Another special session on school choice, border? Gov. Abbott, take a break already | Opinion

Whatever happened to our part-time Legislature?

The third special session expired Tuesday, with no deal on school choice, raises for teachers, border security or other so-called priorities. Gov. Greg Abbott plans to call lawmakers back Tuesday night for a fourth special session, House Speaker Dade Phelan announced.

It’s a mistake. Lawmakers and their leaders are divided, frustrated and making little progress. Most are eager to campaign for their primaries, now less than four months away.

Abbott should send them home. Let Republicans battle it out in elections, get some clarity (hopefully) on difficult issues and come back in the spring.

The governor’s commitment to his goals is admirable. It’s not easy to take a loss, even with hopes it will be short-lived. Particularly when you’ve crisscrossed the state predicting victory on legislation to create “education savings accounts,” as Abbott has for months.

House Speaker Dade Phelan presides over the debate of SB 7, which would ban COVID vaccine mandates, at the Capitol on Wednesday October 25, 2023.
House Speaker Dade Phelan presides over the debate of SB 7, which would ban COVID vaccine mandates, at the Capitol on Wednesday October 25, 2023.

It’s been clear for a while, though, that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Phelan are bogged down by animosity and policy differences. They’d rather snipe at each other than negotiate. What will change in the next few days or weeks to alter that? Anyone think that having Thanksgiving disrupted by another session will boost lawmakers’ spirit to compromise?

If anything, Abbott’s efforts to let Texas families access public dollars for school expenses, including private-school tuition, is losing ground. With Democrats united on the issue, Abbott has always needed to win over at least a dozen skeptical House Republicans, particularly from rural districts without much interest in the issue. It appears nothing has budged them, and there’s increasing concern about how to safeguard hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars if they are funneled to private entities.

And it’s not just schools. It seems the House and Senate are split on how much power to give Texas law enforcement to police illegal immigration. At a minimum, adding another duty for state troopers is an idea fraught with potential unintended consequences, and it needs careful debate, not a slam-bang bill through a special session.

Some conservatives want even more issues added to the agenda, too. Whatever happened to smaller government that does less?

On education, we remain with the governor in spirit — a small voucher program to test the idea and particularly help families in the most intractable public schools is a good policy experiment. To win the needed House votes, Abbott is signaling openness to billions in new funding for public schools and changes to the overall finance system.

But in his desperation to sweeten the pot, the governor has also suggested the state could throw out the STAAR exam. That might sound great, and if lawmakers want to find ways to reduce the stakes of a single set of exams, that might be palatable. Abbott runs the risk, however, of sinking the main tool of accountability for public schools to get his voucher program.

The point of school choice should be to offer relief for those in the lowest-performing schools and competitive incentives for those campuses and districts to improve. Walking away from accountability measurements, particularly those that evaluate progress for the low-income children most at risk of falling behind, would be a terrible mistake.

Ever had a dog who figured out he could just eat the bacon you’ve wrapped around the pill you want him to take? Abbott risks becoming the too-persistent owner who suddenly realizes he’s given away the whole pack without getting the results he wanted.

He should give it a rest and try again in, say, May.

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