A Texas state senator was filmed last week responding angrily to public high school students from his Austin-area legislative district who were meeting with him as part of the events for an occasion called Texas PTA Rally Day. The students were from the Richardson Independent School District, and the legislator, Republican Don Huffines, was first elected in 2014. The exchange which drew the heated comments from Huffines concerned the newly topical issue of vouchers, of which the new US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Huffines are proponents. The public school students, who were all at least seventh graders, questioned the practical feasibility of the voucher concept, telling Huffines that the size of the proposed stipend would not cover a full year’s tuition at area private schools. The student who had the most direct exchange with the legislator inquired as to what a lower-income family is receiving such a voucher was to do to cover the expense of the second semester of the academic year. She professed to have personal experience as a past attendee of private schools in the area.
Huffines’ response to the student was, “Oh, so it doesn’t pay for all their education, does it? The $5,000 won’t pay for it, right? So you’re saying since we’re not giving them enough money to pay for all their education, screw ‘em, they can’t go to private school!” He continued, “Do you want me to give them $15,000? Is that what you want? So they can all go to Hockaday or St. Mark’s? That’s the most selfish thing I’ve ever heard.” This portion of the exchange came after Huffines countered the students’ case with the question, “What makes you think it’s your money?” framing the voucher stipend as being the “taxpayers’ money.” He then specifically asserted it was the money of area businesses, who, he claimed, paid 62% of all property taxes, the funding source for public education. A woman can be heard objecting to the entire concept of vouchers during this portion of the exchange, asserting that the money should be used to “enhance the public schools.” Another woman elaborated on that case towards the end of the taped exchange, stating the advantage of public schools lay in their accountability, especially as expressed in their testing results.
Huffines did regain some of his composure after his angry retort, assertively but more calmly making a standard conservative argument for vouchers as an opportunity for educational improvement on the status quo for schoolchildren. However, his spokesman later equated the meeting to the legislator being targeted for an ambush, saying that
“Where other politicians might have run, Don Huffines stayed and endured the ambush-style attack, then calmly answered more questions for fifteen more minutes, including questions from students.”
Parent and district leaders, as well as Texas state Democrats, dismissed this characterization of the incident. Meredyth Childress, mother of a student at the event and a PTA member, stated that “We’re very proud of the students,” and described the exchange thus: “Both sides were passionate. One side displayed the proper respect and decorum. One side did not.”
The superintendent of the school district issued a statement likewise expressing pride in the students and “disappointment in Senator Huffines’ comments.” The deputy executive director of the state Democratic Party issued a statement saying, “Nowhere in the job description of a Texas senator does it say to be disrespectful and rude to Texas students and their concerned parents who are demanding their fair shot to get ahead.”