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Gov. Abbott touts school choice agenda at Dallas private school

Conservatives are increasingly pushing for voucher-like programs.

Gov. Greg Abbott pushed his school choice agenda after a roundtable on parents’ role in education at a South Dallas private school on Thursday.

Abbott has made parental rights a cornerstone of his reelection campaign and has said he supports voucher-like efforts for families to use public funds toward private school.

The state should not have the authority to keep children in public school systems where they’re not succeeding, he said after the roundtable at The King’s Academy.

“Some children have different education needs,” Abbott said. “We need to understand that some schools may provide a one-size-fits-all approach to educating our kids, and the fact of the matter is not all kids are that same size — different kids need different programs.”

Abbott talked with parents and administrators at the academy, a private school that mainly serves low-income families and covers about 95% of its operational costs through donations.

Maya Bello’s daughter starts first grade at the academy next week. Although she said there is “nothing wrong with public school,” Bello chose the academy because of its religious affiliations. She added that where children attend school should not solely be decided by what ZIP code they live in.

“That choice should be up to the parent and not the state or anybody else,” Bello, 38, said.

Conservatives appear to be laying the groundwork for a major push toward school vouchers or similar initiatives in the next legislative session.

Texas American Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo issued a statement after Abbott’s event criticizing the governor for appearing to lean into vouchers at a time when the state is struggling with teacher shortages and lags behind others in educator pay. The group represents more than 65,000 teachers and other educational professionals.

“While he spoke of “parental empowerment” and “different options” for education, Abbott may have avoided the word “voucher,” but that’s exactly his goal,” Capo said in his statement. “It’s no surprise, though, that he’d avoid talking transparently about vouchers given so few Texans support them.”

Though Texas lawmakers — including urban Democrats and rural Republicans — have been historically hesitant to pass voucher-like legislation, political observers say there may be a shift this session.

Education culture war rhetoric and a zeroing-in on “parental rights” may have primed the political landscape. Abbott has publicly supported the push and appears ready to escalate his calls for “school choice” as he enters the final months of his gubernatorial campaign.

“There are some parents in this state who want a choice that is different than the government-assigned school for their child,” Abbott said on Thursday.

Giving parents the choice about where to educate their children gives them the power to help their children meet their needs, he said.

Emily Palacios, 31, raises her five children by herself. Because they’re growing up in a single-parent household, she looked for schools that fulfill her children’s academic, physical, spiritual and emotional needs.

“That’s just not something that you see, especially here where we’re from in South Dallas,” Palacios said.

Two of her children are enrolled in The King’s Academy, two in a public charter school and only one in a Dallas ISD school because the academy does not offer her grade level yet. She said her children’s needs were not being fully met in a traditional public school.

How a candidate feels about private school choice and parental rights in education is becoming an increasingly important test within the Republican party. Sen. Ted Cruz has repeatedly referred to it as the “civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

Abbott’s Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, sides with a vocal opposition that argues it’s wrong to funnel state money away from public schools, which serve more than 5 million children.

“Abbott wants to defund our public schools with a voucher program that takes our tax dollars out of our kids’ already underfunded classrooms,” O’Rourke tweeted earlier this month.

The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation has been laying the groundwork toward this fight for months, including by launching a Parental Empowerment tour around the state and labeling expanded school choice a top priority for the 2023 legislative session. Several other groups have formed recently to push for school choice.

Such initiatives come in a variety of forms including vouchers, which are state funds that pay for students to attend private schools; scholarship tax credits; and education savings accounts.

It’s not immediately clear what kind of proposal could gain momentum in Texas. Rural Republicans in Texas traditionally tend to oppose the initiatives because their students often lack alternatives to public schools and such districts are often among the biggest employers in those areas.

As of 2019, 27 states and the District of Columbia had enacted some kind of policy designed to expand access to private education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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