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Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced he had “reached an agreement” with Speaker Dade Phelan and House leaders on school vouchers, a potential breakthrough after months of unsuccessful negotiations days before the end of the third special legislative session.
But Phelan stopped short of calling it a done deal.
Asked for comment, Phelan merely thanked Abbott for expanding the session agenda to allow bills that increase spending for public education. The governor had previously refused to do this until the Legislature sent him a voucher bill.
“Speaker Phelan … looks forward to having robust discussions on school funding, teacher pay and other critical education issues with his House colleagues,” Phelan spokesperson Cassi Pollock said.
Rep. Ernest Bailes, a key Republican voucher opponent from Shepherd, said Abbott’s announcement was “nothing more than political theater.”
“To my knowledge, there’s no deal,” Bailes said. “If public education, teachers and our kids’ safety was truly important, that would have been added on the call on Day Zero.”
Even if Abbott and House leaders have a deal on vouchers, it is far from a guarantee that it would pacify two-dozen Republican House members, including Bailes, who have joined with Democrats to oppose them.
And the governor’s victory announcement comes as things have slowed to a grinding halt in the House. The special session must conclude by Nov. 7 and the House has yet to hold a committee hearing on any voucher bill.
Under Abbott's "deal," parents would get access to about $10,400 per student to pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses — which is more money than both the House and Senate's versions of the legislation. Any child would be eligible to have access to the funds and to sweeten the deal for reluctant House members, it includes funding for public schools and teacher raises.
Leading members of the Senate and the House have already filed similar proposals, but both have prioritized low income families and students with disabilities to account for the possibility that demand could outpace available funds. It's unclear if Abbott's proposal, which has not been filed as legislation yet, would have set priorities for certain students. In the past, Abbott has made it clear that he doesn't want a limited program.
The House on Tuesday adjourned for lack of a quorum for the second day in a row. Frustrated House Republicans held a news conference in which they blamed Democrats for purposefully staying out of the chamber, as they had done in 2021 to delay passage of voting bills.
This time, Republicans said Democrats were jeopardizing several important bills on border security and immigration that have the support of a majority of representatives and senators.
“This is not legislative maneuvering … this is hijacking of the will of the people of Texas,” said Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano. He added that House Democrats should “wake up, they should show up, they should do their jobs that they’re elected to do.”
Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer of San Antonio, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, in a statement mentioned that there were also 20 House Republicans not present on Tuesday. Ali Zaidi, chief strategist for the caucus, said Republicans’ claims that Democratic leaders instructed members to break quorum were “unequivocally untrue.”
Martinez-Fischer blasted Republicans for waiting to make public school funding a priority until about a week was left in the special session.
“It’s very clear this majority doesn’t know how to govern,” he said.
The lack of a quorum, however, is far from the only obstacle preventing the House from passing a vouchers bill.
Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen and chairman of the public education committee, said during the Tuesday press conference that the House will offer an amended voucher bill as a result of the deal with the governor.
But he declined to say whether he believed it could pass in the House, where a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans have signaled opposition to vouchers. Notably, none of the Republican holdouts joined Tuesday the news conference held by caucus colleagues Leach, Buckley, Jacey Jetton, Ryan Guillen and David Spiller.
The special session ends on Nov. 7. Abbott has vowed to call a fourth session should a voucher bill not reach his desk by that date. And if that effort fails, he has threatened to support primary challengers to anti-voucher Republicans.
Despite public school funding being added to the call, many in the educator community continue to take a stand against vouchers this session.
Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said his group remains against school vouchers even as the governor has given the green light for lawmakers to pass teacher raises and other school funding measures.
“House members have the opportunity to take a stand," Holmes said. "They need to vote against vouchers and only support a standalone school finance and teacher pay bill."
Disclosure: Association of Texas Professional Educators 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.