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Democrats think they can flip Texas House seats by going after GOP’s education funding and school voucher policies

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Democrats think they can flip Texas House seats by going after GOP’s education funding and school voucher policies

Jun 13, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Jasper Scherer
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Democrats think they can flip Texas House seats by going after GOP’s education funding and school voucher policies
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Third grade teacher Eran McGowan watches students demonstrate their answers to the class at the Eddie Bernice Johnson STEM Academy in Dallas, Texas on Feb. 5, 2024. (Azul Sordo for The Texas Tribune)

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Texas Democrats are zeroing in on education issues in their bid to flip several state House districts this fall, as they look to blame GOP lawmakers for teacher shortages and school closures and mobilize their base around defeating Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature school voucher policy.

That approach came into focus last week at the Texas Democratic Convention in El Paso, where party leaders and House candidates repeatedly bashed Abbott’s push to provide taxpayer funds for private school tuition. They also acknowledged the governor’s recent success ousting members of his own party who oppose school vouchers, invoking it as a reason to focus on battleground House races this fall.

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, an Austin Democrat who is leading House Democrats’ campaign efforts, told delegates at the convention that Abbott’s crusade against voucher opponents in the primary has tipped the scales of the House narrowly toward passage of vouchers next year.

“To put it another way, we need to elect about three more Democrats to the Texas House to defeat vouchers and defend our neighborhood public schools,” she said.

Democrats and rural Republicans in the lower chamber have historically united against measures that would divert state funds to help families pay for private school. Critics say vouchers would siphon money away from public schools that are already facing widespread teacher shortages and budget deficits — a trend exacerbated by lawmakers’ failure last year to tap the state’s historic $33 billion budget surplus to boost school funding, after the effort got caught up in the voucher fight.

Most of the House battlefield this election cycle is centered in the Dallas and San Antonio suburbs and South Texas, across several districts with struggling schools where Democrats hope public education will resonate at the ballot box.

Among their top targets is GOP state Rep. John Lujan, who won his Bexar County district in 2022 by 4 percentage points — overcoming trends atop the ballot, where Democrat Beto O’Rourke carried the district by 2 points over Abbott.

Kristian Carranza, a progressive organizer and Lujan’s Democratic opponent, said when she meets voters on block-walks, “the No. 1 issue at the door is public education and the voucher fight.” She noted that the district — which covers south San Antonio and the eastern side of Bexar County — includes beleaguered districts like Harlandale ISD, which closed four elementary schools last fall amid a funding deficit.

“For people, this is a lived reality when we talk about private school vouchers,” said Carranza, who opposes the measure. “The way I talk about this is, the financial crisis schools are facing is due to massive budget deficits, and that's the inevitable result of elected officials like John Lujan who have been choosing to toe the line with their party rather than stand up for their community.”

Abbott and his pro-voucher allies argue that parents deserve the option to remove their kids from the public education system, which has been attacked by conservatives over its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about how race, history and sex are taught in the classroom.

Republicans are already countering Democrats’ narrative, accusing the House voucher opponents of being responsible for the demise of a bill last fall that would have pumped billions into public schools. The bill died after a coalition of House Democrats and 21 Republicans removed vouchers from the package; the bill author then withdrew the entire measure, citing Abbott’s threat to veto education funding that did not include vouchers.

Abbott spokesperson Andrew Mahaleris said Democrats, by putting voucher opposition at the forefront of their campaigns, “are fighting for teacher unions and their self-serving agenda, instead of the Texans they claim to represent.”

“When it comes to education, parents matter, and families deserve the ability to choose the best education opportunities for their children,” Mahaleris said in a statement. “If Democrats want to make their opposition to parental empowerment a central theme of their campaign, good luck.”

Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said part of the strategy for Democrats “is to move the debate over public education back onto friendlier terrain” — toward school funding and away from things like curriculum.

In recent years, Blank said, Republicans have mobilized voters “based on the idea that, essentially, teachers weren't to be trusted and the curriculum had gone off the rails,” allowing them to go on offense in an area typically dominated by Democrats.

“Traditionally, we think of public education as a Democratic issue, because most often if we're talking about public education, we're talking about spending, and … there's almost no debate in which Democrats aren't going to be more willing than Republicans to spend money on public education,” Blank said. “But if we're talking about curriculum concerns and parental rights, that puts Democrats in a difficult position.”

Under the banner of protecting kids in public schools, Texas Republicans in recent years have passed laws aimed at keeping sexually explicit books out of school libraries and limiting how topics like race and racism can be taught in public schools. Conservatives have also extended the battle outside the classroom, passing a law restricting sexually explicit performances in front of minors and proposing a bill that targeted drag queen story hours — events typically held at public libraries and bookstores aimed at promoting literacy.

Over the last several days, Republicans including Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz have taken aim at Democrats for hosting a drag queen, Brigitte Bandit, at their convention. Bandit delivered a speech where she defended the practice of reading books to children at drag queen story hours and took aim at the Legislature’s move to ban transgender youth from taking puberty blockers and receiving hormone therapies.

“These are the same Texas Democrats who thought it was a good idea to parade a drag queen on stage to talk about indoctrinating impressionable children,” Mahaleris said, underscoring how Abbott has painted the public school system as a hotbed of liberal indoctrination in his push for school vouchers.

Carranza is not the only Democratic candidate shaping her campaign around public education and vouchers. In Dallas County, Democratic hopeful Averie Bishop is emphasizing her background as a substitute teacher in her bid to unseat state Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson. Bishop also has pointed to the firsthand view she received of Texas’ flagging public schools as she traveled the state after winning the 2022 Miss Texas competition.

“I personally saw how severely underfunded and undersupported our schools are,” Bishop said at the Democratic convention. “School vouchers will pass if we do not flip my seat from red to blue.”

Democrats also see a newfound opportunity to pick up the San Antonio-area seat held by state Rep. Steve Allison — a moderate Republican who opposes school vouchers — after Allison was defeated in the March primary by conservative challenger Marc LaHood, a criminal defense attorney who backs vouchers.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said LaHood holds “extreme views” that are out of step with the district.

“Looking at the contrast between Steve Allison and Marc LaHood, and understanding and knowing the independent and educated voters in the [district’s] Alamo Heights area, there's no doubt in my mind that our Democratic hopes just increased tenfold,” said Martinez Fischer, who chairs the Texas House Democratic Caucus.

Under its current configuration, the district would have been carried by former President Donald Trump by about 2 percentage points in 2020. Trump would have carried Button’s district by half a point the same year.

LaHood, asked about Martinez Fischer’s comment, said in a statement that “parental choice isn’t a partisan issue.”

“Parents want and deserve to have more options in selecting the best educational environment for their individual children,” LaHood said. “Democrats are in for a rude awakening if they want to make disempowering parents their hill to die on. I welcome the conversation and the fight.”

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Just in: Former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming; U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pennsylvania; and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt will take the stage at The Texas Tribune Festival, Sept. 5–7 in downtown Austin. Buy tickets today!