How Gov. Greg Abbott lost a yearlong fight to create school vouchers

By Patrick Svitek, Zach Despart, and Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

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Sharing the stage at the Brazos Christian School gymnasium in Bryan, Rep. John Raney rose from his seat next to Gov. Greg Abbott during a pro-school voucher rally and lavished praise on the governor’s education agenda.

“Gov. Abbott understands the value of a good education and the importance of giving parents control over their children’s education,” Raney said at the March event, adding that the governor “spent nearly every night” helping his daughter do her homework and that the first lady is a former teacher and principal.

Then, Abbott took to his lectern and reciprocated his admiration for Raney, saying the College Station Republican “represents Brazos County extraordinarily well.”

It seemed like a good sign for Abbott, who was in the midst of barnstorming the state to rally support for school vouchers in Texas. In previous legislative sessions, Raney had signaled in test votes that he was against any measure to use public dollars for students to attend private schools — like the one he was speaking at that night.

But 254 days — and four excruciating special sessions — later, Raney would lead the effort on the House floor to defeat the very proposal that brought the men together that evening. The so-called “Raney amendment” to strike vouchers out of an education omnibus bill in November was the final knell for Abbott’s 18-month crusade for school vouchers.

It also meant that public schools would not receive the $7.6 billion boost that Abbott had made conditional on the approval of vouchers.

The typically cautious governor has poured more political capital into vouchers than anything else in his eight years in office. He campaigned for reelection last year on the proposal, declared it a top legislative priority and played hardball — using teacher raises and public school funding increases as negotiating chips, vetoing bills by the GOP holdouts and threatening primary challenges to get his way.

He picked an ambitious fight, given the House’s historic resistance to school vouchers, but he thought the ground was ripe for a breakthrough.

Yet after a year of negotiations, threats and politicking, Abbott ended 2023 vexed by a bloc of 21 Republican holdouts who prevented a bill from reaching his desk. It wasn’t particularly close for Abbott, despite the fact that he routinely projected false optimism throughout the year.

Raney later said he introduced Abbott at the pro-voucher event because it is customary when the governor visits a lawmaker’s district. But the perceived betrayal by Raney — and other House Republicans who joined with Democrats to kill the education subsidy — has set Abbott on a warpath in the March primary, determined to install more lawmakers who will vote his way.

The Texas Tribune interviewed more than a dozen people, including lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists and others involved in voucher negotiations this year. Almost all of them declined to speak on the record because they were not authorized to discuss the private negotiations or because they feared political consequences.

According to their accounts, Abbott primarily failed because of his refusal to compromise on a universal program, open to every Texas student — instead of a more pared-down program for disadvantaged students. That was a line that the rural GOP holdouts could not be convinced to cross. Abbott also underestimated just how much those opponents considered their voucher opposition as a political article of faith, hardened by years of campaigning on it. And as his negotiating tactics grew more heavy-handed, he ossified some of the intraparty opposition.

“This is an issue, for the people who voted against a voucher, they are going to be against a voucher no matter what you do to it,” said Will Holleman, senior director of government relations at Raise Your Hand Texas, a pro-public education advocacy group. These members, Holleman added, have a “muscle memory you’re not going to get away from.”

One House Republican close to the negotiations said Abbott was “a little overly optimistic.”

“A lot of House members — certainly rural Republican House members — would have suggested that he miscalculated,” the member said.

A hopeful spring

Abbott had been something of a fair-weather school voucher proponent before 2022, but as he ran for a third term, he saw the ground shifting. The COVID-19 pandemic had soured parents on public schools, and Republicans nationwide were seizing opportunities to become the party of “parental rights” after decades of Democrats owning education as an issue.

Abbott himself was also eyeing a larger national profile — potentially a 2024 presidential run — and was routinely being compared to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, where school vouchers with universal eligibility became law in March.

In Texas, the Senate, which had passed a voucher bill in 2017, could be relied on to deliver again. But Abbott knew he had his work cut out for him in the House, since a large majority of House Republicans in 2021 opposed vouchers in a symbolic vote. Many of those voucher opponents represented rural districts and were otherwise considered allies whom he had previously endorsed.

Abbott knew he needed to show them that their constituents also wanted vouchers.

“I think he went into this completely eyes wide open, completely aware of the battle,” said Mandy Drogin, a veteran voucher activist who works at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the influential conservative think tank in Austin.

Starting in late January, Abbott and Drogin crisscrossed the state hosting nearly a dozen “Parent Empowerment Nights” at private schools in lawmakers’ backyards, pitching vouchers in the form of education savings accounts for every child in Texas. The state would deposit taxpayer funds in the accounts, and parents could use the money to cover private school costs, including tuition and books.

Drogin was impressed by Abbott’s persistence at the events. At Grace Community School in Tyler, a storm was moving in and they were told they had to end their rally early, Drogin said, but Abbott refused.

“He was not worried about getting home that night,” she said, “and he stayed in that gym and met every single parent to hear their story.”

Abbott invited the anti-voucher Republicans to join him at events in their districts. That put those members in a tough position. Do they attend and be seen as supportive of Abbott’s crusade, or do they snub the governor entirely?

Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, appeared at one of Abbott’s earliest Parent Empowerment Nights, and like Raney, ultimately voted to thwart the governor’s priority.

Back at the Capitol, Abbott met individually with over 50 House Republicans during the regular session and discussed school vouchers. His schedule shows it was a wide range of members, from the pro-voucher faithful to at least 10 of the 21 Republicans who ultimately voted for the voucher-killing amendment, like Raney and Shine.

In those meetings, Abbott made clear how important the issue was to him personally.

Rep. Cody Harris, a Palestine Republican who had run for election as an anti-voucher Republican, told Abbott he remained “extremely skeptical” of vouchers in their meeting, even after introducing Abbott at a Parent Empowerment Night in his district. He would later flip in support of vouchers.

The first major gauge of Abbott’s influence arrived in April as the House considered the budget. It had become a biennial tradition for Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, to propose an amendment that prohibited any funding for voucher programs. It was seen as a symbolic vote because the amendment did not make it into the final budget, but this time, it took on new meaning amid Abbott’s push.

Abbott’s chief of staff, Gardner Pate, and legislative affairs director, Shayne Woodard, spent the days before that vote feeling out House Republicans. Abbott himself paid a rare visit to the House floor two days before. If you’re still undecided on the policy, they told members, vote present.

Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, chair of the House Public Education Committee, delivered a similar plea on the floor. The amendment to ban vouchers passed 86-52, with 11 members registered as “present not voting,” including Harris.

Abbott’s staff was pleased. It was progress. In 2021, the amendment passed 115-29, with 49 Republicans voting to ban vouchers in the test vote. This time, only 24 Republicans took that same stand.

Anti-voucher advocates had mixed emotions. They won, but the governor’s lobbying blitz and the shifting numbers suggested the amendment would not be the usual nail in the coffin.

A voucher bill never reached the House floor during the regular session, but in its final weeks there was some hope.

In early May, key negotiators were closing in on a bill that had Abbott’s blessing. Buckley, a convert who opposed vouchers in 2021, tried to call a snap committee meeting to advance legislation, but state Rep. Ernest Bailes, a Republican from Shepherd and outspoken voucher opponent, stood up and rallied the House to deny the panel permission to meet.

The procedural attack worked, and it showed perhaps for the first time that the anti-voucher GOP faction was unafraid to fight back against Abbott.

In response, Buckley devised a scaled-back bill, but Abbott threatened to veto it on the eve of a committee hearing. The problem? It limited eligibility to students with disabilities or those who attended an F-rated campus.

It was far short of the governor’s demand for a universal program, a sticking point that would only intensify in the coming months.

The summer slump

By the end of the regular session, Abbott’s voucher push was overshadowed by the House’s impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton. Vouchers fell to the back burner again as Abbott called a first — and then second — special session to address property tax relief.

From Abbott’s perspective, the voucher battle would resume in late fall.

Abbott continued to remind lawmakers he was serious. As he went on a bill-vetoing spree to try to force a property-tax deal out of the two chambers, he also vetoed at least a dozen bills with the reasoning that they could wait until “after education freedom is passed.”

Anti-voucher Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, was among those who had a bill vetoed, but he only dug in. He told a Republican group back home that he would continue voting against vouchers, and while he was willing to listen to Abbott’s pitch, he did not take kindly to threats.

Pressure was also increasing on House Speaker Dade Phelan, himself a Republican from a rural district, who had kept his distance from Abbott’s voucher push. Going into 2023, he knew the votes probably were not there, and saw little incentive to take the lead on a proposal that fractured his GOP majority.

That is not to say he was uninterested in ending the yearlong standoff. When he had a rare meeting with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the final days of the regular session, he suggested the Senate add vouchers to a public school funding bill that was still pending in the upper chamber. The Senate obliged, but the bill died in final inter-chamber negotiations.

Phelan tried something new when members were called back for the first special session, appointing a select committee to consider vouchers and other education issues. Its 15 members included some of the most firm opponents of vouchers in either party, leaving the impression that if a proposal could make it through the committee, it could pass the full House.

Asked about the prospects of vouchers in August, Phelan continued to hedge, saying it would come down to “members voting their districts.”

“There’s always hope,” he said, “but no guarantee.”

Vouchers get a vote

During a call with pastors previewing the third special session — when vouchers were set to take the center stage — Abbott shared a glimpse of optimism: “The votes seem to be lining up.”

But he also offered a warning for House Republicans: They could choose “the easy way” — getting a bill to his desk — or “the hard way” — facing his wrath in the primaries.

Behind the scenes, Abbott’s office was attempting a reset with the House. Who did they need to negotiate with to get a deal? Phelan’s office pointed them to Buckley and two of the speaker’s lieutenants — Reps. Will Metcalf and Greg Bonnen — plus Rep. Ken King of Canadian.

Metcalf and Bonnen had previously signaled support for vouchers in test votes, but King stood out. About a year earlier, he vowed voucher bills would be “dead on arrival.”

Despite his past rhetoric, King was seen as open to a compromise on vouchers, in exchange for more money for schools. But he eventually voted for the Raney amendment.

Those members relayed their discussions with the governor’s office to another group of House Republicans that included additional holdouts.

Amid the negotiations, Abbott’s office held firm on a few aspects of the proposal. They wanted to cap enrollment in the program based on available funding, not number of students, and they balked at requests to add a sunset, which would have required legislative approval to renew it periodically. Either idea would just mean more high-stakes wrangling with lawmakers in the coming years.

As talks continued, Abbott kept up his statewide tour, telling parents in San Antonio that “too many” House Republicans were claiming they were not hearing from their voters about the issue.

Rep. Glenn Rogers, R-Graford, was firmly opposed throughout the year but nonetheless asked his staff to analyze constituent correspondence during the third and fourth special sessions. Eighty-eight percent were against vouchers, he said.

Abbott, meanwhile, was exuding increasing confidence that a deal was nigh. Three days into the third special session, he declared at a pro-voucher conference in Austin that the House was “on the 1-yard-line.” But when Buckley filed his legislation a week later, Abbott rejected it, saying it was inconsistent with their negotiations. Abbott called Phelan and told him as much in a blunt call.

The negotiators went back to the drawing board and came up with a proposal Abbott could support. It paired vouchers with even more money for public schools.

But there was a problem. Abbott had pledged to consider items like teacher bonuses only after the Legislature approved vouchers. School funding and raises were not included on the special session call so legislators were prohibited from considering them.

Then, as the end of the third special session was nearing, Abbott curiously declared victory, issuing a statement saying he had “reached an agreement” with Phelan on school choice for Texas families. The statement surprised Phelan, who considered the only deal to be to expand the call, according to a source familiar with his thinking. He knew it was the only way for vouchers to have even a fighting chance at that point.

The issue was left dangling as the third session ended.

By the start of the fourth special session, House leadership knew it needed to get a bill to the floor, no matter its chances. It would be a tough vote for some members, but the alternative was endless special sessions — potentially closer to the primary — and the House was already struggling to maintain quorum.

Buckley introduced a voucher bill paired with bonuses for teachers and increased per-student spending on public schools, a $7.6 billion sweetener intended to entice the holdouts. It was sent to the House select committee, which held a hearing and voted it out along party lines, including with anti-voucher Republicans voting for it.

For the first time in recent history, a voucher bill was headed to the House floor.

It was not long after the committee vote that any momentum was dampened. The anti-voucher Republicans had only voted for it in committee because they wanted to get it to the floor, and they knew there would be an amendment to remove the voucher program.

Abbott promised to veto the bill and keep calling special sessions if that happened. But after months of roller coaster negotiations and increasing political threats, the anti-voucher Republicans were ready to call his bluff.

By this point, some involved in the debate questioned whether Abbott still believed he could get a bill to his desk — or if he was just looking for a floor vote that could crystallize battle lines for the primary. The day before the bill was set to reach the floor, Abbott’s top political adviser, Dave Carney, sent out a playful tweet asking if others had noticed that the “quality of new candidates in TX [is] higher then normal?”

To carry the voucher-killing amendment, GOP holdouts settled on Raney, who had already announced he was not seeking reelection. Knowing he had to give his fellow Republicans a case they could make to primary voters, he told them he believed in his heart that “using taxpayer dollars to fund an entitlement program is not conservative.”

The amendment passed 84-63, with 21 Republicans in favor — almost the same bloc of opposition that existed earlier in the year (75 votes was the threshold for passage).

The House went into recess and dozens of members piled into the back hall to debate their next steps. Should they still pass the bill without the voucher program? Billions of dollars in public education funding were still at stake, after all. After a somewhat chaotic debate, they decided not to, realizing that sending Abbott a bill he had already threatened to veto would only inflame the situation further.

About an hour after the House adjourned that day, Abbott gathered in his office with roughly a dozen pro-voucher House Republicans, including members of House leadership. The mood was somber, and a frustrated Abbott wanted to know what the game plan was. Buckley and others in attendance promised to work around the clock to salvage the bill in the coming days.

But what was clear to most everyone in the room was that the 21 holdouts were not moving. It was time to go home and let primary voters weigh in.

Abbott’s dealbreaker

The ending was somewhat surprising to voucher supporters. Some expected the House to pass the bill with vouchers stripped out, sending it to the Senate, which would have added it back in. Then both chambers would have hashed out a final compromise which may have included some version of vouchers.

“What we had been told was that, look, ‘These guys need to show that they’re fighting,’” said Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands.

But for the rural Republicans at the frontlines of the voucher battle, Abbott’s insistence on universal eligibility doomed the effort from the start.

“It was just a bridge too far,” said one House Republican close to the negotiations.

Abbott had repeatedly said in public that he wanted to give “every parent” the opportunity to find the best education for their child. Some Republicans thought it was just a bargaining position.

They were wrong. Abbott and other school choice advocates considered the concept of “parental rights” to be absolute — subject to “no imaginary boundary,” as Drogin put it in an interview.

Furthermore, they were confident they could successfully push for it in this political environment. That was crystallized during one committee hearing when Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, asked Scott Jensen, a national pro-voucher lobbyist, if he could support a program whose eligibility was limited to “only poor kids.”

“We used to, in states all across the country, when that was the best we could do for kids in the state,” Jensen replied. “But now we have found there is building public support all across the country for these programs to be broad-based.”

When it came to the politics of vouchers, the holdouts also had a lot to think about. Many of them previously campaigned against vouchers — proudly so in some cases — and it was hard to consider reversing themselves.

Abbott’s campaign commissioned polling in 21 Republican districts and presented it to members, trying to emphasize how popular the policy was back home. Abbott himself constantly cited how nearly 90% of primary voters statewide approved a pro-voucher ballot proposition in 2022.

Holdouts were skeptical of the polling language and found their personal experience with constituents more convincing.

Abbott got at least one House Republican to square his past opposition with the new political landscape. Harris, the Palestine Republican, acknowledged in a statement after the Raney amendment vote that he was first elected in 2018 as “the anti-voucher candidate.” But he ultimately became moved by the stories he heard in the House Public Education Committee of parents desperate for new schooling options for their kids.

“For those who say that you cannot support both public education and school choice, we will have to agree to disagree,” Harris wrote. “I hope you will continue to vote for me, but if you don’t, that’s OK.”

Despite such conversions, voucher opponents never felt a sea change between the regular session and the final vote. But they knew Abbott was pulling out all the stops, so they remained vigilant.

Every Democrat present eventually voted for the Raney amendment, but that was not always guaranteed.

Rumors were spreading that Abbott was courting several Democrats — perhaps as a negotiating tactic to build pressure on GOP holdouts — and the House Democratic Caucus was especially watchful of at least a couple of its members. Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins of San Antonio, the founder of a San Antonio charter school, had publicly urged fellow Democrats to be open to compromise if vouchers were inevitable.

The Democratic caucus chair, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, had tapped two colleagues from Austin, Reps. Gina Hinojosa — his former rival for caucus chair — and James Talarico, to help lead their voucher opposition.

The caucus went all-out to consistently message against vouchers, but when it came time for the Raney amendment, they laid low. In a memo the day before the vote, caucus leaders asked members to “allow our Republican colleagues to conduct this debate amongst themselves.”

The rural Republicans were staring down a tough vote, the caucus reasoned, and the best path to defeating vouchers was avoiding the appearance of a Democratic-led fight.

Primary season

While Abbott has held open the possibility he could call a fifth special session to push through vouchers, he has more recently turned his attention to replacing the holdouts. As of Thursday, he had endorsed six primary challengers to House Republicans who voted for the voucher-killing amendment.

Abbott has zeroed in on the voucher issue so much that he is backing primary challengers who have politically opposed him in the past. For example, he has backed Rogers’ opponent, Mike Olcott, who donated nearly $30,000 to multiple Abbott primary challengers in 2022.

“I’ve supported the governor on every single legislative priority … except this one,” Rogers said. “He’s always supported me until this came along, and all of a sudden he’s supporting somebody who is an enemy. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Abbott faces several political headwinds. House Republicans are mindful that the last time he significantly meddled in their primaries in 2018, only one out of the three Abbott-backed challengers prevailed. And this time, he has to contend with sometimes dueling endorsements from Paxton, who cares much more about unseating the Republicans who voted to impeach him.

“I am just gonna say it,” Michelle Smith, Paxton’s longtime political aide, posted recently on social media. “I support school choice, but in this primary season, the only issue for me, is did you vote to illegally impeach [Paxton]?”

Republicans involved in the primaries acknowledge that vouchers may poll well but say the support lacks intensity. A poll released Tuesday by the University of Texas at Austin found Republicans overwhelmingly supported voucher programs but ranked “border security” or “immigration” as the top issues facing Texas by a wide margin.

But Abbott and his allies believe they are in a new political moment — and holdouts are whistling past the graveyard. They have looked to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who helped unseat several anti-voucher Republicans last year to make way for the state’s new voucher program.

As for Raney, Abbott will not get a chance to unseat the retiring lawmaker. But he has already endorsed the GOP frontrunner to replace Raney, Paul Dyson, saying he is confident Dyson will “expand school choice for all Texas families once and for all.”

Disclosure: Raise Your Hand Texas, Texas Public Policy Foundation and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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