Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rural schools near Austin say they feel left behind as governor pushes for vouchers

Students head to their classes in the halls of Lockhart High School
Michael Minasi
Students head to their classes at Lockhart High School last winter.

For Randy Willis, public schools are crucial to rural communities.

“I think the rural schools are the heart of Texas. They’re the backbone of Texas,” he said.

Willis is the executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools, which represents about 375 small districts. He thinks the state’s Republican leaders may have forgotten the role rural districts play in their local economies and communities.

Willis said he is frustrated that Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are more focused on creating a school voucher program in Texas than funding public schools. Vouchers allow families to use taxpayer money to pay for private school and other educational expenses.

“The rural community is what elected the governor and lieutenant governor,” he said. “And they are not showing a whole lot of support for that support we gave them."

Abbott has repeatedly said Texas families should have more options for educating their kids. During his State of the State address back in February, he also accused public schools of indoctrinating students with what he considers liberal ideologies.

Willis said that just is not true.

“Obviously they’ve never been to a rural school. They’ve never been to rural Texas," he said. "We teach God, country and Texas."

Texas lawmakers are at the Capitol for the third special legislative session of the year. Abbott called them back to Austin because a school voucher bill failed during the regular session after a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans in the House blocked it.

Historically, rural Republicans have opposed voucher legislation over concerns it will undermine state funding for public schools. That’s also a top concern for Willis. And while a voucher program may not be too expensive at first, he said, the costs of similar programs in other states have skyrocketed.

“It’s just insulting cause they’ve underfunded us, underpaid us and now they want to do this program,” he said.

Abbott has said he will add public school funding to the special session agenda — only if the Legislature approves education savings accounts, a voucher-like program.

“Once we hammer out this deal [on vouchers] and reach an agreement on it, we're going to add to the agenda to make sure that we will be providing even more funding for public schools and a pay raise for our teachers across the state of Texas,” Abbott told supporters last week at the Capitol.

But Willis and rural school leaders say the delay on new public school funding is leaving rural districts in the lurch.

A tale of two districts

On a Friday night in October, the parking lot at Liberty Hill High School is growing more crowded by the minute. Students and families are tailgating before a football game against Lockhart High School. The scent of barbecue wafts through the air as kids gleefully play games at booths set up near Panther Stadium.

“This is what Friday night looks like. We’re early and in about 30 minutes you won’t even be able to walk through here," Liberty Hill ISD Superintendent Steven Snell said. "And Friday nights, it’s all about kids, it’s all about community.”

People wait in line to enter Panther Stadium at Liberty Hill High School for a football game.
Becky Fogel
Liberty Hill ISD officials say their district plays a key role in their rural community and they would like to see the state invest more money in public education, not school vouchers.

One of the students at the tailgate is Mason. Now a high school junior, he remembers coming to the tailgate when he was in fifth and sixth grade.

“I’d come out here and this would be the highlight of the whole game, because I’d just come out here and this stuff is free," he said. "You don’t have to bring money, you don’t have to worry about anything. You just come out here and have fun."

Mason said he doesn’t pay attention to what the Texas Legislature is up to. But it’s a different story for Snell. He would like to see lawmakers provide more money to public schools, rather than creating a school voucher program that allows families to use taxpayer money to send their kids to private schools.

“There’s lots of work to do on the school finance side that’s taking a backseat to vouchers right now and that’s too bad,” he said.

Members of the Liberty Hill High drill team wear white and purple outfits and hold hot pink pompoms during a cheer.
Becky Fogel
Members of the Liberty Hill High drill team cheer during a football game against Lockhart.

Liberty Hill ISD is one of a number of school districts in Central Texas with a deficit budget this year because state funding is not keeping up with inflation. The last time the Legislature raised the basic allotment — the minimum amount the state spends per student — was 2019.

That stagnant state funding has also left Lockhart ISD dealing with a budget deficit.

“It kind of has crimped our ability to give raises, offer new programs, hire new staff," Lockhart ISD School Board President Michael Wright said. "So hopefully something will be done before the year is out."

He added that the state is not fully funding public schools right now, which makes the push for vouchers even more concerning.

“If 1% of our students leave, that's well over half a million dollars that the school district would lose. If 3%, it’s over $1.6 million."
Lockhart ISD Superintendent Mark Estrada

“The voucher program might start out small but just getting your foot in the door, once it gets going, there’s no telling where it ends up," he said. "And I think every dollar that you take out of public schools is a detriment to the students and our staff."

Superintendent Mark Estrada said Lockhart ISD is facing another financial challenge this year. Texas cut the district's funding by $3 million this year because of a dispute between state and county officials over local property values.

Estrada said he expects Lockhart ISD to face even more financial pressures if the Texas Legislature approves a school voucher program.

“If 1% of our students leave, that's well over half a million dollars that the school district would lose. If 3%, it’s over $1.6 million,” he said.

While that may not seem like a lot of students, Estrada said, there aren’t many places small districts can cut corners to make up for less state funding. They still have to pay for teachers and maintenance costs.

“It doesn’t scale down proportionally to our ability to have less costs when we’re losing a handful of kids here and there. The math just doesn’t work,” he said. “What happens is every kid that is left in the school district receives less because of this issue.”

Raises for rural teachers

The Texas Senate approved legislation this month that would give teachers retention bonuses for the current school year. It also creates a new allotment to make the state-funded raises permanent. In districts with fewer than 5,000 students, teachers would get a $10,000 raise. Those in districts with more than 5,000 students would get a $3,000 raise.

Even though they're rural, Lockhart and Liberty Hill both have too many students to qualify for the $10,000 pay bump. Superintendent Estrada said at the end of the day, it feels like public schools are under attack.

“And I don’t think state leadership is hiding it. I think that we are very clearly and strategically being put at a disadvantage and almost set up to fail at times,” he said. “And, that’s extremely discouraging.”

There’s less than two weeks left to go in the special session, which can last only 30 days. The Texas House has its own bill to create a school voucher program and increase public education funding, but it hasn’t gotten a hearing yet.

If you found this reporting valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on Thanks for donating today.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
Related Content