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With property tax cut done, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott still pushing for school choice plan

The governor has described a voucher-like plan as a must-have priority, even though a coalition of rural Republicans and urban Democrats have opposed it.

After months of drama that divided the state’s top leaders, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott will soon sign property tax relief legislation that fulfills his top campaign promise.

If approved by voters, the plan will provide about $18 billion in property tax cuts, with the centerpiece being the homestead exemption hike sought by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Abbott had said that he would sign a bill sent to him by the Legislature, but he publicly sided with House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, during the debate over the mechanics of the proposals.


With the property tax cut legislation complete, Abbott will now continue to push for a more controversial voucher-like program that would allow the state to provide public funds for students attending private schools.

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The governor has described school choice as a must-have priority, even though a coalition of rural Republicans and urban Democrats have made passage of such legislation an uphill battle in the House. During this year’s regular legislative session, House Republicans and Democrats rejected significant school choice proposals, delivering Abbott a defeat.


But he’s not giving up.

Dave Carney, the governor’s chief political strategist, said Abbott will likely call a special session on school choice in October. It would occur after the conclusion of the September Senate impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton on bribery and corruption allegations.


“The governor, the team and our allies continue to work on this,” Carney told me. “We’re getting closer every week. When we have the trial and everything else behind us, then the governor will call a special session, probably in October, and we’ll get everything done.”

The big question, however, is what can be done to mollify rural Republicans who take pride in their public schools and are skeptical about the benefit of a voucher-like program.

Even if they like the theory of school choice, Abbott and his allies on the issue haven’t been able to convince small-town Texans that school choice won’t hurt public schools.

The "Big 3" leaders -- the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker -- set the tone. In the past, sometimes, two have paired off against the third in acrimony over big issues. The speaker of the House, Beaumont GOP Rep. Dade Phelan (center), is shown in 2019 with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (left) and Gov. Greg Abbott at a bill-signing ceremony.(Elizabeth Conley / AP)

Versions of the plan supported by the Senate but rejected by the House would have created $8,000 education savings accounts, or ESAs, for families to spend on private school tuition, tutoring and books or other materials. School funding is largely tied to enrollment. So for five years, the Senate’s plan would give small districts, including rural areas, a financial cushion by providing $10,000 for each student who left using an ESA.

Similar to his position at the end of the last legislative session, Abbott isn’t interested in a diminished plan.

“He’s certainly not going to take a small-token, face-saving, piddling amount,” Carney said. “There are a lot of kids that need to be helped, and ultimately everybody deserves to have school choice.”

There’s also about $4 billion in budgeted but uncommitted money for public education that could be used as a bargaining chip. Teacher pay raises, for instance, were left out of the property tax reduction deal.


“There’s teacher pay raises and additional money for rural schools and a whole bunch of other opportunities to really make some tremendous reforms in education,” Carney said. “I’m sure that will be part of the package and discussion.”

Voucher-like programs have been a tough sell in Texas, and Abbott, usually cautious with his politics, has put his political reputation on the line to make sure a bill gets to his desk. During the legislative session, he staged campaign rallies for school choice across the state, mostly at private Christian schools.

At that time, Rep. Cody Harris, a Palestine Republican who appeared alongside Abbott during his “parent empowerment” tour, said he didn’t see the benefit of the plan in his rural district just southeast of Dallas. But he added that he would listen to opposing arguments on the issue.

Abbott’s flurry of vetoes after the session was mostly aimed at pushing his view on property tax reduction. But he also vetoed bills authored by House members, where his school choice plan didn’t pass.


In the next special session, Abbott will have Patrick, the lieutenant governor, on his side, a sign that politics can change like the Texas weather.

If Abbott and Patrick can’t muster an agreement on a voucher-like program, school choice could be dead until the 2025 legislative session.

Carney is keeping the faith.

“Once the Paxton trial is concluded, there’ll be an opportunity for everyone to get together and figure out how to solve it,” he said.

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