Unpacking the Legislature: School Privatization

Rio Grande Valley community members, including McAllen AFT, protest outside an April stop on Gov. Abbott’s voucher roadshow. Photo by Clarissa Riojas.

Over the course of the regular legislative session, one topic cast a shadow over the entire  public education conversation. That topic wasn’t the harmful overtesting of our state’s children. That topic wasn’t our state’s severely underfunded classrooms. That topic wasn’t even our state’s severely underpaid and disrespected education workforce.

Discussions of private school vouchers overshadowed all these important issues and sidetracked any progress on addressing them. As was discussed earlier in our “Unpacking the Legislature” series, the voucher issue directly tanked any hope for even a meager increase in education funding that legislators put on the table this session.

Even though our members’ advocacy stopped the Legislature from passing vouchers in the regular session, their shadow has not yet been lifted. This week, we unpack why our legislators have prioritized diverting funds to private institutions instead of fully funding our public schools. We also look to the future as we prepare for the next chapter of this assault on public education.

Unpacking the Legislature

Read our other breakdowns of public education issues:

School Funding
School Employee Pay
School Safety
Educator Retirement
Educator Recruitment
Higher Education

What Passed … or Didn’t

While there were several voucher bills that were proposed and debated during the regular session, the primary vehicle was Senate Bill 8. This single bill went through several different forms as it was forced through the legislative process. With each iteration, the scope of the bill was altered or unrelated proposals were tacked onto it, all in an effort to make the bill more palatable as it was shoved down legislators’ throats.

SB 8, authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), was first announced in February as a part of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s package of priority bills. The originally filed version of the bill was wide-reaching and included very little oversight or guardrails for the voucher program. This version of the bill would have provided parents with $8,000 per-student education savings accounts (ESAs). 

An ESA is effectively just a rebranding of the word “vouchers,” deployed to camouflage an unpopular concept that hurts public schools. The only real difference is that vouchers send funding directly to private schools, whereas ESAs transfer funding to third-party companies to manage on behalf of parents. These funds can then be accessed by parents for a range of “approved education-related expenses,” including private school tuition. Both concepts would accomplish the same goal of defunding public education by diverting taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private schools.

Though the bill was filed on the last day to do so, SB 8 was then fast-tracked, with a hearing date set less than two weeks after the bill’s filing. SB 8 was considered during a marathon hearing that ended well after midnight. The vast majority of witnesses at that hearing – a ratio of 4 to 1 – registered to testify against vouchers, including Texas AFT President Zeph Capo and Education Austin member Rebekah Ozuna.

Despite widespread public testimony against vouchers, SB 8 was voted out of committee and pushed through to a floor debate in the Texas Senate. Slight alterations were made to the bill, but its core structure remained. Several public education allies in the Texas Senate proposed amendments that would have reduced the bill’s scope or increased oversight on the proposal, but each of them were voted down. 

SB 8 was passed out of the Senate on a mostly party-line vote, with a single Republican senator voting against the proposal. The bill was then sent over to the House.

Once SB 8 arrived in the House and was referred to the public education committee, it sat there gathering dust for over a month. Several private school voucher bills have passed out of the Senate over the past few legislative sessions, but they have never gained traction in the Texas House. Though legislators were receiving more intense and visible pressure from privatization forces than ever before, they seemed to be holding the line against privatization.

In early April, on the same day in which the Texas Senate debated SB 8, the Texas House voted to support the “Herrero Amendment,” a rider to the state’s budget that has been filed by Chairman Abel Herrero (D-Robbstown) each of the past several legislative sessions. The Herrero Amendment would bar public funds from going to private schools. The amendment was removed from the state budget when the House and Senate negotiated a compromise between their versions of the budget, but the vote sent a signal that the Texas House still opposed vouchers.

The Texas House Public Education Committee held its own marathon hearing to discuss several voucher proposals, in which public opposition to these proposals was even more powerful than the opposition in the Senate committee hearing.

But SB 8 refused to die. House Public Education Committee Chairman Brad Buckley (R-Killeen), who had previously voted against and made comments critical of private school vouchers, resurrected SB 8 toward the end of the regular session. But this zombified version of SB 8 was entirely different from its original form. The scope of the voucher was reduced and popular reforms to the STAAR test were tacked onto the bill to try to make the unpopular proposal seem more palatable.

Despite its entirely different construction than the version of SB 8 approved and debated by the Senate, Chair Buckley moved to push the unvetted bill out of committee without receiving public comment. While this move is technically allowed by the House rules, it is highly unusual and improper to force a bill out of committee with no opportunity for Texans to weigh in.

When Buckley made the motion for the House Public Education Committee to convene hastily to push out the voucher, it didn’t go as he expected. Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), a rural Republican who opposes vouchers and supports public schools, publicly opposed Buckley’s motion, calling the proposed vote the result of “backroom shady dealings.” The motion to meet while the House was in session failed, saving public schools from a late-night voucher vote. 

While the late-night deal-making was stopped, yet another iteration of SB 8 earned a public hearing with only invited witnesses the following week. Yet even this scaled-down version of SB 8 was a non-starter for legislators listening to their constituents; after the hearing, it never even received a committee vote.

The last failed attempt to push through vouchers during the regular session certainly hurt the hardest. During the final full week of the legislative session, Sen. Creighton decided to tack his voucher onto HB 100, a bill that would have provided a modest increase to per-pupil funding in Texas. Creighton’s new version of HB 100 would have reduced the already modest basic allotment increase by even more in order to pay for his voucher scheme.

Without HB 100’s passage, schools would see no funding increases in the regular session. Creighton’s move showed, quite transparently, that he was willing to defund his district’s public schools if it meant giving Gov. Greg Abbott the voucher he so loudly demanded. This new version of HB 100 was sent back to the Texas House, and pro-public education House members let the school funding bill die to kill the voucher.

Privatizers tried every dirty trick in the book this session, but the majority of Texans who love their public schools stood strong — even when that meant sacrificing their own pay raises. 

Why It Happened

In a word, the reason we didn’t get a voucher during the regular session was you.

It was your calls, your emails, your public testimony, your online comments, and your meetings with legislators and their staff that derailed this voucher. Thanks to your advocacy and public pressure, a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans remained unified in opposition to vouchers. Due to the overwhelming pressure that organized educators, parents, and other pro-public education stakeholders put on legislators, the Texas House listened to our voices and refused to bend on vouchers during the regular session. 

The fight against vouchers is far from over, but the proof is in the pudding: Our unified voices killed vouchers in the regular session, and our unified voices will kill vouchers again in any subsequent sessions where they are brought up.

What Legislators Are Saying

Before the regular session had even ended, there were rumblings that vouchers would be on the agenda for a special session. Gov. Abbott, a vocal voucher proponent who failed to negotiate the passage of a voucher during the regular session, publicly promised to bring back privatization in a special session. It seems that he intends to tie the voucher to a basic allotment increase, again holding public education funding hostage to leverage support for an unpopular voucher proposal.

Before the session ended, the rumor was that a voucher/funding special session would occur in September, making it more difficult for educators who will have returned to school to speak out at the Capitol. Reports have since surfaced that the special might instead take place in October. Regardless of the timing, Texas AFT members are ready to continue the fight to defend our public schools.

What to Expect Next

While we successfully held the line against vouchers in the regular session, the future of privatization remains uncertain. We must go into the next chapter of the voucher fight confident, but not complacent. We must keep up the energy in defense of our public schools.

During the interim, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan created the “Select Committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment,” which is tasked with writing a report on their recommendations for public education no later than August 11, 2023. The committee met last week to discuss a number of issues, including vouchers. 

The committee recommendations outlined in the report could set the tone for the House’s strategy on vouchers during a voucher special session. That is why it is crucial committee members hear from you. If you have not, please be sure to send a message to committee members through our online form.