Why ex-Gov. Rick Perry is taking an upfront role in the battle over school choice

The Republican from rural Texas says the program once known as “vouchers” could benefit students who want alternatives to college.

by John Moritz

March 25, 2023

AUSTIN — If Rick Perry had followed a career path that he says was wide open to him before he enrolled in Texas A&M University in 1968, he might have saved Texas Democrats 24 years of frustration.

Perry quit the left-drifting Democratic Party after three terms in the Texas House and in 1990 ran for state agriculture commissioner as a Republican. He won. Eight years later, he won the race for lieutenant governor by about half the width of a whisker. And when George W. Bush traded the Texas Governor’s Mansion for the White House after the 2000 election, Perry moved in and won the office three straight times in his own right.

But before all that, and before A&M followed by the Air Force, the young Perry had himself a marketable skill.

“I could have — had I not had some other opportunities open up — been a good welder,” Perry said in a one-on-one phone interview on Tuesday. “I could have made a living being a welder.”

The former governor, U.S. energy secretary and two-time contender for his party’s presidential nomination used the “could’ve been a welder” anecdote to illustrate what he’s now doing in his post-political life. A conservative advocacy group, Texans for Free Enterprise, has tapped Perry to be something of a public relations liaison in what’s shaping up to be one of the defining issues of the 2023 legislative session: whether the state will allow parents to use a portion of what they’d pay in property taxes to offset the cost of educational alternatives.

It’s by no means a new concept in the Texas Capitol. And Perry was among its champions during his long run as governor and his much shorter stretch as Bush’s understudy.

Back then, the shorthand for it was “vouchers,” and it was pretty much an anathema to the Democrats, who were able to kill it by forming a temporary alliance with lawmakers cut straight out of the Perry mold: conservative Republicans from rural Texas who worried that their small school districts would implode if their tax money were to be siphoned away.

Now, proponents of the concept are trying to rebrand it as a “parental rights” or “school choice” initiative in an effort to peel away rural opposition and perhaps find some converts among urban Democrats whose kids cannot excel in what the proponents call “failing schools.”

Perry’s successor, Greg Abbott, has been burning a fair amount of his own political capital, traveling the state to push the concept. And he has designated school choice as one of his top seven legislative priorities this year. Opponents say that no matter how the issue may be rebranded, it’s still picking the pockets of local school districts and handing the booty to the education-for-profit industry.

Perry’s West Texas twang and country-boy demeanor have survived half a lifetime high within the walls of power, and his background makes him a natural salesman for any recalcitrant rural Republicans.

He said he picked up the welding skill in high school during an era when college often was not the default option for teenagers from his corner of Texas. He said he honed the skill during practical application on his family’s farm. And he’s now taking some of his surviving projects to rural high schools as a way to illustrate how non-college options for at least some high school students do not mean a life of limited opportunity.

Vocational education programs, even those operated by public schools, would be an option for parents who want to go the school-choice route, Perry said.

“There’s so many young people whose focus doesn’t need to be going to a four-year institution acquiring that debt and, frankly, not having a sellable skill once they get out of that four-year institution,” Perry said. “We’re going to have 40,000 HVAC openings. We’re going to have 7,000 plumber openings; we’re going to have 10,000 electrician openings.

“That’s a stunning indictment that we haven’t focused in the right place when it comes to creating a workforce that you can literally step out of high school with these programs that are going to be offered.”

In the interview, Perry talked fondly about the welding skills he was able to acquire some 55 years ago. He offered no hint of regret at pursuing the path he finally settled on. But he acknowledged that his choice was not met with universal approval.

“There are a number of people that wish I would have been a welder,” Perry said, laughing as he named a Democrat or two who came in second when his own name was on the ballot.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.

See original piece at Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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