continually stalled. And even if teacher pay raises were eventually passed, she said the state’s teacher shortage problem is about more than funding: teacher morale is lower than ever after the hardships of teaching during a pandemic, classrooms being caught in culture wars and school funding becoming collateral damage in the political faceoff over vouchers.

Last year, Abbott assembled a task force to examine the state’s worsening teacher shortage. The group recommended several policy initiatives, including a salary raise, mentorship programs and more sustainable workloads to respect teachers’ time. Aside from a new investment in high-quality instructional materials, lawmakers failed to pass most of these policies.

“We have to solve the human problem,” Harris said. “It can’t just become a band-aid that we slap on like, ‘Oh, teachers, here, maybe you’ll stick around if we give you more money.’ There’s definitely more to it than that.”

Voucher advocates undeterred

Though the House’s anti-voucher coalition held strong earlier this month, voucher advocates said they’re still committing to passing education savings accounts — if not now, then the next legislative session. And they’re ready to bring the fight during next year’s primary elections.

Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, said her organization is ready to launch back into the debate and is just waiting for Abbott to signal his next steps. The governor floated in the past the possibility of calling a fifth special session to continue pushing for vouchers, though he has not mentioned the idea since vouchers were voted out of HB 1.

Jeremy Newman, vice president of policy and engagement at the Texas Homeschool Coalition, said his group has been tracking which anti-voucher Republicans are not running for reelection and preparing to support pro-voucher candidates in those districts.

The Texas home-school community — comprising nearly 480,000 students — has remained split on the issue, with some in support of vouchers to help pay for their home-schooling costs, and others wary of the government oversight that may come with the funding. Jube Dankworth, president of Texas Home Educators, said her network of anti-voucher home-schoolers will also be engaging in the primaries by hosting candidate forums to ask officials the “tough questions” about their stance on vouchers.

Newman said he believes the home-schooling community will continue to thrive and grow even without vouchers. But education savings accounts could be crucial for families who want to make the switch to home schooling and cannot fund it themselves.

“You have this category of people who… know it would be better for their child to move to a different form of education, but they don’t quite have the resources to make that jump,” Newman said. “What we’re doing by not passing the bill is we’re leaving those people there.”

Tracy Hanson, principal of Oak Creek Academy, a private special education school in Killeen, said the vote blocking vouchers was “heartbreaking” for similar reasons. Oak Creek currently has 84 students enrolled, 98% of whom have a learning disability. The school’s tuition of about $9,500 would have been covered by the approximately $10,500 per student allotment proposed by HB 1.

HB 1 capped the voucher program funding at $500 million, meaning that only about 40,000 of more than 250,000 private school students in the state would be able to participate.

Hanson said Oak Creek can take up to 41 more students and she is committed to continue pushing for vouchers so more families can have access to these spots.

“We have a number of families that come through on a weekly basis that are in need of an alternative learning environment for their children, and they are not able to afford it,” Hanson said.

Rabbi Jordan Silvestri, head of Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, said vouchers would also be a pathway to stabilizing tuition for some private schools. Beren Academy, a private Jewish school, has raised its tuition from 1% to 3% annually to keep up with rising inflation and make up for a temporary tuition freeze the school granted during the pandemic.

Tuition at the K-12 school ranges from $10,750 in lower grades to over $27,000 in the last few years of high school. Though education savings accounts would not cover full tuition for most students, Silvestri said it would allow the school to stop raising tuition to pay for financial aid and internal scholarships.

Like other voucher advocates, Silvestri said he hopes to see the program eventually passed to increase access to alternative forms of education.

“We have families who are coming from out of the country because they’re looking for better life situations or the ability to a deeply religious life, and they’re coming from impoverished states or very poor financial situations,” Silvestri said. “This is a huge way for us to make a difference.”

Disclosure: Texas Classroom Teachers Association and the Texas Private Schools Association have been financial supporters 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/04/school-voucher-house-vote-reaction/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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