As another special session begins, GOP primary politics, not popular demand, keep vouchers on the agenda

With the legislature poised to reconvene for a special session (or two, if necessary, per Gov. Greg Abbott) to consider a significant school voucher program in Texas, vouchers, credits, school choice, educational savings accounts (ESAs), or whatever you prefer to call them continue to be a demonstrated priority of key Republican leaders, most consequentially Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. 

But after the repeated failures of the Republican legislature to pass voucher legislation throughout their two decades of total control of the state’s political process, the GOP leadership’s determination to focus efforts yet again on creating a voucher bill invites attention to one of the many challenges still facing the legislature in its latest attempt: it’s lack of importance to most voters. 

Both advocates and opponents of voucher legislation frequently point to the voluminous polling done by non-partisan pollsters and by interested parties to argue that the public favors their respective positions. As we recently wrote, poll results are sensitive to the wording of questions – an aspect of public opinion polling particularly evident in the case of vouchers. The variability in results suggests that attitudes tend to be somewhat fluid depending on specific aspects of the program being evaluated as well as subjective factors such as parenthood, among others – and, overall, reflect generally low levels of interest in a policy issue with complex, often vaguely expressed details.

The resulting malleability in attitudes evident in responses to differently-worded questions reflects a larger factor shaping the politics of the voucher debate: both generally and within the realm of education politics and policy, most voters don’t consider vouchers a major policy priority.

To the extent that the politics around vouchers are nested within the larger ambit of public education policy, public education is an issue with necessarily limited direct impact on most voters, as we’ve written previously. UT/TXP polling shows that just under one in five voters indicate that they have a child in Texas’ public education system. (That share may be higher for all adults in the state, not all of whom are voters.) This isn’t to say that voters — maybe even reasonably large shares — don’t see broader benefits in an adequate, robust, or even good public education system in Texas. But it’s unlikely to be a central presence in their daily lives if they don’t have school-age children, or aren't employed in the education sector.

Polling results reflect the relatively low priority most voters assign to education policy. Asked at the beginning of the legislative session what the legislature should prioritize this year in an open-ended question (i.e. the respondent could provide any answer they wanted), only 5% of voters mentioned anything having to do with public education, with more mentioning the economy (6%), gun control/safety (7%), inflation or the cost of living (8%), and immigration or border security (24%). In the most recent UT/TXP poll, conducted in August of this year, asked the most important problem facing Texas, 2% said education, tied with health care and taxes, and behind ten other issues.

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Immigration / Border security24%
Inflation / Cost of living8%
Gun control / Gun safety7%
The economy6%
Energy / The electric grid4%
Health care4%
Property taxes4%

Even when limiting the focus only on education policy, neither voters overall nor Republicans place a high priority on vouchers. Asked in August how important it is for the Legislature to address a number of educational policy priorities in the upcoming special session, only 26% of voters said that establishing a voucher, educational savings account (ESA), or school choice program was “extremely important,” less than said the same about facilities and infrastructure improvement (28%), public school financing (37%), parental rights (44%), teacher pay and/or retention (45%), curriculum (47%), or school safety (60%). Only 17% of Democratic voters thought this was extremely important, fewer than any of the other issues considered. Even among Republicans, only 34% identified establishing a voucher program as extremely important — with significantly higher shares saying the same of curriculum (60%), school safety (61%), and parental rights (65%).

Share of Texas Voters Saying Each of the Following is an "Extremely Important" Priority for the Legislature to Address in K-12 Public Education
(August 2023 University of Texas / Texas Politics Project Poll)
  Overall Republicans Democrats
School safety 60% 61% 62%
Curriculum (i.e. what students are taught) 47% 60% 36%
Teacher pay / teacher retention 45% 30% 64%
Parental rights 44% 65% 25%
Public school financing 37% 26% 50%
Facilities and school infrastructure improvements 28% 18% 39%
Vouchers, educational savings accounts (ESAs), or other "school choice" legislation 26% 34% 17%

Most voters with strongly held opinions about vouchers, pro or con, likely sort into two basic groups: those with a direct interest in the policy, and those with strong ideological commitments on either the right or the left, which can be expected to lead them to support or oppose such policies in principle (respectively).

Those with a direct interest might include parents who would benefit from a school choice program (e.g. homeschooling parents, parents who send their children to private schools, parents or future parents who want or intend to send their children to private schools); and those who expect to be political losers as a result of diverting resources away from public schools (e.g. teachers, school district officials, employees, contractors, and maybe some very engaged public school parents).

Voucher advocates driven by ideological commitments might plausibly include, though are not limited to, those voters who endorse more access to parochial education for philosophical reasons; voters who believe that tax dollars used for education should be left to the discretion of the parent (it’s their taxes!); and voters who favor more market-based mechanisms in public education.

Voucher opponents might include those voters with a strong and broadly applied commitment to the separation of church and state; voters who view public education, specifically, as a public good; and those voters with strong, if potentially self-interested, commitments to the public education system (e.g. engaged parents of children in public schools) — many of whom may view voucher or voucher-like programs as the leading edge of a wider undermining of the public education system.

It is unlikely that these groups individually or together make up a large share of the overall electorate (see the previously mentioned post about the limited salience of public education). The relatively low level of salience likely contributes to voters assigning a correspondingly low level of overall importance to establishing a program that would enroll only a tiny percentage of the student population in Texas without providing any benefit to the vast majority of students educated in the state’s public education system.

Voucher programs are a niche policy in a low-salience policy area. Indiana’s school choice program established over a decade ago saw significant growth last year (along with attendant growth in that state’s financial liability related to the program), but appears to service fewer than 5% of students. If we simplify our math, a generous estimate of the Texas voting population with a direct potential interest in the establishment of a school choice program based on the Indiana model might be only 5% (potential program participants) of 20% of voters (those voters with children currently in the public school system, ignoring that many of these voters are married to each other), or 1% of all voters. In Texas, the legislative budget board estimated 25,000 program participants in the first fiscal year of the voucher program considered during the legislative session, with up to 42,000 students by 2028. Given that the state of Texas educates (approximately) 5.4 million public school students, the state’s own estimates suggest that the program would only impact between 0.46% and 0.88% of students. Applying the same math above points to fewer than 0.2% of voters who might be directly impacted.

This somewhat obvious point may surprise those who might have made the mistake of interpreting the intensity of the coalitions for and against vouchers as an indication of their relative size – or the scale of vouchers’ likely impact, at least in the first instance of any policy likely to be implemented.

The 88th legislative session provided evidence to support the notion that legislators recognize the limited appeal of voucher programs. After successfully campaigning on the parental rights message during the 2022 election, explicit efforts were made to lump the establishment of a voucher program in with more salient efforts to expand parental rights in Texas. Parental rights provided the umbrella concept for the initial vehicle for vouchers in the Senate, Brandon Creighton’s SB 8  –  and took pride of place in both the structure of the bill and communications about it.

While it may be tempting for advocates to think that parental rights could be parlayed into support for the establishment of a voucher program, polling results don’t readily support the idea that voters automatically include vouchers within the rubric of  parental rights. The August survey asked voters to evaluate each education policy priority independently, which allowed respondents to assign the same degree of importance to establishing a voucher program as parental rights if they viewed them as equally important. Voters declined to do so, assigning significantly lower priority to vouchers.

The lack of comparative priority voters assign to vouchers and the failure of recent efforts to broaden support by yoking the issue to broader appeals suggest a lack of critical mass of support for such a program among both voters and a majority of legislators in the House. Yet the issue remains sufficiently potent in elite circles for the governor to call a special session focused on it, and for activists to continue trying to make the issue a litmus test for Republicans. Why?

The resurgence of vouchers as a central preoccupation of Republican leaders reflects two mutually reinforcing factors, neither of which necessarily signals either broad interest or broad support among the public. First, polling shows that Texas Republicans hold, on balance, negative views of the public education system fed by pandemic-era learning and the politics pandemic policy conflicts activated at the local level. Second, the issue remains a potent one in elite politics within the Republican Party, as major donors determined to promote vouchers as part of efforts to combat a perceived subversion of public education by secular, progressive teachers and administrators continue to pressure statewide incumbents and take advantage of their disproportionate influence in low-turnout Republican primaries dominated by the most conservative and ideologically driven Republican voters.

The negative reservoir in Republicans’ sentiment is evident in polling data since 2021. Negative views of public education among Republicans and conservatives are now regular features of Texas public opinion. These patterns in attitudes underline the roots of ideologically-driven support for vouchers based more on systemic suspicions about the nature of contemporary public education than on direct stakeholder concerns about the efficacy of schools (or the system writ large). These views are consistent with the frequently expressed views of voucher opponents that such programs represent the leading edge of broader efforts to undermine public education institutions in the state.

In three polls conducted over the last 18 months (June 2022, June 2023, August 2023), fewer than a third of Republican voters held favorable views of K-12 public schools, with less than 10% holding “very favorable” views; between 46% and 53% held unfavorable views. (This in contrast to Texans overall and to Democrats, among whom pluralities held favorable views.)

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Very favorable15%
Somewhat favorable30%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable20%
Somewhat unfavorable19%
Very unfavorable14%
Don't know/No opinion3%

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Very favorable25%7%5%
Somewhat favorable36%21%27%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable21%22%18%
Somewhat unfavorable10%21%26%
Very unfavorable5%23%22%
Don't know/No opinion2%6%2%

Negative views of public schools have set in more deeply among the most conservative Texans.  In August 2023, among those who identified as “extremely conservative,” 27% expressed favorable views while 57% expressed unfavorable views (28% very unfavorable).

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Very favorable8%5%5%
Somewhat favorable19%25%22%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable26%19%15%
Somewhat unfavorable31%25%29%
Very unfavorable12%20%28%
Don't know/No opinion2%5%0%

Negative views of schools appear associated with support for vouchers among this group. The most extreme conservatives are more supportive of voucher programs than other, less intense conservatives: 64% of the same group supported “redirecting state tax revenue to help parents pay for some of the cost of sending their children to private or parochial schools," while 31% opposed. In an alternate wording that didn’t mention tax revenue, support for “establishing a voucher, educational savings account (ESA), or other “school choice” program in Texas” was slightly higher – 70% supported the proposition while only 15% were opposed.

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Strongly support14%32%41%
Somewhat support38%29%23%
Somewhat oppose21%13%11%
Strongly oppose16%17%20%
Don't know/No opinion12%9%6%

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Strongly support34%46%49%
Somewhat support25%20%21%
Somewhat oppose6%5%8%
Strongly oppose5%7%7%
Don't know/No opinion30%22%15%

And, not surprisingly, the most conservative of conservatives are more likely to think vouchers are an important public education priority than are Texas voters overall, and are more likely to think so than all Texas Republicans. Among the extremely conservative, 44% consider vouchers “extremely important,” compared to 34% of Republicans and 26% of all voters.

So we end up finding ourselves in the middle of a familiar story, in which GOP primary politics are the tail wagging the Texas dog. Vouchers are a boutique issue, buoyed by a reasonably receptive audience, primarily Republicans, joined by a non-trivial minority of Democrats likely wearied by the impact of the pandemic on the practice and politics of public education, or by sustained local failures. But the polish of public demand for vouchers that advocates apply to the issue isn’t evident in the polling.

The concerted push for “educational savings accounts” (per the Governor’s call) in the third special session of the 88th Legislature illustrates one of the defining features of Texas politics over the last few sessions: the ability of the most rightward coalitional elements within the GOP to extract policy from the Texas Legislature based on the threat that failing to deliver on a policy viewed as critical by a minority of GOP voters will result in primary challenges to legislators who voted the wrong way. The Governor has made this much clear in giving the Legislature two special sessions to pass a voucher bill before “it’s time to send this to the voters themselves to vote in the primary.” Polling data clearly suggest it’s these GOP primary voters, made up of the most conservative and partisan Republicans, who are much more likely to consider vouchers salient to their vote than are general election voters. The issue is thus part of an increasingly familiar dynamic in the political environment in Texas. Relatively narrow interests among the rarified primary electorate and the coalitional universe of the GOP are able to leverage their influence in low-turnout GOP primaries to buttress support for, and weaken opposition to, policies that are not a priority of the overall electorate — or even among Republicans on the whole. This dynamic produced the state’s prohibitive abortion laws, and the legislature’s avoidance of open consideration of widely supported gun safety legislation.

The particulars of the current political moment – particularly the intense factional politics of the failed effort to remove Ken Paxton from office, the related hostility between the House and Senate and their respective leaders, the ever-shifting gravity of the relationship among the Governor, Lt. Governor, and the Speaker of the House – all add to the fog of war hovering over the coming fight over vouchers. But the increasingly dysfunctional one-party system in Texas makes it likely that the legislature and the governor will deliver another example of governance determined by the politics of factional in-fighting rather than responsiveness to broad public demand. 

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