12/05/2012 11:16 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

The Republican Problem on Vouchers

David Simpson is no liberal. The conservative state representative from East Texas is so erratically radical that one conservative blog wrote that he was "widely thought of as crazy" by other Texas Republicans, which is saying a lot. He's best known for sponsoring a bill to ban airport pat downs by TSA officers. Simpson explained, "You've got to have a reason to go to third base." The bill failed when the federal government threatened to make Texas a no-fly zone.  Simpson might be out there where the trains don't run, but at least the planes still fly.

So it comes as some surprise that this ambitious, conservative grandstander opposes vouchers, a top Republican priority in the upcoming legislative session.

"I'm opposed to vouchers," Simpson told his local school board. "I'm in favor of public money going to public purposes."

This is heresy for Texas Republicans. It is an article of faith among Republican leadership that Texans are clamoring for "school choice."

"To me," said Sen. Dan Patrick, the activist chair of the Education Committee, "school choice is the photo ID bill of this session. Our base has wanted us to pass photo voter ID for years, and we did it. They've been wanting us to pass school choice for years. This is the year to do it, in my view."

To Patrick, "school choice" means vouchers. But if Simpson, who drinks from the same teakettle as Patrick, opposes vouchers, then maybe that "school choice" doesn't mean what Republicans think it means. A recent poll commissioned by the Texas Families First Foundation gives some interesting insight into the disconnect on "school choice" between political insiders and actual voters.

Conducted jointly by Democratic pollsters Hamilton Campaigns and Republicans at Perception Insights, TFFF's poll is not against school choice. The TFFF imagines a world in which kids can choose to attend any public school with state money following them in what it calls "backpack funding." And if no adequate public school is available, then TFFF suggests a "School of Last Resort" voucher that allows the student to use public funds at a private school. This is no front group for teacher unions.

When offered an array of reform options, voters ranked vouchers last with a +7 percent rating, meaning the positive reception barely outpaced the opposition. Other proposals (charter schools, accountability, increasing funding, home schooling, and giving local school districts flexibility) drew a broad base of support, but after so many years of legislative infighting vouchers have become partisan with only Republicans clearly in favor, 60-37 percent.

Here's the bad news for Republican lawmakers itching to pass vouchers: Republican voters are more in favor of giving more money to public schools, 63-32 percent. If this were an internal poll briefing for Republicans, this would be an underlined bullet point: When Texans are more in favor of giving more money to the government than they are for passing a conservative pet project, Republicans have a problem.

"If education reform in the next session just means vouchers, then the fight is going to be on an issue that evokes strong opinion on both sides and for which there is little room to come together and find a common solution," said Bryan Dooley of Hamilton Campaigns, who points to giving local school districts and families more control as an idea that draws overwhelming (+71 percent) support from across partisan, racial, and geographic lines.

"Local control doesn't necessarily equal vouchers," cautioned Dooley. "It means more control and choices within public education -- local control of hiring standards, local control of if and how often to test, letting parents enroll kids in any schools in their district.  These are all decisions made in Austin now, and voters are saying those decisions should be made at the local level."

Republican leaders in Austin are mistaking their fevered dreams with a political mandate. They're right in thinking Texans want change, but the "school choice" Texans want is to make their own choices about schools and for politicians to butt out.