Abbott seeks to remove conservative opponents in final showdown on ESAs in Texas

It is not a common occurrence for statehouse elections in rural Texas to influence the national discourse on school choice. There is a possibility of a shift later this month.

On May 28, voters will select Republican candidates in 13 of Texas’ 150 House districts. Four of these positions are currently occupied by representatives targeted by Republican Governor Greg Abbott for consistently obstructing his efforts to establish a statewide system of education savings accounts (ESAs). If the incumbents are defeated, many speculate that the proposal will be implemented, transforming Texas into the largest school choice marketplace in the country by 2025.

Although the proposal is likely on hold until January when the legislature reconvenes, if the elections favor Abbott, the plan could gain significant traction. This could lead to lawmakers and educators seriously examining the ramifications of what could amount to a billion-dollar reform impacting school enrollments and financing.

The upcoming election marks the conclusion of a year-long campaign by Abbott and his supporters that has transitioned from committee hearings in Austin to door-to-door outreach in East Texas. Following an initial round of primary voting in March that ousted nine Republicans who opposed efforts to allow universal eligibility for ESAs last year, further runoffs are underway against candidates endorsed by the governor. Abbott has openly expressed confidence that with the defeat of two more anti-voucher incumbents, the legislation can be resurrected and approved.

The potential triumph would result from a combination of local and national political pressures.

Abbott would secure a crucial policy victory after numerous failed attempts to expand ESAs, all of which were thwarted by a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans. Furthermore, national donors and advocacy groups have shown substantial interest in the electoral contest, financing Republican insurgents in a bid to maintain the winning streak for school choice seen in recent years.

“Texas is the biggest red state in the country, and Abbott is the long-serving governor here. He has clearly made (ESAs) a huge priority where it hasn’t been a huge priority for him in the past.”

Monty Exter, Association of Texas Professional Educators

Monty Exter, director of government relations at the Association of Texas Professional Educators, a non-union group opposing the governor’s ambitions, emphasized the significance of the push for ESAs in a state with key conservative leadership at the forefront.

“Texas is the biggest red state in the country, and Abbott is the long-serving governor here,” Exter commented. “He has clearly made it a huge priority where it hasn’t been a huge priority for him in the past. And it’s certainly not a new issue.”

Rural Resistance

The backdrop of the ongoing primary battle traces its origins far back in history, predating Abbott’s tenure.

Throughout prior years, the Texas House of Representatives passed budgetary regulations in response to former Republican governors’ voucher initiatives explicitly barring the transfer of public funds to private schools. Despite an ESA bill passing the Senate in 2017, it was stalled in the lower chamber. Abbott’s renewed efforts last spring, coupled with increased per-pupil funding for traditional public schools, faced bipartisan resistance once again.

The primary hurdle pertains to enduring concerns among a key group of Republican legislators apprehensive about potential upheaval from voucher programs in small-town school districts, often the largest employers. Local officials fear a mass exodus from public schools post-ESA adoption, leading to a decline in student enrollment and financial support.

These concerns persisted even after Abbott convened a special session last fall to further deliberate the proposal. Subsequently, he endorsed challengers in the primary against House Republicans opposing him. High-profile allies like Sen. Ted Cruz supported his endorsements while Attorney General Ken Paxton filed lawsuits against school districts alleging interference in favor of anti-ESA candidates.

The Texas Legislature has experienced longstanding disputes over private school choice for nearly two decades. The runoff election could mark a conclusive resolution. (Getty Images)

A survey revealed minimal impact on Republicans statewide regarding school choice discussions. Only 2 percent of potential Republican voters in a February poll from the Texas Politics Project highlighted ESAs as a primary influence on their vote. Governor Abbott’s endorsement was named by just 7 percent of respondents.

However, Abbott’s relentless campaign facilitated the defeat of a substantial portion of the state GOP’s major ESA critics in the March primary. Financial backing from conservative donors, including investor Jeff Yass, played a crucial role in this victory.

“What distinguished this election cycle was the governor’s firm commitment to passing a school voucher program in Texas and the subsequent financial backing to oust these incumbent legislators,” stated Joshua Blank, the Texas Politics Project’s research director.

Whether this strategy will unseat the additional four incumbents facing runoffs remains uncertain. Runoff elections often attract a smaller but more ideologically driven electorate, potentially posing challenges for Abbott’s objectives.

“With the low turnout in a runoff race, it’s usually the most motivated people who will end up turning out and casting ballots.”

Cal Jillson, Southern Methodist University

“We did see a lot of these incumbents go down in the primary,” observed Cal Jillson, a government professor at Southern Methodist University. “With the low turnout in a runoff race, it’s usually the most motivated people who will end up turning out and casting ballots, and those tend to be people who are deeply committed to the party and social conservative issues.”

‘A Clear Message’

ESA proponents are leveraging every available advantage to secure more seats in an already conservative chamber, primarily through financial support.

Aside from personal donations from affluent activists like Yass, conservative challengers have tapped into the resources of the Club for Growth, a right-leaning advocacy organization based in Washington. The Club, through the School Freedom Fund, spent heavily in the primary elections and has continued to invest significantly in the months since.

David McIntosh, President of the Club for Growth, emphasized the group’s involvement in the legislative primaries to influence Texas policy and send a stern warning to Republicans impeding parental choice in education. Similar initiatives may be explored in other states.

“This election will send a clear message to Republicans in every state that you should retire or expect to lose in your next primary,” warned McIntosh. “We are also hopeful that this will push school freedom allies in other states to reform failing public schools, and we are looking at replicating these efforts in other states.”

This broad perspective has strengthened as several red states have expanded private school choice eligibility. Currently, 11 states offer universal ESA access, with each state law’s adoption underscoring Texas’ lag in this regard.

Jillson anticipates that the outcome of the upcoming elections will likely propel voucher programs to fruition should the incumbents be unseated. Even if a fraction survives the runoff, they may be compelled to reconsider blocking ESA expansion.

“I suspect that some of these four will be defeated. That will provide Abbott with a slim majority in the next regular session, which could grow if other members who’ve opposed vouchers in the past say, ‘I can’t do this anymore or he’ll come for me.'”

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