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In Texas races, Gov. Abbott targets fellow Republicans who oppose vouchers

The national movement for school vouchers has burgeoned in recent years, riding the momentum of Republican championing of parental rights during the covid-19 pandemic. More than 30 states now have programs that let parents use taxpayer dollars to take their children out of public schools. Yet there remains a stubborn holdout, one particularly notable because it’s a red state: Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and his allies are mounting a crusade to change that in the state’s Republican primaries Tuesday. They are pouring tens of millions of dollars into an effort to unseat a group of state House Republicans who blocked a voucher proposal last year, echoing long-held concerns it would devastate public schools.

“It’s been a pretty big fight and an uphill battle, but this is definitely an inflection point,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas Republican strategist who has worked in the national voucher movement for more than a decade. “This is the time right now when supporters have the resources and buy-in from the powers that be to really make a change in the Texas House of Representatives.”

The school voucher fight headlines a Texas primary that otherwise features little drama at the top of the ticket. Former president Donald Trump is expected to romp in the state’s presidential primary, while Rep. Colin Allred is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

Trump has doled out dozens of down-ballot endorsements in the primary, including to some Abbott-backed challengers who share his zeal for establishing a voucher program in Texas.

Abbott’s effort is unfolding alongside that of another statewide official, Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is seeking to dislodge dozens of state House Republicans who voted to impeach him last year. But it is the voucher issue that has drawn the most money to the primaries — and prompted stark attacks by a governor previously known for his political caution.

Abbott has been campaigning enthusiastically for the challengers, headlining multiple events for each of them in recent weeks. He arrived Wednesday in San Antonio for his third stop for Marc LaHood, an attorney running against state Rep. Steve Allison, and made a case against a fellow Republican that went far beyond his resistance to school vouchers.

“I cannot trust your current representative, Steve Allison, to have my back,” Abbott told a crowd of nearly 100 people inside a tavern on the city’s northern outskirts. “I do trust Marc LaHood to fight for me and to fight for you.”

The lawmakers in Abbott’s crosshairs have not shied away from their opposition to school vouchers. Allison, a former public school board member, said in an interview that his position is far from new, and while he has “done a lot of work” researching programs in other states, “I just can’t get there.’

“I’m absolutely dumbfounded” by the intensity of Abbott’s campaigning, Allison said. Beside this policy, he added, “I’ve been with the governor on every single issue and every single request he’s made since I’ve been in the legislature.”

Other incumbents have been less diplomatic in their pushback. State Rep. Glenn Rogers said Wednesday on X that the major donors of his Abbott-backed opponent want the “COMPLETE DESTRUCTION OF OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS.”

School vouchers have long faced a steep climb in the Texas House, where Democrats and a sizable number of Republicans representing largely rural districts have stood in the way. The rural Republicans represent areas where public schools are seen as the lifeblood of the community and their government support is closely guarded.

In recent years, other big states with Republican majorities, such as Arizona and Florida, have far outpaced Texas by creating new voucher programs or expanding existing ones. Iowa recently gave Abbott a political blueprint when its governor, Kim Reynolds, successfully campaigned against fellow Republicans who stood in her way on the issue.

“Texas is the biggest state left,” said Nathan Cunneen, a spokesperson for the American Federation for Children. “When we talk about Republican-trifecta states” — states where the GOP holds the governorship and both legislative chambers — “all around the country, when I’m traveling, people say, ‘I can’t believe Texas doesn’t have school choice yet.’”

In the Texas legislature, the anti-voucher coalition’s numbers dwindled last year, but it held firm enough to keep a voucher proposal from reaching Abbott’s desk. The final version of the initiative would have created so-called “education savings accounts” where parents could use $10,500 in taxpayer funds annually to put toward private school expenses.

Ultimately, 21 Republicans in the House voted to strip the program out of an omnibus education bill in November. Sixteen of them are seeking reelection, and Abbott has endorsed primary challengers to 10 of them. He has also endorsed candidates for the open seats.

Abbott kicked off the primary season by landing a $6 million campaign donation from Jeff Yass, a Pennsylvania billionaire who champions alternatives to public education. The Abbott campaign called it the largest known campaign contribution in Texas history.

Abbott’s campaign and two other pro-voucher groups are set to spend nearly $10 million on TV advertising alone through Tuesday, according to the media-tracking firm AdImpact. The firm has tracked more than $30 million total flowing into the state House primaries.

Anti-voucher Republicans are being defended by traditional pro-incumbent groups — like the campaign of House Speaker Dade Phelan — but also getting help from Texas grocery mogul Charles Butt. Since September, he has pumped at least $4.1 million into a political action committee for the cause.

The biggest wild card may be the other political forces animating the primary. While Paxton supports school vouchers, he is more broadly trying to remake a House GOP majority that he sees as too deferential to the minority party.

Trump has most notably intervened by endorsing challengers who have the support of both Abbott, Paxton and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a longtime critic of state House leadership who is especially close with the former president. Trump has also aided Paxton and Patrick by backing a challenger to Phelan, who presided over Paxton’s impeachment.

Despite the school-voucher push, polling continues to show Texas primary voters are far more concerned about the border, something Abbott acknowledges. Campaigning for LaHood, Abbott said the challenger’s “No. 1 focus is my No. 1 focus” — the border — and that he did not trust Allison on that issue either.

In the interview, Allison challenged Abbott to say where Allison has been weak on the border and suggested Abbott was making the attack because “the voucher issue isn’t playing as well as he anticipated.”

Other Abbott-targeted lawmakers have sought to leverage border politics by bragging they killed a program that would have given “tax dollars to illegal immigrants.” The voucher program would have been open to any current student, including those in public schools, which according to Supreme Court precedent must educate undocumented children.

Abbott’s push resonated Wednesday in San Antonio with Rey Gonzalez, a 37-year-old father who said private school options were “really important” to him. He said he has a 12-year-old daughter in public school and sends his 3-year-old son to a private Christian school, in part, because he worries public schools are exposing students to certain social issues too early.

“It causes confusion and makes the dinner talks a lot different,” Gonzalez said.

For Abbott, the crusade is a possible legacy-making moment as he looks to a political future that could include running for reelection in 2026, which would set him up to be the longest-serving Texas governor, or serving in a second Trump administration.

Trump toured the Texas-Mexico border Thursday with Abbott and later said the governor was on his shortlist for possible running mates.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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