Anti-ESA Republicans Fall in Texas Primaries, Setting Stage for School Choice Expansion

Three GOP incumbents had opposed Gov. Greg Abbott’s bid to make private school choice universal. They were defeated Tuesday.

Challengers backed by Gov. Greg Abbott have defeated 12 out of 13 anti-ESA Republicans in primary elections this spring. (Getty Images)

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In a breakthrough win for Gov. Greg Abbott and school choice activists around the country, conservative challengers defeated three Republican state representatives in Texas primary elections Tuesday night.

The shakeup could set the stage for a statewide roll-out of education savings accounts (ESAs), which allow families to use public dollars to pay for private school.

Vote tallies Wednesday morning showed three embattled Republican lawmakers — DeWayne Burns, Justin Holland, and John Kuempel — losing to their primary opponents, each of whom had been endorsed by Abbott and state Attorney General Ken Paxton. A fourth, veteran Texas House representative Gary Vandeaver, dispatched his challenger by a little under 1,400 votes.

The four men had all helped thwart the governor’s push last year behind legislation that would have made ESAs universal throughout the state. Along with House Democrats and a committed faction of rural Republicans, they voted to expressly prohibit the use of state funding for all forms of school vouchers last spring; in a special session called by Abbott several months later, the same coalition again removed a school choice provision from an omnibus K–12 funding bill.  

In response, Abbott and several major conservative donors took the rare step of backing ESA supporters against the incumbents in state legislative primaries. In March, nine Republicans who’d previously defied Abbott lost the party’s nomination, while four more were denied majorities and forced into runoff elections decided on Tuesday. 

Taken together, 13 Republican ESA opponents were pushed aside, which would be more than enough to flip the 84-63 margin against universal ESAs that prevailed last year.  

But the passage of a new school choice bill is still not guaranteed. The Texas Legislature is out of session until next year; elections in November will determine the body’s partisan composition, and while Republicans are favored to retain control over both chambers, the size of their majorities — and the continuing willingness of anti-voucher Republicans to defect again — will help determine the prospects of statewide ESAs.

Ebullient in victory, Abbott announced that House Republicans now held “enough votes to pass school choice.”

“While we did not win every race we fought in, the overall message from this year’s primaries is clear: Texans want school choice,” the governor said in a statement. “Opponents can no longer ignore the will of the people.”

Recent polling suggests that education savings accounts do enjoy the support of large numbers of Texans. While many voters are unfamiliar with the details of particular legislative proposals, a University of Houston survey found that 49 percent of respondents — and particularly African Americans, parents, and churchgoers — favored vouchers, compared with just 27 percent who opposed them. A more recent poll from the University of Texas at Austin found a tighter margin that still supported ESAs.

Zeph Capo, president of the teachers’ union affiliate Texas AFT, said in a statement issued Wednesday that the primary results reflected a crush of spending from deep-pocketed school choice advocates. While the primary campaign had succeeded in its immediate goals, he argued, the fate of ESAs was still to be decided. 

“Just five out-of-state donors have flooded Texas with $33 million, the same as our state’s record-breaking budget surplus last year, in this election cycle,” Capo wrote. “What it’s bought them so far is a smattering of wins for extremist challengers who now must win outright in November.

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