Texas Governor Greg Abbott is determined to pass a voucher bill in the upcoming legislative session, along with voucher zealot Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. They hope to use the culture war nonsense about public schools “indoctrinating” students on race and gender issues. They pay no attention to the research showing that students who use vouchers are likely to lose ground, academically, and learn less than in public school. Does the legislature really want to harm the state’s public schools while sending kids off to religious and private schools where they are likely to get a worse education than in public schools?

Edward McKinley of the Houston Chronicle wrote recently:

Private school vouchers were within a handful of votes of becoming Texas law in May 2005. Former Rep. Carter Casteel still remembers the constituent who confronted her in her office that day.

“He kind of threatened me, not to harm me, but that I wouldn’t be reelected if I didn’t vote for the vouchers,” Casteel, a New Braunfels Republican, said in an interview. A public school teacher and school board member before she served in the Legislature, Casteel is and was a staunch opponent of private school vouchers.

“I explained to him my position, and he wasn’t very happy, I remember that,” she said. “If you want your child to go to a private school, then that’s your choice and you spend your money, but you don’t take taxpayer dollars away.”

Debate on the floor of the Texas House stretched on for hours, and the voucher bill was gutted following a series of back-and-forth, close votes. Casteel voted no, saying publicly that she was willing to lose her House seat over it.

In a dramatic capstone to the proceedings, Rep. Senfronia Thompson ran across the floor and yanked the microphone out of the bill author’s hand, yelling for attention to a procedural mistake in the bill that led to its death.

That day was the high-water mark in efforts to pass private school vouchers in Texas.

They have been blocked by a powerful coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans in the House. In fact, the House has routinely and overwhelmingly supported a statement policy that outright bans taxpayer funds from going to private schools in sessions since.

But advocates for vouchers believe that those legislative dynamics that have been frozen for the last 17 years may finally be thawing.

As Republicans for the past year have raised alarms over what they see as liberal indoctrination in the public school curriculum — especially in the way racism and LGBT issues are taught — they’ve chalked up victories in statehouses across the country. Texas parents have carried that same fight to school board meetings, their local libraries and trustee elections. Now, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are calling for more of the same in the upcoming legislative session, with pledges to back ‘parents matter’ initiatives that include another voucher push.

“Families started to see there’s another dimension to school quality that’s arguably more important, which is whether the school’s curriculum aligns with their values,” said Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow with the American Federation for Children, which advocates for vouchers. “And I think that’s sparked a wave of support for school choice around the country.”

Abbott earlier this year announced his support for a policy that would allow public funds to follow students, regardless of whether they attend public schools or private schools. Shortly after, DeAngelis posted a photo of himself meeting with the governor, and “it’s happening, Texas,” has become a refrain on his popular Twitter account.

“With all the national momentum, I think a lot of people are looking toward Texas as the next step,” DeAngelis said. “It’s going to be all eyes on Texas coming up this session. And people are going to be watching.”

Eyes on Arizona, Virginia

The argument for vouchers has traditionally been that children, particularly in urban areas, are forced to attend struggling schools, when the state could instead subsidize them attending private schools nearby. One problem with this argument is that polling has often found that while people have critical views of public schools generally, they often like their own public schools just fine.

“In the past, they’ve tried to get vouchers by saying we’ve got to do something about kids trapped in failing schools. And so we’d say we’ve got all these failing schools. And then you’d look at the data and you have about 80 campuses out of about 8,500 or so that were ‘improvement required.’ So you’re looking at 1 percent,” said Charles Luke, head of the Coalition for Public Schools, which represents education groups opposing voucher policies.

“So when you’re talking about how horrible the public school system is, 99 percent of them are doing fine,” he said. “A kid takes a test and he gets a 99 on it, you wouldn’t say ‘he’s failing, I’m failing him, The system is failing him.’ You’d say, he’s doing great!”

But instead of school budgets or test scores, this time it’s culture war issues with spinoffs that include whether teachings on racism damage the self-esteem of white kids, and if it’s OK for young children to see a drag show or discuss gender identity.

“There’s this misalignment to what parents thought was going on in their schools and now their eyes have been opened, and now they say hey, hey lets fix this,” said Mandy Drogin, with the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “No more of this social justice warrior, whatever the teacher or administrator feels about pushing into our classrooms. I think that’s where you see so much momentum, and everybody feels and sees that momentum.”

The issue of private school vouchers has historically hewn closely to the culture war issues of the day. The modern voucher advocacy movement has roots connecting to efforts to resist racial integrationafter the Brown v Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, supporters of vouchers wanted to leave “government schools” because they argued such schools were experimenting with “social engineering” and radical ideologies, education historian Jon Hale has noted, particularly desegregation. The debates from yesterday over leaving public schools because of their values mirror contemporary political arguments over how LGBTQ+ issues are discussed or the children who are undocumented immigrants attending American public schools.

One question legislative observers have had is whether those pushing vouchers will attempt to pass a universal program or a more limited one.

Teachers unions, Democrats and other public school advocates have traditionally opposed any voucher program, no matter how small, but voucher advocates have seen success in other states starting small and building out from there.

This year, however, Arizona passed a universal program, and advocates say that should be the goal in Texas.

Mayes Middleton, who served in the House in the 2019 and 2021 sessions and was elected this year to the state Senate, has filed one such bill. His would create education savings accounts, a form of vouchers, that could be used by anyone to send their kids to public school, private school, community college classes, virtual schools or home school.

This approach is the best way to maximize “parental empowerment,” he said in a Friday interview, and to capitalize on the momentum behind that movement that helped carry Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to victory last year. There were also Republicans unseated in the primaries earlier this year across the state who were less supportive of voucher policies, Middleton said, which could help win additional support.

He says his bill could be particularly helpful for rural Texans who want their kids to access more flexible, hybrid home school models, as well as for people who want to send their kids to private Catholic schools but cannot afford it, many of whom he said are Hispanic. Those are groups who would need to support voucher policies for them to win passage in the Legislature.

“Look in Arizona what they did it with one-seat GOP majority in their house and senate,” DeAngelis said. “If every Republican in Arizona can show up for their platform issue, other red states should be able to follow suit as well.”

Vouchers fell far short in 2021

Public school advocates and opponents of vouchers acknowledge that the fight is going to be tighter and more intense than it has been in many years, but they feel that even with intense lobbying in support, the policies will ultimately fall short.

“These are the same issues that raised their ugly head in past sessions,” said Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat who chaired the House Public Education Committee last session, noting that more than 100 of the 150 House members voted in favor of an amendment last year barring the state from spending public funds on private schools. “I don’t see that changing a whole lot, and certainly not being able to get a majority.”

Members of the GOP’s right wing have called for House Speaker Dade Phelan to end the practice of naming Democrats to head a limited number of committees. Some have named Dutton in particular as an obstacle last session to school choice legislation.

Dutton said he hadn’t thought about whether or not he’ll be chair again, but noted: “When vouchers failed before, the person in the chair of public education was a Republican, so what does that tell you?”

Several Republican members of Public Education, who might be in line for the chairmanship if Dutton is not selected again, have also expressed skepticism or opposition to voucher proposals. Rep. Ken King from Canadian has said, “If I have anything to say about it, it’s dead on arrival. It’s horrible for rural Texas. It’s horrible for all of Texas,” while Rep. Gary VanDeaver has said, “This sense of community is what makes Texas great, and I would hate to see anything like a voucher program destroy this community spirit.”

As promised, after Casteel’s role in the demise of the voucher bill in 2005, she lost her seat in 2006.

She noted that a prominent San Antonio businessman and GOP donor who was present in the House the day of the vote and advocated strongly for vouchers donated more than $1 million to her opponent, as the donor did for other Republicans who opposed the voucher bill that day.

“I’ve got a great family, I’ve got a great law profession, and whether I’m (there) or I go home it doesn’t make a bit of difference to me. I didn’t go there to do nothing but what’s right,” Casteel said.

“And I did. I went home. And it never came back up — until this year.”

edward.mckinley@chron.com