Who would school vouchers really benefit?

Governor Greg Abbott is helping to answer that question, not so much through his rhetoric, which is relentlessly on-message (“educational freedom,” “parental rights,” “school choice”) as through his actions. Over the last few months, the governor has been taking his case for school vouchers on the road, traveling around the state to talk up the benefits of education savings accounts, the wonky name for a program that would offer taxpayer dollars to parents who enroll their kids in private schools. 

But it’s impossible not to notice that Abbott has only visited expensive private Christian institutions—all Protestant—in front of friendly audiences of parents who have opted out of public education. Of the seven schools the governor has visited on his “Parent Empowerment Tour,” not a single one has been a public school or a secular private school or a religious school affiliated with Catholicism, Islam, or Judaism. Not even a Montessori. If the goal was to reassure critics that Abbott’s embrace of vouchers wasn’t a recipe for draining the public school system while subsidizing the children of wealthy Christian conservatives in private schools of their choice, well, none of those critics were around to hear it. The governor was quite literally preaching to the choir.

A recent appearance, at Brazos Christian School in Bryan, is representative. Brazos Christian is a private school serving kids from prekindergarten through high school, whose mission is “training, equipping, and educating students to impact the world for Jesus.” Tuition costs more than $12,500 a year for high-school students. Applicants for seventh through twelfth grade at Brazos Christian “must evidence a relationship with Jesus Christ” and provide a reference from a pastor to have a shot at acceptance. When Abbott showed up in early March, he spoke at a dais emblazoned with a sign reading “Parents Matter,” the kind of focus-group-tested slogan beloved by politicians and marketers. Hovering behind the governor’s head was the school’s cross-centric emblem. 

Onstage with Abbott was the school’s headmaster, who emphasized in his speech that Brazos Christian was designed to serve only “a small subset” of the community: Christians with a Biblical world view. Also onstage with Abbott was Mandy Drogin, a school-choice advocate employed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin think tank funded by oil and gas interests and other corporations, along with wealthy ideologues, that has for decades zealously pushed various privatization efforts, including school vouchers. Drogin previously worked for American Federation for Children, a dark-money group founded by Betsy DeVos, the billionaire heiress to the Amway fortune whose longstanding hostility to public education nearly tanked her nomination to serve as Donald Trump’s secretary of education.

At Brazos Christian, Abbott laid into public schools. “Parents are angry about the ‘woke’ agenda that’s being forced on their children in their schools,” Abbott said, using his party’s favored term of opprobrium for those who express concern about issues such as racial justice and LBGTQ rights. “Schools should not be pushing a woke agenda on their children. Our schools are for education, not indoctrination.” Parents, not government, he said, “deserve the freedom to choose the education pathway that is best for their child.”

No doubt many of the parents in these audiences agree with Abbott about the dangers of government schools. In fact, one school he visited, Park Meadows Academy, which is affiliated with an evangelical church in Corsicana, pledges on its site that it “does not seek government funding or accept it.” So what would these schools get out of Abbott’s proposed educational savings accounts? If vouchers—and school choice more generally—are designed primarily to help disadvantaged families stuck in underperforming public schools, as proponents often claim, then why wasn’t Abbott talking to parents at some big-city public school? Why not go to Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, which the governor’s education commissioner is on the verge of seizing control over

Though it’s not a major theme of his speeches, Abbott always takes time at the events to describe himself as a “staunchly strong proponent of our public schools” who only wants what’s best for all Texas students. He promises that “all public schools will be fully funded for every student,” though he has not defined full funding, or explained how school districts who lose per-pupil funding to private schools would be made whole. Yet Abbott’s chosen audiences would seem to lend credence to one of the principal critiques of vouchers: that they largely benefit affluent parents whose children already enjoy a private education or who could afford to make up the difference between the voucher amount and the tuition costs. Most private schools are expensive—one Abbott visited doesn’t charge tuition but the other six cost from $9,700 to $16,160 a year for high school students. 

Abbott has not specified the value of the vouchers he would like to offer, but few if any vouchers offered in any other state would allow a poor family to pay anything close to the tuition at the schools Abbott visited. Abbott has hinted that he prefers a so-called “universal” program, which would offer ESAs to all parents, regardless of whether their children are already enrolled in private school. Last year, Arizona rolled out a first-in-the-nation universal voucher program; early results predictably showed that the vast majority of benefits were set to flow to wealthy private-school kids. Of the nearly 6,500 children who applied for vouchers—typically about $7,000 per student—75 percent were already enrolled in private institutions. 

A proposal in the Texas Senate backed by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who has called school choice the “civil rights issue of the twenty-first century,” attempts to head off this complaint. It would offer up to $8,000 a year to any student not currently enrolled in private schools. Of course, that might still largely benefit parents who could still then pay, say, the additional $4,500 for their children to attend Brazos Christian.

But the Senate proposal faces another obstacle: the matter of using taxpayer dollars to fund religious education. Abbott has fumed about “indoctrination” in public schools, reflecting relatively widespread unease among many Republicans about books and curriculum that attempt to reflect a pluralistic society that has evolved rapidly on issues of race, sexual orientation, and gender. Indoctrination is precisely what many parochial schools do, as a central part of their mission. If you want your child to be taught that the Bible is the “infallible, inerrant, and inspired Word of God”—a Brazos Christian doctrine—then a Christian school is a great fit. 

Vouchers would erode, if not obliterate, a cornerstone of Texas’s constitutionally mandated system of public education. The Texas Constitution prohibits public funds from being spent “for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary.” GOP lawmakers have filed bills in both the Texas House and the Senate to simply repeal this part of the 1876 Constitution, a tacit acknowledgement that vouchers would mingle church with state in an unprecedented way.

There’s one other reason Abbott is going from Christian school to Christian school, like a popular praise band on a regional tour: he needs their help. Vouchers remain a hard sell in the Legislature. Proponents need a good chunk of Republicans representing rural districts, where public schools are often the bedrock of communities, and private schools are scarce, to back off their historic opposition. One way to soften up reluctant GOP lawmakers? Mobilize an important part of their base: evangelicals. At his stops, Abbott makes sure to ask the crowd to call and write their state representatives and senators. “Two minutes of your time for the future of your kid is not too much to ask,” he says.

The subtext of Abbott’s recent appearances at private Christian schools is like what Ronald Reagan once told a group of religious-right leaders in Dallas in 1980: They can’t endorse him, but he can endorse them. And he needs their help.