BY PATRICK SVITEK/Texas Tribune
A battle over school vouchers is mounting in the race to be Texas governor, set into motion after Republican incumbent Greg Abbott offered his clearest support yet for the idea in May.
His Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, is hammering Abbott over the issue on the campaign trail, especially seeking an advantage in rural Texas, where Democrats badly know they need to do better and where vouchers split Republicans. O’Rourke’s campaign is also running newspaper ads in at least 17 markets, mostly rural, that urge voters to “reject Greg Abbott’s radical plan to defund” public schools.
Abbott, meanwhile, is not shying away from the controversy he ignited when he said in May that he supports giving parents “the choice to send their children to any public school, charter school or private school with state funding following the student.” He met privately last week with Corey DeAngelis, an aggressive national school choice activist who had previously criticized Abbott as insufficiently supportive of the cause.
“School choice” tends to refer to the broad concept of giving parents the option to send their kids to schools beyond their local public school, while vouchers would allow parents to use state tax dollars to subsidize tuition for those other options, including private schools. Opponents of vouchers say they harm public school systems by draining their funding. In the Legislature, vouchers have long encountered resistance from Democrats and rural Republicans whose public schools are the lifeblood of their communities.
O’Rourke is leaning into the bipartisan salience of the issue.
“For our rural communities, where there’s only one school district and only one option of public school, he wants to defund that through vouchers, take your tax dollars out of your classroom and send it to a private school in Dallas or Austin or somewhere else at your expense,” O’Rourke told a rural audience recently.
It is a quote that O’Rourke’s campaign is repeating in a digital ad that argues Abbott has “left behind” rural Texas.
Abbott’s campaign said O’Rourke’s newspaper ads are a “complete lie,” accusing O’Rourke of siding with “union bosses” over parents.
“The Governor strongly believes parents deserve more involvement in their children’s education,” Abbott spokesperson Mark Miner said in an email. “The real question is why is O’Rourke so afraid of parental involvement with their children’s education? Shouldn’t families across Texas have the same opportunities that Beto’s parents had to send their kids to the school of their choice?”
O’Rourke went to a public school, El Paso High School, for two years before attending a private, all-male boarding school in Virginia.
His campaign has been running the newspaper ads since the end of the school year, around high school graduations. They have appeared in newspapers with decisively rural readerships, like the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Amarillo Globe and Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel. They are customized to each market, telling readers of the Abilene Reporter-News, for example, that they should not “let Greg Abbott privatize public education in Abilene.”
O’Rourke’s campaign said it has spent “around $40,000” on the newspaper ads, a drop in the bucket compared with the $23.9 million cash on hand it had at the end of June — let alone Abbott’s $45.7 million in reserves. But it is the first known paid media the campaign has done beyond its online advertising, and it marks a deliberate choice by O’Rourke’s campaign to appeal to rural voters who long have been key to blocking a Democratic breakthrough statewide.
O’Rourke has been outspoken about vouchers before, including during his 2020 presidential campaign, when his statements directed attention to his wife, Amy O’Rourke, who founded a charter school and continues to advocate for them. Asked about that in the context of the current race, O’Rourke spokesperson Chris Evans provided a statement reiterating that O’Rourke “will put an end to Greg Abbott’s attacks on public education” and noted his three kids attend public schools in El Paso.
Texas Democrats are acutely aware they need to improve their margins in rural Texas if they want to have a better chance at winning statewide. Delegates to the state party convention last month reelected the chair, Gilberto Hinojosa, after a competitive race in which the party’s neglect of rural Texas was hotly debated.
In a recent interview, Hinojosa said rural Texas was the “primary reason Beto was not able to win at the very end [of his 2018 U.S. Senate campaign], even though he came very close.”
“We have to do better, and we’ve believed that for a long time,” Hinojosa said, adding that it has “always been a question of scarceness of resources” rather than a question of the party’s understanding of the importance of rural Texas.
With Abbott’s embrace of vouchers, Democrats believe they have a strong opportunity to loosen the GOP stranglehold on rural Texas. Another Democratic statewide candidate, Mike Collier for lieutenant governor, has been getting the attention of prominent GOP names like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz after tweeting a clip from a recent speech in which he declared “vouchers are for vultures.” The current lieutenant governor, Republican Dan Patrick, has long championed the proposal, predating Abbott.
Abbott himself has acknowledged his May statement was meaningful. Later that month, he asserted to reporters that he has always supported school choice but wanted to “make it abundantly clear not only that I support it but the strategy to achieve it, where the funding follows the student, which is the way that it should be.”
Polling on vouchers in Texas can be dicey given that it is often done by interest groups and the language of questions varies.
In an April survey from an independent pollster, the University of Texas at Austin, 45% of voters said they supported — and 40% said they opposed — “redirecting state tax revenue to help parents pay for some of the cost of sending their children to private or parochial schools.” The pro-voucher Texas Public Policy Foundation sponsored a poll in February that found 78% of Hispanic adults in Texas — part of a demographic that Republicans are targeting in November — support the “right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to whatever school, public, charter, or private school that best serves their needs.” And in May, shortly before Abbott’s comments, the anti-voucher Texas Parent PAC commissioned a survey that found 46% of likely voters support — and 43% oppose — “a school voucher program in Texas,” according to a memo that did not provide the question language.
Abbott met July 26 with DeAngelis, who tweeted a picture of the two afterward shaking hands at Abbott’s campaign headquarters in Austin. An Abbott spokesperson, Renae Eze, said they “discussed school choice, parental involvement, and various groups working together to ensure Texas students receive the best possible education opportunity.”
DeAngelis is the national director of research at the American Federation for Children. His meeting with Abbott was especially notable since he has previously criticized Abbott over his endorsements of candidates in state House primaries backed by teachers unions.
Vouchers continue to face an uphill battle in the chamber, where they have long hit a wall of opposition from Democrats and rural Republicans. Last session, the House voted 115-29 on a budget amendment to ban vouchers, with a majority of Republicans siding with Democrats. The amendment did not make it in the final budget after late negotiations with the Senate.
The latest GOP primaries and runoffs did not significantly expand the pro-voucher crowd in the House. School choice groups spent big to unseat two unfriendly GOP incumbents — Reps. Glenn Rogers of Graford and Kyle Kacal of College Station — but were unsuccessful.
Another rural Republican who opposes vouchers, Rep. Drew Darby of San Angelo, said he thought the issue could have an impact on the governor’s race. He did not criticize Abbott but said he “would hope and pray” that protecting public education is an issue that drives people to the polls.
He said his priority is to represent the communities in his district, and “they’re dominated by independent school districts that are the lifeblood of our communities,” noting they’re often the largest employer.
“If that school district goes away, the identity of that community goes away,” Darby said. “I am supportive of that institution in these communities, and I want to make sure they have all the resources they need to certainly maintain the support of that efficient system of public free schools, which our constitution requires. Anything that takes away from that, I will oppose.”
In other corners of the House GOP caucus, there is growing optimism for school choice next session, especially after Abbott’s May statement. The group got a boost two months earlier when a GOP primary ballot proposition passed with 88% support that said parents “should have the right to select schools, whether public or private, for their children, and the funding should follow the student.”
One of the most vocal advocates in the House has been Rep. Brian Harrison of Midlothian, who said Abbott is right to lean in to the cause. O’Rourke, Harrison said, “attended elite private schools, yet sides with liberal extremists to … deny poor kids the education opportunities he had.”
“Gov. Abbott wants to empower parents with education freedom so every child can get a quality education,” Harrison said. “There may be no more important issue than school choice. It’s the right thing to do. It’s also a political winner.”
The latest campaign finance reports also provided fodder for the vouchers fight. One of O’Rourke’s biggest donors was the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in America that has long opposed vouchers, which gave $300,000. Abbott has long had large donors whose interests include school choice, and one of his biggest contributors on the latest filing was Stuart Stedman, a Houston investor and prominent advocate for charter schools who gave $300,000.