ANALYSIS: Gov. Abbott Gets Serious On ‘Recalibrating’ K-12 Education

After naming school choice a priority and indicating to the press he would be “heavily involved” in the push for an education savings account program this legislative session, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is putting spend-happy educrats on notice.

While there are still three months left in the current legislative session, Abbott’s transition from cautiousness on school choice in previous sessions to seemingly full-time evangelist for it is one of the most notable happenings this 88th Texas Legislature.

Due to his previous shyness on education freedom, some have speculated that this may be positioning for a widely predicted presidential run. However, as the Texas Tribune commented, “Abbott shrugged off the idea that he is locked in a conservative policy rivalry with Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who is likely to run for president in 2024. Abbott is also a possible White House contender, though he is seen as less likely — and formidable — as DeSantis for now.”

Reaching rural Texans

Presidential aspirations or not, Abbott has hit the campaign trail for school choice where the most convincing would need to take place: rural Texas and small towns.

It has long been noted that rural Texas legislators are reluctant to embrace school choice for numerous reasons, including the relative conservative culture of rural schools as compared to their urban and suburban counterparts, and the fact that public schools (and the requisite athletic programs) are widely celebrated the centerpieces of small town living.

But Abbott didn’t start out in the Panhandle. Rather, he went to the U.S.-Mexico border where the towns are just as small, not nearly as Republican, and are arguably full of just as many challenges that urban districts face from drugs to violence.

Abbott has made significant inroads along the Texas border during his administration, going as far as to reserve many key appointments for Rio Grande Valley civic leaders. Recent GOP gains in South Texas may be due to his influence, as well as a recent outreach by the Republican National Committee, including a community outreach center.

Rural towns have gotten the spotlight over the last election cycle. Democratic 2022 gubernatorial hopeful Beto O’Rourke banked on small towns to put him over the edge, followed by a tour of small counties by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

More than just tax relief

With a gargantuan budget surplus that is greater than the entire budget of some small states, Abbott is being pressured by the Republican grassroots to offer school district taxpayers relief.

School district property taxes are almost always the highest on a property owner’s annual tax bill in Lone Star State, with the state’s share having grown significantly since the George W. Bush era and No Child Left Behind. Yet here’s Abbott, not only calling for temporary property tax relief but (and hold on to your chairs, longtime fiscal conservatives) reining in public ed spending.

“What is our goal for education in Texas?” Abbott said today at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation’s biennial Policy Summit, pausing to make sure the legislative crowd was paying attention. “Every legislator needs to think about this. It seems the way that education policy is approached in the state of Texas is that our goal is to provide more funding for education. That seems to be the demand that we hear, and that seems to be the solution that’s provided.

“That’s not a goal, that’s a strategy.

“If you’re a Texan, our goal is one thing … Our goal is to be No. 1 … [particularly] in jobs and the economy. And there’s only one way to assure that you’ll never be No. 1 at something. And that’s to never aspire to be No. 1 … I think it’s time for Texas to recalibrate. Texas needs to set a goal, an aspiration, something that is clear and tangible, and unequivocal. Something that may seem bold, but is proven to be achievable. Texas must set our sights on being ranked No. 1 in the United States for the best education system in the entire country.”

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Behind-the-scenes push

Austin’s KXAN-TV reported a leaked phone conversation from February in which a high-ranking Texas Education Agency (TEA) official advocated for the governor’s effort to promote education savings as a form of school choice.

During the call, the official asked a parent having an issue with a North Texas school district if they would be interested in providing some info to an Abbott speechwriter. According to KXAN, the official was fishing for stories to share from parents who have withdrawn their children from public schools in favor of charter or private schools.

The official apologized. “Oops” moment aside, this indicates that the TEA, under the leadership of Abbott appointee Mike Morath, is actively pursuing a school choice direction. It’s also fair play as public school administrators across Texas, in league with the major teacher’s unions, have long been known to politick against conservative reforms on the public dime.

Legislative chances

Lt. Gov. Patrick has again made school choice a priority for the Texas Senate, setting both school vouchers and teacher retention as legislative priorities.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan has thus far set his own atypical list of priorities that has not included school choice (yet). The battle will no doubt be fought in the lower chamber this session.

In recent school years, and according to the aforementioned KXAN report, TEA data show a record number of teachers left the classroom, citing low pay, lack of resources, and burdensome mandates.

Abbott has a mandate from the left and the right to do something about majorly recalibrating K-12 education in Texas. What exactly the inevitable solution becomes will depend on how firm a stance he takes with the House over the next few months. So far all indications are on a serious school choice policy goal for Team Abbott — not just “a strategy.”

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