House Speaker Dade Phelan listens to state representatives on the House floor during Sine Die, the last day of the 88th Texas Legislative Session, at the Capitol in Austin on May 29, 2023. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)
By Zach Despart and Brian Lopez/The Texas Tribune

With the clock winding down on the third special legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas House are at an impasse over school vouchers, the governor’s top priority.

Despite spending months trying to whip up support for education savings accounts, a voucher program that would allow families to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools and pay for other educational expenses, Abbott so far has failed to break a coalition of Democrats and rural Republican House members who oppose the idea.

“I think there is still significant opposition to any school finance bill that includes an ESA,” said Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo. “I’m comfortable we have enough like-minded rural Republicans, and urban Republicans, to stand against that in numbers sufficient to defeat it.”

The lower chamber last week unveiled its compromise proposal, House Bill 1, which would enact a limited voucher program while also boosting spending on public education. Abbott derided the plan as “insufficient” and said it differed from what his staff had negotiated with House Speaker Dade Phelan’s team. The two camps have been meeting since the summer but so far have little to show for it.

Abbott said two weeks ago he would consider increased funding for public schools, including teacher raises, but only after the Legislature sends him a standalone voucher bill.

Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said the governor and Phelan agreed on Friday to keep working on a deal.

“Conversations between our office and the House leadership team are ongoing as we continue working to deliver school choice for Texas parents and students,” Eze said Tuesday.

The House, however, hasn’t budged. Phelan has not referred HB 1 to the House public education committee, a key early step. The Senate’s voucher bill, which would create $8,000 education savings accounts for families and does not include increased funds for public schools, has languished in a House committee since Oct. 13.

The special session ends Nov. 7. Abbott has said he will call a fourth special session to try again on vouchers if necessary, and if that fails, said he will support pro-voucher challengers to incumbent Republicans who oppose them.

For the past several legislative sessions, the House has been against any voucher program that could siphon money from public schools. While voucher bills have routinely passed in the Senate, they have not gotten a floor vote in the House in recent years. This spring, the coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans once again sealed their opposition in a test vote in the form of a budget amendment to ban vouchers that passed, 86 to 52. The amendment was ultimately stripped from the budget but the message was sent.

With Democrats nearly unanimous in opposition, Abbott’s most viable path to victory is flipping a majority of the 24 Republican holdouts. Many in that bloc have expressed alarm that vouchers would take money away from their public schools, which are the lifeblood of rural communities. Others, like Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, have signaled openness to vouchers that hadn’t existed in previous sessions.

Abbott could consider a compromise that addresses these concerns by simultaneously increasing funds for public education, as HB 1 would. But that does not change the reality that some of the holdouts oppose vouchers on principle.

Darby, whose district encompasses a swath of rural West Texas, said the Legislature has under-funded public schools for his entire nine-term tenure. But he said attaching vouchers to items like teacher pay raises, school security or increased per-pupil spending is a poison pill.

Whether HB 1 could even pass the House remains in doubt. Major legislation is usually accompanied by the fanfare of a news conference and a cadre of co-sponsors. HB 1 bears only the name of its author, Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, and appeared online unceremoniously Thursday evening.

Buckley, who previously opposed vouchers and now chairs the public education committee, had also unsuccessfully attempted to assemble a voucher bill acceptable to the House and Abbott in May. He and Phelan did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the special session is more than likely to end with no progress on public school finance.

“The school choice legislation in the House is considering right now would not pass muster with the governor nor the Texas Senate,” Jones said. “We’re looking at a fourth special session to begin sometime in November.”

At this point, Jones said Abbott and the House are waiting for one or the other to budge. Either Abbott will accept the House’s watered down version of the bill and add public school funding to the agenda or he will continue to hold public school finance hostage.

“It’s a game of chicken,” he said.

Michelle Rinehart, superintendent of the Alpine Independent School District, believes the right move is to kill any voucher proposal in the House even if it comes at the expense of public schools. Vouchers may have a chance if public schools receive a significant amount of funding first.

“Don’t bring this nonsense to us,” she said. “Let’s solve the real issue first and then we’ll use remaining funds to work on pet projects.”

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.