Opinion: Texas Blocks School Choice While Other GOP-Led States Go All-In

While school choice has enjoyed significant success in the past few years, with nine states passing universal programs for students, Texas has stubbornly remained on a short list of GOP-controlled states that refuse to give parents power as the decision-makers in their kids’ education.

The Texas House of Representatives voted recently to kill school choice, but not indefinitely. Twenty-one Republicans, along with all Democrats, voted 84-63 to strip education savings accounts (ESAs) from HB1, a massive funding bill for public schools that would earmark $7 billion in additional funding for public schools and provide $4,000 in raises for Texas teachers. The House also failed to pass the measures and sent the bill back to committee after eliminating the school choice program.

A minority of GOP legislators refused to listen to their constituents and back school choice. Eighty-eight percent of Texas Republican primary voters supported a nonbinding ballot proposition for school choice last year. Several polls show widespread support from Texans of almost all demographics.

Despite that, a group of twenty-one Republicans rebuked their constituents and party reform. Eighteen of the twenty-one Republicans were endorsed by the Texas affiliate of the nation’s largest teacher’s union.

However, the fight for school choice in the Lone Star state isn’t over. The Senate has already passed universal school choice legislation, which the House could take up at any time. Governor Abbott could also choose to continue to call special sessions until the House reaches a compromise.

Even with legislative options available, many Texans are already looking forward to the primary elections next year, which will have broad implications.

Elections in Georgia, Texas, and Idaho could determine whether universal school choice passes in the next session. In all three GOP-trifecta states, a small group of Republicans blocked school choice legislation. The 2024 primary elections are the soonest opportunity to take them out.

In Texas, electoral pressure has ramped up. School choice was thirteen votes from victory, and twelve challengers to incumbents who are anti-school choice have announced their candidacy. Many will have the support of Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Abbott, and other powerful politicians in Texas.

School choice groups are also prepared to jump into the fray. The stage was set for another year of historic expansion of school choice, winning 277 out of 368 races, a success rate of 75%. Sixty-nine incumbents were targeted — the most challenging thing to do in politics — for opposing parental education rights, and 40 were removed. The newly formed AFC Victory Fund PAC and others are watching representatives closely.

One candidate in Texas already learned the lesson during the special election for House District 2 earlier in the month. The only Republican candidate who ran openly against school choice, Heath Hyde, failed to advance to the runoff. In a crowded field, over two-thirds of the vote was won by candidates for school choice.

Major electoral pressure could sway some Republicans to try again this session, or anti-school choice forces could hold firm.

Other states have shown that if they continue to block educational freedom, their re-election prospects will worsen.

The situation is familiar to those advocating national school choice. In the spring of 2022, a similar defiance from Republicans in the Iowa House blocked Governor Kim Reynold’s modest school choice proposal. The legislation failed, defying the explicit wishes of Iowa voters, so Governor Reynolds aggressively targeted legislators who opposed school choice during their primary elections.

After removing the incumbents, Gov. Reynolds and the Iowa legislature swiftly passed a much more robust and larger school choice program. Instead of just a few thousand children becoming eligible for school choice, every student in Iowa will be eligible in three years. Ironically, opponents of school choice would have been better off passing the smaller bill last year.

Rural GOP members joined Democrats to reject not only school choice but also billions in public school funding and raises for Texas teachers. In future sessions of the legislature, a compromise of that scale might not be on the table. House members should take the deal before them while it is still available.

The rejection of school choice and HB1 is likely a short-sighted strategy. Other states have demonstrated that over time, education freedom and parents win. All it takes is for Republicans to put students first and vote for their party platform finally. Arizona passed universal choice with a one-seat GOP majority, and North Carolina did despite having a Democrat governor. If they can do it, Texas can too.