This article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of The Classroom Teacher.
When the Texas Legislature first codified “parental rights and responsibilities” in law, the aim was to ensure parents could get answers to questions about their own child’s education.
“This was about parents’ access to the public schools and about making the public schools more responsive to the parents,” said former state Rep. Scott Hochberg, who crafted that section of the Education Code in 1995. “The purpose was to make the public schools work better and to give parents an outlet.”
Today, the rhetoric around parental rights is very different, pitting parents against teachers and schools and creating an adversarial environment around health and safety, curriculum, books and more. In his interim charges to the Texas Senate in April, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ordered the Senate Education Committee to “review Texas’ existing parental rights and responsibilities in current law” and “make recommendations to enable parents to exert a greater influence on their child’s learning environment.”
Proponents of private school vouchers have seized on this moment to revive their longstanding goal of diverting billions of public dollars to unaccountable private schools in the name of “school choice.”
“The time is ripe to set Texas children free from enforced indoctrination and Big Government cronyism in our public schools,” according to a fundraising letter from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin.
The TPPF proposal would give parents total control over public dollars to be used for private school tuition or other educational services. It’s not clear if lawmakers would embrace this particular model, which would create a long list of challenges for public schools and the state without any evidence of improving student performance.
Recent polling suggests that the narrative of parental discontent is overblown.
“Texas public school parents’ ratings of their community’s public schools have surged since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, signaling broad appreciation of schools’ — and teachers’ — efforts to respond amid closures and controversy,” the Charles Butt Foundation said in a polling report in January.
Non-parents, on the other hand, registered a significant decrease in satisfaction with public schools over the past year, creating a 20-point gap between parents and non-parents.
The poll also found that eight in 10 public school parents would choose to keep their child in their current school even if other options were available.
Nevertheless, the prospect of a bruising battle over private school vouchers looms large in the 2022 elections for the Texas Legislature.
“It’s going to be the closest margin we’ve seen between legislators who are pro-traditional public education and those who are pro-voucher,” said Paige Williams, TCTA’s director of legislation. “And it could be a very slim margin.”
How slim could be determined by the results of a handful of Republican runoff elections in May.
Public education supporters have successfully beat back voucher efforts over the years with a bipartisan coalition made up largely of rural Republicans and urban Democrats.
That coalition has been particularly important in the Texas House, which last session voted 115-29 for a budget amendment that prohibited the use of appropriated dollars for “a school voucher, education savings account, or tax credit scholarship program or a similar program through which a child may use state money for nonpublic primary or secondary education.”
Despite that lopsided House vote last year, the dynamic in 2023 could be significantly different due to some key retirements and an influx of pro-voucher campaign money.
On the other side of the Capitol, there’s little question that the Texas Senate will pass a voucher bill given Patrick’s ardent support for the issue and his control of the chamber. (His Democratic challenger in November will be determined in a May runoff.)
Gov. Greg Abbott’s position, though, is a little murky. He sought to capitalize on the discord during his primary campaign by releasing a Parental Bill of Rights, most of which already exists in statute, and promising “a stronger, swifter, more powerful movement advocating school choice than you’ve ever seen in the history of the State of Texas.”
He did not, however, specifically endorse private school vouchers during the primary, even though his challengers were pressing the issue. (Beto O’Rourke, Abbott’s Democratic challenger in November, opposes vouchers.)
For teachers, the stakes in this voucher fight are particularly high. Any sort of voucher scheme would likely undermine efforts to invest in what is needed to improve teacher compensation and working conditions after more than two years of pandemic instruction.
“A fight over vouchers will distract the Legislature from addressing the true issues that need to be fixed in public education,” Williams said. “And if vouchers were to pass, the uncertainty in school funding would give districts yet another excuse not to provide teachers the pay and support they absolutely need and deserve.”
The primary runoffs in May give teachers a great opportunity to make their voices heard.
The party primaries are the most consequential elections in Texas. Few legislative races on the November ballot are expected to be competitive, with most districts drawn to favor a particular party, so voting in the primary is the best opportunity for educators to influence whether they will be represented by a more education-friendly candidate.
Texas has a history of dismal turnout in primary elections and this year was no different. The March 1 primary, which featured high-profile, big-dollar statewide races in both parties, drew less than 18% of registered voters in Texas. The turnout for the May runoffs is expected to be even lower, so every vote will make a big difference.
Texas primary runoff dates to remember:
Any registered voter may cast a ballot in the runoffs. However, voters who voted in either the Democratic or Republican primary may only vote in the same party’s runoff. Voters who sat out the March 1 primaries may vote in either one of the parties’ runoffs.
The results of these elections will directly influence the laws and funding decisions that affect teachers. For more information on candidates in the runoff, please visit the Texas Teachers Vote website.
The following are key primary runoffs in which the bolded candidate has received support from pro-public education organizations, including Parent PAC and ACT for TCTA, our political action committee:
House District 73 Republican Primary
House District 19 Republican Primary
House District 12 Republican Primary
Rep. Kyle Kacal
House District 61 Republican Primary