Over the past 13 legislative sessions, from 1995 to 2017, members of the Texas legislature have introduced 54 bills to subsidize moving children from public to private schools. Private school choice bills had the support of the last three Texas Governors (Bush, Perry, Abbott). The current Lieutenant Governor is a vocal supporter as well.
Yet every one of these bills has foundered in the legislature.
The failure of school choice bills in Texas has puzzled and frustrated advocates. After all, red Texas is more politically conservative than purple Florida and Nevada, which have both passed private school choice bills in recent years. And since gerrymandering its legislative districts in 2011, Texas’ Republican party has enjoyed a 2 to 1 majority in both houses of the state legislature.
An autopsy of the 2017 push for private school choice can shed some light on the challenges that advocates have faced since 1995.
Passed the Senate, failed the House
What happened in 2017 was similar to what happened in 2015. A private school choice bill passed the Senate, but the House refused to consider it.
On March 30, the Senate passed Senate Bill 3 by a vote of 18 to 13. The bill proposed two private school choice programs: tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts.
The House did not take up Senate Bill 3. Instead, on April 6, the House passed Amendment 8 to its general appropriation bill. Amendment 8 declared that, for the next two years, state funds “may not be used to pay for or support a school voucher, education savings account, or tax credit scholarship program or a similar program through which a child may use state money for nonpublic education.”
Amendment 8 passed by a vote of 103 to 44, with two members absent and the Speaker abstaining.
Breaking down the vote
Why did 70 percent of the House vote for Amendment 8?
The explanation starts with party. Every Democrat who was present in the House voted Yes on Amendment 8–that is, No on private school choice.
|Representatives voting on Amendment 8|
Democrats voted Yes despite the fact that Democratic districts have, on average, just as many private students as Republican districts.
|Party||Districts||Private students||Private students/district|
Of course, House Democrats couldn’t pass Amendment 8 by themselves. More than half the Republican party also voted Yes.
What explained the Republican split? Many reporters, lobbyists, and members interpreted it as a divide between rural and urban. But that’s an oversimplification. There are actually two dimensions to the split.
One dimension is ideology. The Republican party is fairly broad in Texas, with some members very conservative and others quite moderate. To put numbers on that: the political scientists Shor and McCarty have scored the voting patterns of every state legislator in every US state from 1999 to 2014. In the 2014 Texas House, scores ranged from -2.1 to +2.6, with positive scores indicating more conservative voting patterns. All Democrats had negative scores, and all Republicans had positive scores, but some Republicans scored barely above zero, and others scored over 2.
Ideology scores from 2014 strongly predicted 2017 votes on Amendment 8. Of the 10 Republicans with the most conservative ideology scores, 9 voted No. Of the 10 Republicans with the most liberal ideology scores, 9 voted Yes. The only liberal Republican who didn’t vote Yes was the Speaker, who traditionally does not vote but clearly favored the Amendment or he would have kept it off the floor.
Now in the middle of the Republican party–among members with ideology scores between 1 and 2–the vote wasn’t about ideology. What mattered for mainstream Republicans was their constituents–how many private students they had in their own district. Among mainstream Republicans with more than a thousand private students in their district, three-quarters voted No–i.e., for private school subsidies. Among those with fewer than a thousand private students in their district, two-third voted No–i.e., against private school subsidies.
Too narrow a coalition
What happened in Texas in 2017 was typical of failed efforts to pass private school choice. The coalition was too narrow. You can’t pass a private school choice law if your only reliable supporters are the far right and families who are already in private schools.
Successful pushes for school choice typically assemble a broader coalition which includes minority parents who are dissatisfied with their neighborhood public schools and view school choice as a civil right issue. It was a coalition of minority parents and free market types who got the charter school movement rolling in the 1980 and 90s.
Ironically, the spread of charter schools can actually create problems for advocates of private school choice. Many Americans believe, incorrectly, that charter schools are private, and those who know better sometimes argue that charter schools offer plenty of choice within the public sector.
Some Texas advocates for private school choice are aware of the need to broaden their coalition, and the marches held in Austin during January’s School Choice Week included highly visible groups of black and Hispanic children. Yet in the House only one member of the Black and Mexican American caucuses voted No on Amendment 8.
|Votes on Amendment 8|
Note. Despite its name, the Mexican American Caucus is no longer limited to Mexican Americans. Today it includes all legislators representing majority Latino communities.
The opposition of the Black and Hispanic Caucuses is not surprising, since in the Texas House these caucuses are practically synonymous with the Democratic party.
Only time will tell whether advocates for private school choice can broaden their coalition in 2017, 2019, or beyond.