Gov. Greg Abbott, perhaps sensing political opportunity in a year when state elected leaders and legislators are carving up a historic $32.7 billion cash surplus, has come out in firm support of publicly funded vouchers that would funnel tax dollars to parents who want to send their children to private or faith-based schools.

Abbott outlined his support for “school choice” and his intentions to push for successful voucher legislation at a Jan. 31 event hosted by the Parent Empowerment Coalition at Annapolis Christian Academy in Corpus Christi.

I put “school choice” in quotes because such policies offer choice only to a small minority of students and their families. Traditional public schools, left to educate 9 out of 10 students remaining, face only one choice: how to do more with less and less. 

I don’t know if Abbott aspires to enter the race for the next Republican presidential nomination, or calculates a possible vice presidential bid. His newly aggressive pro-voucher campaign follows his recent push to win new funding for his Operation Lone Star border security initiative, already a $4 billion boondoggle with little to show in the way of positive results, and on building the border wall promoted by former President Donald Trump. And then there is deceptive busing of migrants to blue states and cities.

Abbott sure sounds and acts like a guy who wants to throw his Stetson into the ring.

Texas Republican leaders seem to regard the state’s public school system as the Titanic, and for years have tried and failed to divert millions of dollars away from public schools and into the hands of parents who choose to enroll their children in private or faith-based schools. Public charters that do not have to abide by the same demands placed on traditional public schools have enjoyed state funding for years as well as significant philanthropic support from conservative foundations and wealthy Republican donors. 

Critics, and I am one of them, say all of these initiatives are the equivalent of sending lifeboats to a select few aboard the Titanic while allowing the ship of state to founder. For years these same political leaders have provided inadequate support for the vast majority of the state’s more than 5.1 million PK-12 students who attend traditional public schools.

Abbott’s announcement at a conservative Christian school was no accident. His anti-teacher, anti-curriculum messaging is couched in false claims that public school students are being brainwashed by educators on issues of gender, sexuality and race. Politicians and parents, rather than dedicated education professionals and specialists, should decide what is taught and not taught in Texas classrooms, according to Abbott and many of his party’s supporters.

Republican elected officials — and for that matter, many parents — are not equipped to make intelligent decisions about what is taught and how it is taught in Texas public schools. They also seem unwilling to acknowledge how current levels of funding hold back students in almost every measurable category versus their peers in states with more robust per capita spending.

Here is what you will not find in Abbott’s pro-voucher talking points, or hear from any of the other Republican elected leaders who believe a voucher bill will finally be passed and signed into law this legislative session:

In 2022, Texas ranked 45th out of 50 states for overall child well-being, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which works to elevate educational, economic, social and health outcomes for children. For more than 30 years the foundation has produced and published its annual Kids Count Data Book comparing outcomes in all 50 states.

By almost any measure, year after year, Texas fails its school age population, ranking 48th in child health and 33rd in education outcomes in 2022. The state serves fewer pre-K children than most states, has more fourth graders unable to read at level, more eighth graders lagging in math, a higher percentage of high school students who do not earn a degree, and fewer students who continue on to college and earn two- and four-year degrees.

Add to that the teacher crisis in the state, with most school districts unable to attract enough qualified applicants to fully staff campuses, while thousands of public school teachers cite political and parental meddling in the classroom and school operations, low pay and a general lack of professional support as reasons they are leaving the profession. The state’s universities and colleges are producing fewer new teachers than the number of departing experienced teachers.

Setting aside politics, which never happens, no one in their right mind would argue that diverting funding from public schools to allow parents of all income levels, including the wealthy, to send their children to private or faith-based schools with taxpayer-funded subsidies, is a good idea. It’s a bad idea that happens to play well with a significant segment of the Republican base in the state.

But not everyone in the party supports publicly funded vouchers. Rural legislators fear the loss of funding for their schools, which often are the largest employer in rural counties, where few private or faith-based schools are located.

Abbott’s voucher campaign is not a problem limited to its negative impact on  PK-12 public schools. As the state’s demographics continue to include more people of color and more low-income families and students, the state needs to elevate its investment in PK-12 and in higher education in a more systematic effort to better prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s workforce. 

In addition to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s website, which allows users to search for state-by-state comparisons on how children fare, here are three Texas nonprofits that offer relevant, fact-based information and policy initiatives and track legislative activity: Raise Your Hand TexasEvery Texan and Texas 2036.

Abbott and his legislative allies would better serve the state and its fast-growing population by declaring their intention to elevate public education outcomes in Texas to compete with the other top states in the realms of public health and public education. Vouchers will not help get us there.

Disclosure: A.J. Rodriguez, Texas 2036’s executive vice president, is chairman of the San Antonio Report’s board of directors.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.