Million-dollar bets on making the Texas State Capitol voucher-friendly
Elections Privatization | Vouchers
Date Posted: 2/25/2022 | Author: Jennifer Mitchell, CAE
Early voting is underway for the 2022 Texas primaries, which means your mailbox is likely filling up with glossy flyers urging you to vote for or against someone. Many times, the election mail doesn’t come from the candidates themselves but from third-party entities and political action committees (PACs) with a vested interest in the outcome of the race. Hotly contested races for governor and other statewide offices, plus a multitude of legislative and State Board of Education (SBOE) seats up for grabs, means the stakes are especially high this year—and so are the campaign expenditures.
ATPE has written about the importance of the primaries, given that the springtime elections determine who will win in most cases. District maps are typically drawn to favor one party over another, often making the general election contests in November either insignificant or nonexistent. For 2022, ATPE has noted the scores of “winner-takes-all” primary races in which the only candidates running are from the same political party. Because no one from the opposing party will challenge the primary winner in November, the results of the March 1 primary will be the final election results.
With such high stakes, it's easy to see why millions of dollars are pouring into 2022 primary races. But where is that money coming from, where is it going, and why are big donors spending millions??
Wagering big on vouchers in the 2022 primaries
For years, the Texas Legislature has rejected bills that would allow taxpayer dollars to be used for private or home school costs. Even when private school vouchers had the vocal support of the state’s top elected officials—including Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R)—and such bills sailed through the Patrick-controlled Senate, the Texas House has stopped them. Sometimes the margin of the House vote on a voucher bill has been a single vote, while other times votes to prohibit vouchers were more popular—as was the case in the 2019 “school finance session” that followed several education-friendly candidates’ wins in the 2018 election.
The people who want Texas legislators to enact private school vouchers next session know the House of Representatives is where the battle will be fought. They’re investing heavily in races where they hope to replace certain pro-public education incumbents and retiring members—typically Republicans representing mostly rural or suburban districts—with a more radical candidate who will vote for vouchers. Some of the most contentious races this spring involve rural House Republicans who are being challenged in their own party’s primary and called out for their votes against vouchers and their support for public schools.
The voucher crowd is also spending money on open seats—both right- and left-leaning—where they see an opportunity to embed a new representative with more tolerance for privatization. That’s more of a factor in the 2022 primaries because several of this year’s retiring officeholders, such as Reps. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), and John Frullo (R-Lubbock), have consistently opposed private school voucher bills, and they will be out of the picture next session.
In a Feb. 11 article for The Dallas Morning News, Robert Garrett wrote, “Several moderate-conservative GOP lawmakers are retiring in the two chambers. In the House, especially, that could influence policy decisions about how money gets spent, which taxes are cut and whether Texas offers private-school subsidies in a ‘school choice’ law of some sort.”
The Lone Star State’s million-dollar voucher investors
The drive to elect voucher-friendly candidates is bankrolled by a small group of wealthy individuals inside and outside of Texas. The most notorious voucher backers in our state have been West Texas oil and gas tycoons Tim Dunn of Midland and brothers Dan and Farris Wilks of Cisco.
- Dunn helped create the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), which advocates deregulation and privatization of schools and other government functions. The entity formed at a time when the state’s leadership was flipping from Democratic to Republican and embracing TPPF’s agenda. In 2006, Dunn hired TPPF Vice President Michael Quinn Sullivan to run a new organization called Empower Texans (ET), along with its satellites Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and Texas Scorecard.
- The Wilks brothers are fracking pioneers who aspired to become political kingmakers by parlaying their wealth into million-dollar campaign contributions for pro-voucher candidates, including a $15 million investment into the failed 2016 presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). They partnered with Dunn to provide the chief funding for ET.
The ET network has focused in large part on promoting private school vouchers, decreasing spending on public education as a means of reducing property taxes, taking away educators’ rights to use payroll deduction for their voluntary membership dues, and attempting to limit political advocacy by school districts and their employees. Other politically conservative megadonors, such as voucher advocate Jim Leininger, home builder Bob Perry, and the family of current Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville), lent financial support to ET’s efforts to pass and kill bills and influence elections through large campaign contributions. Over the course of its existence, the ET PAC spent nearly $8.5 million on campaign expenditures, with almost $1.4 million used for printing services (e.g., glossy campaign mailers).
A candidate’s stance on school privatization, funding, and control became such a significant factor in ET’s ratings and scorecards that ATPE began highlighting the group’s endorsements on our Teach the Vote candidate profiles. Some pro-public education candidates have even boasted about having low ratings on the ET scorecard. Rep. Glenn Rogers (R-Graford), for example, recently told his supporters, “I am proud to have a failing grade on the (Empower) Texas Scorecard,” calling the group and its wealthy backers “the No. 1 enemy of public schools.”
The voucher money that wasn’t born in Texas but got here as fast as it could
Money also flows into Texas from other states. For example, while serving as education secretary in the Trump Administration, billionaire Betsy DeVos tried many times to divert federal taxpayer dollars to voucher programs and toured the country with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to promote his “school choice” legislation. After leaving her cabinet post, DeVos turned her attention back to fundraising for the entity she founded called the American Federation for Children (AFC), which aims to oust lawmakers around the country who do not step in line with the privatization agenda. The AFC has endorsed several candidates in Texas, including two candidates in special elections for open seats last year. AFC touted the election wins of Reps. Brian Harrison (R-Midlothian) and John Lujan (R-San Antonio) as school choice victories in its September and November blog posts after those 2021 special elections.
“School choice” factoring into top-of-the-ticket races
It’s not only the Texas legislative contests that are drawing the attention of voucher voters. The race to decide the Republican nominee for governor has also been speckled with criticisms of Gov. Greg Abbott’s perceived failure to push harder for private school vouchers and his willingness to approve higher public education spending. On the FireAbbott.com website recently created by the Defend Texas Liberty PAC in support of Republican challenger Don Huffines, the group complains that Abbott prioritized prekindergarten legislation over vouchers (which they call “school choice”) and that he endorsed candidates who voted against voucher bills.
On the defensive, Gov. Abbott made a mid-January campaign stop at a Lewisville charter school to announce a “Parental Bill of Rights” he would pursue through legislation and a constitutional amendment next year. The announcement came one day after the governor had spoken to the ultra-conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), which has been pushing its own version of a parental rights bill that focuses on diverting tax dollars away from public schools and into the hands of private entities under the euphemism “letting public funds follow a student.”
Abbott’s version of a “Parental Bill of Rights” does not specifically mention school choice, and his primary challengers and some Republican voters seized on that as a perceived shortcoming in the governor’s re-election campaign. It was well after Abbott’s media blitz surrounding parental rights that the Texas Home School Coalition, a longtime supporter of vouchers for home schools, made any endorsement in the governor’s race. The group, which has been subsidized for many years by the pro-voucher Wilks family, endorsed Huffines over Abbott in the 2022 Republican primary, noting that Huffines was “a home school dad.”
Not to be overshadowed, Abbott’s other key primary opponent, Allen West (R), similarly pledges his support for parents’ rights and privatization. West states on his campaign website: “I will support and get school choice passed in Texas. The door that opens up the equality of opportunity for our children is a quality education. I will not allow any child in Texas to be relegated to a failed school system nor will I force their parents [sic] co-parent with the government.” West goes on to compare public education to Communism and vouchers to the civil rights movement and to imply, preposterously, that the state’s current Republican state leaders have prioritized “the interests of teachers’ unions over our Texas children.”
Polling suggests Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke will easily earn his party’s nomination for governor, making the Republican primary more attention-grabbing. The battles lines have been drawn with each of the Republican contenders vying to be considered more hard line than their opponents, with support for vouchers a key indicator.
New names, same games
You may be wondering what happened to Empower Texans and its rabble-rousing spokesperson Michael Quinn Sullivan, who worked for years to influence state law- and policy-making through voter intimidation campaigns and exorbitant election spending. ET funneled millions in contributions from the wealthy Dunn and Wilks families to far-right candidates in recent election cycles. Past beneficiaries of ET’s work and the largesse of Dunn and Wilks included pro-voucher legislators such as former Rep. Jonathan Stickland, his successor in House District 92 Jeff Cason (R), current Republican state representatives Cole Hefner, Steve Toth, Mayes Middleton, Briscoe Cain, Mike Schofield, Valoree Swanson, and a host of others.
Sullivan and ET’s in-house attorney Tony McDonald also spearheaded an expensive 2018 hunt for “whistleblowers” in the public education community who would point the finger at their politically active colleagues. At the same time, ET beneficiaries Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) worked to find ways to quash Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts in public schools and the work of nonpartisan entities such as the Texas Educators Vote coalition, of which ATPE is a founding member. ET’s questionable tactics in past elections also included sending out notices on behalf of the “Texas Ethics Disclosure Board,” a name they created to falsely imply that negative campaign ads from the ET network were coming from an official government agency. As the Texas Tribune described in this article, Sullivan also spent years defending his right to lobby elected officials without registering with the state’s ethics commission, and Lt. Gov. Patrick astonished many by granting media credentials and Senate floor access to ET in the 2019 legislative session, despite the fact that Sullivan and his associates were actively lobbying legislators.
But ET’s and Sullivan’s ability to influence election outcomes and legislation declined precipitously after losing several races and amid a few high-profile controversies. In 2019, Sullivan released a secretly taped audio recording of then-House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R) discussing campaigning against several Republican incumbents in the 2020 primaries. Sullivan asserted that Bonnen had dangled the possibility of giving House press credentials to ET as a quid pro quo, the taint of which ultimately ended Bonnen’s legislative career. Not long thereafter, ET staffers McDonald and Cary Cheshire were caught ridiculing Gov. Abbott’s disability during a podcast. The ET PAC was officially dissolved in October 2020, sending its remaining funds to the campaign of Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington).
Sullivan still aspires to be the chief anti-public education muckraker, recently tweeting that educators were little more than “babysitters” unqualified for other work. His Texas Scorecard continues to identify its legislative champions and foes based on a long list of votes that include several pertaining to school funding, vouchers, and other issues that ATPE also tracks on our candidate profiles. But it appears, at least to the public eye, that Sullivan is no longer on the front lines directing the massive campaign contributions of Dunn and Wilks.
In the 2022 election cycle, the billionaires Dunn and Farris Wilks have redirected their campaign expenditures ($2 million or more each in the month of January) to the newer Defend Texas Liberty PAC. The two men have supplied most of the Defend Texas Liberty PAC’s revenue this year, with another half million dollars supplied by Phillip Huffines, brother of gubernatorial candidate Don Huffines. The PAC’s other significant contributors include Houston investor and TPPF board member Windi Grimes, who contributed $221,500; Ken Fisher, a wealthy Dallas investment manager, who gave $100,000; longtime ET donor Darlene Pendery, who contributed $17,450; and familiar voucher proponent Jim Leininger, who threw in another $10,000 for Defend Texas Liberty.
The Defend Texas Liberty PAC initially tapped ET’s attorney McDonald to be its treasurer, but the PAC’s 2022 election spending and communication strategies are now being managed by former Rep. Stickland, who earned the highest ranking on the ET/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility scorecard during his legislative tenure and was the only state representative who voted against House Bill 3 of 2019, the landmark bill that significantly increased funding for public education. Despite their deep-rooted conservatism, Dunn and Wilks have never shied away from embracing even the most bombastic politicians like Stickland, as long as they advance the billionaires’ agenda.
Follow the money
In February 2018, former Granbury ISD school board member and campaign finance watchdog Christopher Tackett wrote a guest blog post for Teach the Vote about the incredibly small network of wealthy Texans putting gargantuan sums into the campaigns of the state’s most extremist, anti-public education candidates, even when the candidates lived in districts far from their donors. He described researching campaign finance reports from the Texas Ethics Commission and discovering that campaigns were being supported by multiple PACs that all had the same sources of funding, including the Wilks, Dunn, and Middleton families. Tackett wrote that the wealthy donors were “creating confusion by funding and attributing their message to multiple sources.” Tackett added: “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 Defend Texas Liberty PAC is simply a more recent iteration of the same assemblage of anti-public education donors, laser-focused on electing candidates in the 2022 election cycle with the goal of getting a private school voucher bill across the finish line in 2023. The candidates being underwritten by the Defend Texas Liberty PAC in the 2022 primary election include but are not limited to the following:
- Don Huffines (R) in the race for governor. The Defend Texas Liberty PAC wrote a $1 million check to the former senator in January and spent $2.6 million more in recent weeks. The PAC is also behind FireAbbott.com mentioned above.
- Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who Defend Texas Liberty gave $50,000 in January. Dunn and Wilks have also been among the lieutenant governor’s top individual contributors, giving millions to his campaigns over the years.
- Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), who also received $50,000 from the new PAC but has raked in hundreds of thousands more from individual contributors to Defend Texas Liberty and the ET network during his tenure as AG and previously as a state senator.
- House District 1 Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City), who faces a repeat primary challenge from Clyde Bostick (R). The Defend Texas Liberty PAC has lionized Slaton for leading a failed effort to prevent Democrats from holding leadership positions in the House and helped his 2022 re-election campaign with more than $100,000.
- Shelley Luther (R), who is challenging Rep. Reggie Smith (R-Sherman) in the “winner-takes-all” Republican primary House District 62. Dunn and Wilks have been responsible for most of the campaign funding (at least $142,000) for the hair salon owner-turned-COVID-celebrity who was briefly jailed for defying shutdown orders in 2020. She has gone from cutting Sen. Ted Cruz’s hair to political candidacy, running an unsuccessful Texas Senate bid against Sen. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) last year. Luther speaks on the campaign trail about her experience as a classroom teacher, though questions linger about the reasons for her abrupt departure from the teaching profession in 2016. During a Feb. 5 candidate forum in Bonham, Luther claimed she left teaching because of her discomfort about teaching transgender children and lamented that her other students were not permitted to “laugh at them.” Despite teaching Spanish, she has also claimed that discussions of gender identity dominated her classroom.
- Andy Hopper (R) who is challenging Rep. Lynn Stucky (R-Denton) in another “winner-takes-all” primary in House District 64. The Defend Texas Liberty PAC has spent at least $55,000 on behalf of Hopper.
- House District 93 Rep. Matt Krause (R-Arlington), who is running for district attorney in Tarrant County rather than seeking re-election to the Texas Legislature. Krause chairs the House General Investigating Committee, which he famously used to justify a call for school districts to scour their library books for hundreds of titles he deemed offensive or pornographic. Defend Texas Liberty PAC has spent over $25,000 on the DA candidate.
Ambush by mail
There is a familiar tactic in political campaigns in which candidates wait until the last minute to drop negative campaign ads against their opponents. Ideally, the attack ads appear just as voting is getting underway and without enough time for the other side to effectively respond. It’s an approach that requires good timing and a bit of luck, especially this year when the COVID-19 pandemic and political unrest have affected the global supply chain (including printing supplies) and the rapid deliverability of postal mail.
The Defend Texas Liberty PAC employed this tactic for the 2022 primaries, producing mailers that went out to voters just prior to the start of early voting in which they alleged that certain Republican lawmakers are “Republican In Name Only (RINO)” lawmakers who failed to prevent House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Port Neches) from appointing a few Democratic members to leadership positions. It’s a familiar refrain, reminiscent of the frequent Sullivan-guided ET attacks on former House Speaker Joe Straus a few years ago.
Not surprisingly, many of the Defend Texas Liberty PAC’s targets in recent hit pieces are the same rural Republican House members who have provided key votes against private school vouchers. They include the following state representatives, all of whom are competing in "winner-takes-all" primaries:
- Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston), a former public school superintendent. Vandeaver is being challenged by George Lavender (R), who once held the House District 1 seat and voted in support of vouchers during his tenure, and Ray Null (R).
- Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd). In House District 18, three Republicans are trying to unseat the incumbent — Janis Holt, Stephen Missick, and Ronnie "Bubba" Tullos — and all three are regarded as voucher supporters.
- Rep. Rogers, who was elected to his seat in 2020 after defeating the well-financed son-in-law of Farris Wilks in a Republican primary runoff. Rogers similarly faces three challengers in his House District 60 Republican primary this year — Kit Marshall, Mike Olcott, and Lucas Turner. Marshall called vouchers "a thorny issue" in her responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey. Olcott has the endorsement of the Texas Home School Coalition and recently took in a $100,000 donation from the Pendery family that is also helping to fund the Defend Texas Liberty PAC.
- Rep. Smith, mentioned above. In his House District 62 race — widely regarded as one of the most competitive primaries this year — Defend Texas Liberty spent even more money to air televisions ads with a similar message against Smith. His opponent Luther writes on her website that she supports school choice and believes "funding should follow a child for their education as long as the funding has no hidden government strings or rules attached."
- Rep. Stucky, whose lone challenger Hopper likewise writes on his campaign website that he believes "money should follow the child," a catch-phrase frequently used by voucher proponents.
The Texas Federation for Children PAC, affiliated with the national organization founded by Betsy DeVos to promote private school vouchers, has also funded campaign mail-pieces in this primary election targeting pro-public education incumbents, including Rogers and Stucky. The ads refer to the legislators as “liberal Republicans” and cite their ratings on the ET/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility scorecard. Interestingly, the PAC has not yet reported any expenditures to the Texas Ethics Commission as of eight days prior to the election.
“You know my conservative values and voting record,” said Rogers in reaction to the ads from the DeVos-affiliated group. “This hit piece is about me being one of the most pro-public education members of the Texas House. There is nothing more conservative than following the Texas Constitution, specifically, Article 7, Section 1, that requires the Texas Legislature to support public schools.”
On the other side
The most recognizable PAC working to elect candidates who oppose private school vouchers is Texas Parent PAC, whose endorsements ATPE also highlights in our Teach the Vote candidate profiles for that reason. The entity explains on its website that it was “founded in 2005 by five ‘PTA moms’ who were frustrated with the Texas Legislature and believed we needed more state representatives and senators who would stand up for kids and public schools.” To receive an endorsement from Parent PAC, candidates must support a set of “guiding principles” that include protecting local control and respecting parents, opposing any type of vouchers, holding charter schools accountable, providing sufficient funding for public education, and protecting the rights of public school supporters to advocate.
Although dwarfed by the other side in its capacity to make high-dollar donations, Parent PAC is backing a sizeable list of candidates in the 2022 primary elections comprising mostly incumbents and a few challengers or open-seat candidates, both Republican and Democratic.
Betting on low turnout
It’s a sad fact that most registered Texas voters do not vote in a primary, despite the importance of those elections. That’s even truer in mid-term elections, when voters are not casting ballots in a presidential race. In 2018, out of the more than 15 million Texans registered to vote, only 17% voted in the Republican or Democratic primary election that year. (Believe it or not, that incredibly low number was still 18% higher than it had been in prior mid-term elections!) Voter turnout numbers only get smaller, by the way, when it comes to a runoff or a special election.
Let’s distill what those turnout numbers mean at the local level. In your district, the number of people choosing your state representative by voting in the 2018 primary likely ranged between 4,000 and 10,000. The difference in votes between the winning and losing candidates may have been only a few hundred ballots. (It’s also not unheard of for Texas House candidates to win by fewer than 10 votes!) As Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey describes it in this column, "those few voters who do turn out do pretty well for themselves, choosing our representatives while the rest of us snooze."
The lower the turnout, the fewer votes it takes for a candidate to win. Thus, the wealthy PACs trying to influence the outcome of a race get more bang for their buck if they have to persuade fewer people to vote for their preferred candidate. In the 2022 primaries, some of the richest PACs are betting that pro-public education voters will simply stay home. On the other hand, if the education community steps up its GOTV efforts as in 2018, their participation in a low-turnout election could tip the scales in favor of candidates and officeholders who oppose private school vouchers. For more on the effect of voting in a low-turnout primary election, check out ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins' recent blog post for Teach the Vote.
Education voters make a difference
Despite the low turnout numbers overall in the 2018 elections, voter participation within the Texas public education community was higher than it had been in years. The demand for school finance reforms and backlash against recent anti-teacher bills and efforts to bully educators out of being politically active led more voters to the polls in support of education-friendly candidates. It was hard to find a candidate who didn’t include the words “teacher pay raise” in their platform. Outgoing House Speaker Straus, long an ET target, also took to social media urging educators to fight back against the intimidation efforts by voting.
By January 2019, Texas voters had installed a Legislature committed to prioritizing education needs, with support from the state’s “big three” leaders: the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house. House Speaker Bonnen, who succeeded Straus, proclaimed school funding his chamber’s top priority, and even Lt. Gov. Patrick promised that a teacher pay raise would be the first legislation approved by the Senate that session. With the momentum of the 2018 election results, a major school finance reform bill passed with significant new investments in public education funding and yes, teacher pay raises, too. The attacks on public schools and educators also significantly waned in 2019.
Unfortunately, education voters were not as energized in the 2020 elections, and the 2021 legislative sessions looked very different. The extent to which pro-public education voters participate in the 2022 primaries will absolutely determine what happens in the 2023 legislative session, especially when it comes to the pivotal issue of private school vouchers. Rep. Glenn Rogers, responding to recent attack ads from voucher-backing groups, summed it up as follows: “This election and the battle for public education will be won or lost by teacher and pro-public education voter turnout.”
Running for office in Texas is a high-stakes poker game, and having the connections who can write massive campaign checks will no doubt get you a seat at the table. Nevertheless, the voters who show up at the polls on March 1 (or vote early Feb. 14-25) hold all the cards.
Read the second part of our reporting on campaign spending in the 2022 primary elections here, which looks at the donors trying to influence state policy on charter schools and other issues by backing candidates for the State Board of Education.
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