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Abbott’s Stance on School Choice Questioned

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Gov. Greg Abbott speaking during a rally in support of school choice at the State Capitol in Austin, TX in January 2017. | Image by Ashley Landis, The Dallas Morning News

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Interest in legislation that would provide parents more control over their children’s education has surged recently. However, Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s previous pro-school choice stance is being questioned.

The term “school choice” has been used for several years to describe programs where parents can choose to send their children to schools other than the designated public school for their school district and direct their tax dollars to their school district of choice. Texas Republicans had made pro-school choice legislation a priority heading into the most recent legislative session.

However, the House voted 115-29 to ban vouchers that give parents money for private schools. Most Republicans sided with Democrats.

Texas Republican voters firmly support the pro-school choice notion in its broadest sense. An initiative asking voters if they strongly agreed that Texas parents and guardians “should have the right to choose schools for their children, whether private or public, and financing should follow the student” was supported by 88% of Republican primary voters in March.

When Abbott was elected in 2014, he led School Choice Week demonstrations at the Texas State Capitol wearing the movement’s trademark yellow scarf. However, Governor Abbott’s endorsements in Republican primary runoff elections have only served to fuel the fire that he is no longer as strongly in support of school choice.

Abbott has endorsed incumbents such as State Representative Glenn Rogers (R–Mineral Wells) and State Representative Kyle Kacal (R–Bryan) in their runoff elections, even though they have voted against school choice initiatives.

The vast majority of Abbott’s endorsements have also been in opposition to those of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). He previously had stated that supporting school choice was a pre-requisite for him to give his endorsement.

Sen. Cruz has endorsed Ben Bius, who is challenging Rep. Kacal, and Mike Olcott, running against Rep. Rogers. Both of the candidates Cruz endorsed are considered more safe votes in favor of school choice.

The runoffs are incredibly important to pro-school choice advocates.

The Texas Tribune reports that a national group in favor of school choice called the School Freedom Fund has launched ads against Rep. Kacal and Rep. Rogers. The 30-second ads bash Rep. Kacal as the “most liberal Republican in the Texas House” and tell voters that Rep. Rogers is “beholden to education union bosses working against [them],” citing Rogers’ support from groups like the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. The ads are airing on Fox News and radio stations.

Additionally, the School Freedom Fund has also said that it is spending $220,000 in the Kacal-Bius runoff and $92,000 in the race between Rogers and Olcott.

​​“Standing against school choice is standing on the wrong side of history,” said David McIntosh, the School Freedom Fund’s president.

Endorsements in other runoffs also reveal the deep divide between Abbott and Cruz on the issue of school choice.

Abbott has endorsed Justin Berry in House District 19 and Barron Casteel in House District 73. In January, both were supported by the Texas AFT, a union against school choice. Sen. Cruz has endorsed both of their opponents, Ellen Troxclair, who is running against Berry, and Carrie Isaac, who is running against Casteel.

Abbott’s endorsements have frustrated many pro-school choice advocates, although he has generally supported the concept. Earlier this year, the governor even said that in the next legislative session, Texans will see a “stronger, swifter, more powerful movement advocating school choice than you’ve ever seen in the history of the State of Texas.”

“Governor Abbott supports the best candidates for office who will fight for the people of Texas, defend our conservative values, and secure the future of our state for generations to come,” Abbott campaign spokesperson Renae Eze told The Texas Tribune.

A recent comment from an activist also created more doubt about Abbott’s position on the matter.

During an education forum held this week at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Charlie Johnson, the executive director of anti-school choice Pastors for Texas Children, stated that Abbott would not be pushing pro-school choice legislation in the next session.

Johnson noted that multiple members of the Texas House from rural areas told him that Abbott expressed he would not promote the issue.

Those that are anti-school choice often cite that it would damage public schools in rural areas. Their objection is to removing the tax dollars of parents whose children do not attend the local public school from the school district that would otherwise receive the funding.

In the November gubernatorial election, Abbott’s opponent, Beto O’Rourke, promoted boosting public school funding and denounced school choice as a central point of his campaign.

Still, Abbott denied the claims made by Johnson in a tweet after midnight on April 20, saying, “1. I don’t know who this person is. 2. I’ve never talked to this person. 3. He and I did not speak as he claims.”

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