This story has been updated.

As conservatives across the state celebrate victories in local school board races, Gov. Greg Abbott is now campaigning on a pledge to allow school vouchers and crack down on what teachers are allowed to discuss in the classroom.

Last weekend, a cadre of conservative school board candidates swept their races in North Texas. In North East ISD, two of the three candidates backed by a local political action committee that wants to advance parental rights unseated incumbents. 

Speaking to supporters Monday at PicaPica Plaza on San Antonio’s South Side, Abbott said voters in those races sent a clear message ahead of the November midterms: “Parents want a bigger say in the education of their children.”

“Empowering parents means giving them the choice to send their children to any public schools, charter school or private school, with state funding following the student,” said Abbott.

Abbott’s voucher proposal would dramatically impact where state money goes, because schools are funded based on enrollment and average daily attendance.

“You can’t fully fund public schools and address the worst teacher shortage in Texas history by siphoning off public dollars to private schools. The math doesn’t work,” the Texas School Alliance responded in a statement Monday night.

“This voucher scheme provides a tuition break for the wealthiest Texans who already send their children to private schools, while blowing a hole in public school budgets,” said the alliance, which represents 44 school districts, including San Antonio ISD, North East ISD and Northside ISD.

Abbott’s campaign has raised concern about a lack of enthusiasm among Republicans headed into the November. Among the party’s most loyal supporters, conservative strategists say, there’s increasing appetite for a more aggressive approach toward public education. 

Abbott supporters hold signs in support of parent choice when it comes to education in Texas.
Campaign event attendees hold signs in support of more parent choice when it comes to education in Texas. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Outside of the border issue, which is by far the highest priority … public education is a strong second, and will remain so all the way through November,” Luke Macias, a Republican political consultant who lives in San Antonio, said of Texas Republicans. 

Republicans in Austin already put in place two laws aimed at keeping “critical race theory” out of public schools last year. In January, Abbott rolled out an additional “parental bill of rights,” before a March primary against challengers on his right.

“More must be done to preserve your rights as parents and give our children the future they deserve,” said Abbott, who defeated his GOP challengers handily.

Republicans in Virginia leaned hard on public education issues to turn out new voters for a gubernatorial race in November — upsetting an incumbent Democrat in a state that supported Democrat Joe Biden with 54 percent of its vote in 2020.

Among Texas Republicans, however, there’s long been a split on issues related to public education, with conservatives championing school choice and rural Republicans aligning more closely with the school districts that serve as major employers in their districts. 

“Let me emphasize it is imperative that we continue to fully fund schools in Texas,” Abbott told the audience Monday. “Whether they are urban, suburban or rural, if you like the public school your child is attending, it will still be fully funded.”

Republicans including Abbott are also shifting their tone on what they see as appropriate curriculum.

In March one of the state’s rural pro-public education Republicans, state Rep. Cody Harris took to Twitter to criticize Austin ISD’s LGBTQ Pride celebration as “indoctrination of our children,” suggesting the Legislature needed to “step in” and stop the school district from allowing similar events.

Harris, from Palestine, has, in the past, received campaign donations from the Texas American Federation of Teachers and public education champion Charles Butt, H-E-B’s chairman.

Abbott, who is on the ballot against Democrat Beto O’Rourke this fall, is going much further.

“I think Republican elected officials feel more confident in opposing public school employees, due to how they’re increasingly seen as agents of the left,” said Macias.

As conservatives turned their attention to school board races Saturday, Abbott waded deeper into hyper-local education politics, taking to Twitter to bring attention to a Northside ISD administrator who encouraged staff to vote in the district’s $992 million bond election.

Though the Texas Education Agency is still reviewing whether the principal intended to sway voters with his comments, Abbott vowed that the state’s education commissioner will “work with the Attorney General’s Office to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute this matter.”

Speaking to supporters waving handwritten signs distributed by his campaign Monday night, Abbott made a similar threat to teachers who violate the state’s new rules regarding curriculum.

“We will protect our students from obscene content,” said Abbott.

“Educators who provide pornographic material will lose their educational credentials, forfeit their retirement benefits and be placed on the do-not-hire list,” he added amid applause.

The Charles Butt Foundation is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business and nonprofit members, click here.

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.