On a Friday evening in late September, Texas governor Greg Abbott continued his aggressive push for school vouchers at a high school football game in Dallas. At an event called Parents Matter Tailgate, he hopped on the bullhorn and said, “Tonight is a typical night in Texas — tonight is about football, family, fun, and freedom. One of the freedoms we believe in is the freedom of parents to choose what’s right for their child.”
It’s true that there’s nothing more typical of Texas than high school football. But the game Abbott chose to attend, between two private Christian academies, is not typical of a state where the vast majority of students are still enrolled in traditional public schools. If Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick succeed in enacting their radical privatization agenda, though, that could start to change pretty quickly. The policies they envision would siphon resources away from districts already weakened by underfunding, draining the lifeblood from communities — particularly among Texas’s large rural population. As one contributor to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram noted, subsidizing private education from the public coffers will shrink public school athletic budgets, and ultimately, extinguish those beloved Friday night lights.
After surviving a primary challenge bankrolled by the West Texas billionaires fueling his state’s hard-right turn toward Christian nationalism, Abbott announced that school choice would be a top priority for last spring’s legislative session. But like previous statewide voucher efforts, Abbott’s proposals died in the Texas House of Representatives, facing fierce opposition mainly from urban Democrats and rural Republicans, who recognize the threat to their local districts.
“The governor’s been doing a tour now for the better part of the year, trying to drum up support for this issue,” Dr Chloe Latham Sikes, an Austin-based education researcher and deputy director of policy at the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), told Jacobin. “But at hearings we continue to see dozens of people in support, and hundreds of people opposed.”
Abbott recently announced he’ll call yet another special session in October to force his plan over the line, promising payback for any legislator who stands in his way. It’s yet another example of a governor pulling out all the stops in order to realize an extreme minority goal: public dollars for private education. As deep-pocketed privatizers advance this aim across the United States, it’s worth considering what lessons we might learn from the Lone Star State.
What’s Being Proposed
Following Brown v. Board in 1954, school voucher proposals first made their appearance in Texas and other Southern states as a way to empower white parents to enroll their children in private “segregation academies” on the public dime. And although most pro-voucher arguments are no longer overtly white supremacist, scholars generally agree that vouchers are likely to have the originally intended effect of making schools more segregated.
Unfettered by those pesky antidiscrimination laws governing public education, private schools can create their own admissions criteria and use branding and recruitment strategies to attract student bodies that are whiter and wealthier than local populations. And unlike their public counterparts, most private schools are under no obligation to educate students with costly special needs, including Texas’s large population of English language learners. (Last spring, the Texas GOP adopted what was essentially an “English-only” plank in its education platform, and Abbott declared his intention to set up a challenge to Plyler v. Doe, the case establishing undocumented children’s right to a free public education.)
For two decades, Texan privatizers have tried and failed to introduce a statewide voucher system. The program that most recently passed the state senate, is an education savings account (ESA), or neo-voucher program, wherein eligible families can claim $8,000 a year in public funding to subsidize a wide range of private “education services” (not necessarily schools).
Although a few restrictions appear in that bill, the end goal is universal eligibility, meaning that wealthy parents who have never intended to enroll their kids in public schools would be able to cash in, vampire-like, on the defunding of Texas’s public education system. Voucher programs, especially ESAs, have a track record of ballooning price tags and have proven uniquely ripe for waste and fraud.
Public school districts have many “fixed” costs, or financial obligations, that cannot be proportionately reduced each time a child leaves the district, taking their per-pupil state education dollars with them. A district that loses 10 percent of its students to private schools cannot then decide to pay 10 percent less to fix a leaking roof or air condition its buildings. For that reason, programs that encourage parents to opt their children out of the public system inevitably worsen the financial strain on districts that, in Texas and elsewhere, have been underfunded for years.
Decades of research on school voucher programs have shown that they don’t improve student learning outcomes, and in fact, can cause catastrophic learning loss. School choice evangelists like to claim that exposing public schools to market-style competition will force them to improve learning outcomes. In reality, because private schools enroll a less disadvantaged student population than public schools, vouchers may actually work to concentrate high levels of need in cash-strapped districts, where staff are overwhelmed as it is.
And while vouchers might benefit the parents of privileged kids who already have plenty of options (kids whose parents can afford to pay the difference between voucher value and private school tuition), they won’t bring high-quality choices to working-class parents or those in small towns that have no nearby private schools. In other words, most people will be harmed by the shift from civil rights and educational guarantees to market-based “options.”
Like other privatizers on the “post-liberal” right, Abbott has framed vouchers explicitly as a way to subsidize private Christian education, including at schools that discriminate against kids and families on the basis of religion or LGBTQ+ identity (Abbott has launched numerous other legislative attacks on LGBTQ+ people, including signing bans on affirmative medical care and athletic participation for trans youth).
He recently urged Christian clergy to use their pulpits to preach the gospel of “parent empowerment,” declaring that October 15 will be “School Choice Sunday.” But while he’s gotten support from some prominent faith leaders, he’s drawn vehement condemnation from others, including the Texas Baptists’ Convention, and Pastors for Texas Children, whose president, Charles Johnson, has stated that “the use of public tax dollars to subsidize religious instruction is a sin against God.”
An Endangered Way of Life
In a Fort Worth Star-Gazette op-ed forecasting an end to high school football as Texans know it, Texas Christian University professor Steffen Palko discuses why Abbott’s self-described crusade against “woke” public schools is not landing in rural areas:
Let me assure the governor that teachers in upstanding, God-fearing communities such as Mineral Wells and Hico are not subjecting their students to “woke” ideology. In these communities, “woke” still means not asleep. This is not something that’s broken in small-town Texas, so it doesn’t need fixing.
Nationally, culture war messaging powered by billionaire privatizers has sought, with mixed results, to turn parents against the very idea of public schooling — setting the table for universal privatization. This is a uniquely challenging endeavor in sparsely populated areas, where districts’ smallness means parents are more likely to have close, personal relationships with local schools and school employees (you’re unlikely to buy that the school counselor is indoctrinating your child with radical gender ideology, whatever that is, when the counselor is your cousin Cynthia).
And because school districts are frequently primary employers in rural parts of America, rural parents are often school employees themselves. Latham Sikes told Jacobin that many rural Texans “have worked in those schools or come up through those systems. So culturally and economically, local schools are major components to their lifestyle.”
Texas has the largest rural population of any US state, meaning that its school districts can serve vast geographic areas, where cattle outnumber children ten- or twenty-to-one. In such a context, any loss of students, funding, or staff diminishes the entire operation. This can cause major ripple effects in rural communities, which often depend on local public schools for arts, cultural events, sports, and other activities that form the fabric of social experience.
This is probably the main reason why Texas House Republicans are bucking party leadership to reject voucher plans that they correctly perceive as a threat to their constituents’ way of life. (Similarly, last spring, sixteen rural Georgia House Republicans crossed the aisle to tank Governor Brian Kemp’s plan to bring statewide vouchers to the Peach State.)
Latham Sikes says her organization refers to the Right’s assault on public schools as the “Texas Three Step:” Defund, Demonize, and Privatize. It’s worth noting that this strategy, which is being deployed across all fifty states, was made possible by decades of bipartisan education reform. Neoliberal reformers’ punitive accountability model was organized around the idea that schooling’s primary purpose should be to efficiently incorporate students into the labor market — not to bind communities together, elevate young minds, or train citizens for multiracial democracy. The Bill Gates era of school reform was characterized by a relentless obsession with streamlining education to produce the greatest returns on investment.
Rural schools are, by definition, highly inefficient. Nationally, only about one in five students attends a rural school, and yet rural districts account for roughly half of all school districts. So if, like an economist, you’re thinking mainly in terms of the ratio of fixed costs to students, rural schools appear phenomenally wasteful. Should the education of America’s children be left entirely to the market, brick-and-mortar schools will surely cease to exist in rural areas. But inefficient though they may be, rural schools are a deeply treasured aspect of American life.
When today’s far-right GOP doubled down on the push to dismantle public education, they undoubtedly factored in outrage from urban and suburban communities represented by Democrats. But they may not have bargained for the pushback they’re seeing from conservative rural communities represented by their own party.
This should be a great opportunity for Democrats to form geographically and politically heterogeneous coalitions willing to go to bat for public education. But in order to seize that opportunity, they’ll need to remember that people cherish their public schools for all sorts of reasons — many of which have little to do with test scores. “Because Democrats have not been able to get around the same message on charter schools,” Latham Sikes told Jacobin, “there are definite weaknesses about what are the purposes of public schools.”
With Republicans telegraphing their intention to use any form of school privatization as a means to advance Christian nationalism, it’s time for Democrats to draw a hard line around the publicness of public education.
Opposition to Abbott’s Voucher Crusade
According to the Texas legislative rumor mill, that special session on school choice will begin in the second week of October. Latham Sikes says she feels cautiously optimistic that Abbott’s plans will be thwarted once again, partly because the acquittal of Texas attorney general Ken Paxton has soured relationships between House and Senate Republicans (the vast majority of anti-voucher House Republicans voted to impeach Paxton). “I’m kind of hopeful that maybe they can’t get anything accomplished,” Latham Sikes said. “And that’s really the best thing for everybody.”
“Most Texas parents like their public schools and want greater resources for their public schools,” she continued. That means Texas districts, which lag behind the national average in per-pupil spending by $4,000 per student, need real funding — not the paltry increases Senate Republicans are currently holding hostage to Abbott’s voucher crusade. As Latham Sikes put it, “Public schools need support to provide the high-quality opportunities for all students that you are constitutionally bound, Texas, to provide.”