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School vouchers, rising in many GOP states, founder in Texas

Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, works at his desk in the House Chamber at the Texas state Capitol, in Austin, Texas, on April 19, 2017. Texas has led the way on many of the country’s top conservative issues, from guns and small government to imposing harsh limits on abortion and strict voter ID rules, but offering taxpayer funding to private schools is one issue Texas is actively opposing. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)
By Will Weissert Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas – Gary VanDeaver describes himself as a conservative less than a minute into many conversations. The Texas state representative blames “unelected federal judges” for imposing gay marriage on America and has been endorsed by anti-abortion groups and the National Rifle Association.

But when it comes to one centerpiece conservative initiative – allowing tax-subsidized vouchers for students to enroll in private schools – VanDeaver says absolutely no way.

“In my district, public school is the community,” said VanDeaver, of New Boston, a town about 25 miles from the Arkansas border where the Lions high school football stadium has 3,500 seats, nearly enough for every resident.

“If we do anything to pull those students away, then we’re harming those communities,” said VanDeaver, 58, after joining an overwhelming majority of the GOP-dominated state House this month to reject school vouchers.

With Republicans controlling two-thirds of state legislatures, as well as the White House and Congress, expectations among conservatives are soaring that the time for a “school choice” revolution has finally arrived – that vouchers will become available widely rather than only in limited experiments. President Donald Trump even included $1.4 billion in federal funding for school choice in his proposed budget.

Nationally, 27 states now permit public money to flow to private schools, and expansive proposals are making headway in many statehouses. Arizona recently approved them for all students, which supporters say will force schools to be more competitive and give families more freedom.

But Texas is resisting, not only dragging its feet but actively combating the movement. The House has defeated voucher plans in the last three sessions and helped derail 50-plus since the 1990s.

Texas is one of just seven states with Republican-controlled Legislatures and governorships that have stonewalled private school choice – and many others are small and rural, such as North Dakota and Wyoming.

Leaders of the school choice movement are stumped by the rebuff since Texas usually leads the nation in driving the conservative agenda. They have vowed to spend money and recruit primary challengers to defeat anti-school choice legislators.

“Texas is hailed to be this conservative, deep-red state but you look across the country where we have school choice programs and it’s places like Indiana and Ohio and Wisconsin,” said Randan Steinhauser, co-founder of the pro-school-choice group Texans for Education Opportunity. “It’s really frustrating.”

Steinhauser worked in Washington for Betsy DeVos, the outspoken school choice advocate who is now Trump’s education secretary. She thought she could advance the cause after returning to her native state four years ago: “I was kind of naive thinking, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll get it done, no problem,’ ” Steinhauser said. “I was shocked.”

The issue lays bare the ideological split between a high-profile tier of conservative activists and more traditional Republicans seeking to safeguard heartland values.

Republicans from rural districts are worried about the dwindling of many small towns, and fearful of undermining public schools that are top employers and the social and cultural lifeblood of community life. On school choice votes, they join forces with Democrats supporting public teachers unions.

School choice advocates say they understand that vouchers will be a tougher sell in rural states and communities where there are few private school options.

But Texas is less rural than stereotypes suggest, with around 80 percent of the population now living in metropolitan areas. By contrast, much more rural Maine, which has a Republican governor and GOP Senate, offers state funding to private schools.

“We still have a perception of ourselves as more rural than we really are,” said Steve Murdock, Texas’ former state demographer. “We are proud of a certain rural identity, in a sense, even though we shouldn’t be.”

Even Texas conservatives from urban areas hold an emotional commitment to small-town institutions.

“I don’t think we need to be taking money away from the public schools no matter where those schools are,” said Rep. Charlie Geren, a veteran House Republican from Fort Worth.

Lack of movement on the issue is especially striking given how many Texas heavy hitters support it, saying the state should help parents remove their children from failing public schools. Gov. Greg Abbott and conservative firebrand Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have called it a modern-day “civil rights issue” and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz wrote to every Texas Republican legislator praising school choice. The House vote quashing the idea came less than a month later.

It was an easy vote, said VanDeaver, who added that for his constituents, “I would say it’s 50-to-1 anti-voucher. Maybe even higher than that.”