Ray Carter | March 6, 2024

With anti-school-choice Republicans ousted, Texas seeks to catch up to Oklahoma on school choice

Ray Carter

In 2023, the creation of statewide school-choice programs was a major issue in both Oklahoma and Texas. But only Oklahoma lawmakers got a program across the finish line, creating one of the largest school-choice programs in the country.

However, this month’s legislative elections in Texas suggest that state may soon try to catch up—and that Oklahoma lawmakers who supported school choice were much more in tune with the will of voters than some of their Texas counterparts.

In 2023, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott championed school choice, calling for creation of a statewide Education Savings Account (ESA) program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to pay for private school.

Members of the Republican-controlled Texas Senate approved a school-choice plan that would have provided $8,000 per student to families to pay for private school. But in the Republican-controlled Texas House of Representatives, a group of Republicans peeled off to join Democrats on a vote that killed discussion of school choice.

Notably, those lawmakers’ opposition to school choice was so extreme that they killed the proposal knowing it would also spike a proposal to boost state spending on Texas public schools by $7.6 billion since the two issues were linked.

Abbott announced he would support challengers to the anti-school-choice Republican incumbents, as did many pro-school-choice groups.

In the March 5 primaries, many of those anti-school-choice Republicans went down to defeat or were forced into runoffs, which often end in defeat for an incumbent.

The AFC Victory Fund, a political action committee affiliated with the American Federation for Children, supported challengers in 13 Texas state House races. Six incumbents were defeated outright on election day while four more were forced into runoffs. In five other seats, anti-school-choice Republicans retired rather than face the voters and the winning nominees in four of those districts favor school choice.

As the results became clear, Abbott issued a statement, declaring, “Texans are closer to empowering every Texas family. Republican primary voters have once again sent an unmistakable message that parents deserve the freedom to choose the best education pathway for their child. When school choice opponents lost every argument on policy, they resigned to campaign lies—but they couldn’t fool Texas voters.”

Scott Jensen, senior advisor for the American Federation for Children, said the trend in Texas now puts it on a path to join Oklahoma and other states with robust school-choice programs.

“We are on track to have a strong school-choice majority in the (Texas) House to match the existing strong school-choice majority in the Senate,” Jensen said.

Tommy Schultz, CEO of the AFC Victory Fund, said, “The Texas victories for school choice will be known as a massive moment in American politics. Despite decades of resistance from the education establishment, voters made clear that they want school choice, and they will remove legislators who stand in their way.”

The large number of incumbent legislators losing re-election bids may not be unprecedented—but it’s close.

Nathaniel D. Cunneen, director of strategic analysis for the American Federation for Children, noted that only 4 percent of incumbent state legislators lose re-election bids in a typical year.

“These members, many of them were rural Republicans. They were convinced that they could just cast this vote and they would be fine. And a bunch of them learned a hard lesson last night.” —Scott Jensen, American Federation for Children

In some cases, the challengers to anti-school-choice Republicans received more than 60 percent of the vote.

And, Jensen noted, many of the challengers won despite having entered the races at the last minute.

“The vote was cast in November and early December was the filing deadline,” Jensen said. “So we found many of these candidates in a three- or four-week period.”

He noted the winning school-choice challengers include several women who will be entering a chamber traditionally dominated by men.

Although not explicitly noted in the race, the fact that Oklahoma enacted a major school-choice program in 2023 provided a contrast for Texas voters that many could not ignore.

House Bill 1934, which was signed into law last year, created the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act. The new law provides refundable tax credits of $5,000 to $7,500 per child to help Oklahoma families cover the cost of private school tuition.

The lower a family’s income, the larger the tax credit. The program took effect in January.

Oklahoma’s political leaders are not shocked that Republican voters in Texas now want to follow the same path trod by their neighbors to the north.

“Oklahoma continues to lead the way on major issues like school choice, while states like Texas play catch up,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “I am proud of the work we have done in the Senate and beyond to empower parents to make the best choices on behalf of their children. The elections in Texas should serve as a resounding message to Texas lawmakers, and others around the country, that parents want more control over their children’s education. Texas lawmakers, and others around the country should take note and follow Oklahoma’s lead.”

“Parental choice in education has become a key issue across our country, and it’s an issue that will be in the spotlight for the foreseeable future,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka. “Oklahoma did it right, working collaboratively to find ways to provide opportunity for students, increase parent involvement, and support our teachers. Oklahoma has set the standard for parental choice policy, and I encourage states like Texas to take a look at how we have done things to see if they can replicate our success.”

“Oklahoma students now have more choices than ever. Our Education Freedom agenda benefits every Oklahoma teacher, student, and family. More school options for families are an inherent good, and I hope every state can replicate our success for the good of all students and the future of our nation,” said Gov. Kevin Stitt. “Governor Abbott is fighting hard to deliver education freedom in Texas— and I applaud him. Americans will continue to speak loud and clear at the ballot box across the nation: Education Freedom is here to stay.”

The Oklahoma Tax Commission began accepting applications for the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit program on Dec. 6, 2023. So far, more than 30,000 applications have been received and approximately 16,700 applications have been approved, providing those families about $95 million in tax credits so far.

Contrary to the claims of school-choice opponents, the majority of beneficiaries have come from low-income and middle-class families, which are given priority under Oklahoma’s program.

Roughly 7,900 children from families earning $75,000 or less have received the tax credit, while 8,800 children from families with incomes between $75,001 and $150,000 have been approved. Beneficiaries have come from all parts of Oklahoma, including rural areas.

As happened in Oklahoma, school-choice opponents in Texas claimed that rural voters did not want more options for their children. But polling in both Oklahoma and Texas consistently showed that families from all parts of the state supported school choice, a fact now borne out by the rural Oklahoma families who have applied for the credit.

Jensen said the ousted incumbent Texas lawmakers failed to listen to their constituents and paid the price.

“These members, many of them were rural Republicans. Many of them were adamant that their district was opposed to school choice even though ballot referendums in their districts in favor of school choice got more than 80 percent. They just didn’t believe those numbers. They didn’t believe our polling. They were convinced that they could just cast this vote and they would be fine,” Jensen said. “And a bunch of them learned a hard lesson last night that rural voters want school choice just as much as voters in the suburbs and cities, and sometimes even more.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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