Anybody notice that there was scarcely a peep during the 86th Legislature about the “Bathroom Bill” or school vouchers, two huge issues among Republican lawmakers two years ago? The reason may be that they were still feeling the burn from those hot potatoes. After the patience-testing 85th Legislature, some “school choice” cheerleaders were booted from the squad via the 2018 elections.
With the 2020 presidential election and blue storm clouds looming over the red state, Republicans finally (and wisely) stopped yapping about “school choice” and instead focused on school finance. The session ended with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick succeeding in passing property tax reform and teacher pay raises, appeasing a large and vocal voting demographic that the GOP will need in 2020 with an unpopular Republican president facing re-election.
Property tax reform and pay raises aside, Baptist preacher Charles Foster Johnson feels that Pastors for Texas Children (PTC) deserves much of the credit for quashing the privatization of education, which voucher opponents believe would cause significant harm to the 93 percent of Texas children who depend on the public school system. Founded in 2013, PTC has 2,000 members, many of whom participated in a strong get-out-the-vote effort last year (“The [Pul]pit and the Pendulum,” Feb. 28, 2018). In Johnson’s view, PTC effectively put the fear of God into pro-voucher lawmakers.
The divisive voucher effort failed in 2017, but there was no guarantee it wouldn’t resurface in 2019. The idea has been served up multiple times, like stale leftovers.
During the 85th Legislature, the Senate passed a watered-down version of the voucher plan, allowing parents of students with disabilities to use vouchers to pay for private school or homeschooling. The House, though, wouldn’t get onboard, and Senate leaders refused to approve a restructure of the school finance system without those appropriations. When an impasse resulted, Abbott demanded that lawmakers pass both measures during a special summer session. That didn’t happen.
For now, with another legislative session safely behind them, voucher opponents can rest easy –– at least for a while
“We have astonishingly succeeded,” Johnson said. “It was a great legislative session. It was not perfect, but it was good for public education, for public schools.”
There were bills by pro-voucher lawmakers that contained “little sneaky rider amendments that were voucher-type amendments,” Johnson said, “but they got so little traction that they’re hardly even worth discussing. They didn’t go anywhere. Not only that, we got this great new funding for our schools.”
Johnson knows that another attempt could be made to move the state to a school voucher system, but if that happens, PTC “will be there to stop it.” And although the 86th Legislative session has ended, the repercussions from 2017 have not.
“The members that did support vouchers in 2017, even though they did not in 2019, those members are going to continue to have strong opposition in the next electoral cycle,” Johnson pledged. “People do not have a short memory about this. Vouchers are a corruption of the public good, and people remember it, and they do not appreciate it. We saw 12 House seats and two or three Senate seats flip last year, and we’re going to see that much or more next year.”
Among the losses for voucher pushers was one of their most vocal boosters, District 65 State Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton. Simmons lost his bid for a fourth term to Democrat Michelle Beckley.
Big victories for PTC in Johnson’s home base of Tarrant County included the District 99 House contest and the District 10 Senate race. Longtime District 99 State Rep. Charlie Geren won a primary victory against a second-time Republican challenger, Bo French, who had the backing of the heavily funded pro-voucher group Empower Texans. In the District 10 competition, longtime Burleson school district trustee Beverly Powell succeeded in ousting Tea Party favorite Konni Burton.
Johnson feels that PTC’s impact has been “huge –– we are identified as the anti-voucher group and among the groups that are at the tip of the spear because our message that giving public tax dollars to support private, religious schools is a violation of the First Amendment and church-state separation,” the preacher said. “It’s a powerful message, and even the pro-voucher people really don’t have an answer to it. We’re known at the Capitol for having played a key role in getting pro-public education House and Senate members elected.”