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Latest showdown over ESAs in Texas as Abbott looks to oust conservative opponents

It’s not often that statehouse elections in rural Texas steer the national conversation about school choice. But things could change later this month.

On May 28, voters will choose Republican candidates in 13 of the state’s 150 House districts. Four of them are currently in the hands of representatives targeted by the Republican administration. Greg Abbott for continually thwarting his efforts to create a statewide system of education savings accounts (ESAs). If the incumbents fall, many believe the plan will come to fruition, making Texas the nation’s largest school choice market as early as 2025.


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Although the proposal is likely to be shelved until January when the Legislature reconvenes, it could gain irresistible momentum if the election is decided in Abbott’s favor. Almost immediately, both lawmakers and educators would begin to seriously consider the impact of a billion-dollar reform on school enrollment and funding.

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The election is the culmination of a yearslong campaign by Abbott and his allies, which has evolved from committee hearings in Austin to porch campaigns in East Texas. In March, a first round of primaries unseated nine Republicans who had blocked an effort during last year’s legislative session to expand universal eligibility for ESAs, which provide state funds to families to use for education expenses such as private school tuition. Another handful were denied a majority, leading to runoff elections against opponents largely supported by the governor. Abbott has openly predicted that if two more anti-voucher incumbents are defeated, the legislation could be revived and passed.

That victory, if achieved, would be the result of the interplay of local and national political pressure.

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Abbott would immediately win a crucial policy victory after several previous attempts to expand the ESAs, all of which have been thwarted by the same coalition of rural Democrats and Republicans. But national donors and advocacy groups have also taken a keen interest in the election campaign, funding Republican insurgents to the tune of millions of dollars in hopes of continuing the generational gains in school choice that have developed in recent years.

Texas is the nation’s largest red state, and Abbott is its long-serving governor. He has clearly made ESAs a big priority, whereas in the past it has not been a big priority for him.

Monty Exter, Texas Association of Professional Teachers

Monty Exter is director of government relations at the Association of Texas Professional Educators, a non-union organization that strongly opposes the governor’s ambitions. He said the success of the voucher rollout in other red states posed something of a “street cred issue” for Abbott, one of the country’s most prominent conservative leaders.

“Texas is the biggest red state in the country, and Abbott is the long-serving governor here,” he said. “He’s obviously made it a big priority, where in the past it wasn’t a big priority for him. And it is certainly not a new problem.”

National setback

The roots of the long-running battle for this month’s primaries reach far into the past and even predate Abbott’s term in office.

In 2007, 2009, and 2013, in response to Republican governors’ earlier voucher proposals, the Texas House of Representatives passed budget rules that explicitly prohibited the transfer of public funding to private schools. In 2017, an ESA bill was passed by the Senate, but was torpedoed in the House of Representatives. And last spring, Abbott’s renewed efforts — supplemented by offers of additional per-pupil funding for traditional public schools — again fell short, despite known bipartisan resistance.

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The overriding obstacle cuts to traditional party political loyalties: A significant faction of Republican lawmakers are consistently skeptical of the potential disruption of voucher programs for small-town school districts, often their communities’ largest employers. Local officials fear that families will quickly leave public schools after receiving an ESA, leading to a collapse in both student enrollment and funding.

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These concerns were not addressed even after Abbott called a special session last fall to force further consideration of the proposal. In the months that followed, he turned to the primary ballot and endorsed a host of challengers to House Republicans who challenged him. He was joined in his endorsements by high-profile allies like Sen. Ted Cruz, while Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton filed lawsuits against seven school districts whose leaders he accused of fomenting opposition to pro-ESA primaries. (Although several of these districts later resolved the complaints with the attorney general’s office, charges are pending against administrators accused of using school resources for election purposes.)

The Texas Legislature has repeatedly argued over private school choice for nearly two decades.  The second vote could finally resolve the conflict.  (Getty Images)The Texas Legislature has repeatedly argued over private school choice for nearly two decades.  The second vote could finally resolve the conflict.  (Getty Images)

The Texas Legislature has repeatedly argued over private school choice for nearly two decades. The second vote could finally resolve the conflict. (Getty Images)

According to the survey results, the public outcry over school choice had little impact on Republicans across the state. In a February poll from the Texas Politics Project, a research institute based at the University of Texas at Austin, only 2 percent of potential Republican voters listed ESAs as one of the top issues affecting their primary vote. When asked what support from politicians could influence them, only 7 percent said Abbott.

But the governor’s energetic campaign clearly helped sweep away a healthy portion of the state GOP’s biggest ESA critics in the March 5 primary. So did heavy spending from conservative donors — including billionaire TikTok investor and school choice expert Jeff Yass, who personally gave Abbott $6 million in December to spend on the campaigns.

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“What made this cycle different was that the governor decided to commit much of his political capital to passing a school voucher program in Texas and — when he fell short of that goal — committed to spending significant sums to help this incumbent to dethrone legislators. ,” argued Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project.

It remains to be seen whether the same recipe will dethrone the four additional incumbents competing in the runoff this month. Cal Jillson, a professor of government at Southern Methodist University and a longtime observer of Texas politics, said runoff elections tend to attract a smaller and more ideologically committed electorate. That could be a bad sign for Abbott’s targets.

With the low turnout in a runoff, it is usually the most motivated people who will ultimately vote.

Cal Jillson, Southern Methodist University

“We’ve seen a lot of these incumbents fail in the primaries,” Jillson noted. “With low turnout in a runoff, it’s usually the most motivated people who end up voting, and those tend to be people who are deeply involved in the party and social conservative issues.”

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‘A clear message’

For now, ESA proponents are using every opportunity to gain more seats in an already conservative Chamber – especially money.

In addition to the individual contributions of Yass and other wealthy activists, the conservative challengers have drawn deeply from the coffers of the Club for Growth, a right-wing advocacy group based in Washington. Through an affiliated Super PAC, the School Freedom Fund, the Club spent $4 million during the March primary; they have fallen at least as much in the three months since.

In a statement, Club for Growth President David McIntosh said the group plunged into the little-publicized legislative primaries not only to shape Texas policy but also to send a message to all Republicans who are guilty to ‘denying parents and children the choice in the field of education’. The organization could look for similar opportunities in places like Georgia and Tennessee, he added.

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“This election will send a clear message to Republicans in every state that you should retire or expect to lose in your next primary,” McIntosh warned. “We are also hopeful that this will spur school freedom allies in other states to reform failing public schools, and we look to replicate these efforts in other states.”

That national perspective has grown as more red jurisdictions have taken action to establish or expand families’ eligibility for private school choice. A total of 11 states now have universal ESA access, and with each new law passed — Alabama was the latest to pass itss in March — it has become more notable that Texas continues to lag behind.

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Jillson said he believed vouchers would be all but inevitable if embattled incumbents lose their elections next week. Even if a few survive, he said, they will be “disobedient” to continue standing in the way of ESA expansion.

“I suspect some of these four will be defeated. That will give Abbott a slim majority in the next regular session, which could grow if other members who have opposed vouchers in the past say, “I can’t do this anymore or he’ll come after me.” ”

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