Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry says school vouchers are like nuclear power: scary for some, but safe

As Gov. Greg Abbott works to pass a school voucher program in Texas, former governor recounts what doomed his past efforts.

Former Gov. Rick Perry said he sees a lot of similarities between the push for school vouchers in Texas and convincing people nuclear power is safe.

He said in both cases, the words conjure up negative images that have required years of public education to reverse, something he admits he couldn’t pull off during his time as governor.

THE LATEST: Texas House votes to block school vouchers, clashing with governor, Texas Senate

“Just like the general public is afraid of the word nuclear, the general public is afraid of the word vouchers,” Perry, 73, said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers on Tuesday from his ranch near Round Top. “They have been led to believe — particularly in rural areas — they’ve been led to believe that if you put vouchers into place it will be the demise of your public schools.”

Perry, a school choice advocate who was the secretary of energy under former President Donald Trump, said he’s convinced that’s not true and said that’s where the fear of nuclear power comes in. With nuclear power, people think of disasters like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. But he said the future of energy is small modular reactors that are safe and affordable.

He said just like with nuclear power, there has to be an education process to show people vouchers are actually a way for parents to choose what is best for their children and won’t hurt public schools.

Public school advocates say that's impossible, since every dollar going to private education would be taken directly from a local school district under the plan Abbott supports. Such losses would mean fewer teachers and staff at the public schools, and for the students who remain, they say.

Perry, who was governor from 2000 to 2015, knows the fight well. For years he tried to push for a private school-choice program in Texas only to see it fail each year, largely due to rural opposition.

Early in his tenure as governor he pushed legislation unsuccessfully to give economically disadvantaged students in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio tuition to go to private schools. Even toward the end of his final term, Perry was still calling for some kind of tuition program to help get students out of failing schools.

Before Perry, former Gov. George W. Bush made vouchers a priority issue, telling the Texas Legislature in 1999 “the time has come to try a pilot voucher program.”

Now Abbott is trying to pull off what neither of his predecessors could, but with a different twist. Abbott has built a plan around expanding what the state calls educational savings accounts, or ESAs, in order to allow parents to take money from those accounts to help pay for private school tuition. The Senate has passed the concept, but it still appears mired in the Texas House because of opposition from a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans.

That Senate plan would allow parents to receive up to $8,000 to use on private school tuition or home schooling materials for each child. Most private schools cost more than $8,000 a year to attend. Meanwhile in the House, lawmakers have added a provision to their proposed budget that would bar any public funds from being used for private schooling.

With just 48 days left in the Legislative Session, Abbott hasn't given up.

He continues to travel the state hoping to turn up the pressure on state legislators who are holdouts. On Wednesday, he will be in McAllen at a rally at Covenant Christian Academy, a private school. On Thursday, he will be in San Antonio at St. Mary Magdalen School.

Abbott said he is well-aware of the attempts Perry and Bush made, but he sees an opening still.

“Not only do I see something, but the reality is, the facts are different today than they were under Bush and Perry,” Abbott said in an exclusive interview with Hearst Newspapers in February .