It could be a long summer for school choice in Texas

With the Texas Legislature ending its initial session on May 29, hopes for comprehensive school choice legislation are fading fast. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen this year, and state legislators may want to cancel any summer travel plans they had until it does.

On one hand, the Texas Senate has done its part. It passed SB 8, which would not only establish a near-universal education savings account program but also greatly expand open enrollment opportunity and eligibility. In other words, all Texans would finally have the opportunity to choose the school that best fits their children’s needs.

The Texas House, on the other hand, seems rather uninterested in educational freedom. School choice legislation there faces the same obstacles that have stymied it for decades: special interests, lobbying from teachers unions, and — as silly as it sounds — concerns regarding high school football.

Dramatic increases in popular support for school choice have not changed this outcome. House members have already ripped SB 8 to shreds, turning it into a hollow shell of its former self.

The House’s actions are not entirely out of left field — there is an argument for incrementalism. Indeed, Texas does not currently have any private school choice programs, and in most cases, incremental gains in educational choice are better than no gains at all. This is what the Texas House is banking on.

The House, however, is misreading the room. Texans want more than just a barebones school choice program, and House members opposing school choice do not have the political power to resist. The only question is, how long will it take for them to realize it?

If they don’t want to spend their summer in session in Austin, they should change their tune sooner rather than later. Because of the governor’s powers to call a special session, the legislative process favors school choice supporters — opponents cannot simply just wait out the clock.

Though the Texas Legislature only meets for roughly 140 days every two years, under Texas law, the governor not only has the authority to call unlimited special sessions but can also delineate what exactly each session will focus on. In a state where the governor typically has very little direct authority, this bully pulpit is powerful and persuasive.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who has become a prominent educational freedom advocate, has already indicated that he’s going to use that bully pulpit to play hardball.

“Texas parents and their children deserve the time and effort it will take to pass critical school choice legislation this session,” Abbott said in a May 14 statement. “… failure to expand the scope of school choice to something close to the Senate version or the original House version of the Senate bill will necessitate special sessions.”

Abbott’s threat is not empty — he has called repeated special sessions before. They lasted all summer, and Abbott got what he wanted. There is little reason this time would be any different.

Moreover, there would be no political advantage to going back on his word. After all, more than 80% of Texans support expanding public school choice, and 60% of Texans support private school choice. Abbott does not have anything to lose and much to gain by calling repeated special sessions all summer for school choice.

House members, on the other hand, have much to lose. Voters will remember that their House representative denied parents the opportunity to offer their children a customized education. Indeed, several state representatives were successfully ousted by pro-school choice candidates last cycle, and the 2024 primaries are less than a year away.

If the House blocks school choice forever, several more will likely lose their positions. Eventually, they will have to recognize that standing with teacher unions, despite their donations, pays no electoral dividends.

Nevertheless, the House has remained exceptionally stubborn so far. The House Public Education Committee, even after Abbott’s warning, is planning to pass their watered-down version of SB 8. The legislation, if passed, will be vetoed, and special sessions will be called.

The odds that a comprehensive school choice program eventually passes in Texas are high. When it will happen — that, nobody knows.

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BY Garion Frankel

Garion Frankel is an incoming PhD student in PK-12 Education Administration at Texas A&M University. He is a Young Voices contributor, and frequently writes about education policy and American political thought.