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School voucher fallout leaves Texas Legislature with no clear sense on next steps

Gov. Greg Abbott, who had threatened lawmakers with more special sessions to pass the proposal, seems to have turned his attention to punishing voucher opponents in next year’s primary elections.
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Posted at 6:37 AM, Nov 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-22 07:37:28-05

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TEXAS (Texas Tribune) — Texas lawmakers are returning home for Thanksgiving as uncertainty looms over Gov. Greg Abbott’s yearlong push for school vouchers, which the House rejected Friday in its most direct vote on the issue yet.

Both chambers quickly gaveled in and out Tuesday, announcing they would reconvene again Monday. But it is unclear what happens next at the Capitol after the House voted 84-63 on Friday to strip a voucher program out of a broad education bill.

Abbott responded to the defeat by promising to “continue advancing school choice in the Texas Legislature and at the ballot box.” He has not said whether he wants legislators to keep trying in the current special session — which still can go until Dec. 6 — or whether he would call a fifth special session to push again for vouchers.

"Texas parents deserve the freedom to choose the education path that's best for their child to succeed,” Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement for this story. “Governor Abbott has made it clear that he will do whatever it takes — however long it takes — to deliver that freedom for all Texas families through school choice.”

On Monday, Abbott began turning his attention to the primary season, announcing reelection endorsements for 58 House Republicans who opposed the amendment by state Rep. John Raney, R-Bryan, that removed vouchers from House Bill 1. Other allies of Abbott on the issue, like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, have also signaled since Friday their focus is shifting to campaigns.

Voucher opponents in both parties hoped that Friday’s vote was decisive enough to put an end to Abbott’s crusade, which dates back to his 2022 reelection campaign. To drive home the message, anti-voucher state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, led the House in passing a motion to prohibit any reconsideration of Raney’s amendment.

“It's time to shift the focus,” Raney tweeted afterward.

Other House Republicans lamented Friday’s outcome, especially because the amendment’s passage likely doomed the entire bill, which includes increased public school funding and teacher pay raises. Abbott had made clear he would veto the bill if it did not include the voucher provision.

“I don’t know whether the Governor will call us back for a 5th special session or not,” state Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, said in a Facebook post Sunday. “Either way, I look forward to the next time I have the opportunity to provide much needed teacher pay raises, increased funding for our local schools, and parents with the opportunity to choose the system of education they believe is best for their child.”

Prior to the amendment vote, Abbott raised the prospect he would summon lawmakers back for another special session if they removed the voucher provision. He said that even if the Senate accepted the change, he “would just have to veto it and we would start all over again."

“We’d be spending December here, maybe January here, maybe February here,” Abbott said.

Yet Abbott has not repeated that threat since Friday, and both chamber leaders have stayed quiet on their plans for the rest of the special session. The Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, issued a long statement Tuesday bashing the House and its leader, House Speaker Dade Phelan, for “killing school choice,” signaling he sees little hope for a revival of the proposal in the near future.

In its brief meeting Tuesday morning, the Senate referred two House proposals related to school safety to its Education Committee. But the committee did not immediately schedule hearings on the legislation, and it remains to be seen if the proposals will advance any further.

The Senate is set to return 12:30 p.m. Monday, while the House is slated to come back at 4 p.m. that day.

Even before HB 1 reached the floor, the House was struggling to consistently maintain quorum. By all appearances, lawmakers were starting to move on with their lives and uninterested in traveling to Austin unless they knew major legislation would be up for debate.

The fourth special session has also overlapped with the candidate filing period for the March primary, which started Nov. 11 and ends Dec. 11. Lawmakers are busy firming up their political plans as colleagues announce retirements and other elected offices become open.

Abbott has long suggested he would politically target GOP lawmakers who block his voucher crusade. The endorsements he announced Monday were seen as the first move in that direction.

Some of Abbott’s fellow Republicans agree it is time for primary voters to have their say. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said he wants to see a significant turnover in the House as a result of the Raney amendment.

“Many of us are so resolute on this, that we're going to break caucus rules, and we're gonna support primary challengers,” Toth said.

Brian Lopez and Zach Despart contributed reporting.

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"School voucher fallout leaves Texas Legislature with no clear sense on next steps" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/11/22/texas-legislature-school-vouchers-uncertainty/.

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