For years, a coalition of activists, deep-pocketed donors, and Texas politicians have campaigned to divert public education dollars into the hands of parents who can afford to send their kids to private schools. These activists have framed their efforts as part of the “parental rights” movement that has swept school districts and state governments across the country. Their latest proposal in Texas, for a form of school vouchers euphemistically called “education savings accounts,” appears to have died late in the fall—in large part thanks to the principled stand taken by rural Republicans in the state House of Representatives and by their constituents in small towns all across Texas.
The stakes were particularly high in 2023 for antivoucher Republican representatives such as Travis Clardy, of Nacogdoches; Drew Darby, of San Angelo; Ken King, of Canadian; and John Raney, of College Station, who represent solidly red parts of the state. Governor Greg Abbott threatened to launch primary-election challenges against them, but those threats didn’t work. When an omnibus education bill, which included a voucher program, reached the House floor for a vote in mid-November, 21 Republican lawmakers joined Democrats in voting to remove the voucher provision, killing, at least for now, Abbott’s top policy priority. “I believe in my heart that using taxpayer dollars to fund an entitlement program . . . is bad public policy,” said Raney.
Randy Willis, the executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools, an organization of 362 public school districts that opposes vouchers, says he barely recognizes the party he’s supported since he first voted to elect Richard Nixon as president, in 1972. “It’s hard for me to watch the deterioration of public education and where the party in power is trying to take us,” he said.
Abbott has begun making good on his threats, by endorsing House Republicans who voted with him on the voucher issue but pointedly not endorsing any of the 21, denouncing them as “pro-union Republicans” who “vote with Democrats.” The position that a handful of rural Republicans took in defiance of some of the most powerful figures in the state will stand as one of the boldest moves of their political careers.
This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Best Things in Texas.” Subscribe today.
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