Rice University political analyst Mark Jones sees a potential tradeoff whereby the Texas House gives ground on school choice programs in exchange for Lt. Gov. Patrick’s endorsement of casinos and sports betting.
Patrick told Lubbock’s KFYO talk radio last week that “we don’t have the votes in the Senate as we sit here today” to pass casino or sports betting legislation.
A week prior, the Texas House State Affair Committee heard public testimony on Rep. Charlie Geren’s casino legislation and Rep. Jeff Leach’s online sports betting legislation. Both pieces received plenty of commentary, for and against, and were passed favorably out of committee.
Should Texas online sports betting or casino legislation pass this legislative session, Jones thinks it might not be on its own merits.
School choice programs high on Abbot and Patrick’s legislative priorities
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott started the 2023 legislative session with his State of the State address. He highlighted three legislative priorities in that speech: school choice, property tax reform and the fentanyl crisis.
Abbott appealed to conservative bitterness around buzz words such as “woke agendas” and “critical race theory” in the portion of his speech touting school choice reform. The implicit argument being these topics have worked their way into Texas public schools, eroding their integrity and creating a need for alternative educational opportunities.
Patrick, like Abbott, has also touted school choice programs.
This year, Senate Bill 8, authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would establish an Educational Savings Account (ESA) funded by taxpayers and donors. It has received Patrick’s blessing. However, he has pushed this agenda before and been shut down by Democrats and rural Republicans.
School choice reform is typically aligned with school voucher programs, which, critics argue, divert funds from the public school systems and gives them to parents and private schools.
While Texas does not currently operate a voucher system, it does have many charter schools, public magnet schools, wide freedom to apply for public schools outside of one’s district and hybrid in-person/virtual programs to give Texas families a fair amount of school choice already.
The ESAs associated with legislation under discussion this year would do more than give parents money to spend at any school, public or private, of their choosing. It allows them to spend that money on uniforms, tutors and other school supplies.
In 2022, the Texas Public School System had 5,156,972 students in grades K-12. SB 8 would give all those students, and those entering kindergarten this year, up to $8,000 to be used for school choice.
The legal gambling tradeoff
Jones’ perspective, and one growing in popularity as the legislative session wears on, is that legal gambling expansion is becoming less of a toss-up and more of a long shot.
In the Texas House, where both casino and sports betting legislation received public hearings, the State Affairs Committee approved Geren’s casino legislation and Leach’s sports betting legislation Monday without discussion. Questions about licensing structures and provisions for tribal gaming stemming from the bills’ hearings went unanswered.
In those hearings, a strong contingent of social conservatives connected to religious organizations made their presence felt and presented the predictable anti-gaming arguments.
The Texas Senate has yet to put any gaming legislation on a committee calendar, which has much to do with Patrick’s historic disinclination to consider expanded gambling. And, frankly, not much has happened to change his mind.
At least, nothing in the form of compelling speech and significant Republican endorsements for casinos and sports betting.
However, a sports betting and casino quid pro quo could untangle that knot if school choice gets tied up in either the House or Senate. That depends on whether Patrick will give a benediction to gambling expansion in Texas.
Is there a chance for a school choice tie-up in the Legislature?
If school choice gets tied up, it won’t be in the Senate. Creighton’s SB 8 sailed through the Senate Education Committee, which Creighton chairs.
While Creighton is a longtime school choice proponent, his Education Committee chair counterpart in the House, Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Kileen, is not. In 2021, Buckley voted for a House budget that banned school vouchers as part of a broader spending cap.
House Bill 5261, the companion to SB 8, still sits in Buckley’s Education Committee, where it has not yet received a hearing. If it appears that the House is making no plans on moving forward with HB 5261, this is where the gambling trade-offs may occur.
“We could envision a scenario,” Jones told FOX 26-TV Houston, “whereby school choice is being blocked by the House and one of the ways Lt. Gov. Patrick could unblock it is by allowing casino gambling to pass.”
While only referring to casinos, Jones believes that online sports betting could easily serve the same purpose in unblocking the pathway to school choice legalization.
School choice detractors may derail this tradeoff
While Jones believes that most evangelicals would happily trade casinos and sports betting for school choice, many evangelicals do not support school choice initiatives.
As PlayTexas has reported, The Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission has opposed gambling expansion and school choice.
Its opposition to gambling is rhetorically similar to other religious groups, but Rob Kohler, a consultant to the group, also urges Texans not to “break the seal” on Class III gaming, which would give tribes too much free rein to authorize gambling on their lands.
Regarding school choice, it opposes it on Constitutional grounds, arguing it would violate the separation of church and state due to the allocation of public funds to religious schools.
The Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission, like many Democrats, also sees the possibility of school vouchers or an ESA eroding the quality of public education and sending money for public schools to less well-regulated private schools.
Should it come down to a tradeoff between gambling and school choice interest groups, it may not be as easy as Patrick thinks to get his socially-conservative constituency to buy into the deal.
How would such a tradeoff sit with supporters of both causes?
Will Texas bettors eager to place legal sports bets feel satisfied if that first bet comes at the expense of an unrelated issue they may otherwise oppose? Likewise, will parents eager to give their children an opportunity that better serves their needs feel content in doing so only because their Legislature made a moral sacrifice in allowing gambling expansion?
At the moment, Texans invested in these two issues may have to accept that a significant moral compromise may be required to bring either or both to fruition.