Special Session Update: Gov. Abbott Dangles Carrot, Educators Say “No Deal”

Late last week, just hours after the Texas Senate passed Senate Bill 1, the latest iteration of that chamber’s voucher bill, Gov. Greg Abbott stated that he would only add teacher raises and public school funding to the special session call if the Legislature passes his voucher scheme. Abbott specifically said that teacher raises would be a “carrot” to ensure voucher legislation gets passed. Abbott made these comments at an event hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a well-funded, anti-public education interest group that has had a clear and increasing influence on Abbott’s policy-making decisions.

That the governor would tie public education funding increases to a voucher scam, which would decrease public education funding in the long run, is a clear indication that Abbott is not serious about supporting public schools. Research from seven other states shows that vouchers reduced undermines the public education funding available to all students despite the fact that public school enrollment in those states generally increased over the same period. This is why our members  continue to state loudly and clearly that no deal on vouchers is acceptable. Our students are not for sale and teachers do not take bribes. Texas AFT and the Coalition for Public Schools signed  a joint statement declaring that all of these organizations reject any bargain on vouchers. 

Thanks to projections from Every Texan, a non-partisan, non-profit think tank, we know exactly how much a voucher would cost schools: if just 5% of Texas students used the voucher in SB 1, public school districts across Texas would collectively lose over $2.2 billion in just one year. 

During a special session, lawmakers in Austin are technically only allowed to consider items explicitly listed on the governor’s proclamation. So far, the only education item listed on the proclamation is the governor’s voucher schemes. There is no mention of much-needed funding increases for Texas public schools or educator raises.

Despite this limitation, both chambers of the Legislature have been openly considering public education funding, and the Texas Senate passed SB 2, a lackluster public education funding bill, just last week. Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, meanwhile, publicly stated that a voucher bill would pass the House only in tandem with a public school funding bill, but he did not indicate support for a voucher. If both chambers were to pass a public education funding bill with no voucher attached to it, the governor’s only recourse for enforcing his proclamation would be to veto that piece of legislation.

This Thursday, Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Killeen), Chairman of the House Public Education Committee and the Education Select Committee, filed House Bill 1 which includes a taxpayer-funded voucher and some additional public education funding. The bill currently does not list any coauthors or joint authors, so it is unclear if there is significant support for this bill. The Texas AFT Public Affairs team is currently dissecting this 184-page bill.

While the Senate has repeatedly approved voucher bills in the most recent regular and special legislative sessions, the Texas House has stood adamantly against all voucher scams. This year, a bipartisan majority of 86 representatives in the 150-member Texas House voted against use of any state dollars for voucher schemes, sending a clear message that the House had made up its mind about this issue. In a clear sign of disrespect to the House, Abbott has refused to take no for an answer and has again called a 3rd special session focused on vouchers, even promising another if his voucher scheme fails again. Historically, special legislative sessions called by a governor were intended to address pressing issues facing the state, but Abbott has used his authority to call sessions in order to bully legislators into passing his personal campaign priorities that failed to pass during the regular session.

Though Abbott’s recent comments mention a carrot, Abbott has never shied from using the proverbial stick instead. In recent months, Abbott has made not-so-thinly veiled political threats against voucher opponents and even went as far as vetoing unrelated bills written by anti-voucher legislators as a form of retaliation. Of the 22 house bills he vetoed this summer, 16 (73%) were written by legislators who voted against vouchers. 

This is not the first time that public education funding has been held hostage in an attempt to force through a voucher scheme. Hotline readers will remember earlier this year, in the waning days of the regular session, when the Texas Senate transformed House Bill 100 by Rep. Ken King, a bill that was intended to increase public school funding, into a Trojan Horse for its voucher bill. The Texas House did not accept the voucher, and due to the Senate’s interference, the regular session ended with no increase in public school funding, despite the state entering the legislative session with a nearly $33 billion surplus.

Despite the governor’s public bribery and intimidation campaign, in Texas, laws are written and passed by the Legislature, not the governor. Much to Abbott’s chagrin, he does not have absolute power and authority. Ultimately, legislators hold the fate of public education in their hands, and legislators represent you. At this critical juncture in the fight to defend public education, it is imperative that you contact your legislators and tell them clearly and directly that you do not support any deal on vouchers. 

Texas AFT has made it easy to give your legislators a quick call or send a letter to tell them to stand strong against vouchers. So far our members have made over 4,000 calls to their representatives to tell them to vote against voucher scams.