Advocacy Blog

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The ATPE Government Relations Team is hard at work to push issues important for educators and public education in Austin and Washington DC.

Follow our advocacy blog (originally published at www.teachthevote.org) for all the latest education news and information:

 
February 23, 2018

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) is sending a strong message to educators across Texas: The Speaker stands with educators who are encouraging a culture of voting across the state, and against recent voter intimidation efforts directed at the education community.

“Put me down as supporting a culture of voting, among teachers and all eligible Texans,” Straus said in a newsletter dated February 23.

As the first week of early voting continues, Speaker Straus reminded voters that the polls are open this weekend for those who would like to vote early in the March 6 primary. Early voting continues through March 2, and polls will be open again from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on election day, March 6.

In his letter, the Speaker explicitly called out voter intimidation efforts aimed at educators. It’s no secret that educators are mobilizing like never before ahead of the March 6 primary elections, and many school districts are enthusiastically exercising their legal obligation to encourage voting and civic engagement. As a member of the Texas Educators Vote coalition, ATPE has worked alongside other education and civic groups to increase voter turnout among educators and share nonpartisan election resources with school employees. These efforts came under attack earlier this year when state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) engaged Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a naked attempt to chill these efforts.

Soon after, the state’s most notorious privately funded special interest group staged its own voter intimidation campaign directed at teachers. The campaign backfired spectacularly, with the internet uniting behind the social media hashtag #BlowingTheWhistle to highlight the impactful stories of dedicated educators making a difference. ATPE wrote about the Twitter backlash on our Teach the Vote blog.

In his letter Friday, Straus wrote:

“I’ve often said that we need more Texans voting in primaries so that candidates are responsive and accountable to a broader set of Texans and their concerns. Unfortunately, some elected leaders in Austin and their allies have been trying to discourage voting among one important group of Texans: School teachers.

Some members of our community have received a letter from an Austin special interest group criticizing local school leaders for promoting a “culture of voting.” This group apparently feels threatened by the fact that education leaders are encouraging civic participation.

It’s easy to understand why educators and others who support public schools want to vote. Those of us who have prioritized public education have been met with resistance from other elected leaders. As a result, our school finance system still desperately needs reform, and the lack of state dollars going into public education is driving local property taxes higher and higher.”

During the 2017 legislative session, Speaker Straus led the Texas House in blocking harmful bills aimed at weakening the public education system and fought to pass a school finance reform bill that would have increased school funding by as much as $1.9 billion. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Texas Senate killed that bill, which would have benefited 5.4 million Texas students, as payback.

ATPE lobbyists presented House Speaker Joe Straus with an honorary resolution adopted by the ATPE House of Delegates in July 2017.

Speaker Straus was honored as “Texan of the Year” by the Dallas Morning News for his efforts to avoid controversial crusades and keep the legislature focused on the business of improving Texans’ lives. This week, he was awarded “International Citizen of the Year” as well by the World Affairs Council of San Antonio. During the 2017 special session, ATPE also presented Straus with an honorary resolution adopted by our House of Delegates last summer in recognition of his support for public education.

The Speaker has indicated he will not be running for reelection, which means those who vote in the primary elections underway now will determine what type of leader takes his place.

Educators MUST VOTE NOW or risk facing a hostile legislature in 2019. ATPE encourages you to look up who’s running in your area on the CANDIDATES page of our website, then go to the polls and use your teacher voice!

February 23, 2018

Left to right: State Board of Education District 11 incumbent Pat Hardy and her two Republican primary challengers, Feyi Obamehinti and Cheryl Surber. Photos from Facebook campaign pages

Over her 16 years on the State Board of Education, Pat Hardy has rallied for her share of socially conservative measures. She’s endorsed keeping “pro-American” values in history textbooks. She’s backed emphasizing “states’ rights” instead of slavery as the cause of the Civil War. And she’s supported teaching “both sides” of arguments around climate change.

But her Republican challengers in the March 6 primaries — Feyi Obamehinti and Cheryl Surber— are telling voters that they’re even further to the right. (Surber’s campaign Facebook page even refers to her as the “Donald Trump of the Texas State Board of Education” candidate.)

“It’s probably true!” Hardy said. “Which is funny because I’m very conservative. But they are to the right of me.”

The Fort Worth representative, a retired public school social studies teacher, is fighting to keep her seat in one of the most anticipated State Board of Education contests this year. Hardy’s District 11 seat is one of seven up in the 2018 midterms, including three other seats where incumbents are also fending off challengers. Three other incumbents are stepping down, prompting open races.

But experts say Hardy’s race in particular could help determine whether the board will retain its recent political equilibrium or return to a more polarized iteration characterized by frequent head-butting among the board’s liberal, moderate Republican and social conservative factions, which has earned it national notoriety for decades.

“With three open seats, this is a really important election for the state board, because the board has moved closer to the center over the last several election cycles,” said Dan Quinn, spokesperson for left-leaning state board watchdog Texas Freedom Network. “The question is whether it will continue to do that or if we’ll see a swing back to the fringe politics that have dominated the board for the last 20 years, or longer than 20 years.”

Whoever wins will be responsible for setting curriculum standards and making textbook recommendations for schools across the state, deciding what 5.4 million Texas students learn.

Over the next couple of years, the new board’s responsibilities will include the politically fraught duty of tackling a full revision of health standards, including how schools teach sex education, informing the content for textbooks Texas teachers will use for years.

“What students learn about contraception in a state with one of the highest rates of teen birth rates in the nation will be up for debate,” Quinn said.

Challenging a swing vote

The State Board of Education has 15 members, each representing nearly 2 million Texans. Though the board is made up of 10 Republicans and five Democrats, its debates often divide the board three ways — between Democrats, moderate conservatives and social conservatives.

Hardy describes herself as a Republican who doesn’t always fit the mold, often a swing vote on the board.

“You have a balance on the board, which means that each of those three groups are compelled to work with one of the others to accomplish their goals,” said David Anderson, a longtime education lobbyist at Hillco Partners. “If you lose Pat to one of the other two candidates, you lose a critical part of that balance.”

Hardy’s district covers Parker County and parts of Dallas and Tarrant counties.

Hardy does not believe Texas should subsidize private school tuition for parents. “I’ve always felt the public school was a unique thing that historically set us apart from other countries because we had free education,” she said.

Her opponents argue parents should be able to use state money to go to any type of school they want. Obamehinti, a former public school teacher and current education consultant from Keller, also homeschooled her daughter for 11 years and wants to make it easier for other parents to have the same option.

The board has no jurisdiction over whether to approve vouchers or similar programs, but candidates’ views on this issue may indicate whether they want to improve the current public education system or overhaul it in favor of a more free-market approach.

Obamehinti also supports teaching creationism in science classrooms and is skeptical of the idea that the state should approve a Mexican-American studies course, a current consideration on the board. She argues she can do a better job of reaching out to constituents than Hardy has done. “I live in District 11, and I have never had any outreach in 16 years,” she said.

Surber said she would never be a swing vote on the board. “I’m like the Donald Trump of this race. I want to hear various sides, even sides that might disagree with me,” she said. She said she is not in favor of a Mexican-American studies course for Texas because students are “in the United States of America. We’re not in Mexico. We’re not in Canada. We need to learn American history.”

She holds extreme views on many subjects and often affirms various conspiracy theories on her personal Facebook page. This week, she put up a few posts suggesting survivors of the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting who have publicly advocated for gun control measures are “crisis actors,” not students, a notion that has been widely debunked.

Two Democrats are also running for Hardy’s seat: Carla Morton, a pediatric neuropsychologist and special education advocate in Fort Worth, and Celeste Light, who has no campaign website set up and has not responded to media requests for comment.

Decisive primaries

Three State Board members — Beaumont Republican David Bradley, Dallas Republican Geraldine “Tincy” Miller and Fort Worth Democrat Erika Beltran — are stepping down this year. In all three seats, a candidate from the incumbent’s party is running unopposed in the primary: Matt Robinson in Bradley’s District 7, Pam Little in Miller’s District 12, and Aicha Davis in Beltran’s District 13.

Given their voting history, those districts are unlikely to change party hands, meaning those three candidates will win, said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University. “We often talk about how the primaries are decisive. In the State Board of Education, they’re 100 percent decisive,” he said. “There’s no doubt whatsoever about who’s going to win in November because of the way the districts have been drawn.”

Bradley, one of those incumbents, is widely considered one of the most socially conservative and most divisive members on the board, supporting abstinence-only education and creationism in science classes.

“I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state,” he said, before the board voted to adopt more right-leaning social studies curriculum standards in 2010. “I have $1,000 for the charity of your choice if you can find it in the Constitution.”

In 2016, he sent an email proposing board members walk out of a discussion about a Mexican-American studies textbook that advocates and academics considered racist, in order to “deny the Hispanics a record vote.”

Bradley’s likely replacement is Robinson, a Friendswood ISD board member and physician, the only Republican running for the District 7 seat. Bradley endorsed Robinson a few months after he filed paperwork to run.

“Generally speaking, if you voted for David Bradley in the past, you’d feel good about voting for me,” Robinson said. “If you didn’t, you might still be happy with me.”

Robinson said schools should teach abstinence-only sexual education: “I think that should be the limit of what they do.”

He supports state subsidy programs that would help parents pay for private schools, such as vouchers or education savings accounts — generally opposed by public education advocates, who see the subsidies as a potential financial drain on public schools.

But, unlike many conservatives who support these subsidies, Robinson argues a child who takes state money to a private school should have to take the state standardized test or participate in some other form of state accountability. “It would not really be fair to have no restrictions or oversight whatsoever for private schools where state dollars are going,” he said.

Miller, also leaving her seat at the end of the year, is generally considered more moderate than Bradley and is best known for pushing the state’s first law mandating schools serve kids with dyslexia. Miller has endorsed her likely replacement, Pam Little, who is a retired regional vice president at publishing company Houghton Mifflin. Little said she supports abstinence as the first approach to sex education, and has not yet made up her mind on whether health standards should include education on contraception.

When Little ran for Miller’s seat in 2012, she said that local communities should be able to decide whether to offer any additional sex education, given the state’s high teen pregnancy rate.

Beltran endorsed Davis, her likely replacement, upon retiring from the board. A 2011 transplant to Texas, Davis has been a middle and high school science and engineering teacher for the past decade.

Disclosure: Hillco Partners and Rice University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/02/23/texas-board-education-primary-could-spell-return-culture-wars/.

 

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February 22, 2018

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met this morning, Feb. 22, in Austin to consider another round of testimony, this time largely focused on teacher quality. Chairman Justice Scott Brister began the meeting by announcing subcommittee assignments.

Texas Commission on Public School Finance meeting, Feb. 22, 2018.

The Revenue Committee will be led by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and include state Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian), Nicole Conley Johnson, Elvira Reyna, and Justice Brister. The Expenditures Committee will be led by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) and include state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), state Sen. Larry Taylor, State Board of Education (SBOE) Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin), and Justice Brister. The Outcomes Committee will be led by Todd Williams and include state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), Dr. Doug Killian, Melissa Martin, and Sen. Taylor.

The first to testify was Texas Education Agency (TEA) Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez, who presented information that $28.8 billion of combined state, local, and federal funding was spent on instruction in 2016, which comprised 47.7 percent of total education spending. Rep. Huberty, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, pointed out that when factoring in instructional materials and other classroom supports, the 47.7 percent figure does not accurately capture the percentage of funding spent directly on students in the classroom.

Rep. Bernal, who is vice-chair of the House Public Education Committee, asked about the cost to the state that can be attributed to teacher turnover. Austin ISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson answered that each teacher who leaves her district costs between $7,000 and $12,000, which doesn’t even address the negative impact on students. Teacher turnover has been estimated to cost the nation $2.2 billion per year.

The commission heard next from Dr. Eric Hanushek, a professional paid witness who has made a living for decades testifying in court against efforts to increase and equalize school funding, as well as advocating for private school vouchers. Hanushek laid most of the blame for poor student performance at the feet of teachers, but argued against increasing teacher pay. Member Ellis contended that there is a strong statistical relationship between total school spending and results, and that how much is being spent is at least of equal importance as the manner in which the money is spent. Several other commission members, including Conley Johnson and Rep. Bernal, pushed back on Hanushek’s attempts to minimize the importance of adequate school funding.

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojisa testified regarding his district’s efforts to implement a robust performance-based pay system. The Dallas system provides teachers significant tiered pay increases based on performance. Rep. Huberty lauded the concept, but raised questions about cost and affordability. Hinojosa conceded that the program is unsustainable going forward, and as such is being “recalibrated” in order to bring costs under control. Hinojosa also pointed out that public school districts offer many “school choice” options, which include magnet schools and district transfers. According to data presented by Todd Williams, who advises Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings on education policy, implementing Dallas ISD’s ACE program costs $1,295 per student, or roughly $800,000 per campus. The commission heard from several more witnesses describing various performance pay programs.

ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey and Lobbyist Monty Exter testify before the school finance commission.

ATPE executive director Gary Godsey testified before the commission, and began by stating the obvious: Texas schools need more money. Godsey informed the commission that teachers often experience low morale, difficult working conditions, and the feeling they are underappreciated. Teacher turnover costs Texas an estimated $500 million per year. Some initiatives, such as mentorship programs, could reduce turnover with a minimal impact on school budgets. Regarding pay, Godsey testified that teachers are very concerned about efforts to repeal the minimum salary schedule (MSS), which guarantees a minimum level of pay for educators that increases over time. In addition to other low-cost initiatives to reduce turnover, Godsey suggested modifying funding weights and tracking the distribution of teacher quality. Regarding performance pay programs, ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified that incentive pay must be complemented by adequate base pay and should not be tied solely to student test scores. Exter added that any incentive pay program must be financially viable in the long term in order to achieve buy-in from educators and administrators.

The final panel addressed prekindergarten programs, and witnesses emphasized the importance of pre-K in getting children prepared to learn and excel in elementary school. Witnesses testified that dollars invested in early education are dollars saved in remediation later on in a student’s educational career.

The commission is scheduled to meet next on March 7, followed by a March 19 meeting that will be open to comments from members of the public. Another meeting is scheduled for April 5.

February 22, 2018

Early voting is underway NOW for the March 6 Texas primary elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote in this election! Today, we’re taking a closer look at payroll deduction.


Politicians like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) have led the effort for two sessions now to make it more difficult for educators to join professional associations such as ATPE by attempting to ban educators from voluntarily deducting membership dues from their paychecks. Gov. Greg Abbott added his support ahead of last year’s special session when he followed Patrick’s lead in deeming the issue a “priority.”

Proponents have marketed payroll deduction bills as an effort to keep the government from collecting “union dues” with taxpayer resources. The truth is that it isn’t about unions or taxpayer resources at all; it’s about educators.

Consider this: The major bills on this topic have explicitly singled out educators, regardless of union status — but exempted major unions representing other public employees. These bills would actually have a greater impact on NON-union professional associations such as ATPE, and they specifically protect other public employee professionals who are members of unions that collectively bargain. Collective bargaining is illegal for school employees, and no one in Texas is forced to join a union or pay union dues thanks to our right-to-work laws.That’s why the legislative efforts to make it harder for educators to spend their own money to voluntarily join a professional association are so misguided here in Texas.

Further evidence of the politically motivated nature of these bills is the fact that payroll deduction of professional dues does not cost the state or taxpayers anything. That’s a fact that authors of the bills were finally forced to concede during the 2017 legislative sessions but other politicians have continued to ignore. Payroll offices exist regardless of whether association membership dues is among the long list of optional deductions available to public employees. Those other deductions include things like taxes, insurance, newspapers, health clubs, and charitable donations. Furthermore, a school district can even charge associations a fee if it determines there is any additional cost associated with deducting dues for the group’s members. (See Texas Education Code, Section 22.001.)


During debate on the issue last year, bill author Sen. Joan Huffman said she was comfortable exempting certain public employees deemed “first responders” because they “serve the community… with great honor and distinction.” Educators — just like firefighters, police officers, and EMS professionals — are public servants and everyday heroes. In the wake of last week’s tragic news stories of the horrific violence that took place at a Florida high school, it is hard to imagine educators, many of whom took bullets or sheltered their students to protect them from the gunfire, would be considered anything other than first responders who serve their communities with great honor and distinction.

The real goal behind discriminatory payroll deduction bills like these is to weaken the combined influence of educators (as well as public education supporters as a whole) at the Texas Capitol by attacking their ability to conveniently and safely support professional associations that fight to ensure teachers have a seat at the table when it comes to setting public education policy at the state level.

There are elected officials and candidates who respect your profession, and there are those who don’t — and who are already attempting to weaken your voice. Bills like these aimed at silencing educators at the Capitol will certainly be filed again in 2019. If Texans don’t turn out in force during the 2018 elections and select more officeholders who value educators and respect their service, those bills will become law and more of the doors of government will be closed to educators.


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on payroll deduction and other public education issues. Because voting districts in Texas are politically gerrymandered, most elections are decided in the party primary instead of the November general election. That’s why it is so important to vote in the primary election. Registered voters can cast their ballot in either the Republican or Democratic primary, regardless of how you voted last time.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting in the primary and making informed choices at the polls. Keep in mind that it is illegal to use school district resources to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, but there is no prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 primaries runs Tuesday, Feb. 20, through Friday, March 2. Election day is March 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!

February 21, 2018

The steering committee for the Long-Range Plan for Public Education met this morning, Feb. 21, in Austin to address educator preparation, recruitment, and retention in Texas. The 18-member committee has been appointed by the State Board of Education (SBOE) to recommend long-term goals for Texas public schools.

Long-Range Plan for Public Education steering committee meeting, Feb. 21, 2018.

Before delving into the day’s agenda, the committee addressed a question regarding how the final report will be compiled. An earlier deep dive session on school funding recommended the state perform a study on the effectiveness of the Texas school finance system on a regular basis, and the committee expressed a desire to retain control of this particular component of the report as opposed to turning it over to an outside partner to compile.

Next came a discussion of educator preparation. Texas school districts hire 30,000 teachers a year. A total of 135 educator preparation providers offer 260 programs, including 153 traditional programs and 107 alternative certification programs. In 2014-2015, 18,626 teachers enrolled in alternative certification programs, compared to 16,425 who enrolled in traditional certification programs. The top traditional program providers are state universities, with Texas A&M University topping the list. A+ Texas Teachers was the most popular alternative certification provider, though many alt-cert teachers used web-centric alternative certification programs.

Nationally, enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped 31 percent from 2009 to 2013. Enrollment fell 48 percent in Texas from 2009 to 2014. This happened as the number of students has steadily increased. According to a peer-reviewed journal article on Texas teacher preparation, new teachers are more likely to teach low-performing students and in high-poverty schools. Among the challenges facing teachers is a demographic mismatch between teachers and students. The majority of teachers are white, while the majority of students are Hispanic. SBOE Member Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) suggested tracking the number of teachers prepared by minority serving institutions (MSIs).

The committee also discussed the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) “Grow Your Own” program, which is focused on recruiting high school students who show talent and interest in education to pursue a career in teaching. This includes a grant program and clinical training programs for rural teachers, as well as partnerships such as Teach Forward Houston, which pairs Houston ISD and the University of Houston to offer selected applicants up to $20,000 to pursue a teaching degree and teach in the district.

More than one of five Texas teachers leave their position each year, which is higher than the 16 percent national average. Most, 43 percent, listed “personal or life reasons” for leaving. Another 31 percent listed “change of career.” Special education teachers left at nearly double the rate. While lower-income and lower-performing schools saw higher teacher attrition, schools with larger populations of English language learners (ELLs) saw lower rates.

Some of the proposals for retaining teachers include developing career pathways that can lead to increased pay and responsibilities without leaving the classroom, inexpensive housing for teachers, and programs to subsidize tuition and help repay student loans. SBOE Member Tom Maynard (R-Florence) raised a question about the earning power of teachers today, relative to in the past, and pointed out that the cost of health insurance has increased much faster than salaries.

Members of the steering committee broke into working groups Wednesday morning to study these components in depth. The committee plans to develop a set of recommendations by April, and a draft report by May.

February 20, 2018

Following the money in Texas politics:
A citizen’s look at the influence of mega-donors in contested elections 

By Christopher Tackett
February 2018

There is a saying that a fish rots from the head down. In Texas politics, there has certainly been something rotten going on, but I wasn’t quite sure where the smell was coming from until Jan. 11, 2018.

Learning about Texas State Rep. Mike Lang and the Wilks Family

I’m not a political wonk by any means, but I try and pay attention; and when I see something that I think impacts my community, I say something. I’ve had concerns with my current state representative, Rep. Mike Lang. It seems to me that the things he has supported while in office don’t line up with the interests of the bulk of his constituents in House District 60. When I looked at Lang’s campaign donations received since announcing his run for the office in March 2015, I was floored. Sixty-five percent of all his donations had come from one family, the Wilkses, who are billionaires from Cisco, Texas. The Wilks family members have very specific views and have advocated strongly for private schools and vouchers. They have given a lot of money to different political candidates, with Rep. Lang looking like the biggest recipient. Not surprisingly, Lang has acted and voted like a representative who has been bought and paid for by a big donor. If you look at the Wilkses’ goals for Texas, that is how Rep. Lang votes, every time.

I will not hide the fact that I’m a supporter of Dr. Jim Largent, who is challenging Rep. Lang in the 2018 Republican primary race for HD 60. But, I have been surprised at how Empower Texans and the Hood County Republican Party have attacked Dr. Largent after he announced his candidacy. Why would they attack someone who is so well respected in the community? I understand not agreeing with every aspect of a candidate’s positions, but this has been something different. My interest piqued, I decided to look at Empower Texans the same way I looked at Lang. I knew Empower Texans had been widely regarded as a vehicle for another billionaire, Tim Dunn, and I figured that’s what I would find in my research. I was wrong.

Pulling the campaign finance reports from the Texas Ethics Commission from the period of Jan 1, 2015, through June 30, 2017, you have a really solid look at the Empower Texans PAC from the beginning of the 2016 election cycle and the beginnings of the 2018 election cycle. I found that the Empower Texans PAC has received $1,863,033.10 in total donations, broken down as follows:

  • $922,000 came from the Wilks family (49%)
  • $295,000 came from David Middleton (16%)
  • $180,000 came from Dick Saulsbury (10%)
  • $170,000 came from Kyle Stallings (9%)
  • $90,000 came from Tim Dunn (5%)
  • All other donors totaled $206,033.10 (11%)

The guy I thought was calling all the shots for Empower Texans, its chairman Tim Dunn, appears to have been relegated to being a minor player. The Wilks family and a few other big money followers are the drivers of Empower Texans, which portrays itself as a grassroots, “for the little guy in Texas” organization. I believe that people like the Wilkses typically give such large sums of money for a few reasons: To buy the necessary influence to impose their beliefs onto others, to make even more money, or both. Empower Texans’s propaganda, which is all any of their communications are about, is designed to sow fear and discord, and to convince people there are things in their community to be feared and mistrusted. The group promotes fear of things like public schools spreading a “liberal” agenda, local government, and teachers voting. They aren’t really about “empowering Texans” —the people like you, me, and those in our communities—at all. They are in it for themselves.

Now I understand why Empower Texans has been attacking Dr. Jim Largent, considering that Empower Texans is getting significant direction from the Wilks family. Now I understand why the Hood County Republican Party fears Dr. Largent. If he wins, their money and influence train will dry up, as Dr. Largent isn’t likely to toe a Wilks family line. Now I understand why politicians from other districts seem so interested in the District 60 race and so vocal in their social media criticism of Dr. Largent. Politicians like Reps. Jonathan Stickland and Briscoe Cain (and many others) have also been bought by Empower Texans andthe Wilks family, just like Rep. Mike Lang.

Let’s be clear about campaign finance. The Wilks family is giving a lot of money. Is it illegal? Nope. If it’s their money, can’t they spend it as they see fit? Yes.

The Wilkses have enough money to buy attention, and they are. They are pouring immense amounts of money into the political process to convince politicians, communities —almost the whole state —that their beliefs are the beliefs of the majority, and things that are different are to be feared. If the Wilkses were just doing it in their own name, that would be one thing, but they are instead creating confusion by funding and attributing their message to multiple sources. When people hear ominous messages from multiple sources, citizens start to think, “Wow, there are so many people who believe this. What I believe must have no chance, so voting seems like a waste of my time.” What voters in Texas don’t realize is that all those sources are being directed by the same family. So what feels like lots of voices telling you something, making you believe there is broad support is just a few people behind a curtain. It becomes propaganda.

The PACs and their Orbits

Digging through the campaign finance data, I realized that Empower Texans wasn’t the only PAC getting money from the Wilkses. From Jan. 1, 2015, through June 30, 2017, the Wilks family looks to have given $3,345,734 for political causes, which does not include the $15 million they gave to a Ted Cruz for President PAC. There are three PACs getting a large portion of those dollars:

  • $922,000 to Empower Texans PAC
  • $475,000 to Texas Right To Life PAC
  • $475,000 to Texas Home School Coalition PAC

When I went and pulled the campaign finance reports on these PACs from the Texas Ethics Commission website, lo and behold, here were the same names that had been funding Empower Texans. What I have figured out also is that a handful of other big dollar families seem to run in the same “orbit” as the Wilkses. If the Wilks family gives to a cause or a candidate, the others seem to do the same. Granted, there is a candidate or a PAC here or there that doesn’t seem to have everyone pile on, but there is certainly a pattern among these families:

  • Wilks family is at the center ($3,345,734 in contributions)
  • Middleton ($827,014 in contributions)
  • Saulsbury ($708,825 in contributions)
  • Frost ($699,500 in contributions)
  • Stallings ($697,530 in contributions)
  • Tim Dunn ($590,000 in contributions)

What makes it challenging to find the totals here is that these folks make donations to campaigns and PACs and things get recorded differently. Say one donation is from the husband, the next is captured as the husband and wife, a third is captured with the middle name, etc., which means when these donations roll up, they may be credited as being from a “different” person. I’m not saying it’s intentional, but it makes it very hard to follow the trail of breadcrumbs.

These six families are pumping millions of dollars into Texas politics. They are giving directly to political campaigns; they are giving to PACs that are then giving to exactly the same political campaigns; and in some cases, they are giving to PACs that are then giving to other PACs that are giving to exactly the same political campaigns. If you want to talk about huge dollars being given and someone trying to amplify their voices to create the appearance of a whole bunch of people believing something — when it’s mostly six families behind a curtain — THIS IS IT.

The last PAC I will call out is called the Constituents Focus PAC. This one is interesting, in part because $55,000 of its donations came from the Texas Home School Coalition PAC. Yes, that’s the same one that I just detailed above.

If you look at every one of these PACs, they aren’t dominated by the little guy chipping in a few bucks every paycheck to have his voice heard. It’s a few big money donors buying influence and setting themselves up to make more money, which gives them the ability to gain even more influence and money. It’s a vicious cycle. It only gets broken when voters wake up and decide they are going to vote in what is actually their own best interest, not in what some big money PAC or billionaire tells them is good for them.

Let me reiterate one more time. When you hear ANYTHING from one of these PACs, remember it’s five rich families and one extremely rich family telling you what to do and what to think, not the grassroots organizations they pretend to be.

The Beneficiaries

This group of families has invested HUGE dollars into a handful of political candidates. I’ve consolidated the contributions to those candidates from what I call the “Wilks & Their Orbit.” Here is the list of those candidates who have received more the $100,000 as of June 2017 from this small group of people and the PACs they fund:

  • $528,500.00 to Attorney General Ken Paxton
  • $519,841.09 to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
  • $502,250.00 to Rep. Jonathan Stickland
  • $425,575.62 to Rep. Mike Lang
  • $293,666.00 to Thomas McNutt, candidate for House District 8
  • $229,008.00 to Rep. Matt Rinaldi
  • $226,500.00 to Gov. Greg Abbott
  • $218,865.16 to Bo French, candidate for House District 99
  • $216,861.90 to Rep. Briscoe Cain
  • $208,502.29 to Rep. Valoree Swanson
  • $185,500.00 to Rep. Tony Tinderholt
  • $178,006.00 to Jeffrey M. Judson, former president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation
  • $137,000.00 to Sen. Bryan Hughes
  • $133,200.00 to Sen. Bob Hall
  • $128,700.00 to Sen. Konni Burton
  • $119,636.27 to Stuart Spitzer, former state representative/current candidate for House District 4
  • $117,542.36 to Rep. Kyle Biedermann
  • $117,044.90 to Bryan Slaton, candidate for House District 2
  • $115,006.00 to Molly White, former state representative

For example, take HD 73 Rep. Kyle Biederman, who received 30 percent of his campaign contributions since 2015 from the Wilkses and their orbit. Seems like a lot of influence, but it there is still 70% of his campaign funding coming from elsewhere. Compare that to HD 128, where 44 percent of Rep. Briscoe Cain’s campaign contributions came from the Wilkses & their orbit. In HD 92, Rep. Jonathan Stickland has broken the 50 percent threshold, with 53 percent of his donations coming from this group of people.

Now let me finish my examples with the representative I started this piece on: Rep. Mike Lang, HD 60. He had 65 percent coming from just the Wilks family, but when you consider the orbit as well, Lang’s campaign funding from this group of donors jumps up to 76 percent!

The numbers speak for themselves. If anyone believes that a representative who is getting 30, 40, 50, 60, even 70 percent of his funds from one small group of millionaires / billionaires would ever make a move to upset those donors by voting against their interests, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Texans need to understand who is really being represented. Hint: It isn’t the little guy. The only way to beat this is to ignore the noise and vote for candidates who actually will represent you. Look at who is financing your candidate. Think about whether those funds are coming from inside your district. And then understand where and who your representative is really representing. One vote at a time, one election at a time, we can make a difference.


 

Christopher Tackett is a Granbury, Texas, parent and former trustee of the Granbury Independent School District who has been studying the relationship between money, influence, and Texas elections. You can learn about more of his findings at his website.

February 19, 2018

Early voting is underway NOW for the March 6 Texas primary elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote in this election! Today, we’re taking a closer look at the issue of private school vouchers.


When it comes to issues facing public education as a whole, privatization remains one of the most existential threats. The endgame of those who are pushing private school vouchers is to defund the public school system in order to hand our kids over to faceless corporations that will crank them out cheaply and pocket the profits.

Think about it: In 2016, Texas spent $24 billion in state funds to educate our kids. Local taxpayers pitched in even more — $28.8 billion on top of that. It sounds like a lot of money, until you consider it was spread between 5.3 million students. That translated to just $11,133 per student, which puts Texas below the national average and among the states with the most miserly per-student spending.

Despite lagging below many other states, the money spent on Texas public schools is nonetheless a tempting target for predatory opportunists who see only dollar signs. Private schools that can ignore state and federal regulations are viewed by many as a cash cow. A warehouse with a skeleton crew of untrained staff could certainly churn out diplomas and graduate kids unprepared for college and careers for a fraction of the price of a quality public education. Pro-voucher legislators could brag about reducing spending while corporate stockholders rake in billions of taxpayer dollars, perfect for spending on fancy yachts and private planes – and campaign contributions to pro-voucher legislators!

Of course, the kids end up the losers in this scenario. And the 85th Texas Legislature witnessed the despicable lengths to which voucher supporters were willing to go to sell our kids down the road.

The legislative session began with fresh data indicating that Texans firmly oppose spending public taxpayer dollars to subsidize private school tuition. Led by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, voucher proponents instead focused on a voucher targeting students with special needs as a way to open the door. They also used terms like “education savings accounts” and “tax credit scholarships” to describe their voucher plans in the hope of garnering more support from those who traditionally oppose privatization. Voucher promoters even went as far as mailing fraudulent letters to lawmakers to promote their plan.

As ATPE pointed out, special education vouchers are especially troubling and would not come close to covering the full cost of services for children with special needs. In fact, they would give students far less money than the public school system is currently required to spend on their behalf. More importantly, they would force children with special needs to surrender their federal rights and protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Parents of special needs students wisely rejected this cynical attempt to exploit their children for political purposes. With the backing of parents, teachers, ATPE, and the majority of Texans, the Texas House of Representatives led by Speaker Joe Straus stood firmly against each voucher scheme brought forth in 2017. Legislators punctuated their stance with multiple votes on the House floor to reject vouchers.

As payback, Lt. Gov. Patrick killed a bill authored by members of the House that would have provided $1.5 billion in additional funding to benefit all 5.4 million Texas students – signaling how far the lieutenant governor was willing to go to pass a voucher bill against the will of Texas voters.

While voucher supporters were unable to pass a bill in 2017, they have already begun laying the groundwork for a renewed push when the legislature meets again in 2019. Lt. Gov. Patrick has included the issue in his interim charges for Senate committees, and many fear that the Texas Commission on Public School Finance created by House Bill (HB) 21 will become an avenue for privatization proponents to continue their campaign during the interim.

The only reason powerful leaders like Lt. Gov. Patrick and Gov. Abbott were unable to pass a voucher bill in 2017 is because Texas voters elected just enough pro-public education legislators to stop those bills from becoming law. The reality is that unless Texans elect more legislators who promise to actively oppose vouchers, the threat of a voucher bill passing in the future remains high.


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on vouchers and other public education issues. Because voting districts in Texas are politically gerrymandered, most elections are decided in the party primary instead of the November general election. That’s why it is so important to vote in the primary election. Registered voters can cast their ballot in either the Republican or Democratic primary, regardless of how you voted last time.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting in the primary and making informed choices at the polls. Keep in mind that it is illegal to use school district resources to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, but there is no prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 primaries runs Tuesday, Feb. 20, through Friday, March 2. Election day is March 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!

February 19, 2018

Early voting begins TOMORROW (Feb. 20, 2018) for the March 6 Texas primary elections, so over the next few days we are taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote in this election! In this first post in our series, we’re taking a closer look at teacher pay.


By now, you’ve probably seen the recent campaign advertisements by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick regarding pay raises for teachers, which many people believe are laughably disingenuous. This brings us to another important reason for educators to head to the polls this year: the desire for better teacher pay.

The average Texas teacher earned $52,525 in 2016, below the national average of $58,064. Nationwide, average teacher salaries in 2016 ranged from $42,025 in South Dakota on the low end to a high end of $77,957 in New York.

Texas educators have tirelessly advocated for better pay. Each legislative session, pro-public education legislators file bills to raise teacher salaries, while anti-education legislators file bills to eliminate salary minimums. Because of the costs associated with increasing pay across-the-board for more than 350,000 teachers, raises have historically been blocked by legislators who argue schools already get too much state funding. These same legislators are often the ones behind bills that would allow schools to pay less by repealing the minimum salary schedule that functions as a minimum wage for educators.

Recently, some anti-education officeholders have begun to offer lip service in support of raising teacher pay as a means of providing cover for their efforts to defund schools and weaken teachers’ political voice.

Examples of this can be found in the special session of the 85th Texas Legislature. Gov. Greg Abbott, and Lt. Gov. Patrick, and others spent the entire regular session promoting unpopular and harmful voucher programs that would have stripped desperately-needed resources from public schools in order to subsidize private businesses. At the same time, they pushed deeply offensive legislation that singled out educators in an attempt to make it more difficult for them to join professional associations like ATPE. Meanwhile, educators learned that their healthcare costs would soon be going up dramatically.

Faced with withering criticism by outraged educators at the start of the 2017 special session, Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick hastily proposed giving teachers a $1,000 raise – but refused to offer any state funding to pay for it. The Texas Senate quickly whittled the idea down to a one-time bonus, before abandoning it altogether. In the meantime, more serious proposals were left to wither on the vine.

Perhaps ironically for Abbott and Patrick, the ordeal had the rather unintended consequence of galvanizing educators to pursue a meaningful, permanent, and fully-funded increase in teacher pay. Yet the only way such a raise will be successfully passed is if Texas voters elect enough pro-public education legislators willing to prioritize this issue. Otherwise, teacher pay will continue to take a back seat to other issues during future legislative sessions.


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on teacher pay and other public education issues. Because voting districts in Texas are politically gerrymandered, most elections are decided in the party primary instead of the November general election. That’s why it is so important to vote in the primary election. Registered voters can cast their ballot in either the Republican or Democratic primary, regardless of how you voted last time.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting in the primary and making informed choices at the polls. Keep in mind that it is illegal to use school district resources to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, but there is no prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 primaries runs Tuesday, Feb. 20, through Friday, March 2. Election day is March 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TOMORROW!

February 19, 2018

Texas primary elections are slated for March 6, 2018. In addition to voting for candidates, primary voters will weigh in on a number of ballot propositions. As we shared with you recently on our Teach the Vote blog, these primary ballot propositions are not the same as constitutional referenda or local propositions. The primary ballot measures laid out by each party do not have any force of law, but are instead used by the Republican and Democratic parties to help develop each party’s state platform, or the list of things the party and its members generally believe in and are working toward making into law.

Each of these two parties has more than ten ballot propositions they are putting up for voters to consider in 2018, and some of the propositions have implications for public education. Several ATPE members have asked us to provide additional background on the propositions and guidance on where voters may find additional information about what they mean.

Education-related issues included in Republican party ballot propositions:

If you are voting in the Republican primary, your first non-binding proposition on the ballot asks whether “Texas should replace the property tax system with an appropriate consumption tax equivalent.” One blog reader asked ATPE for a layman’s explanation of the proposition. According to additional information on the Texas Republican Party’s website, Proposition #1 relates to an existing plank in the state party’s 2016 platform that called for replacing the property tax system with another form of taxation, but not an income tax. The party’s delegates in 2016 preferred a tax that would be based on how much an individual or business consumes. The most commonly known form of consumption tax is sales tax. Under current law, the bulk of funding for Texas public education is generated locally through property taxes. Accordingly, we believe this proposition from the Texas Republican Party contemplates funding Texas public schools with higher sales taxes or some other form of more variable consumption tax in lieu of property taxes.

What would be required to eliminate the property tax by increasing the sales tax? In 2016, sales taxes generated $36 billion in state and local revenue, while property taxes generated more than $56 billion. According to the non-profit Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, the state sales tax would have to be raised from 6.25 to 23 percent, using the current tax base, to make up for revenue lost from eliminating the property tax. If you expanded the sales tax base by taxing things like groceries, gas, water, medicine, and electric bills, as well as adding sales tax for services like those provided by doctors, lawyers, and architects, Texas would still have to raise the state sales tax to at least 15 percent in order for sales taxes to replace the current revenue from property taxes. When you add on the 2 percent local sales tax, you would end up with a total sales tax range of 17 to 25 percent.

Republican primary voters will also see a proposition on their ballot that pertains to paying for private or home schools. The Texas Republican Party’s Proposition #5 asks whether or not “Texas families should be empowered to choose from public, private, charter, or homeschool options for their children’s education, using tax credits or exemptions without government constraints or intrusion.” Some members have asked ATPE what this proposition means. Under current law, Texas families can already “choose from public, private, charter, or homeschool options for their children’s education.” Current laws at the state and federal level also enforce very little regulation on private schools, while homeschools exist with almost no government regulation. On the other hand, traditional public schools and public charter schools are considerably more regulated and are both subject to the state accountability system while being made available to students at no direct cost to their parents. Since Texas families already have school choice under the law, this ballot proposition seemingly seeks input on whether or not the state should create some new form of voucher system that would fund private and or homeschool settings without attaching any accountability (“government constraints or intrusion”) to those public funds.

Another GOP ballot measure that mentions public schools this year is Proposition #6, which reads, “Texas should protect the privacy and safety of women and children in spaces such as bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers in all Texas schools and government buildings.” As with the first ballot measure discussed above, you have to compare this language to current law in order to unpack what the measure is actually proposing.

Texas already has multiple laws that protect women and children (and men for that matter) from harassment, assault, rape, murder, child abuse, and other specific crimes, whether those crimes occur in a bathroom, locker room, shower, or anywhere else. According to the Texas Republican Party’s voter guide explaining its 2018 ballot, this particular proposition is aimed at protecting against “some schools” that the party’s leaders say have “tried to allow boys to have access to girls’ private areas, including school showers and restrooms.” This proposition revisits the subject matter of some controversial bills that were filed during the 2017 legislative sessions but did not pass regarding school district policies on bathroom usage by transgender children. Texas does not have a state law prohibiting transgender children from entering a restroom matching the gender with which they identify. Currently, school districts or individual campuses set policies locally to determine how to address individual student situations and requests from families. This ballot proposition appears to contemplate whether or not there should be a single state law that supersedes any local policies.

A final GOP ballot measure that would impact public schools and other local entities has to do with property tax revenue. Proposition #10 reads, “To slow the growth of property taxes, yearly revenue increases should be capped at 4%, with increases in excess of 4% requiring voter approval.” To address questions about what this proposition means, it’s helpful to consider how local school funding is currently generated and what types of tax increases require voter approval under existing law.

About two-thirds of the money used to pay for local schools is derived from local property tax collections. As a result, any significant change to the property tax system is likely to affect school funding. Unlike most other local entities, the vast majority of schools are already subject to rollback elections if school district trustees choose to raise their local tax rate above current levels. This 2018 Republican party ballot proposition, however, speaks to revenue, which is a combination of tax rates and property values. Currently, if a school district’s revenue increases due to a rise in property values, and not because of an increase in the property tax rate, the district does not have to conduct a rollback election. Under a four percent revenue cap that is being proposed by the Texas Republican Party leadership, school districts would have to conduct a rollback election every time their revenue from increased property values exceeds four percent. It’s worth noting that rollback elections are themselves expensive to conduct and are funded out of money that would otherwise be spent by the school district educating students. This proposition contemplates that if voters do not approve of the increase in revenue, the district would likely have to decrease its property tax rate in order to bring down its total revenue increase to four percent or less.

As a side note, the Texas legislature has used increases in local property values to offset its own decreases in per-pupil state funding for more than a decade. This is why the ratio of state to local public education spending has gone from roughly 50/50 about ten years ago to 38/62 (or less) by 2019.

Education-related issues included in Democratic party ballot propositions:

If you are voting in the Democratic primary this year, your ballot will include Proposition #1 asking, “Should everyone in Texas have the right to quality public education from pre-k to 12th grade, and affordable college and career training without the burden of crushing student loan debt?” According to the Texas Democratic Party, the ballot measure is one of a set of propositions dubbed by party leaders as “The Texas Bill of Rights; 12 Big, Bold Ideas to Save Texas.”

Focusing on the pre-K through 12th grade portion of the language in this first proposition, it is unclear by the ballot language itself exactly what specific policies the Democratic party is attaching to ensuring each Texan’s “right to a quality public education.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of potential initiatives that could fall under ensuring a quality education for every Texan. However, a closer look at the party’s 2016 state platform reveals that the party believes, “Every child should have access to an educational program that values highly skilled teachers and encourages critical thinking and creativity, without the harmful impact of high stakes standardized testing.” The party’s 2016 platform also contains several specific recommendations for funding Texas public schools, reducing recapture, ensuring that all mandates are funded, opposing using public tax dollars for private schools, prioritizing resources for pre-Kindergarten, addressing teacher quality through higher pay and teacher certification standards, reducing high-stakes testing, and other initiatives.

 

Click here to view the complete set of nonbinding propositions for the Republican and Democratic primary ballots in the 2018 primary election. For additional information about individual propositions, ATPE encourages you to check out the websites of the Texas Democratic Party and Republican Party. Remember that it is against the law for educators to use school district resources to communicate support or opposition for a ballot measure or candidate, but you can share nonpartisan and general information about the elections and the importance of voting.

Be an informed voter and use your educator voice to share input on your party’s platform. Get out and vote in the 2018 Texas primaries!

February 16, 2018

The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), the committee that oversees federal policy pertaining to prekindergarten through post-secondary education, is seeking input from stakeholders as it works to rewrite the Higher Education Act (HEA). Included within the HEA are programs aimed at recruiting, preparing, and retaining high quality teachers in classrooms throughout the country, but the U.S. House of Representatives has made initial moves to eliminate those programs.

The HEA contains several key programs pertinent to educators: the Teacher Quality Enhancement program, which supports strengthening educator preparation programs that work to fill high-needs schools and fields; TEACH grants, which invest in students training to be teachers; and various loan forgiveness programs specific to educators.

While the U.S. Senate HELP Committee works to develop its version of a bill to rewrite the law, on the other side of the Capitol the U.S. House of Representatives is waiting to debate its own. The House proposal, which has already advanced out of that chamber’s education committee, would eliminate Title II of the HEA, where these programs focused on educator preparation and retention are housed.

Stakeholders like ATPE are concerned that the elimination of such programs would set back efforts to attract and retain strong educators in the profession. Check back next week for more on ATPE’s submitted comments to the committee and other key legislators. For those interested in submitting their own comments and suggestions, do so by emailing the U.S. Senate HELP Committee at HigherEducation2018@help.senate.gov. The deadline to submit comments is Friday, February 23.