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The Texas House on Friday voted to strip school vouchers from the chamber’s massive education funding bill, taking an ax to Gov. Greg Abbott’s top legislative priority of the year.
The House voted 84-63 in favor of an amendment offered by Rep. John Raney, R-College Station, which removed the provision of the bill allowing some parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private and religious schools. Twenty-one Republicans, most of whom represent rural districts, joined all Democrats in support.
They are: Raney, Steve Allison of San Antonio, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Keith Bell of Forney, DeWayne Burns of Cleburne, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Jay Dean of Longview, Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, Justin Holland of Rockwall, Kyle Kacal of College Station, Ken King of Canadian, John Kuempel of Seguin, Stan Lambert of Abilene, Andrew Murr of Junction, Four Price of Amarillo, Glenn Rogers of Graford, Hugh Shine of Temple, Reggie Smith of Sherman, Ed Thompson of Pearland and Gary VanDeaver of New Boston.
Voucher opponents said they feared the subsidy would divert money from their public school systems — either in the short term because students would leave for private schools, or in the long term because the state would have to commit more funding to the program that would otherwise fund public education. For many rural Republicans, they said they have few private schools in their districts where families could take advantage of vouchers.
The outcome was an embarrassment to Abbott, who spent seven months lobbying two dozen Republicans who signaled opposition to vouchers in a test vote during the regular legislative session in April. His various strategies included holding school choice rallies at private schools in rural areas, tying vouchers to increased public school funding, calling two special sessions dedicated to education, threatening to support primary challengers to Republicans who opposed vouchers and announcing a breakthrough deal with the holdouts that did not appear to exist.
None of it worked.
Just four of the Republican holdouts from the April test vote changed their position to vote against the anti-voucher amendment on Friday: Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Brooks Landgraf of Odessa, Angelia Orr of Itasca and David Spiller of Jacksboro. But Thompson was a new anti-voucher vote, bringing the governor’s net gain to three.
Even the barnstorming of rural districts failed to produce the desired effect. At a pro-voucher rally in Bryan last year, Abbott was joined by the local state representative — Raney, who led the push against vouchers Friday.
“I believe in my heart that using taxpayer dollars to fund an entitlement program is not conservative, and it’s bad public policy,” Raney, who is not seeking reelection, said on the House floor. “Expanding government-defined choice programs for a few without accountability… undermines our constitutional and moral duty to educate the children of Texas.”
Abbott, in a statement Friday evening, did not concede defeat.
“Today’s vote is just another step on the path to provide school choice for parents and students across Texas,” the governor said. “I will continue advancing school choice in the Texas Legislature and at the ballot box… until all parents can choose the best education path for their child. I am in it to win it.”
In his statement he took a dig at the “pro-union Republicans in the Texas House who voted with Democrats.”
For years, that coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans have joined together to block attempts to create a voucher system in Texas.
That alliance held Friday afternoon.
The bill, authored by Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, is a $7 billion omnibus bill that would also boost spending for public schools. It would increase the basic allotment — the base amount allocated to districts per student — from $6,160 to $6,700 and would be adjusted for inflation starting in the 2026-27 school year. It also includes a one-time $4,000 bonus for full-time teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians.
But its key provision was school vouchers. The provision which was stripped would have created education savings accounts, a voucher program that would allow about 40,000 students who exit the state’s public education system to either receive $10,500 annually for private school expenses or up to $1,000 for homeschooling. The program would have prioritized students from low-income families and those with disabilities, but with every child eligible for the money as funds allowed.
Friday’s floor action showcased the reversal of roles vouchers have produced. Democrats, who are in the minority, were united and for once confident of their victory. They mostly sat out the three-hour debate over the anti-voucher amendment, allowing Republicans to battle among themselves.
Several voucher supporters framed the issue as one of helping low-income parents.
“The rich in Texas have school choice; poor Texans do not,” said Rep. Brian Harrison of Midlothian. He added, “this amendment is a slap in the face to the voters who elected us.”
Reps. Jared Patterson of Frisco and Caroline Harris of Round Rock said rejecting vouchers could prevent parents from removing their children from public schools if they are sexually assaulted. Rep. Ellen Troxclair of Fredericksburg made a similar point about students who are bullied.
But the holdouts were unmoved.
“Overwhelmingly, my constituents do not stand for the [education savings accounts] proposal we debate here today,” Rogers said. “One of my constituents said we need to enhance our public schools, not divert their funds.”
Not only did the House pass the anti-voucher amendment, they voted by an identical margin to prevent that decision from being reconsidered.
The future of the bill is now in doubt; Abbott has said he will veto any education legislation that does not contain vouchers. Acknowledging this reality, the House abandoned its plan to consider other amendments to HB 1 after stripping vouchers from the bill.
Members referred HB 1 back to the education committee, which Buckley suggested was purely procedural.
“We had a bill that didn’t pass,” he said as he walked out of the Capitol. “Had to do something with it.”
Threats against the anti-voucher Republicans were swift.
The Family Empowerment Coalition Political Action Committee said in a statement that it would change its strategy to focus on mounting primary challenges to target the holdouts. Before the vote, its strategy was focused on defending its incumbents.
“We will do our part in having the voices of families, particularly low-income families, heard on this issue,” said Eddie Lucio, former Democratic state senator and PAC board member.
Democrats said they will now push to pass HB 1 with its remaining elements, forcing Abbott to oppose a bill that includes teacher pay raises and increased funding for public schools.
“That’s something I hope he thinks about over this Thanksgiving holiday,” said Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, the caucus leader.
The governor has threatened to continue calling lawmakers back to Austin until they pass a bill. Friday marked the 227th day the Legislature has been in session in 2023, tying the single-year record in state history. There is little evidence to suggest a fifth special session would produce a different result on vouchers.
Monty Exter, director of governmental relations at the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said they’re grateful for the members that stood strong against school vouchers and are ready to continue standing against them, whether that be in another special session or the primary elections.
“We are hopeful the governor and voucher proponents recognize that the unity of the public education community on this issue cannot be broken,” Exter said.
Lawmakers also passed two major pieces of school safety legislation that would give Texas public schools $1.3 billion more to fund new safety measures. Though the Legislature passed several sweeping school safety mandates earlier this year, school officials have complained that lawmakers did not allot enough funding for schools to actually implement the new requirements.
House Bill 2, which establishes two school safety grant programs, passed with a vote of 145-2, with Democratic Reps. Nicole Collier from Fort Worth and Carl Sherman from DeSoto voting against. Lawmakers approved an amendment proposed by Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, that allows school safety funds to pay for schools to run a fentanyl awareness program.
They also approved an amendment by Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, that requires schools to obtain written consent from a child’s parents before conducting any psychological exam or treatment of a student using HB 2 funds.
House Joint Resolution 1, which proposes a constitutional amendment that will go before voters next May, creates a new school safety fund to support the grant programs in HB 2. HJR 1 passed with a vote of 144-3, with Republican Reps. Matt Schaefer from Tyler, Brian Harrison from Midlothian and Briscoe Cain from Deer Park voting no.
Renzo Downey and Maia Pandey contributed reporting.