Texas lawmakers have repeatedly rejected school vouchers. Gov. Greg Abbott is trying to force a plan anyway.

  Nik Nartowicz

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been very clear that he wants the Texas state legislature to enact a private school voucher program that will funnel desperately needed public dollars from public schools to private religious schools.

He is so determined that he called the legislature into a special session yesterday to do it. Abbott says that if the legislature doesn’t pass a voucher bill this session, he will call another special session. And if they still don’t pass one, he’s threatened to primary Republican legislators who oppose vouchers during election season next year.

Legislators say no to vouchers

Abbott is doing this even though a bipartisan majority in the Texas House of Representatives has already rejected his push to pass a voucher bill. And they haven’t done it just once, but multiple times. In April, the House voted 86-52 to add an amendment to the budget to prohibit the state from having a voucher program: the amendment prohibits public funds from being used to pay for private schools. And 24 of those votes were from Republicans.

After the Senate passed SB 8, a stand-alone voucher bill, the House Education Committee heard testimony and then let the bill die. And at the end of the regular session, Senate Republicans added a voucher provision to a multibillion dollar school funding bill that would have increased school funding and teacher salaries, but the House let the bill fail. Republican Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian), explained that schools were “better off” with the current funding levels than an increase in funding and a voucher.

The many problems with vouchers

Abbott should take the hint and stop trying to force the legislature to enact a voucher program. Vouchers don’t work: they don’t improve student achievement, lack accountability, fund discrimination, can exacerbate racial segregation, and harm religious freedom.

Vouchers would be particularly bad for Texas’ many rural school districts. As my colleague Sam Sokol explained earlier this year, few rural students would even have access to a private school to use a voucher; and if they did, they would likely be required to endure long, costly commutes and even pay for the transportation themselves. But it’s not just that rural students wouldn’t benefit – they would actually be harmed. Rural schools rely more heavily on state funding, so if a voucher program were implemented, state funding would be drained away from rural districts to pay for vouchers for students who live in more populous cities and suburbs. This would result in cuts to programs and services for rural students.

Rural communities threatened by vouchers

Vouchers would harm rural communities as well. Rural and small-town public schools do far more than just educate kids. They serve as a social and economic backbone in rural communities: They are a primary employer, a gathering place for athletics, arts and community meetings and a provider of health care, nutrition and food pantries to many residents. In the long run, undermining and draining money from rural public schools can decimate entire rural communities.

I’m hopeful that Texas legislators won’t be cowed by Abbott’s threats and that they will keep in mind the many reasons to oppose vouchers. But we can’t just rely on hope. That is why Americans United sent a letter to all Texas legislators explaining the many reasons they should oppose any voucher bills. If you’re a Texas resident, your legislators need to hear from you too: contact your legislators today and send them a message urging them to oppose private school vouchers and ensure that public funds stay in public schools.

Photo: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at the Texas State Capitol in Austin. Photo by Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images.

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