Gov. Abbott heats up school voucher debate, calling for ESAs ‘for every child’ in Texas

Universal education savings accounts would give money to families for use at private schools, other services.

Gov. Greg Abbott said “every child in the state of Texas” needs access to a voucher-like program that gives parents public dollars to spend on private school tuition or other educational expenses.

Speaking at Annapolis Christian Academy in Corpus Christi on Tuesday night, Abbott said education savings accounts are what Texas needs to give families options. His remarks come as lawmakers push voucher-like bills this legislative session.

“When a school does fall short of excellence, when it strays too far from the fundamentals or simply cannot meet the unique needs of a particular child, parents should not be helpless,” he said. “They should be able to choose the education option that is best for their child.”


The state piloted a form of such savings accounts through microgrants made available to select students with disabilities in 2020 during the height of the pandemic.

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“It’s been so successful,” Abbott said of the program. The state awarded $1,500 grants to more than 65,000 students, according to the Texas Education Agency. “But that program shouldn’t be limited.”


Efforts to expand small, limited voucher-like programs for students with disabilities or students who attend poor-performing schools are already underway in states across the country, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also calling for universal school vouchers this month.

Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick both made parental rights pillars of their reelection campaigns and the debate is expected to be contentious this legislative session.

The governor cited ongoing parent concerns over the lasting impacts of schools’ COVID-19 policies, students underperforming in some public schools and what content, especially around race and sexuality, is being taught in the classroom, during his appearance Tuesday night.


“No one knows what is better for a child’s education than their parents. Parents deserve the freedom to choose the education that is best for their child,” he said. “Parents must be restored to being the primary decision-makers in their education.”

How the state could funnel public dollars to parents to use for their child’s education varies. Traditional vouchers often send the funds straight to the private school or educational institution where the student enrolls.

Education savings accounts give the money directly to families, sometimes in the form of a preloaded debit card. Tax credit scholarships are another choice option, which gives tax breaks to individuals who donate to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships.

Dax Gonzalez, division director of governmental relations for the Texas Association for School Boards, says he isn’t sure that ESAs would give families the type of transparency many are seeking.

“At a time when parents want more transparency around their children’s education, ESA vouchers would send public funds to private entities with absolutely no accountability to taxpayers or requirements to give parents access to curriculum, instructional materials, and library books,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez and other public education advocates question Abbott’s comparison of the limited grant program for students with disabilities to a broader ESA program.

“The reason the state’s current microgrant program for students requiring special education services has been working well is because of the built-in accountability,” he said. “TEA and Education Service Centers identify and inform parents of approved services and providers, and services are selected to complement a student’s” individual education program that outlines a child’s specific needs.

What type of institution could accept a voucher, where parents could use ESA dollars and how a student’s academic performance is measured are all concerns opponents of voucher programs often raise.


Nevertheless, several Texas lawmakers have already filed bills creating varying voucher-like programs this session.

A bill filed by Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, would establish the “Texas Parental Empowerment Program,” or an education savings account program to be administered by the state comptroller.

Another, filed by Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, would give tax credits to those contributing to eligible educational assistance organizations, such as donating to a private school’s scholarship fund. A third, filed by Rep. Cody Vasut, R-Angleton, would allow parents to be reimbursed for qualifying education expenses each year.

Voucher-like proposals have been consistently defeated in Texas by a coalition of urban Democrats and rural Republicans, who did not want to funnel state money away from public schools.


Patrick has proposed carving out rural communities and limiting voucher eligibility to students in urban school districts.

Public school advocates worry drops in enrollment will lead to funding cuts for already underfunded public schools and funnel away other resources. They point to a variety of options that Texas public schools already offer.

Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Angelica Ramsey called vouchers “criminal” during an event last fall as she and other North Texas school leaders addressed the challenges school systems are facing.

No matter the voucher-type program used, it would harm public schools, Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said in a statement Wednesday.


“Most school funding is issued on a per-pupil basis, so every student with a so-called ‘education savings account’ would negatively impact a district’s revenue for operations, facilities, etc., as those costs do not decline in proportion to the decrease in enrollment,” Holmes said.

Opponents of vouchers also argue private schools aren’t held to the same standards as public schools, aren’t required to serve all students, especially those with special needs who often cost more to educate, and that public money shouldn’t be used to send children to religious schools.

Meanwhile, at Tuesday’s event, Abbott touted his efforts to provide more funding to public schools and teacher salaries. Last year, Abbott created a task force to develop solutions for addressing the state’s ongoing teacher shortage.


“During this session that’s already begun, we’re going to add even more money to public schools and teachers this session,” Abbott told the Corpus Christi audience. “But given all that, I think you can agree with me without saying, it’d be wrong if we said that more money always leads to better results.”

Proponents of school voucher programs argue failing public schools will improve if they face private competition and that parents should be able to have the final say in where their children are educated.

Mandy Drogin, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Next Generation Texas campaign, joined Abbott on stage saying momentum is growing because many parents don’t feel empowered.

Parents want “transparency, quality and respect,” she said, adding that “twenty years’ worth of data” shows that private school choice competition forces every school to be better.


Myriad research around school choice programs does show that parent satisfaction goes up when they have more options, but conclusions around the impact on student achievement are murkier.

Currently, 30 states have some sort of school voucher-like program with 10 of them having education savings account.

Abbott was visiting Annapolis Christian Academy by invitation from the American Federation for Children - Texas for a “parent empowerment night.” It is is one of the nation’s largest advocates for school choice. Drogin was previously the state director for the Texas chapter.

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