Decision 2024

Super PAC pledges big money in small runoff elections over school choice vouchers

Earlier, Governor Greg Abbott said he was two votes short of passing Education Savings Accounts in the Texas House

NBC Universal, Inc.

For the March primary NBC 5 found than $25 million dollars were spent for power in the Texas House – much of it by supporters of Governor Abbott to overhaul education. NBC 5 political reporter Phil Prazan reports one group is planning to spend millions more.

The March primary elections for the Texas House saw historic amounts of spending.

An analysis by NBC 5 found that more than $25 million was spent in total throughout the state for Texas House races from January through the first week of March.

One of the major spenders tells NBC 5 they plan to spend millions more on the handful of runoff elections still in play.

Club for Growth spent $4 million in Republican primary elections through its affiliate, the School Freedom Fund. The group's President, David McIntosh, confirms they have already set another $4 million in TV ads in April in five small runoff elections. He aims to get Governor Greg Abbott's priority of school choice vouchers to pass the Texas House, where it was voted down last year.

The policy known as Education Savings Accounts would allow families to use a set amount of public school tax dollars on private and home schools. For years advocates have pushed for the program to allow students to leave public schools they feel aren't serving them and help pay for private schooling that aligns with their academic, religious, or cultural goals for education. The policy has passed the Senate multiple times. The hurdle is the House.

“The political message is if you’re against school choice, you’re no longer a conservative Republican. You’re basically a RINO (Republican-in-name-only)," said McIntosh.

The group has reserved $2.1 million in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro to oppose Rep. Justin Holland, R- Rockwall, and Rep. DeWayne Burns, R - Cleburne with TV ads; $657,000 in San Antonio to oppose Rep. John Kuempel, R - Seguin; and $305,000 in Shreveport, LA to oppose Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R - New Boston

The incumbents are longtime Republicans who support the Governor on nearly every issue. They argue the education proposal is not a conservative or efficient use of tax dollars. Several lawmakers fear it will redirect funding from public schools, which often are the largest employers in their communities.

"‘They wouldn’t be in trouble if they hadn’t gone against Governor Abbott. They wouldn’t be in trouble if they didn’t go against the voters in their district, promise to be conservatives and then vote the other way when they get to Austin," said McIntosh.

During the March primary election Governor Abbott knocked off several opponents of the policy. He's said he's two votes short of the 76 vote threshold to pass something in the Texas House.

“Texas law right now will not allow you to move your child to another school and I want that to change," Gov. Abbott told a crowd in Ft. Worth Tuesday.

To a rural Republican like Rep. VanDeaver, his vote against school choice vouchers reflected the needs of his district.

“To be honest with you, if I can no longer vote in my district, I really don’t have a lot of interest in continuing to serve," Rep. VanDeaver told NBC affiliate KXAN earlier this Spring.

Rep. Burns released a new ad this week saying he "Won't be bullied by powerful politicians and special interests because he doesn't work for them." In the ad, he directly criticized the Governor.

In the fall, the Texas House voted to strip the Education Savings Accounts proposal out of a larger education bill 84 to 63. The bill also included billions in more school funding and teacher pay raises.

Afterward, Rep. Holland told Spectrum News, "We support our public schools. We support improving public education but having a new entitlement program and adding billions of billions of dollars over the next ten years is not sustainable."

McIntosh tells NBC 5 that a coalition of Club for Growth, the American Federation for Children, and Governor Abbott's political organization will likely spend more than $10 million in the four Texas House races.

Multi-million dollar races for the Texas House used to be very rare. That type of money was only common for Congressional and statewide races. Governor Abbott earlier this year received the largest political donation in Texas history, $6 million, from Pennsylvania investor Jeff Yass. In the March primary, Abbott spent roughly $6 million in about a dozen House races.

Critics of the governor's plan are skeptical about the amount of money pouring into the state from outside groups supporting Education Savings Accounts.

"It's a damn shame that we have a sitting governor in the state of Texas that seems to be more beholden and more interested in really rich people from other states than actually in our representatives, our elected officials, and communities," said Zeph Capo, President of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

Capo wonders if the attention will spark a backlash from voters in the years ahead. He notes many of their previous ads against Republican incumbent lawmakers were about issues other than education, like immigration and gun access.

"In their opinion it's whatever it takes to get what they want, regardless of what the actual truth is," said Capo.

The primary runoffs are on May 28. McIntosh hopes its spending in the Spring will defeat at least two of the four incumbent Republicans they're targeting. If that's the case, it will likely have the votes next legislative session if all the members are present and Democrats don't pick off a seat or two in the November elections. These new advertisements will come directly from Club for Growth's PAC.

"It will get the point across," said McIntosh. "We’re educating the voters on what the choice is."

Club for Growth is also set to spend $896,000 in Beaumont to oppose House Speaker Dade Phelan.

Speaker Phelan has been broadly supportive of the "school choice" proposals. As presiding officer of the Texas House, he is locked in a runoff election with David Covey, a former county party chair who's backed by former President Trump, and Phelan rivals Attorney General Ken Paxton and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick.

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