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PAC Uses Football to Target Voucher Proposals

In a video that ponders potential threats to the viability of high school football, Progress Texas PAC urges Texans to fight plans to institute school voucher programs.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
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As they prepare for a battle over school vouchers during the next legislative session, a liberal advocacy group is calling attention to a program that few thought was under immediate threat in Texas: high school football.

In a video called “Will Our Friday Night Lights Go Out,” released today — which features actors Aaron Spivey-Sorrells and Jonathan Palafox from the television show Friday Night Lights — Progress Texas PAC urges Texans to fight school voucher programs.

School voucher programs, they argue in the video, could drain as much as $1 billion from local school district funding. With less funding, schools may be forced to end athletic programs or to demand that parents pay to keep them running. That, they say, all means less opportunity for students, particularly those from poor families.

"This is part of a larger campaign for public education,” said Glenn Smith, a director of Progress Texas, “but we found the danger to public sports is very real. It hadn't been talked about much in the voucher and charter school debate."

The video specifically targets state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who has championed creating a system that allows families to use public money for private school tuition. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst last week appointed Patrick to lead the Senate Education meeting.

At a hearing of that committee in August, national groups testified that similar programs in Florida and Indiana have improved accountability while saving the state money. 

Matthew Ladner, a senior policy advisor at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, told lawmakers that with school choice, "parents can pick up and leave" if they feel their children aren't being adequately served. 

"This is the year to do it, in my view," Patrick said regarding vouchers in an interview reported by the Houston Chronicle in August. "That issue will do more to impact the future of Texas and the quality of education than anything else we could do."

The expense of public high school football programs has long been debated — from the release of Buzz Bissinger’s book Friday Night Lights in 1990 to Allen High School’s $60 million football stadium near Dallas, finished this year.

Football has already been halted at Premont Independent School District, where in January the district cut sports programs to keep the district afloat. “I couldn’t let the district go down to save a particular program,” superintendent Ernest Singleton told the Tribune at the time.

Smith, director of the PAC, said the threat to sports programs, and football in particular, may sway conservative Texans who would otherwise support voucher and charter school programs during the upcoming session.

"What's lost in this debate is just how integral public schools are to our social lives in Texas,” he said. “There's nothing more symbolic than the love of the old Friday night lights."

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