School Voucher Proponents Spend Big to Overcome Rural Resistance

Some GOP lawmakers and their liberal colleagues clash on whether funding private and homeschool education drains public school resources.

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AUSTIN, Texas — In rural Texas, public schools are the cultural heart of small towns. People pack the high school stadium for Friday night football games, and FFA classes prepare the next generation for the agricultural life. In many places, more people work for the school district than for any other employer.

For years, many rural Texas school districts, often barely scraping by on lean operating budgets, have relied on their local representatives in the Republican-led state legislature to fend off school voucher programs. Some of these GOP lawmakers, along with many of their liberal colleagues from larger cities, have argued that giving families taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools or to educate them at home would drain money from the public schools.

That wall of resistance is now on the verge of collapse, thanks to a multimillion-dollar political offensive led by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and heavily funded by billionaire out-of-state allies committed to spreading school choice nationwide.

Six of the Republican House members Abbott targeted for opposing his school choice initiative were defeated in the March 5 primary election, and four others were thrown into a May runoff. Abbott said last week that his side is within two votes of enacting a school choice program in Texas.

“Even individuals who voted against school choice who won need to rethink their position in light of Abbott’s success on the issue,” said Matt Rinaldi, outgoing chair of the Texas Republican Party. “It’s sure to pass after these election results.”

Similar dynamics have been on display over the past two years in other states where rural opponents, sometimes aligned with labor groups and teachers unions, have sought unsuccessfully to head off the widening push. School choice can come through vouchers, refundable tax credits or education savings accounts.

In Arkansas, lawmakers sent a phased-in school voucher plan to Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders last year for her signature after proponents overcame years of opposition from rural Republicans allied with Democrats.

In Oklahoma, Tom Newell, a former Republican state legislator who works for a foundation that advocates for school choice, said rural resistance has steadily diminished in that state, too, enabling lawmakers to equip parents with education tax credits that became effective this year.

Rural Texas educators who have long opposed school choice are now bracing for it. “We really are the heart, soul and backbone of Texas,” said Randy Willis, executive director of the Texas Association of Rural School Districts, which has long opposed school choice. “We’re going to be left with a lot less resources as this progresses and goes through.”

In the small Texas Panhandle community of Booker, which has two blinking traffic lights and is closer to Cheyenne, Wyoming, than the state capital of Austin, school Superintendent Mike Lee has similar concerns.

“In all likelihood, that makes it where Abbott could pass vouchers,” Lee said of the primary election results.

Like many other rural school leaders, Lee said any loss of funding would make it even harder for his district to pay for basic operations and new, state-mandated safety programs launched in response to school shootings.

Primary battles

Despite the concerns of school officials such as Willis and Lee, school choice proponents say the rapid spread of the concept in Texas and other states dismantles the perception that rural residents oppose it.

“There’s been a myth in Texas that rural Republicans do not want school choice,” said Genevieve Collins, state director of the Texas branch of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group. Voters “put that myth to bed” in the recent Republican primary, she told Stateline.

Abbott said during a speech last week that parents frequently approached him on the campaign trail “begging” and “pleading” for school choice. “Any Republican House member who was voting against school choice was voting against the voice of the Republicans who voted in that primary,” he said.

School choice advocates argue that giving families public education dollars to pay for private school allows everybody — not just the wealthy — to choose the school that is best for their child. Though most Republicans support school choice and most Democrats oppose it, the issue doesn’t break cleanly along party lines: Just as some rural Republicans oppose vouchers, some Black and Hispanic Democrats support them, arguing that families should have an alternative if their local public schools are substandard.

“When you look at this, you can see that the majority of parents want school choice. They just want to be empowered with the decisions of their children’s future,” Hillary Hickland, a mother of four who defeated Republican incumbent state Rep. Hugh Shine of Temple, said of the primary results. Shine was one of 21 Republicans who voted to take vouchers out of the education bill last year, according to The Texas Tribune, and the governor endorsed Hickland.

“I think the arguments against school choice are based in fear and control. Ultimately, we have to do what’s best for the students. That’s the purpose of education,” said Hickland, who added: “For the majority of families, public school will always be right and best, and that’s great. We’re not giving up on our public schools.”

Janis Holt, a former teacher in the Silsbee Independent School District northeast of Houston, defeated incumbent Republican state Rep. Ernest Bailes, another voucher opponent who earned Abbott’s ire. Holt said she is reassuring rural superintendents in her district that she is a staunch supporter of both public school funding and school choice.

“We’re going to make sure that we protect the students that will be in our public schools, our teachers and administrators, but will also give parents opportunities to get their kids out of a failing school when they need to,” Holt said.

Republican state Rep. Gary VanDeaver, one of the House members targeted by Abbott, hasn’t wavered from his opposition to school choice initiatives. VanDeaver survived in the first primary round on March 5 but wound up in a May 28 runoff against an opponent backed by the governor.

“I’m just going to try to dodge all the bombs that are dropped on me and keep working to get a positive message out there and make sure everybody understands what’s at stake,” said VanDeaver, a former school superintendent.

He fears Abbott’s school choice drive will redirect billions of dollars a year from rural Texas school districts to urban and suburban ones. “The economies of the small communities are struggling as it is,” he said. “There’s just a lot of reasons that something like this is bad for rural Texas.”

Rapid spread

School choice programs have spread rapidly in recent years, aided by groups such as the American Federation for Children, which was founded by the billionaire family of former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Americans for Prosperity, affiliated with the conservative billionaire Koch family.

“Nationally we really saw that momentum take off a couple of years ago,” said Chantal Lovell of EdChoice, a nonprofit group that tracks and promotes school choice. “After 2023 there was no stopping it, and it’s clear that universal educational choice isn’t a fleeting trend, but here to stay.”

As many as 73 programs have been implemented in 32 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, including 11 with a comprehensive statewide reach and 62 that serve various portions of the population, according to EdChoice.

Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed a program into law earlier this month, and a bill is awaiting the governor’s signature in Wyoming.

Texas emerged as the most closely watched school choice battleground after Abbott last year made the issue one of his top priorities and called repeated special sessions in an attempt to overcome opposition from a coalition of rural Republicans aligned with Democrats.

Abbott unleashed millions of dollars from his campaign funds and traveled into the home counties of resistant Republicans after a school choice initiative collapsed in the Texas House.

Other dynamics were also at work, including endorsements by former President Donald Trump, who has equated school choice with civil rights, and Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who sought to settle scores against House members for initiating an unsuccessful effort to oust him through impeachment.

Big money

An avalanche of campaign dollars from both inside and outside the state helped propel Abbott’s offensive, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit research organization that tracks political spending.

Billionaire Jeff Yass, a megadonor investor based in Pennsylvania and one of the nation’s leading school choice advocates, gave the governor’s campaign more than $6 million, which Abbott officials described as the “largest single donation in Texas history.”

Abbott, who is not up for reelection until 2026, was one of the biggest spenders in the undertaking, drawing $6.4 million from his campaign fund to help finance opposition expenditures against incumbents on his hit list.

The AFC Victory Fund, a super PAC the American Federation for Children created in September, directed its resources into 20 Republican primary races in Texas, opposing 13 Republican incumbents, supporting six others and financing a 20th candidate for an open seat, according to Scott Jensen, a former Wisconsin House speaker who is now a senior adviser to the American Federation for Children.

For many of the targeted legislators, the political attack was insurmountable. “We gave it everything we had, but you can’t overcome being outspent over 4-to-1,” said Republican state Rep. Travis Clardy, who lost to Joanne Shofner, former president of the Nacogdoches County Republican Women.

“We spent more money in this campaign than all my other campaigns combined,” said Clardy, a Nacogdoches attorney who first won election in 2012. “But the money aligned against us and the power and political clout behind it were too much.”

Among other things, targeted incumbents said, the AFC Victory Fund financed a bombardment of mailings and ads that often went beyond school choice to focus on other issues, such as being lax on border security. One mailing was fashioned like a wanted poster.

Republican state Rep. Drew Darby, who prevailed over his challenger and doesn’t have a Democratic opponent, said the tactics were out of bounds and called Abbott’s involvement in his race “sad” for the state. “That’s a situation I’ve never seen in my political career,” said Darby.

Jensen said the AFC Victory Fund spent almost $4 million in Texas and plans to spend $15 million nationally on state school choice campaigns during the 2024 election cycle.

“Welcome to politics,” Jensen said of the criticism from targeted lawmakers. “These guys are long-term incumbents. I’m sorry if they haven’t been in a tough race for a while, but everything we said was accurate. And I don’t think any of it was misleading or unfair.”

At least 70% of the AFC Victory Fund’s communications, he said, focused on school choice.

In the Robert Lee Independent School District in West Texas, which has one campus and about 250 students, Superintendent Aaron Hood fears the potential impact on his district.

As with other districts, inflation has put a whammy on operating expenses, leaving Robert Lee with a budget deficit for the second year in a row. And because state funding is based on average daily attendance, if any students were to transfer to a private school under a school choice plan, Robert Lee would face a drop in state funds. (The nearest private school is 30 miles away, in San Angelo.)

For now, Hood says, it’s a bit too early to assess the potential impact of the primary results. But if Abbott prevails in the next round of electoral combat, he said, “then I would say that choice is coming to Texas.”

Jimmy Cloutier of OpenSecrets provided data on campaign contributions and expenditures for this article.

This story was originally published by Stateline, which is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott S. Greenberger for questions: info@stateline.org. Follow Stateline on Facebook and Twitter.

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