Under the gaze of rural Texas, Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke embark on the fight against school vouchers

AUSTIN, TX (TEXAS GRANDSTAND) A battle over school vouchers is brewing in the Texas gubernatorial race, sparked after incumbent Republican Greg Abbott offered his clearest support yet for the idea in May.

His Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, hammers Abbott on the issue on the campaign trail, particularly looking for an edge in rural Texas, where Democrats are unsure they must do better and the good guys are dividing the good guys. republicans. O’Rourke’s campaign is also running ads in newspapers in at least 17, mostly rural, markets urging voters to “reject Greg Abbott’s sweeping plan to defund” public schools.

Abbott, meanwhile, is unafraid of the controversy he sparked when he said in May that he supported giving parents “the choice to send their children to any public school, school charter or state-funded private school depending on the student. He met privately last week with Corey DeAngelis, an aggressive National School Choice activist who had previously criticized Abbott as insufficiently sympathetic to the cause.

“School choice” tends to refer to the broad concept of giving parents the option of sending their children to schools other than their local public school, while vouchers would allow parents to use the state tax money to subsidize tuition for these other options, including private schools. Opponents of vouchers say they harm public school systems by draining their funding. In the Legislative Assembly, the good ones have long met resistance from rural Democrats and Republicans whose public schools are the cornerstone of their communities.

O’Rourke reflects on the issue’s bipartisan significance.

“For our rural communities, where there is only one school district and one public school option, he wants to pay that back through vouchers, take your taxes off your class and send them to a private school. in Dallas or Austin or wherever at your expense,” O’Rourke recently told a rural audience.

It’s a quote O’Rourke’s campaign repeats in a digital ad that argues Abbott has “left behind” rural Texas.

Abbott’s campaign said O’Rourke’s newspaper ads are a “complete lie”, accusing O’Rourke of siding with “union bosses” at the expense of parents.

“The Governor strongly believes that parents deserve a greater involvement in their children’s education,” Abbott spokesman Mark Miner said in an email. “The real question is why is O’Rourke so afraid of involving parents in their children’s education? Shouldn’t families in Texas have the same opportunities as Beto’s parents to send their children to the school of their choice? »

O’Rourke attended a public school, El Paso High School, for two years before attending a private all-male boarding school in Virginia.

His campaign has been running the newspaper ads since the end of the school year, around high school graduations. They appeared in newspapers with a decidedly rural readership, such as the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Amarillo Globe and Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel. They are tailored to each market, telling readers of the Abilene Reporter-News, for example, that they shouldn’t “let Greg Abbott privatize public education in Abilene.”

O’Rourke’s campaign said it spent “about $40,000” on newspaper ads, a drop in the bucket from the $23.9 million it had at the end of June – not to mention the $45.7 million in reserves from Abbott. But it’s the first known paid outlet the campaign has done beyond its online advertising, and it marks a deliberate choice by O’Rourke’s campaign to appeal to rural voters who have long played a key role in blocking a Democratic breakthrough statewide.

O’Rourke has spoken candidly about the vouchers before, including during his 2020 presidential campaign, when his statements drew attention to his wife, Amy O’Rourke, who founded a charter school and continues to advocate for them. Asked about it in the context of the current race, O’Rourke’s spokesman, Chris Evans, provided a statement reiterating that O’Rourke “will end Greg Abbott’s attacks on public education” and noted that his three children attend public schools in El Paso.

Texas Democrats are acutely aware that they need to improve their margins in rural Texas if they are to have a better chance of winning statewide. Delegates to the state party convention last month reelected president Gilberto Hinojosa after a competitive race in which the party’s neglect of rural Texas was hotly debated.

In a recent interview, Hinojosa said rural Texas was the “biggest reason Beto couldn’t win at the very end. [of his 2018 U.S. Senate campaign]even though he came very close.

“We have to do better, and we’ve believed that for a long time,” Hinojosa said, adding that it’s “always been a matter of resource scarcity” rather than a matter of the party understanding the importance of rural Texas. .

With Abbott’s endorsement of the good guys, Democrats think they have a prime opportunity to loosen the GOP’s grip on rural Texas. Another statewide Democratic candidate, Mike Collier for lieutenant governor, caught the attention of prominent GOP names like U.S. Senator Ted Cruz after he tweeted an excerpt from a recent speech in which he declared that “the vouchers are for the vultures”. The current lieutenant governor, Republican Dan Patrick, has long championed the proposal, before Abbott.

Abbott himself acknowledged that his May statement was significant. Later that month, he told reporters that he had always supported the choice of school, but that he wanted “to make it very clear not only that I support it, but also the strategy to go there. achieve, where the funding follows the student, which it should. be.”

Voucher surveys in Texas can be risky given that they are often conducted by interest groups and the language of the questions varies.

In an April survey by independent pollster University of Texas at Austin, 45% of voters said they supported — and 40% said they opposed — “redirecting tax revenue from the state to help parents with part of the cost of sending their children to private or parochial schools.The pro-voucher Texas Public Policy Foundation sponsored a poll in February that found that 78% of Hispanic adults in Texas — part of a demographic that Republicans are targeting in November — supports the “right to use taxpayer dollars intended for their child’s education to send their child to school, public, charter or private, which best meets his needs.And in May, shortly before Abbott’s comments, the anti-voucher Texas Parent PAC commissioned a survey that found that 46% of likely voters support – and 43% oppose – “a school voucher program in Texas”, according to a note that i did not provide the language of the questions.

Abbott met July 26 with DeAngelis, who tweeted a photo of the two shaking hands afterwards at Abbott’s campaign headquarters in Austin. An Abbott spokeswoman, Renae Eze, said she “discussed school choice, parental involvement, and various groups working together to ensure Texas students receive the best opportunity for possible education”.

DeAngelis is the national director of research at the American Federation for Children. His encounter with Abbott was particularly noteworthy since he previously criticized Abbott for his endorsements of State House primary candidates backed by teachers’ unions.

The good guys continue to face an uphill battle in the chamber, where they have long faced a wall of opposition from Democrats and rural Republicans. Last session, the House voted 115 to 29 on a budget amendment to ban vouchers, with a majority of Republicans siding with Democrats. The amendment was not included in the final budget after late negotiations with the Senate.

The latest GOP primaries and runoffs have not significantly increased the pro-good crowd in the House. School-choice groups spent heavily to unseat two hostile GOP incumbents — Reps. Glenn Rogers of Graford and Kyle Kacal of College Station — but were unsuccessful.

Another rural Republican who opposes the good guys, Rep. Drew Darby of San Angelo, said he thinks the issue could impact the governor’s race. He did not criticize Abbott, but said he would “hope and pray” that protecting public education is an issue that drives people to the polls.

He said his priority is to represent the communities in his district, and “they are dominated by independent school districts that are the lifeblood of our communities,” noting that they are often the biggest employer.

“If this school district disappears, the identity of this community disappears,” Darby said. “I support this institution in these communities, and I want to make sure they have all the resources they need to maintain support for this effective system of free public schools, which our constitution requires. Anything that takes that away, I’ll oppose.

In other corners of the House GOP caucus, there is growing optimism for school choice in the upcoming session, especially after Abbott’s statement in May. The group received a boost two months earlier when a GOP primary ballot proposal passed with 88% support that parents “should have the right to select schools, public or private, for their children, and the funding should follow the student”.

One of the House’s most vocal defenders has been Rep. Brian Harrison of Midlothian, who said Abbott was right to look into the case. O’Rourke, Harrison said, “attended elite private schools, but sides with liberal extremists to…deny poor children the educational opportunities he had.”

“Governor. Abbott wants to give parents educational freedom so that every child can receive a quality education,” Harrison said. school. It’s the right thing to do. It’s also a political winner.

The latest campaign finance reports have also provided fodder for the fight against vouchers. One of O’Rourke’s biggest donors was the American Federation of Teachers, America’s second-largest teachers’ union that has long opposed vouchers, which donated $300,000. Abbott has long had major donors whose interests include school choice, and one of its biggest contributors to the latest filing was Stuart Stedman, a Houston investor and prominent charter school advocate who gave $300,000. $.

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