After decades of lobbying by Christian conservative donors, school voucher legislation may finally have the votes

Gov. Greg Abbott discusses parent empowerment at Annapolis Christian Academy in Corpus Christi on Jan. 31, 2023. Credit: Blaine Young for The Texas Tribune

By Jeremy Schwartz, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica

As proponents of private school vouchers racked up win after win across the country in recent years, the largest Republican-led state in the nation remained stubbornly outside their grasp — until now.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott succeeded in persuading primary voters to remove from office members of his party who had defied him by voting against legislation that would allow the use of state money to pay for private school tuition.

Abbott’s success campaigning against fellow Republicans during the primary election sent a clear message that disloyalty would not be tolerated even for those who supported other priorities he outlined. If the pro-voucher candidates who Abbott supported in their primaries win in the November general election, as many are expected to, the governor argues he has the votes to finally pass legislation.

The governor’s voucher crusade represents the culmination of more than three decades of work by Christian conservative donors, whose influence in Texas politics has never been more pronounced. They have poured millions of dollars into candidates and helped lead or fund a network of organizations, such as the influential Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, to galvanize Republicans around the issue.

“Texas has been kind of an Alamo to the national voucher crowd in the sense that the biggest state down South still hasn’t done it,” said Joshua Cowen, an education policy professor at Michigan State University who opposes vouchers. “When your whole national messaging strategy is based on this unstoppable flood of parents rising up to defeat the woke left in the public schools and Texas is standing there in the middle of the map, the biggest state saying no, that’s just a problem for the overall strategy.”

During his first eight years as governor, Abbott was relatively quiet on vouchers. In 2017, he called on lawmakers to pass such a program for students with disabilities. But Abbott, who did not respond to questions from ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, hadn’t engaged in political warfare on the issue until last year, when he made passing vouchers for all Texas students a top priority. He joined the Texas Public Policy Foundation on a “parent empowerment” tour across the state and urged church pastors to advocate for such legislation from the pulpit.

He also twice ordered lawmakers into emergency legislative sessions to pass measures related to “school choice,” a term supporters have used to describe programs that operate outside of the traditional public school system, including private or religious schools. But lawmakers, including 21 from his own party, rejected the legislation.

Republicans with national ambitions are increasingly expected to fully support vouchers, Cowen said, adding that Abbott’s GOP counterparts in states like Arizona and Florida had overseen successful pushes in their state legislatures.

“Vouchers have absolutely become one of the top issue areas of the litmus test for Republican Party power politics,” Cowen said. “If you want to be a player, you have to really push on the doctrine.”

Supporters say voucher programs give parents more control over their children’s education by allowing them to use public dollars to choose the schools they believe are best, including those that are privately run. Opponents argue that vouchers siphon tax dollars from public education and allow funding to flow into private schools without holding them accountable if they fail children.

The issue has generally been one that falls along partisan lines. But over the years, rural Republicans have broken with their party to vote against vouchers. Public schools, they’ve reasoned, often play a vital role in local communities where private options are limited.

Despite polling showing that slightly less than half of Texas registered voters support vouchers and only 2% of registered Republican voters listed vouchers as a key issue in the GOP primary election, Abbott pursued aggressive campaigns against lawmakers in his party who did not fall in line. Among them were two incumbents he had endorsed two years earlier.

In targeting them, Abbott and his billionaire allies didn’t make vouchers the focus of campaign advertising but rather accused them of being soft on issues like border security.

“In my district, and I think I’ve seen it in other districts as well, the No. 1 issue was the border,” said state Rep. Steve Allison, a San Antonio Republican who lost his primary election in March after voting against vouchers last year. “And school choice was way down the list and behind the economy and behind property taxes. So that’s when he seemed to pivot and say, ‘Well, these guys are weak on the border. They’ve increased property taxes.’ All of that was just absolutely false.”

The primary challenges drew millions in contributions from national groups and billionaire donors like TikTok investor Jeffrey Yass, a Pennsylvania voucher advocate who poured $6 million into Abbott’s campaign. A Texas affiliate of the Betsy DeVos-funded American Federation for Children spent more than $4 million attacking incumbents, and the federal Club for Growth political action committee said it coordinated with another PAC to spend about $8 million on ads targeting Texas voucher opponents.

Allison lost to a challenger who received more than $700,000 in support from Abbott’s campaign.

“Ever since I’ve been in the Legislature, he’s never shown any interest in private school vouchers,” Allison said. “It’s just troubling the way it came out of nowhere and then the way he turned on those of us that just couldn’t go along with him on it. And I have been with him on everything, every single issue request he’s made, except this one.”

A long push supercharged

Shortly after the March GOP primaries, Abbott received a hero’s welcome while addressing attendees at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s annual policy summit in Austin. He celebrated unseating five Republicans and stoked enthusiasm for the runoff elections, which he hoped would secure enough wins to pass voucher legislation in 2024. (In the May primary runoff, another three anti-voucher Republicans were unseated.)

“We would not be on the threshold of success if it were not for TPPF,” Abbott told the packed room in March. “I come here today with a heart of gratitude.”

The group has pushed for vouchers since its founding in 1989 by Republican Christian conservative donor James Leininger, who funded a pilot voucher program in his hometown of San Antonio for several years. In 1998, billionaire oilman Tim Dunn joined the board, serving as vice chair for more than a decade as he became one of the state’s most prolific campaign donors. Dunn later helped form Empower Texans, a more confrontational organization that graded Republican lawmakers according to their adherence to hard-right principles and funneled money into campaigns against Republicans deemed insufficiently supportive. Those campaigns featured what opponents have called deceptive mailers and an aggressive in-house media operation.

The groups and the pro-voucher billionaires made strategic investments over the years to advance their cause. In 2006, Leininger, who did not respond to questions from the news organizations, spent $2.5 million in an attempt to oust five House Republicans who voted against vouchers. Two lost their seats. Still, the Texas House voted 129-8 against vouchers the following year.

Dunn and West Texas billionaire evangelical donors Dan and Farris Wilks later contributed millions to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who breathed new life into the voucher push. “As a conservative leader on many issues, it should be no surprise that conservatives support me,” Patrick said in a statement about the campaign contributions. He added that his support for school choice initiatives, including vouchers, spans decades.

Neither Dunn nor the Wilks brothers responded to questions about the donations or the voucher push. In an opinion piece published by the Midland Reporter-Telegram last year, Dunn said he has never led statewide school choice efforts. Instead, Dunn argued, he has spent his energy building up Midland Classical Academy, the religious private school he founded more than two decades ago.

Despite Patrick’s influence in the Senate, which passed voucher legislation in 2015 and 2017, the Texas House rejected the plans those years, and the voucher push largely died out afterward.

The arrival of COVID-19 helped reignite the embers of the movement. TPPF promoted vouchers as the solution to anger over COVID-19 restrictions and political battles over what is taught in schools.

In August 2020, TPPF published a piece titled “Coronavirus is forcing a wake-up call on Texas’s education opportunities” that called for education dollars to follow children to the school of their choice, including private schools.

“I think a lot of voucher supporters saw COVID and some of the culture wars as a window for pushing vouchers,” said David DeMatthews, a University of Texas educational leadership and policy professor who does not support using taxpayer money to pay for private schools. “Conservative think tanks like TPPF can help with the framing and crafting a narrative to make a very unpopular policy seem more palatable.”

Brian Phillips, a spokesperson for TPPF, did not respond to specific questions about the group’s advocacy but issued a statement anticipating victory next year. “When school choice legislation passes next year, it will be due to the amazing vigilance of thousands of parents, students, educators, policymakers, activists, pastors, volunteers, and, yes, even a few think tanks,” he said in a statement.

While pushing for vouchers, TPPF also capitalized on debates about how race is taught in public schools. The group published a series of stories attacking critical race theory, an advanced academic concept that examines systemic racism. The “long-term solution to fighting CRT begins with parents fighting for the right to choose the best education for their children,” TPPF wrote in a July 2021 article that advocated for a system in which “a child’s public school funding follows him or her to the school of their parents’ choice.”

Later that year, the focus among pro-voucher forces turned to books with LGBTQ+ themes in Texas school libraries. In a November 2021 fundraising letter, TPPF CEO Kevin Roberts claimed that “pornography and explicit literature” could be found in school libraries and that public schools held students as a “captive audience to both Marxist and sexual indoctrination.”

He told potential donors that the solution was an all-out push for school vouchers.

“TPPF’s policy and communications departments are building this army of hundreds of thousands of ‘education freedom fighters,’” wrote Roberts, who did not respond to a request for comment or to written questions. He later left TPPF to lead the influential conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, where he helms Project 2025 to “institutionalize Trumpism.”

It is “now or never,” Roberts wrote. “The time is ripe.”

A full-throated embrace

As TPPF worked to stoke parental anger over public schools, Abbott had not fully jumped into the fray.

Texas Scorecard, a media outlet formed by Empower Texans in 2015 that has since become an independent nonprofit, highlighted that Abbott had left school choice off his legislative priorities in his 2021 State of the State address.

Texas Scorecard, which is chaired by Dunn, did not respond to questions or a request for comment.

Dunn and the Wilks brothers heavily supported Dallas real estate developer Don Huffines, one of Abbott’s far-right challengers, in the 2021 Republican primary. Their political action committee Defend Texas Liberty poured $3.7 million into Huffines’ campaign. Huffines hammered Abbott from the right on various issues, including criticizing him for not doing as much to promote school choice as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did.

Huffines wrote in a statement to ProPublica and the Tribune that while his goal was to win the election, he “knew that the campaign would force the Governor to adopt many of my policy positions, including school choice, which has been a priority of the National and State Republican Party for decades.”

A campaign stop in San Antonio in May 2022 signaled a new phase for Abbott: a full-throated embrace of vouchers as a top legislative priority.

“Empowering parents means giving them the choice to send their children to any public school, charter school or private school with state funding following the student,” Abbott said.

After his reelection and throughout the 2023 legislative session, Abbott joined TPPF campaign director Mandy Drogin in a series of “parent empowerment” rallies across the state that promoted the benefits of vouchers.

But even with Abbott’s campaigning, the voucher push failed by the end of the session in May.

In September, a month before Abbott called lawmakers back to Austin for an emergency session, TPPF helped organize a teleconference call in which the governor urged pastors to promote vouchers during Sunday church services. During the call, Abbott announced his plan to target Republicans in upcoming primaries if they did not support vouchers during the special session.

He fulfilled his promise this spring.

Kel Seliger, a former state senator who recalls being unsuccessfully targeted by Dunn after voting against vouchers, warned that Abbott’s campaign against fellow Republicans sends a chilling message.

“It says, ‘Do not disagree. We don’t necessarily care about people of conscience or anything like that,’” said Seliger, who in 2021 decided not to seek reelection. “‘We have no interest in any diversity of opinion.’ And that’s a tough message to send to people you are obligated to work with.”

Two days after the May primary runoffs, TPPF hosted another celebratory event at its Austin headquarters.

Corey DeAngelis, a senior fellow with the national voucher advocacy group American Federation for Children, whose PAC had spent more than $7 million in the state as of June, declared Texas the “crown jewel” of the national voucher movement. He predicted even Democratic-led states would follow its lead.

“We gotta get Texas,” said DeAngelis, who did not respond to a request for comment. “When Texas comes, the rest of the monopoly dominoes will start to fall all across the country.”

This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. Also, sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at