By David DeMatthews
Gov. Greg Abbott has called for a special legislative session to deliver what he called “school choice for every Texas family.” A continued push for vouchers after decades of failed bills has become a Texas tradition, but it does not represent the desires of Texas families – it represents a billionaire voucher cartel that should concern every Texan.
Texans should expect elected officials to represent their interests, especially when it comes to education. A bipartisan group of legislators did just that when they continually voted against voucher bills in the legislative session this past spring. These votes represent the will of the people, as recent polls make clear that voters prioritize investing in public schools, teacher pay, and school security over vouchers.
It has been an impressive losing streak for voucher supporters, given the idea originated in the Texas Legislature in 1956 to maintain racial segregation following the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Vouchers likely fail not just because of their racist origins but also because researchers have found that voucher programs lead to significant negative achievement outcomes for students who use vouchers.
Vouchers also take money out of public schools and even the state’s general fund. For example, the governor of Arizona recently projected the cost of their voucher program ballooned to over $943 million annually, leading to a potential $320 million shortfall for 2024.
So why is the Texas governor still pushing for vouchers? As an education researcher, I cannot read minds, but I can follow the money. When you follow the money you find a voucher cartel – a small group of billionaires outside and inside of Texas making large campaign contributions to support vouchers.
Texans should be suspicious of outsiders funding their state campaigns, because they have no vested interest in the education or lives of Texas children. For example, California billionaire Reed Hastings has supported vouchers or voucher-related PACs in Texas, Tennessee, and Washington. In 2022, he gave $1.5 million to the pro-voucher Texas-based Educational Equity PAC.
Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos has given at least $125,000 to the pro-voucher PAC Texas Federation for Children. Her husband also provided $125,000 to the same PAC. Perhaps these out of state billionaires should focus on their home states – which have not passed voucher legislation – before butting into Texas politics.
In Texas, Farris Wilks and Tim Dunn have received recent media attention for their power and influence at the Texas Capitol, especially concerning vouchers. They also help fund the Texas Public Policy Foundation – an Austin-based, right-wing think-tank that has been a vocal supporter of vouchers. Senators Mays Middleton and Kevin Sparks, both voucher supporters, have served as a board member of the foundation.
Rather than give up on vouchers after decades of a failure, some supporters have turned to intimidation. Abbott said, “We will have everything teed up in a way where we will be giving voters a primary choice” if vouchers do not pass – which sounds like a public threat to unseat legislators in the next primary season if they do not support his voucher plan.
Texans should be asking, “Do I want billionaires in Michigan and California or elite think tanks in Austin making decisions about how my child’s education is funded?” They might also ask, “Why is the governor so desperate to pass vouchers that he is willing to threaten members of his own party with primary challenges?”
I have yet to meet a Texas parent who believes billionaires or a think-tank knows what is best for their child. However, I have met many parents who want to see their child’s teacher receive a raise and see the public schools supported and improved.
Texas parents grew up in our public schools and have already chosen public schools for their children. Now, all Texans need to make clear to state leaders that a voucher cartel will not dictate how or where their child is educated or any other policy that impacts the lives of their children.
David DeMatthews, a former El Pasoan, is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas.