Rural Texas Republicans Aren’t Sold on School Choice Measures

As the superintendent of the Hearne Independent School District in Texas, Adrain Johnson is well versed in the problems of rural public school districts, from campus security to attracting top teachers to a general lack of resources.

Johnson recently told The Texas Tribune that he doesn’t understand why state lawmakers are prioritizing school choice over school safety heading into the next legislative session, especially in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde.

“There always seems to be a school choice debate every legislative year, and I’m not afraid of that,” Johnson told the news outlet. “I think that debating is good. That’s part of democracy.”

However, he said he questions why the focus always seems to be on policies that could undermine public schools.

“Why not make it imperative to support the local school district?” he said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has publicly stated his support for school choice, which is a broad term used to refer to a variety of taxpayer-funded alternatives to sending a child to their local public school.

With Abbott saying he supports parents’ “choice to send their children to any public school, charter school or private school with state funding following the student.”

Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Abbott in November, has been running ads asking voters to “reject Greg Abbott’s radical plan to defund” public schools.

State Rep. Gary VanDeaver, a Republican whose constituency includes 30 rural school districts, told the Tribune that one of the complaints he’s heard from parents is that they are paying property taxes, which fund public schools, but are either sending their children to private school or are homeschooling.

“I prefer to reduce their property taxes, so they have the option of spending that money any way they choose, whether it be alternative education choices, saving for college or purchasing a new car,” VanDeaver told the outlet.

According to VanDeaver, Texas approved a charter school system in the 1990s and gives students in poorly-performing school districts the ability to transfer out.

“Proponents of expanding school choice options often say the money should follow the student,” he said. “Current Texas law already does that if a student transfers to another public school, including a charter school.”

Rural students in smaller Texas cities and towns have far fewer options than their city counterparts when it comes to school choice.

Private schools tend to be concentrated in larger metro areas and many have religious affiliations.

VanDeaver told the Tribune that he was also notified that the religious private schools in his district are not interested in public funding.

He worries a voucher program could damage local public school districts.

“This sense of community is what makes Texas great, and I would hate to see anything like a voucher program destroy this community spirit,” he said.

School choice backers say that more options help lower-income families access better education for their children, while opponents say such policies diminish the public school system because they result in taxpayer dollars going to private schools, which are generally unregulated.

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