Home News A Well of Conservative Support for Public Schools in Rural Texas

A Well of Conservative Support for Public Schools in Rural Texas

by Staff

NEW HOME, Texas — Bright yellow uprights tower over what was recently a flat expanse of cotton fields, now transformed into football turf. Nearby, cranes pull up the walls of what will soon be a new elementary school.

Not too long ago, you could count on two hands the number of annual graduates from the New Home Independent School District. Now, families are flocking to the windswept patch of West Texas just south of Lubbock, drawn to the deeply conservative farming community by the promise of good public schools.

“What’s keeping this place together is the school,” said Ramon Benitez, 39, an agriculture science teacher at New Home.

Amid a growing national movement to give parents public money to spend on private schools, it is in places like New Home — where the football coach is a local fixture and students learn both how to read and how to judge the quality of a cut of meat — that the conservative campaign has run up against the realpolitik of rural Texas.

The school voucher movement, which seeks to direct public money to private or religious schools, has rapidly gained steam in conservative states as parents battle public schools over books in the libraries, the teaching of race and racism and transgender issues. More than a dozen states have adopted some form of school vouchers. This year several, including Florida, Iowa and Utah, voted to create expansive new programs open to all students, an approach pioneered in Arizona.

But Texas has been an outlier so far, in large part because of the longstanding support for public schools in deep red communities like New Home. In far-flung districts around the state, parents and educators have defended their schools, which are often the biggest local employer and the center of community life.

Rural Republicans in the Texas State House have long voted with Democrats, who represent larger urban schools, to prevent any changes that could reduce the money available for public schools, frequently the only ones available in small, rural districts.

But that bipartisan resistance has found itself under increasing strain this year, as lawmakers in Austin have become caught up in the fraught national politics of public education. Gov. Greg Abbott has been leading the charge, backing legislation that would give public money to parents for private or home-schooling expenses.

“Parents are angry about the woke agenda that is being forced on their children in their schools,” Mr. Abbott said during an event to promote education savings accounts last month at a Christian school in Bryan, Texas. “Our schools are for education, not indoctrination.”

The governor has made the issue the centerpiece of his third term early on, crisscrossing the state to rally support at more than a dozen exclusively Christian schools. The state’s powerful lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, is also a strong backer, as are deep-pocketed Republican donors unafraid to back primary challenges to Republicans who do not support their priorities.

If approved, the money could go to religious schools. An even further step is under consideration in Oklahoma, where the state board of education on Tuesday was discussing possible approval of what would be the nation’s first religious charter school.

“Districts get better when there are more options available to parents,” said Michael Barba of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank supporting Mr. Abbott’s efforts. “And that also holds true in rural Texas.”

The push follows years of acrimonious school board hearings around the country and a raft of legislation subjecting public schools to new rules for lessons and books.

The debate in Texas comes amid increasingly aggressive efforts by state officials to oversee the direction of public schools, which are independently managed at the local level by elected school boards. In March, the Texas Education Agency announced it would take over Houston’s public schools, superseding the local school board and ousting its superintendent, citing failures at one of the district’s high schools. In Austin, the agency has moved to install a state conservator to monitor special education.

At the Capitol, the fight over vouchers has reached a critical stage. Last week, the State Senate passed a bill creating a voucher program to provide $8,000 in taxpayer money per year for students who opt out of public school. That was countered by the State House, which passed a budget amendment on the same day, with Democratic and Republican votes, to bar state funding of a voucher program.

Though the amendment was unlikely to survive into the final budget, the State House vote signaled that many rural Republicans remained skeptical of school vouchers, and set the stage for a tense final showdown in the coming weeks.

“The governor is putting a lot of pressure, a lot of state officials are putting pressure on those rural Republicans,” said Mark Henry, the superintendent of the Cypress-Fairbanks school district, outside of Houston and the largest suburban district in Texas. “We just hope they hold the line.”

The Senate voucher bill also included a prohibition on the teaching of sexual orientation or gender identity at all levels of public school, similar to the restrictions passed last year in Florida, a provision that directly connects the fights over education content to the fight over funding.

The governor’s aides point to polls showing support for school choice even among rural Republicans, though opponents argue that such numbers are dependent on how the question is framed.

“There’s no groundswell for this in my district,” said State Representative Travis Clardy, a Republican who represents rural counties in East Texas. He voted against vouchers last week.

In New Home, nearly 400 miles northwest of Austin, parents said they were not yet seeing the issue as a threat.

“Let’s say they did this,” said Kayla Ferguson, a Republican who owns The Spot, a recently renovated small restaurant by the school, where her three daughters are students. “It wouldn’t be something where they wouldn’t have public schools, right?”

Martina Torres, a parent who works at the restaurant, chimed in from behind the counter. “To me, the big scare would be if so many parents chose to go with that decision, and it would cut the money for the public school,” she said.

“I don’t like the idea,” Ms. Ferguson said. “I would never send my kids to a private school.”

Unlike many rural districts, where the public schools are the only nearby options, New Home is close enough to the city of Lubbock that parents could choose to send their children to nearby private schools at their own expense.

Instead, the opposite has been taking place: Many parents unhappy with the public schools in Lubbock have been moving to New Home, instead of enrolling their children in private schools. Others remain in Lubbock but drive their children 25 miles each way to school. Enrollment is soaring.

Many say they are transferring from more politically and culturally diverse Lubbock in search of smaller classes and a place where the values more closely align with their own.

“We’ve doubled and doubled again,” Shane Fiedler, the superintendent of the New Home district, said of the school population, which is now more than 630 students.

New Home is a particular kind of rural place, one that has been rapidly transforming into a suburb, its dusty landscape now dotted with sprawling modern farmhouse or ranch-style homes and signs advertising lots for sale. Its official population is a little more than 300, though many families enrolled in the schools live outside of the city limits.

The school district is predominantly white, middle-income and Republican. A boombox playing Christian pop music greets arriving students each Wednesday. Corporal punishment is still used. A moment of silence is observed each morning after the Pledge of Allegiance.

“I’m probably the most conservative person you’ll ever meet,” said Chris Hall, 47, a doctor and the parent of several students, as he watched one of his daughters play softball on a recent evening. “That’s partly why we’re here. We want our kids to think freely and openly. But I do want to have the opportunity to teach them why we think the way we do.”

A small public school with broad support from the community can support that as well as any private school, he and other parents said.

“It feels like a private school here,” said Mindy Jordan, a parent.

Seated in his windowless office, Mr. Fiedler said he was not worried that a voucher program would mean losing students to private schools. But because of the way the Texas legislation is structured, he said, there is a different threat: Private school vouchers could drain the state funding reservoir available to public schools.

“I look at it like a fountain drink,” he said. “You keep adding so many straws to a fountain drink, you suck that thing dry.”

The additional state funds that have come with all the new enrollments in New Home have not been enough to keep up with the staffing needs.

Coaches are mowing lawns. Mr. Fiedler acts as a second maintenance person, repairing doors. On a recent evening, the athletic director, Koby Abney, was the announcer for a home softball game.

Unlike some other school districts across the state, New Home has few sources of local funding apart from property taxes on homes, and relies very heavily on money from the state, based on attendance.

“I don’t have any industry. I don’t have oil. I don’t have windmills to help subsidize our school,” Mr. Fiedler said. “Mine comes out of rooftops and students in the seats.”

But boosting the student population also means building new facilities. The new elementary school is under construction. In the last few years, the high school has grown large enough to compete in standard football, no longer the six-man version common in small schools. For that, the district is building a new turf field.

After some local complaints, the district began charging a fee of $1,000 per child for the ever-growing number of students who live outside of the district.

But a voucher program could upset the precarious balance, Mr. Fiedler and others worry.

The local State House representative, Dustin Burrows, had opposed educational savings accounts in the past. But during the vote last week, he sided with other Republicans and against Democrats who put forward the anti-voucher budget amendment. In a statement, Mr. Burrows said he did not want to “shut down debate and discussion prematurely.”

The vote was narrower than such votes have been in the past in the State House, suggesting that the reliable base of conservative support for public schools could be cracking.

Many in New Home worried that political shifts in Austin threatened to leave out the voices of rural Texans, for whom the local schools — the Friday night football games and principals whose cellphone numbers you know — are essential parts of what makes a community.

Mr. Abney, the athletic director at New Home, said he found himself torn and feeling as if his vote were being taken for granted.

“I’m a very politically conservative person,” he said. “But the politicians who I support on most issues are the ones most seemingly intent on attacking public education, which has been what I’ve devoted my life to.”

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