Texas Lege Defeats Abbott’s Voucher Plan – Again

Meanwhile, harsh immigration bill succeeds

photo by John Anderson

Seven months of threats, promises, and pressure wound up flipping only three votes.

Last week, 21 of the 24 rural Republican lawmakers who had voted against vouchers in April did so again, joining Democrats in the Texas House to kill Gov. Greg Abbott's signature priority Nov. 17. The 84-63 vote stripped "education savings accounts," or vouchers, from a larger school funding bill that would have provided more money for public schools and teachers. It sent an unmistakable signal: The coalition of Democrats and Republicans won't make a bargain to increase funding for their public schools in exchange for approving vouchers.

"If it wasn't clear already, Texans don't want voucher scams in this state," Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, said after the vote. "We call on the governor to finally support a clean school finance bill that actually fully funds our schools." Talarico was joined by the man who sponsored the amendment to strip vouchers from House Bill 1 – Rep. John Raney, R-College Station – in asking for a clean bill. "I hope and pray that the governor calls us back and separates these issues," Raney said.

Abbott has promised to call however many special sessions it takes to get vouchers passed. He has said he will not allow separate votes on vouchers and school funding. Until recently, he demanded that vouchers be passed before he would consent to increase school funding. After compromising on that demand to get HB 1 on the table, Abbott repeatedly claimed a deal was imminent. He continued his bluster after HB 1 was withdrawn from consideration in the House, calling the vote "just another step on the path to provide school choice for parents and students."

Lawmakers in both parties have acknowledged for months that the state's public school system is vastly underfunded. HB 1 would have provided raises for teachers and hundreds more dollars per student for schools – about half of what education professionals say is needed. In exchange, parents would have been given the option of taking $10,500 per child out of state coffers to use on private school expenses.

Before the Nov. 17 vote, several Republicans described vouchers as financially reckless and fundamentally un-conservative. Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, said that projections from the state's budgeting office showed that vouchers would cost taxpayers $2 billion a year by the next budget cycle. "Is this the conservative thing to do, to create another entitlement program?" Darby asked. Raney echoed the argument: "I believe in my heart that using taxpayer dollars to fund an entitlement program is not conservative and is bad public policy."

These rural Republicans have been celebrated for standing firm on vouchers, but the same lawmakers voted three days earlier for a blatantly unconstitutional "show me your papers" bill. Senate Bill 4 creates a new state crime for entering the United States from Mexico, allowing local and state police – who are not trained in immigration law and have no authority to enforce it – to personally transport undocumented immigrants to the border and order them to cross back into Mexico. Critics call SB 4 one of the most extreme anti-immigration measures in the nation and warn that it will increase racial profiling, unlawful arrests, and the harassment of border communities and legal American citizens.

In very limited debate, lawmakers in both parties acknowledged that SB 4 is unconstitutional. The 2012 Supreme Court decision in Arizona v. United States clarified that local police departments have no authority to arrest people based solely on immigration status. Republican Sen. Brian Birdwell reminded his colleagues of this before the Senate hurriedly passed the bill.

Democrats in the House tried to moderate the bill with a flurry of amendments, including additions to protect children under the age of 11 from prosecution, as well as victims of sex trafficking and sexual assault. Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, argued to cut off debate. SB 4 passed on a vote of 83-61.

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88th Legislature, James Talarico, Greg Abbott, vouchers

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