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School voucher supporters bask in primary wins, say goals are within reach

After facing decades of fierce bipartisan resistance to the idea of using state dollars to pay for private school tuition, school voucher supporters in Texas emerged from the Tuesday primaries triumphant.

Their long-held goal has never felt more in reach.

Gov. Greg Abbott succeeded in knocking off nine fellow Republicans who opposed vouchers in the House during last year’s legislative sessions. More could fall in the May runoffs, placing his signature priority in range in 2025.

Public school advocates, meanwhile, raised the alarm Wednesday about the potential cost to the school system if vouchers become a reality. And both sides promised an even more fervent battle is coming.

“Texas is closer than ever to delivering on the promise that every parent be in control of their child’s education,” said Mandy Drogin, a campaign director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative think tank.

The foundation, one of the most persistent and outspoken supporters of vouchers, vowed to launch an “emboldened and invigorated” push for the program in the 2025 legislative session.

“Empowering parents with more and better educational options will continue to be one of the top issues in Texas until it gets passed,” Drogin said.

On the other side, opponents of vouchers lamented that out-of-state groups and donors poured millions of dollars into the campaigns, writing checks and launching attack ads that in some cases made no reference to education. The state’s largest educator association called the election “a sad day in Texas.”

“Out-of-state donors have colluded with state leadership to defame and punish honorable public servants from their own party who went to Austin to vote their districts and their consciences,” said Kate Johanns, a spokesperson for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “We are disheartened but not dissuaded. Our state’s 5.4 million public schoolchildren deserve better from the leaders of Texas, and we’ll continue fighting for them.”

The fight moves to the runoffs

The reactions signaled even more division to come as the battle for House approval of the program, which could cost the state billions over the next few years, moves into the May runoffs.

Twenty-one House Republicans opposed vouchers last year, teaming up with Democrats to vote 84-63 in favor of an amendment that ultimately doomed the proposal.

The victories of nine pro-voucher newcomers to the Texas House on Tuesday — if they can be bolstered with wins for two more candidates who forced anti-voucher incumbents into runoffs — could be enough to push vouchers across the finish line when the new generation of lawmakers funded by and loyal to Abbott are sworn in next year.

The development is a long time coming, with fights over vouchers dating back more than two decades — when a similar group of rural Republicans held the line against big-money donors at the time, like Texas Public Policy Foundation founder and San Antonio businessman James Leininger.

Vouchers had long been considered dead in the water in the Texas Capitol, where rural lawmakers who worried about the impact of the program on their schools still had influence — and where the idea of voting for district over party line was revered.

That all changed in recent years as Texas conservatives drifted further to the right, with increasingly divisive primaries and district lines redrawn to create less competition in general elections. Partisan politics often demand loyalty to the agenda of state leaders over what the representatives believe is the will of the voters who sent them to Austin in the first place.

But it was Abbott’s insistence on passing a voucher program that has breathed new life into the movement. After this year’s failures, he vowed to get the 11 votes he needed by replacing the defiant Republicans with more loyal ones. In the last month before Tuesday’s primary, he aimed $4.4 million at the 10 “no” votes who were the most vulnerable.

All of the Abbott victories and the runoffs at play are in solidly red districts, basically guaranteeing the primary winners an easy November and a seat waiting for them in the lower chamber come January.

In a statement on election night, Abbott called the results “an unmistakable message from voters” and vowed to carry on the momentum for pro-voucher candidates who are still fighting to win nominations.

His supporters backed his claim of victory, calling Texas a political bellwether for the potential success of the program in other GOP-leaning states.

“This election was a total bloodbath and a mandate for school choice in Texas,” Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, author, and self-proclaimed “school choice evangelist” said in an emailed statement to the Tribune. “The biggest political shift towards school choice in Texas history. School choice was the main dividing line in all of these races. It is already sending shockwaves all across the country and the message is clear: education freedom is a political winner and a GOP litmus-test issue.”

But the incumbents and other voucher opponents rejected the idea that Tuesday’s results signified broad support. Primaries have historically small turnouts — Tuesday night’s being no exception. They are largely decided by voters who are less moderate and more engaged in partisan politics.

[A fraction of Texans will vote in Tuesday’s primary. They’ll decide who runs the state.]

“I think Republican primary voters have spoken on vouchers to a degree, but to say that’s a mandate of the people, meaning all the people, that’s tortured logic if not an outright lie,” said Brian Woods, deputy director for advocacy at the Texas Association of School Administrators.

Plus, candidates said, many of the attacks they faced during the primary had little to do with the issue of “school choice.”

Many candidates instead faced attacks calling them soft on border security or weak on gun rights or accused them of secretly colluding with Democrats or supporting Sharia law.

“If vouchers are such a winning idea, then why did Abbott run an entire campaign on the message of border security?” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, head of the House Democratic Caucus.

Fischer cast doubt on the idea that vouchers are inevitable.

“There are lots of votes to be cast between now and next January,” he said, referring to when the next regular session of the Legislature is scheduled to begin.

Rep. Gary VanDeaver, a Republican from New Boston forced into a runoff Tuesday night, said he rarely fielded criticisms on vouchers on the campaign trail. But he said he was accused of all kinds of anti-Republican behavior that he said is simply false.

“They had the audacity to call me weak on guns,” he told the Tribune in an interview.

VanDeaver was co-author of a bill in 2021 to eliminate permitting requirements for concealed handguns in Texas.

He got more votes than his top competitor, Chris Spencer, who was backed by Abbott. But after missing the 50% mark necessary to avoid a runoff, he’ll be a primary target of the pro-voucher movement again in May.

“They’ve thrown everything at me but the kitchen sink. I won the vote and have plurality, so I’m encouraged. I feel good,” he said, adding that he’ll stand firm in his stance against private school vouchers because it’s what his district has always wanted — and still wants.

Democrats see opening

Democrats — historically voucher opponents as well — similarly gave no sign of backing down on the issue Wednesday. Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, a former teacher, noted that some anti-voucher Republicans survived, in spite of “the onslaught of money and lies.” Several, like Reps. Keith Bell, Ken King and Charlie Geren, won their primaries handily.

“Last night we saw that Greg Abbott and his billionaire mega-donors will use every dirty trick in the book to privatize our public schools,” Talarico said in a statement to the Tribune. “Where Abbott’s big money did succeed, his handpicked voucher candidates could help Democrats flip these districts in November. There’s a bipartisan pro-public education majority in this state, and I’m confident we will keep defending our neighborhood schools.”

Public education advocates said that even if they lose the numbers to block vouchers next year, they’ll continue to advocate for better school funding, more accountability and teacher pay raises.

“It was never just about vouchers,” Woods said. “It’s always been about how we get the best policies for public school kids and the adults who serve them. … After last night, I worry about whether we can work on some of those things.”

Disclosure: Association of Texas Professional Educators, Texas Association of School Administrators and Texas Public Policy Foundation 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.


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