At a July campaign event in Fort Stockton, Governor Greg Abbott played what has proven to be a winning card for Republicans across the country. “Parents,” he said, “should not be forced to send their child to a government-mandated school that teaches critical race theory, or is forcing their child to wear a face mask against their parents’ desire, or is forcing them to attend a school that isn’t safe.”

Actually, Abbott long ago outlawed mask mandates, and he and the Republican Legislature have heavily regulated what can be taught about race in Texas schools. But touting the progress of his agenda is less compelling than making a bogeyman of public schools altogether—telling parents that they deserve more control over what, where, and how their children learn. It’s a strategy that has well served Republican politicians such as Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin and Florida governor Ron DeSantis.

The buzz phrase “parental control” can cover a lot of ground, from oversight over classroom lessons and library books to school choice, and it’s a concept that most Republican voters support. But Abbott has lately taken parental control a giant step further by promoting school vouchers—government funds that would allow families to send their kids to public or private schools, including religious institutions and homeschooling arrangements. Supporters depict vouchers as the acme of parents’ control over their children’s education. But critics, including many conservative Texans, worry that they will inevitably drain resources from public schools, which in many small communities are the only schools available.

What most call “vouchers” can actually be several different things: tax credits for tuition or homeschooling supplies, access to a government savings account or scholarship that can be used for private school tuition, or a reimbursement for a set amount of educational expenses. Abbott has not committed to a specific kind of program, only to the idea that parents’ tax dollars should be able to pay for private school tuition.

These subsidies—often between $4,000 and $8,000 a year—don’t cover the full annual tuition rates of most private schools, which average between $9,000 and $11,000 in Texas, leading many critics to describe them as gifts to those who can already afford some level of tuition. The neediest students, they argue—those most likely to be in struggling schools—are still left with a considerable bill if they choose to participate.

“It looks like voucher programs in the past have always been about subsidizing affluent to wealthy folks who want private school for their kids,” said Charles Luke, codirector of Pastors for Texas Children. His group has always opposed vouchers, not only on the basis of the potential cost to public schools, but also on the grounds of separating church and state. Luke worries about government interference with religious or church-affiliated schools. “Government interference isn’t good for the church,” he said.

Where the money comes from and what strings are attached will be the devil in the details of bills soon to be filed for the 2023 Legislature, especially as Republicans vie to cut property taxes as well. Texas pays for public schools on a per-pupil basis, so every student lost represents a loss of revenue. School-voucher proponents say that state money should follow students to whatever public or private schools their parents choose. But superintendents argue that when a student leaves a public school for a private one, the district’s costs—for everything from classroom teachers to bus drivers—don’t decline proportionately. Superintendents and elected representatives from rural areas—many of whom are Republicans—fear that the state would fund vouchers by reducing funding for public schools in places where such schools serve as community hubs, providing meeting spaces, sports competitions, and social services like school nutrition programs and health screenings. Places like Palestine, Texas.

Palestine, pronounced like “Christine,” is a classically charming, tiny town 110 miles southeast of Dallas. It boomed with the arrival of a railroad in the late 1800s, and again as part of an oil enterprise in 1928. Dense with African American history and families who have lived there for generations, the hamlet has a deeply rooted pride of place. However, far flung from the interstate corridors that drive so much of Texas’s economy, Palestine remained small and economically humble. Of its 18,000 residents, around 15 percent live below the poverty line, and the median home value is around $100,000.

In 2009, Meadowbrook Country Club, which operated the only golf course in Palestine, closed. For five years, golfers drove to other cities for tee times. The Palestine High School golf team had to find an out-of-town practice course while Meadowbrook became overgrown and wild, what Palestine ISD superintendent Jason Marshall called “a hunting property” in a 2014 interview with the local paper.

When the YMCA approached the school district with the idea to jointly operate the course, Marshall saw the chance for a community win-win, and he pursued it. The YMCA deal fell through, but a local church bought the old country club property and agreed to lease the golf course to Palestine ISD for $1 a year. Marshall and his public relations director, Larissa Loveless, started rallying local support to restore the course. One donor paid for a well to bring down maintenance costs. The district worked with Texas State Technical College to create a dual-credit career-training initiative so that students could staff the course for credit in a management program. Now well-kept but practical and unpretentious, the course serves the entire area.

To Loveless, whose family has been in Palestine since the 1870s, when it was a bustling railroad town, the golf course symbolizes the outsized role public schools play in small, poor, and rural communities. School events are how people meet fellow residents, said Palestine High School junior Hudson Dear, whose family ties to the district go back to when his great-grandfather served as a principal. Football games and fundraisers draw a broad cross section of the community, and the golf course has become a new connection point. Dear competes on the high school golf team, which his dad coaches. He also participates in the management program, so he sees the mix of folks coming to the facility and interacting. “Once the golf course opened up, it became a link to the older generations,” he said.

The management course has perked his interest in business, Dear said. He’s hoping to get accepted to the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University.

Even more critical to the community are the school district’s special education and school nutrition programs, the likes of which are not available, at least not as expansively, in most private schools, Marshall said. If what parents want is an explicitly Christian curriculum or more-relaxed attendance rules, they may be happier with a private school, he acknowledged, but “you go looking for that next layer of services and it’s just not there.”

School facilities do double duty in Palestine ISD, including a tech-equipped space furnished like a boardroom in which civic organizations can hold meetings. The career-training programs include access to a welding shop, where students have produced railings for the football stadium, and an ambulance, for emergency medical training so kids can leave high school with certifications and marketable skills. The district pays for dual-credit courses to make college more affordable. “Palestine ISD offers a lot to our students,” said Stephanie Wickware, the parent of two Palestine High School students. Her older children graduated from Palestine schools, and she has a toddler who will follow in their footsteps. While she knows a voucher program would entice some people to give the town’s lone, hundred-student private school, Christian Heritage Academy, a try—“Everybody likes to try something new”—she says there’s a reason many of her neighbors “bleed maroon and white,” the colors of the public high school.

Abbott won Anderson County with 79.5 percent of the vote in 2018. Another school-voucher proponent, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, garnered 75.8 percent. But Loveless, the school district publicist, says that doesn’t translate into support for everything the Republican party champions. She describes the majority of her neighbors, fondly, as “Reagan Republicans”—they like small government, she says, and that’s what a school district represents: not bureaucrats, but neighbors. On education issues, members of the community “know they may not get their way all the time, but we listen,” Loveless said.

They listen, she laughed, because if they don’t take the phone call, parents will just catch them at the grocery store or after church. They have to be on the same team, even when they disagree, she said. The Palestine Wildcats don’t just play for the high school; they represent the whole town.

The sentiment is not unique to Palestine. Republican representative Gary VanDeaver’s district covers thirty school districts in the northeastern corner of the state, and many of them have school spirit in spades. “Multiple generations go to the same school district. There’s generational pride in that school district,” said VanDeaver. “I think that is really what we’re missing so dearly today in our society, is that sense of family.”

Even though around 80 percent of Republican primary voters in his district approved a 2022 Republican primary ballot proposition in support of school vouchers, VanDeaver openly opposed vouchers during his primary campaign, and he carried 63 percent of the vote in March 2022. His theory is that while many Republican voters support vouchers in principle—without knowing any details regarding how they might be funded—most of the families he represents like their public schools and wouldn’t want to see funding for them undercut. “All of these schools have very close relationships with their local communities,” VanDeaver said, pointing to support from local churches and businesses as well as robust PTAs and booster groups.

The rhetorical ramp-up ahead of the November gubernatorial election and the 2023 legislative session also has some in Palestine concerned. Often, those pushing for school vouchers do so by undermining trust in public schools, claiming that parents need alternatives to schools that are either failing or indoctrinating kids.

In Fort Stockton, where Abbott delivered his July campaign pitch for vouchers, school superintendent Gabe Zamora said school choices are limited, unless you have the means to travel thirty to sixty minutes each way to another district. There’s one local private school, Fort Stockton Christian Academy, with around sixty students enrolled. “If you’re in Fort Stockton, you’re here,” Zamora said, referring to the five schools in his district. Energy would be better spent fixing the system that exists, he said. He knows the criticisms Abbott raised against the teaching of race issues and the wearing of COVID masks might rouse political enthusiasm in conservative West Texas, but he says those aren’t the issues in need of attention.

In his various district leadership positions in small, rural districts, Zamora has instituted four-day weeks, higher pay for teachers, and other reforms targeting some of public education’s most chronic problems, such as teacher retention. While he’ll be the first to say those problems exist, from what he’s seen in West Texas, allowing private schools and even other districts to “cherry-pick” kids out of a local school system only increases economic segregation, making it more difficult for poorer districts to meet state accountability standards and feeding the “failing school” perception.

It’s possible, he said, that a voucher scheme could encourage education entrepreneurs to open more private schools. But that wouldn’t guarantee a better education for anyone, he said, because those schools aren’t accountable to the same standards as public schools. They don’t have to accept every student, and their students don’t have to take state tests. There’s no way to see who is falling through the cracks. “It’s just passing the buck,” Zamora said. “You have to fix what we have in place.”

That’s the more fiscally responsible approach, VanDeaver agreed. “I realize that some parents are frustrated with their local school, but the conservative answer is to do whatever is necessary to make the local school better, not continue to fund the local school while funding multiple other systems.” VanDeaver says he favors bringing down property taxes so that parents who do choose private schools or homeschooling aren’t paying as much toward public schools in the first place.

Christian-school advocates such as Midland oilman Tim Dunn, one of the state’s biggest donors to right-wing candidates and causes, have pushed vouchers for years. At least until now, the Texas House of Representatives has kept the issue from advancing, in part because of the concerns articulated by VanDeaver. Instead, Texas has rapidly expanded charter school campuses to about 900, up from 460 in 2010.

But now that Abbott and other Republican governors have taken up the voucher cause, legislative sentiments might change. Florida governor DeSantis already has a voucher program to tout, and some analysts have linked the program to the surprising level of support he commands in polls from Black women, whose children are more likely to be in public schools sabotaged by decades of white flight, funding disparities, and harsh discipline. 

Outcomes from Florida’s patchwork of voucher programs have been shaded in various directions, and most are anecdotal. Private schools do not have to participate in state testing, so that data is unavailable for the 167,000 participating students. The Urban Institute, a nonprofit think tank, found that participants in the Florida voucher program were more likely to attend and complete college than their nonparticipant peers.

Fifteen other states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs (six have educational savings accounts and nineteen have tax-credit scholarships), the oldest being one in Milwaukee. The program there began in 1990 and has expanded around the state, with less than 5 percent of Wisconsin students participating. In 2007, the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, found that “it is still not possible to measure whether voucher students in Milwaukee perform better or worse than their counterparts who remain in public schools.”

Tracking outcomes is difficult in part because private schools don’t have to participate in state accountability tests. In 2009, the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas got around this data void by measuring the reverse. The researchers found that as voucher options increased, Milwaukee schools became more competitive and student outcomes improved for those who did not participate in the voucher programs. Their conclusion was that vouchers create healthy competition.

The dearth of reliable data on academic improvements doesn’t seem to concern some voucher advocates, who emphasize the principle that parents should be able to spend their tax dollars to educate their children wherever they see fit. In a fund-raising letter sent in November 2021, Kevin Roberts, then-CEO of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, argued that a voucher system would “setting the captives free” from various liberal agendas at work in a system that “traps students in the school closest to them with no other options.”

Educators in Republican counties know the rhetoric all too well and say they’re trying to focus on their work. “We’re trying to read, write, and do arithmetic,” Marshall said. That’s challenging enough after two years of COVID-era education disruption and the ongoing challenge of high poverty rates—81 percent of Palestine ISD students qualify for free or subsidized lunch. Maintaining the support of the community is vital, and the biggest threat to that support is disrespect for public schools in general.

“You’re seeing pieces chip off the rock,” Loveless said. “It destabilizes the community.”