TEA Deputy Says the Quiet Part Out Loud: Private School Vouchers Defund Public Schools

In leaked audio obtained by The Texas Tribune this past week, a deputy commissioner in Gov. Greg Abbott’s Texas Education Agency admitted that school voucher programs would defund Texas public schools. 

Steve Lecholop, TEA’s deputy commissioner for governance, was caught on audio advocating for “school choice” to a parent who took issue with her local school district, Joshua ISD. In the audio, Lecholop suggests that the woman share her displeasure with Abbott’s speechwriters and coaxes the woman to that end by stating it would be “a good way for you to stick it to Joshua ISD.”

Lecholop plainly acknowledged that private school vouchers would have a negative financial impact on public school districts. As a result of this financial impact, he said, districts could be forced to reduce their staff sizes.

His exact words include the phrase, “maybe that’s one less fourth grade teacher.”

In a statement responding to the leak, Texas AFT President Zeph Capo said, “The deputy commissioner should damn well be fired or resign, but his comments really put a final puzzle piece in place: There is a statewide push — even among presumably non-political agencies — to dismantle public education.”

Lecholop has a long history of supporting school privatization. As a San Antonio ISD trustee from 2013 to 2021, Lecholop supported a proposal to transform Stewart Elementary School into a charter school run by out-of-state operators. Lecholop also was responsible for hiring a superintendent who had a combative relationship with Texas AFT’s local union, the San Antonio Alliance.

“During his tenure as a SAISD trustee, Steve Lechelop exhibited his lack of commitment to public education as the cornerstone of our democracy, most notably in his unfettered support for charter school partnerships under Senate Bill 1882 that take the control of our schools out of the hands of our democratically elected school board.

Not only does Lecholop’s statement clearly refute Abbott’s own assertion that private school vouchers would not defund Texas public schools, it is another example of the unethical politicization of Abbott’s TEA. The Texas Constitution plainly asserts the state’s duty to create an “efficient system of public free schools,” yet under Abbott, officials in the agency entrusted with that duty are actively undermining public schools. 

Governmental officials tasked with educating Texas’ children should not spend their time making political arguments on the governor’s behalf.

Abbott Adds Vouchers to His ‘Emergency Items’ for Legislature

At his State of the State address on Thursday, Abbott continued to deny that private school vouchers would defund public schools. In a private venue with limited media access, Abbott said in his address that schools would remain “fully funded” even with voucher programs (which he called “education freedom”). 

Schools aren’t fully funded now, even without the state siphoning billions of dollars in education funding to subsidize private schools. 

Abbott went on to say that Texas public education funding is currently at “an all-time high,” but the numbers don’t bear that out. According to analysis by the San Antonio Express News, when properly factoring in inflation, total education spending has gone down compared to when Abbott first took office in 2015. 

This session, legislators must be prudent financial stewards of our state’s public dollars. They must avoid costly policies like private school vouchers, and they must fully fund public education by increasing the basic allotment.

We’ve seen momentum on providing every public school employee in this state with a raise, the main plank of our Respect Agenda; likewise, we’ve heard much general agreement on the need to invest in our public schools. Abbott himself mentioned investments, generally, in “school safety” in his address last night. 

All of that, however, is threatened by vouchers. For every one student who would leave our public education system with a voucher, a school would lose an estimated $10,000 in funding. Given most Texans’ feelings about public schools, we know there won’t be a mass exodus of students from public to private schools. But at $10,000 an exit, it does not take many departures to defund public schools for the students who remain. 

After the State of the State address, the governor released his budget recommendations, which sadly put defunding our public schools through private school vouchers up front and teacher pay raises as a lower priority. In those recommendations, he doubled down on his insistence on pay-for-performance schemes like the “Teacher Incentive Allotment” (TIA).