Recoding School Choice as a Parental Right

Public education policy is a perennial focus of the Texas Legislature, and the 88th legislative session currently underway in Austin is no exception – particularly, if a little paradoxically, considering that ramped-up efforts to funnel public funds to private schools are a central part of the public education debate.

Results from the February 2023 University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll provides evidence of how the pandemic, the wide propagation of the trope of “woke education,” and the patterns in the state’s rapid population growth have converged to sharpen the terms of long-fought battles, while also shifting the terrain upon which these battles are being fought.  The current surge in rhetoric and political action based on notions like “parental rights” and the prevalence of “woke education” have provided potential means for overcoming the resistance of a sizable faction of Republican legislators and the demonstrated ambivalence of voters toward state support for private education that “school choice” advocates have historically been unable to overcome in the legislature. 

The language of the most likely vehicle for the creation of a “school choice” program in the Texas Senate, Senate Bill 8, is as literal a representation of the reboot of the Republican leadership’s political strategy as one could ask for. While SB 8, officially authored by Senator Brandon Creighton, contains the much-awaited details of the educational savings accounts (ESA) scheme promoted by Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick, the provisions are nested within a larger set of measures billed as prohibiting the “infringement of parental rights.” Before getting to the ESA provisions about halfway through the 22-page bill, the proposed legislation first tackles au courant matters such as parental rights to access instructional and curriculum materials, opt out of instruction and health care, and other elaborations of such “parental rights and public school responsibilities.” 

Efforts by state leaders to direct public funds to the parents of children in private or parochial schools on a large scale have historically failed to gain majority support in the legislature in the face of resistance in the Texas House of Representatives. (As recently as 2021, 115 house members voted to ban vouchers in a heat-check vote on an amendment to the budget bill.) Conservative hostility toward emerging norms in public education – such as recognizing racial and gender diversity, and embracing previously uncontroversial public health practices like routine vaccinations – has emerged as a powerful, independent force in Republican politics nationally, including in Texas.

The Creighton/Patrick construction of SB 8 exemplifies how the term of art “parental rights,” whatever its uses in other attacks on public education, also provides the opportunity to channel growing conservative suspicions about public education into efforts to tip the scales in favor of creating alternatives paid for by the state, while potentially weakening public education institutions and lessening their social influence. While those suspicions are sufficiently evident in substantial pockets of GOP public opinion in the February 2022 UT/TxPP Poll to present a possible opportunity for critics of public education to press their case, wariness towards public education institutions is not so widespread as to guarantee their success this session.

The backdrop: lukewarm public views of the public education system in a crowded market for legislative attention.

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Not very good30%
Don’t know/No opinion12%

Texans’ assessment of the quality of K-12 public schools in the latest UT/TxPP Poll were mildly positive, but, as they have been for the last decade, ultimately lukewarm. Overall, only 6% of voters rate the public education system as “excellent” — 41% rate it good, and 30% “not very” good. The public education system in Texas is in net-positive territory, but only barely. And given nearly three-quarters of Texas voters endorsing one of the two middling categories, the results don’t qualify as a resounding review.

While partisanship plays a role in these attitudes, the impact is relative. Republican voters are more likely in the current and past polls to rate the public education system as “good” than “not very good” (52% vs. 26% in the February poll) compared to Democrats, the majority of whom split their opinions between “good” and “not very good” (38% vs 35% in February). But almost no difference exists with respect to the share who rate the system as “excellent,” 5% of Democrats and 4% of Republicans in February.

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Not very good36%35%26%
Don’t know/No opinion11%18%10%

The pattern of partisan differences in these responses suggests the likely impact of a school system that has long grappled with vast class-based and geographic differences in the quality of schools. While survey assessments of the education system are not the same as quantitative evaluations (such as spending per pupil or measures of academic readiness or achievement for schools or districts), it’s plausible to suggest that one of the reasons Republican assessments of the K-12 system are higher than those of Democrats is that more affluent, White voters are more likely to identify as Republicans than as Democrats in Texas, so the schools they are familiar with (whether or not they are parents of current students) are likely to be better funded and staffed than those in many Democrats’ ambit. If other survey results suggest persistent complaints about the public education system of an ideological or political nature, the pattern of inequitable resource allocation baked into the public school system is likely to yield better assessments pegged explicitly to “quality” from Republicans who are more likely to live in relatively affluent school districts.

Variance in the assessments provided by different slices of the electorate notwithstanding, public education did not elicit a groundswell of interest in an open-ended question asking which issues should be the legislature’s top priority. Only 5% of respondents mentioned education-related priorities, with little consequential difference in the preferences of partisans.

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Immigration / Border security3%18%49%
Inflation / Cost of living8%6%7%
Gun control / Gun safety13%0%2%
The economy3%11%7%
Energy / The electric grid6%3%2%
Health care7%5%1%
Property taxes3%2%7%

Partisan differences on spending persist amidst a crowded field of competing priorities.

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Too much5%15%17%
About the right amount17%23%42%
Too little71%44%27%
Don't know/No opinion7%18%13%

While almost half of Texas voters, 48%, said the state was spending too little on K-12 public education, that plurality contained a substantial majority of Democrats, 78%, a plurality of independents, 44%, but only about a quarter of Texas’ Republican voters. The plurality, 42%, thought the state was spending about the right amount on public education, while another 17% thought the state was spending too much (joined by only 5% of Democrats).

In the context of other spending priorities competing for a share of a budget fattened with an expected $37.2 billion surplus, public education lands in the middle of the pack if ranked by the shares of Texans who said the state was spending “too little” in a dozen policy areas. As the graphic below illustrates, five other spending priorities finished ahead of K-12 public education: mental health services (60%), electric infrastructure and the grid (56%), health care (52%), water infrastructure (51%), and children in the state’s care (50%).

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ItemDon't know/No opinionToo muchAbout the right amountToo little
Mental health services14%5%21%60%
Electric infra.14%4%25%56%
Health care13%9%26%52%
Water infra.20%4%25%51%
Children in the state's care21%7%22%50%
K-12 public ed.12%12%28%48%
Border security10%28%21%41%
Higher ed.17%18%32%34%
Broadband access30%8%29%34%

The argument from voucher/school choice opponents that providing funds for parents to send their children to private schools will come at the expense of funding for public schools is likely to find some responsiveness — in both directions — given these attitude patterns. Most Republican voters think public schools are already sufficiently funded, meaning that arguments about a voucher program pillaging public accounts are likely to fall on deaf ears, but also that it might be a heavy push if the funding of a voucher-ish system is to be accompanied by increased funding for public schools (especially funding above that which would just keep up with the state’s population growth). 

Fundamental partisan differences in views of the public education system are shaping competing legislative priorities in the 88th legislature.

At first glance, the results of a battery asking Texans to rate the importance of the legislature addressing each of ten different policy areas also seem largely unsurprising. In the aftermath of the Uvalde mass shootings, during which legislative attention has been focused on school safety and mental health (part of a determined avoidance of the role of gun access by Republican leaders), school safety was the most frequent response when respondents were asked what the legislature’s top priority should be, after assessing the importance of each subject without having to choose a priority. Overall, about 3 in 10 voters said the legislature should prioritize school safety (29%), followed by teacher pay and retention (21%), curriculum content (17%), “parental rights” (9%), and vouchers, ESA’s, or some other school choice legislation (8%), with other issues receiving the endorsement of less than 6% of voters.

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School safety29%
Teacher pay / teacher retention21%
Curriculum content (i.e. what students are taught)17%
Parental rights9%
Vouchers, educational savings accounts (ESAs), or other “school choice” legislation8%
Public school financing6%
Facilities and school infrastructure additions or improvements5%
Expanding the number of charter schools3%
Public school library materials1%
The treatment of students who are transgender1%

If the overall responses seem to meet general expectations, sorting those responses by party reveals a lot about how Republicans and Democrats might be thinking about, and prioritizing, the needs of Texas’ public education system. 

Among Democrats, more than two thirds said that they would focus the legislature’s attention on either school safety (33%) or teacher pay and retention (34%), with curriculum content coming in a somewhat distant third place at 17%. 

Among Republicans, more than half, 56%, said the legislature should prioritize curriculum content (25%), “parental rights” (17%), or a school voucher style program (14%) – which aligns with the direction of Senator Creighton’s “parental rights” bill. While school safety remained a top priority for 24% of Texas Republicans, these differences in partisan priorities point to where one should reasonably expect the legislature’s attention to turn when they focus on non-safety related K-12 legislation.

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School safety33%29%24%
Teacher pay / teacher retention34%22%10%
Curriculum content (i.e. what students are taught)7%15%25%
Parental rights2%9%17%
Vouchers, educational savings accounts (ESAs), or other “school choice” legislation2%9%14%
Public school financing9%9%2%
Facilities and school infrastructure additions or improvements8%3%3%
Expanding the number of charter schools3%0%4%
Public school library materials1%0%1%
The treatment of students who are transgender1%4%0%

Partisan differences in preferences become even more telling when broken down by age. While Republicans under 45 prioritize school safety over parental rights by a wide margin (35% to 17%), those 45 and older prioritize curriculum content over school safety (28% to 19%). Among Democrats 45 and older, the plurality, 41%, say that the legislature should focus on teacher pay and retention followed closely by school safety (33%); for Democrats under 45, the top issue is school safety (32%), followed closely by teacher pay (25%), then facility improvements (13%). Younger voters (broadly speaking) more likely to have school-age children appear more cognizant of safety considerations than older voters. Among voters 45 and up, more familiar partisan priorities assert themselves more powerfully. 

These results highlight a fact of public opinion and the politics of education often ignored: the political priorities of the broader public may not necessarily align with the priorities of people more likely to have children, now or in the near future, in the public school system. Given a political system that prioritizes the role of voters in the electorate, the larger share of voters’ priorities are more likely to focus the legislature’s attention than the smaller group of voters more directly affected by public education policy. 

As with almost any instance in which the attention of Texas voters is a factor in elected officials’ decision-making during the legislative session, the seeming preferences of the majority of voters (or voters with school-age children) compete with the preferences of the subset of likely GOP primary voters who are crucial to the electoral fortunes of Republican incumbents, from the governor down to GOP state legislators. The majority of voters who said that they have kids in the public school system, regardless of party, said that the legislature should focus on school safety (35%) and teacher pay/retention (20%). But among the majority of voters who identify as extremely conservative, 63% said the legislature should focus on curriculum content (28%), parental rights (20%), or vouchers (15%), compared to fewer than one in three, 29%, who said school safety (17%) or teacher pay/retention (12%).

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
School safety22%21%17%
Teacher pay / teacher retention21%8%12%
Curriculum content (i.e. what students are taught)22%30%28%
Parental rights10%16%20%
Vouchers, educational savings accounts (ESAs), or other “school choice” legislation8%16%15%
Public school financing7%2%1%
Facilities and school infrastructure additions or improvements3%2%1%
Expanding the number of charter schools6%4%5%
Public school library materials1%1%1%
The treatment of students who are transgender0%0%0%

Resurgent and slightly rebranded: Public opinion and the renewed push for school choice.

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Strongly support19%
Somewhat support27%
Somewhat oppose12%
Strongly oppose29%
Don’t know/No opinion12%

As the graphic above suggests, “school choice” of some type was the top priority in the educational policy domain of only 8% of Texans – including 14% of Republicans (4th highest) and 2% of Democrats (tied for 7th place). 

With school choice policies occupying prominent space on the legislative agenda of both Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, 46% of Texans said that they supported “redirecting state tax revenue to help parents pay for some of the cost of sending their children to private or parochial schools,” while 41% were opposed. Among Republicans, 59% supported the idea (26% strongly, 33% somewhat) while 30% were opposed (18% strongly, 12% somewhat). However, only 27% of Republicans said it was “extremely important” for the legislature to take on “school choice” legislation, with 14% saying it should be the most important priority. A majority of Democrats were opposed (57%), including 43% strongly, with 35% supportive of the idea. These results suggest neither a groundswell of support nor overwhelming opposition from most quarters of the public.

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Extremely important15%17%27%
Very important19%28%27%
Somewhat important17%18%21%
Not very important10%7%7%
Not important24%13%6%
Don't know/No opinion14%17%12%

Can suspicions about public educational institutions get “school choice” through the Texas House?

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Strongly support3%10%30%
Somewhat support7%13%29%
Somewhat oppose12%19%14%
Strongly oppose72%40%16%
Don’t know/No opinion5%18%11%

The close division in public opinion amidst a lack of overwhelmingly strong feelings on the merits of a voucher program underlines why proponents might hope that even a slight shift in the framing of the policy could be enough to spur formerly lukewarm and reluctant Republican voters to reconsider their position in this new context. Recasting vouchers (or a similar mechanism) paid for with public funds as an alternative to a non-responsive, “woke” public school system invokes not just the abstract principle of “choice”, but also the need for an alternative to an institution now being frankly portrayed not just as ineffective, but as threatening to conservative ideals even when performing as intended. The widespread response among Republicans to rhetoric about “parental rights” and the content kids encounter in classrooms and libraries, illustrates how effective ginning up the perception of these threats has been for political leaders and determined opponents of public education.

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Strongly support16%19%33%
Somewhat support10%15%17%
Somewhat oppose14%13%14%
Strongly oppose51%31%23%
Don’t know/No opinion9%23%14%

The current merging of efforts to direct state financial resources to private schools with a systematic drive to rein in the autonomy of public schools in the name of “parental rights” may help voucher advocates by recasting the school choice issue as delivering a previously unadvertised benefit. Opposition to “school choice” in the past has hinged on the argument that it would weaken public schools, while offering choices that don’t actually exist for (mostly Republican) rural parents – a matter of crucial importance to rural Republican House members who have voted against such plans in the past while declaring that they were looking out for their constituents with kids in public schools. 

But in this political moment, rural Texans are much more likely than their suburban and urban counterparts to say it is “extremely important” for the legislature to address “parental rights” (52%) and public school library materials (31%), and less likely than suburban and rural Texans to say the state is spending “too little” on public education. And however their representatives have interpreted their interests in past votes on vouchers, rural voters are closely divided on redirecting state revenue for private school tuition, with a plurality commonly saying they support such measures (46% support, 38% oppose in the most recent UT/Texas Politics Project Poll).

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Strongly support20%19%18%
Somewhat support29%25%28%
Somewhat oppose10%13%16%
Strongly oppose28%32%22%
Don’t know/No opinion12%11%17%

These attitudes among rural Texans point to the possibility that a 2023 vote on school choice in the context of a battle that is explicitly based on suspicion of both the effectiveness and the cultural role of public education institutions may lead to a different outcome than the one that has largely been taken for granted among both Democratic and Republican opponents of school choice in past sessions. As recently as June 2022, only a third of Republicans (32%) rated public schools favorably – compared to 70% who rated state government favorably.

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The military51%45%74%
The police32%31%75%
The municipal or local government where you live42%22%49%
The Texas state government10%22%70%
The public schools53%24%32%
The courts/criminal justice system23%18%31%
The federal government32%8%12%

Amidst the elevation of “parental rights” and anger among conservatives about the content students can access at their schools, the current terms of the debate presents a fusing of previously more or less distinct efforts to undermine public education institutions on two fronts – the autonomy of educational institutions and the amount of resources dedicated to them. SB 8 threatens both to hamstring public institutions' autonomy (not to mention efficiency, ironically) while in the long run reducing available resources for a system that already struggles to maintain per student funding levels as the state’s school-age population continues to explode.

The traditional resistance of a relatively small share of Republicans in the House to redirecting scarce public education resources to private and religious institutions may yet thwart the determined efforts of backers of SB 8. But the widespread erosion of trust in public institutions among Republicans has spread to their attitudes toward institutions of public education. While a handful of GOP House members may remain allied to their local schools and school districts, many of their constituents likely view the stakes differently than they have in the past. The erosion may not have progressed so far as to deliver a long awaited victory to stakeholders in the school choice lobby this session, but their exploitation of the erosion of trust in the public school system has brought them closer to victory than ever before.

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