All but two members of Bexar County’s Texas House delegation joined a bipartisan effort to shut down the creation of a state education savings accounts (ESA) program Friday, the first time a bill involving public funding for private schooling has made it that far in their legislative careers.
State Rep. Steve Allison, a longtime voucher opponent and former Alamo Heights Independent School District board president, was among a group of Republicans who signed on to an amendment stripping ESA language out of a larger public education funding bill.
ESAs would provide taxpayer money for students who leave public school to pay private school tuition or other education-related expenses, like homeschooling costs.
The amendment was approved 84-63, sending the bill back to committee, where its future is unclear.
Two San Antonio Republicans, Reps. John Lujan and Mark Dorazio, voted against the amendment. Neither Lujan nor Dorazio’s office responded to a request for comment Friday.
“We can now call on Gov. Greg Abbott to support a clean school finance bill — one that fully funds our schools, gives our teachers the pay raise they deserve, and actually helps our kids,” Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a joint statement with Democratic leaders.
Republicans control 86 of 150 seats in the House, and Abbott had made using taxpayer money to fund private school tuition a top priority.
Abbott has said he plans to call lawmakers back for additional special sessions until an ESA program is approved, but Friday’s vote was a critical benchmark because the measure had actually reached the House floor in a year that school choice advocates were convinced would be different.
Vouchers were rebranded as the more politically popular “education savings accounts,” and some longtime Republican opponents had retired or been replaced. Abbott also was prepared to apply political pressure to his party’s holdouts. The Senate approved major legislation pairing the ESAs with major increases in public school funding.
Still, the House concluded the regular 88th Legislative Session and three special sessions without a vote on the issue.
ESAs got their first House committee vote only this month after Abbott expanded the scope of his call for the fourth special session to include increased public school funding — an idea intended to bring rural Republicans, who had traditionally opposed vouchers, on board.
Even so, political maneuvering was required to get a bill to the House floor.
Rather than moving legislation through the House’s Public Education Committee, an initial proposal was heard by a House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment, created by House Speaker Dade Phelan this year to deal with ESAs.
Both panels were chaired by Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Killeen), a longtime voucher opponent who crafted the House’s bill to institute education savings accounts while increasing public education spending.
Absent from the select committee was Allison, a Phelan ally who faces a primary challenge this year over his opposition to vouchers. The panel instead included Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, a San Antonio Democrat who helped found a charter school and served as Buckley’s vice chair.
Gervin-Hawkins signaled opposition to vouchers heading into the negotiations but said she wanted Democrats to have a seat at the table in crafting the policy if instituting them was inevitable.
That position drew plenty of criticism from other Democrats who wanted no negotiation on the issue, but Gervin-Hawkins never got the opportunity.
Last week the select committee voted 10-4 to send Buckley’s legislation to the House floor with no changes — the first time in roughly two decades that such a bill has advanced from a House committee. All Democrats on the panel, including Gervin-Hawkins, voted against.
“She’s been very clear that she’s against vouchers, and we appreciate that stance,” Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio ISD teachers union San Antonio Alliance, said of Gervin-Hawkins. “We expect her to continue to stand strong.”
On the House floor Friday, some of the same lawmakers who helped advance the bill from committee were among the 21 Republicans who joined Democrats in stripping out the ESA provision.
Bexar County Democrats Martinez Fischer, Gervin-Hawkins, Philip Cortez, Liz Campos, Diego Bernal, Josey Garcia and Ray Lopez voted in favor.
“The small minority of pro-union Republicans in the Texas House who voted with Democrats will not derail the outcome that voters demand,” Abbott said Friday.
Lujan, who flipped a seat long held by Democrats in a 2021 special election, was forced to take a position on the issue for the first time Friday.
He’s a former union leader for the San Antonio Fire Department and the son of a public school principal, but Lujan surprised some of his pro-public education supporters by joining Abbott on stage at a “parental rights” event at Pica Pica Plaza in 2022. At the time Lujan declined to say whether that should be interpreted as support for vouchers or ESAs.
In April he voted “present” on a budget amendment prohibiting state money from going toward nonpublic primary or secondary education. Voucher opponents introduce that amendment every year to make clear there isn’t support for the idea in the Texas House, but it’s eventually stripped out of the actual budget.
Lujan told the San Antonio Report in October that lawmakers needed to deliver Abbott’s request, but he wanted to see accountability for private schools that receive taxpayer money.
“I’m so pleased that these guys are really working on this and I think we’re close,” he said of Buckley’s select committee.
At least two Democrats have announced plans to challenge Lujan in House District 118 next year.
Dorazio won a crowded primary to replace state Rep. Lyle Larson, an opponent of vouchers, in House District 124 last year.
Dorazio told the San Antonio Report in a statement earlier this year, “While I have great respect for the public school system, I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House and the Senate to ensure that as many students and parents as possible are able to make the education decisions that are best for them with their tax dollars.”
This article has been updated to correct that Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins helped found a charter school.