Special Session Update: Despite Gov. Abbott’s Posturing, No Deal on Vouchers

Despite a whirlwind of activity early in the week, Gov. Greg Abbott has yet again failed to pass his private school voucher scheme. Thanks to the advocacy of thousands of Texas AFT members making phone calls, sending letters, and visiting their representatives at the Capitol, a bipartisan majority of members of the Texas House has stood firm against a private school vouchers scheme.

Despite the fact that vouchers seem to be dead for this special session, the governor has vowed to call another, and so it is critically important that we keep the heat up. Contact your representative now:

How’d it happen?

After the House passed several harmful bills on Abbott’s special session call last week, all eyes have been on the issue of private school vouchers. House Bill 1, the 184-page voucher bill that included limited public education funding increases by Rep. Brad Buckley, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, was filed Oct. 19, but since then it has not been referred to committee. 

Buckley’s voucher bill sparked criticism from both sides of the voucher debate. Voucher proponents like Abbott regarded Buckley’s proposal as insufficient, whereas defenders of public education called out the voucher as the scam it is. Not only was the  bill unpopular, it did not fit the narrow confines of Abbott’s special session agenda; in the governor’s original proclamation calling the special session, the only education-related item was vouchers, meaning that any bill that addressed public education funding would not meet the narrow confines of the proclamation.

With that stage set, legislators arrived back at the Capitol this Monday unsure what to expect. Many legislators from both political parties seem to have grown dissatisfied with Abbott’s unending and unproductive special sessions. That frustration, along with other district commitments and family obligations, left the Texas House without a quorum when it was called to order at 10 a.m. on Halloween.

In order to conduct business, the Texas House needs 100 of the 150 House representatives to be on the floor. According to the attendance log, only 77 members were on the House floor on Tuesday. Seventy-two members of the Texas House, a mixture of Democrats and Republicans, were absent.

After a lack of quorum had been established, a group of House Republicans erroneously placed the blame on House Democrats for breaking quorum. A small group, which included Buckley, gathered for an impromptu press conference to point the finger at House Democrats, despite the fact that large groups of both Democrats and Republicans were missing from the House floor. At the press conference, that small group of Republicans announced that Abbott had released a new proclamation to expand the special session call in order to allow legislators to take up the issue of school funding alongside a voucher. 

After the press conference concluded, Abbott released a public claim that “an agreement” had been reached between him and House Speaker  Dade Phelan on the issue of vouchers. However, Phelan was quick to respond that, despite the expanded special session call, no firm deal or commitments had been made. To add fuel to the fire, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick chimed in, demanding that the House pass the same voucher bill passed by the Senate, SB 1.

Wednesday morning, Abbott reiterated his assertion that a deal had been reached on vouchers and that a voucher would be passed by the end of this special legislative session. He also said that the House would release the voucher bill by 5 p.m., possibly a committee substitute to HB 1. 

On Wednesday evening, however, less than eight hours after Abbott’s comments, the Texas House reconvened with a quorum present, yet no voucher bill was referred to the committee. The House simply gaveled in and gaveled out with little activity or fanfare. After they gaveled out, Chairman Buckley signaled what had been clear to many public education advocates since the beginning of the special session: that there was no deal on vouchers. 

“It’s too tight for the House to be able to move something in this special,” said Buckley of the timeline to hear and pass a bill.  

The 30-day limit on this third special session is set to expire Nov. 7. Buckley’s comments suggest that it is not possible for the House to pass a bill before this deadline. Given this constraint, vouchers seem to be dead for this special session. In a further indication that no deal will be reached this go-round, Abbott has left the country for a visit to Israel

But the fight isn’t over. Abbott could call the Legislature back for another special session at any time. 

Our members’ unrelenting and personal advocacy against vouchers and in defense of our public schools was no match for the well-monied astroturf proponents of vouchers.  Gov. Abbott’s vouchers failed again during the third special session, and it will be because of our members’ continued advocacy that vouchers will continue to fail in future sessions. Our members’ voices have been critically important to countering manufactured narratives by voucher profiteers determined to undermine public schools. As the pressure from the governor continues, your voice is more critical than ever. Stay tuned to the Hotline for upcoming opportunities to continue and build our advocacy.