Wealthy donors seek to shape state policy on vouchers, charter schools, and curriculum with big spending in the 2022 Texas primaries
Texas Legislature Elections TEA | Commissioner | SBOE Privatization | Vouchers Deregulation | Charter Schools
Date Posted: 2/28/2022 | Author: Jennifer Mitchell, CAE
ATPE recently published a blog post about the million-dollar investments a few wealthy individuals have made in Texas legislative and statewide races in the 2022 primary election, contributing to candidates they hope will make the difference in next session’s anticipated fight over private school vouchers. Among the benefactors are billionaires Tim Dunn of Midland, the Wilks family of Cisco, and, at a national level, former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. In addition to direct donations to candidates, the financiers have funneled even larger contributions through a maze of political action committees (PACs) with often innocuous names such as the Defend Texas Liberty PAC, the American Federation for Children, and Texans for Excellent Education. The conduit of multiple PACs is designed to give the impression that a candidate has a larger, more diverse donor base when it’s only a small handful of like-minded people actually subsidizing their campaign.
In the previous post, I described how these people and committees are using their campaign contributions to try to reverse the Texas Legislature’s trend of opposing private school vouchers, as well as showed how the debate over “school choice” has shaped statewide races and endorsements in the 2022 primary election, especially on the Republican side. This follow-up explores the overlap between privatization and charter schools and looks at some of the largest donations to candidates who support the expansion of charters in Texas.
Where we stand on charters
First, it’s important to clarify ATPE’s position on charter schools. ATPE does not oppose the concept of charter schools, and some of our valued members work at charter campuses. However, we’ve been increasingly concerned about the track record of Texas charter schools in meeting student needs, the erosion of rights afforded by charter schools to parents and teachers, and the state’s large investments in charter expansion where they may not be needed.
Charter schools effectively compete with traditional public schools for a limited pool of state education funding. As we wrote in this blog post, about 5.5% of students attend charter schools, but they receive 10% of the state funding for education. In theory, the charter school should complement and add value to the existing public education system, providing services a traditional school cannot or piloting different approaches to teaching—approaches that are research-based and tested so there is justification for spending additional taxpayer dollars. In reality, however, more money for charters seldom translates to innovative instructional successes that can be replicated by other schools, higher pay for charter school teachers, or increased services for charter school students. Instead, countless examples from around the country and right here in Texas have shown charter funding finding its way to vendors vying for lucrative contracts, property owners leasing land and facilities to charter schools, and highly paid superintendents enjoying perks such as access to private planes.
The thin line between vouchers and charters
In our previous post, we wrote about the American Federation for Children (AFC), launched by the family of former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The organization aspires to be the leading entity advocating “school choice” in America and backing pro-voucher state legislative candidates. For example, the Texas arm of the group helped Reps. Brian Harrison (R-Midlothian) and John Lujan (R-San Antonio) score victories in 2021 special elections after running on pro-voucher platforms. In the 2022 primaries, AFC's Texas affiliate has funded ads targeting Republican legislators for being too supportive of public schools.
In the 2020 election cycle, the AFC backed not only Republican voucher proponents in Texas but also some Democrats seen as more charter-friendly than their opponents. The same groups that have historically invested in pro-voucher candidates also tend to favor charter school expansion in Texas.
State law defines charter schools as “public schools,” but in the absence of a state-sponsored voucher program, charters are often viewed as a proxy for publicly funded private schools. Charter schools are subjected to far fewer regulations than traditional public schools. They are run by private governing entities rather than locally elected school boards, and though the law requires charter governing organizations to be nonprofits, they have the power to dole out millions with little oversight and hardly any accountability to voters. Unlike traditional public schools, charters have been a popular investment among real estate developers, hedge fund managers, and technology moguls. Efforts to expand charter schools around the state, flow additional state dollars to them, and decrease restrictions and oversight on how they spend their funding have the effect of making charter schools seem much more private than public.
If you think of vouchers as “no strings attached” taxpayer funding of private schools, then you may consider charters a “few strings attached” way to allow private entities to run taxpayer-funded schools. With those similarities, it’s hardly surprising the PACs at the center of the voucher movement are investing in charter-friendly candidates, too.
The SBOE’s role
The authority for charter approval and expansion in Texas has been divided between the commissioner of education—a governor appointee and head of the Texas Education Agency (TEA)—and the elected State Board of Education (SBOE). TEA vets applications from organizations seeking to open new charter school chains in Texas. Each year, the agency recommends finalists from among those applications and asks the SBOE to grant final approval. SBOE members review TEA’s notes, conduct their own interviews, and can veto an application with a two-thirds vote. Once a charter is approved, however, all future decisions regarding its administration and, more importantly, its expansion are out of voters’ hands and solely up to TEA. For example, an applicant may ask for the SBOE’s approval to open a new chain with only one or two campuses. But once the SBOE approves that charter, TEA can authorize that same charter chain to open an unlimited number of new campuses—with little notice to or opportunity for the public to weigh in.
Increasingly, the 15-member SBOE has been at the center of contentious debates over charter approvals. In 2021, the Legislature tried unsuccessfully to make it harder for the SBOE to reject new charter school applications by raising the number of votes needed for a veto and limiting the board’s discretion during the approval process. In June 2021, the SBOE rejected four of seven charter applications sent over by TEA, undoubtedly drawing the ire of pro-charter megadonors and placing targets on the vetoing members’ backs.
It’s no surprise, then, that SBOE elections are attracting more attention in 2022 and seeing larger campaign donations in races where there is a clear demarcation between candidates’ stances on charter expansion. There’s an element of retribution, too.
Meet the donors
Just prior to the 2022 primaries, a new PAC called Texans for Excellent Education registered with the Texas Ethics Commission and launched a massive ad spend on behalf of two SBOE candidates. Although the PAC is new, its only donors so far have been husband-and-wife team Holloway “Holly” Frost and Kathaleen Wall. The pair are known for contributing more than $20 million over the years to Republican candidates such as Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and legislators Paul Bettencourt, Briscoe Cain, Valoree Swanson, and others who strongly support private school vouchers and charters. Wall also ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2018 and 2020.
According to campaign finance reports, Texans for Excellent Education spent nearly $100,000 in late January/early February on campaign mail-pieces and text messages supporting Evelyn Brooks (R), who is challenging incumbent Sue Melton-Malone (R) in the Republican primary for SBOE District 14, and Julie Pickren (R), who is running in a crowded Republican primary race for the open SBOE District 7 seat.
Pickren, who has served on a local school board, views school choice and the expansion of charter schools as necessities. Responding to the 2022 ATPE Candidate Survey, Pickren wrote, “We need to bring school choice, charter schools, to poor areas where public schools are failing.” Political newcomer Brooks describes herself as a home-school advocate running primarily on a platform that opposes social-emotional learning (SEL), critical race theory, and sex education, but she also espouses charter expansion and links her campaign website to the Texas Charter Schools Association. Melton-Malone, a retired 36-year public school teacher and former ATPE state president, has taken a more cautious approach to charter expansion during her three terms on the SBOE, writing on the 2020 ATPE Candidate Survey, “We need to be sure that the charter schools are needed in a particular area, that they are meeting the goals they have set and that they truly have a reason for existing.”
Another new-in-name-only player in the SBOE primaries this year is the Freedom Foundation of Texas (FFOT) PAC, funded largely by Texas homebuilder Dick Weekley and Frederick and Stuart Saunders. A co-founder of Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR), Weekley also financed and was a board member of TLR’s now-defunct spinoff, Texans for Education Reform, which launched a full-scale attack on public education during the 2015 legislative session. The Saunders family has ties to charter schools, including some of the Heritage Classical Academy charters the SBOE vetoed in the past two years. Longtime voucher advocate Jim Leininger has also contributed to the FFOT PAC, as has the American Policy Coalition, a shadowy group that funds a number of free-market PACs and far-right candidates around the country and was involved in litigation over secret contributions in the 2016 Missouri governor’s race.
On its website, the FFOT PAC writes: “Liberal politics has taken root in our classrooms, and our children are being subjected to radical indoctrination, anti-American curriculum, and sexually explicit materials. Critical Race Theory and other Marxist teachings pose an immediate risk to our schools, our kids, and our future.” The entity takes the false narrative a step further though, including a “tip line” form on its website with the plea, “Help us weed out indoctrination, radicalization, and politicization in the classroom by sharing your experiences below.” The online form asks anonymous tipsters to identify school districts in which they believe radicalization is taking place.
The FFOT PAC is backing four candidates in the 2022 primaries with an investment of about half a million dollars. Their supported candidates include incumbent Will Hickman (R-Houston) in SBOE District 6, who faces both a Republican (Mike Wolfe) and Democratic (Michelle Palmer) challenger this year, and two candidates running for open seats: LJ Francis (R) in SBOE District 2 and Michael Barton (R) in SBOE District 7. Additionally, the FFOT PAC is supporting Aaron Kinsey (R) in his challenge against incumbent Jay Johnson (R-Pampa) in SBOE District 15, one of this year’s winner-takes-all primaries.
Kinsey recently told the Abilene Reporter-News: “I am running on what I believe in, a positive message of parental involvement. [Johnson] is an ISD guy." Incumbent member Johnson spent 16 years on the Pampa ISD school board before running for the SBOE, and he helped create the Pampa Education Foundation. In the same interview, Kinsey went on to specifically criticize Johnson for his SBOE vote to veto the application of the Heritage Classical Academy charter school affiliated with top FFOT PAC donor Stuart Saunders. Saunders has invested in and served on the charter’s governing board, along with attorney Mano Deayala (R), who is currently running for the open Texas House District 133 seat in Houston.
The PACs investing substantial sums in these SBOE races are parroting several candidates’ rhetoric about Texas schools being besieged by liberals who want to indoctrinate children with pornographic library books and a radical curriculum. But the fabricated narrative about curriculum is designed principally to win primary votes rather than to effect meaningful, long-term changes to instruction. (Recent polling by the University of Texas indicates the demand for greater parental rights and fears of radical curricula are mostly confined to Republican voters who have been targeted with this type of messaging.) The broader goal is to undermine the state’s traditional public schools and teachers in favor of deregulated charter schools and open the door for taxpayer subsidies of private and home schools. Ironically, the rights of parents and students are drastically diminished once they leave the traditional public school system for charter or private schools.
SBOE candidates who embrace the “school choice” mantra and believe the state can only benefit from further expansion of charter schools have a lot to gain from these donors. SBOE members who have refused to rubber-stamp the applications of charter schools are more likely to have targets on their back.
Are charter school advocates skirting the law?
SBOE candidates with a favorable view toward charters, vouchers, and other “school choice” initiatives are also getting immense backing this year from charter school advocates. The Texas Charter Schools Association, recently renamed the Texas Public Charter Schools Association (TPCSA), is also assisting candidates who appear to be more supportive of charter expansion.
The association operates as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, which according to IRS regulations is prohibited from contributing to or endorsing candidates; nevertheless, TPCSA blatantly promotes and fundraises for the Charter Schools Now PAC, which has already spent over a million dollars in the 2022 primary election. In fact, the “Donate” and “Give Today” buttons on the association’s website link to a donation form that says, “Donate to the Texas Public Charter Schools Association,” but provides the “Charter Schools Now” political committee’s name and address at the bottom of the form. The logo for Charter Schools Now also appears on the masthead in the footer at the bottom of the association’s website. (Click on the images to view larger screenshots of the webpages.)
The Charter Schools Now PAC has received hefty donations from the Arkansas-based Walton family of Walmart fame and the “Educational Equity PAC,” which has been subsidized by Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings and the John Arnold family, known in Texas for pushing public pension reforms and state takeovers of low-performing schools. Hastings dumped $1.5 million into the Educational Equity PAC, based in Virginia, which in turn sent at least $640,000 to the Texas-based Charter Schools Now. Jim Walton contributed $450,000 directly to Charter Schools Now.
Candidates backed by Charter Schools Now in the 2022 primaries include El Paso's Omar Yanar (D), a charter school founder and CEO vying for the open SBOE District 1 seat. Yanar’s extensive advertising campaign has been solely funded by the Charter Schools Now PAC to the tune of more than $200,000—a staggering amount for an SBOE race. He has raised and spent more than any other candidate in the crowded race, even appearing in TV ads, which are rarely, if ever, purchased in SBOE races. As the CEO of a charter chain, Yanar’s expensive bid for a seat on the board that regulates charters is troubling.
Likewise, many of the same wealthy donors to the PACS mentioned above, including Hastings and Saunders, have invested heavily in charter school chains that stand to benefit from any shift in the state’s tolerance for charters. For more on the interrelation of these donors and PACs, check out the campaign finance research done by Christopher Tackett here.
The ROI for charter school campaign contributions
As mentioned above, the SBOE’s power to veto a charter application makes it a prime target for donors seeking to tip the scales in favor of charter expansion. For example, SBOE members Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) and Matt Robinson (R-Friendswood) in SBOE Districts 1 and 7, respectively, have been among the leading critics of charters on the current board, but their decisions not to seek re-election open the door for a potential policy shift. The replacement of one or two charter skeptics on the 15-member board with new members who are more favorable to charter expansion—irrespective of party affiliation—would make a difference in those close charter votes that have been taking place at SBOE meetings.
The commissioner of education is the other lever influencing the extent and pace of charter expansion in Texas. As an appointed state official, the commissioner has no need for or ability to accept PAC donations, but charter school advocates clearly have an interest in the outcome of the race for governor. Another statewide elected official, the lieutenant governor, presides over the Texas Senate and therefore exerts considerable control over the legislation that makes it through the upper chamber. Both Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) have embraced charter schools and championed their expansion, but other candidates vying for those offices in 2022 are also courting votes from the charter school community.
The network of charter-promoting PACs in Texas has contributed not only to legislative and SBOE candidates but also to several candidates in races for local school boards and city councils, which play a role in the charter expansion process, too. Expect campaign spending to continue as those local races on the May election ballot grow closer.
Banking on low turnout and inattentive voters
As we wrote in our previous post on primary election PAC spending and in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins, low voter turnout means a small number of voters can easily sway the outcome of a race. Typically, it costs considerably less for candidates to run for the SBOE than a legislative seat, and running for a local school board or city council post costs even less. The injection of hundreds of thousands of dollars into an SBOE primary race can make a major difference, but only if the targeted voters show up at the polls and pay attention to down-ballot races at a time when a hotly contested governor’s race is on most voters’ minds.
Outside of the education community, many voters are unfamiliar with what the SBOE is and does, and they may skip that part of their ballot as a result. Some may need help understanding which elected officials control which areas of the law and state regulations, which is exactly why the Texas Educators Vote coalition recently created its “Who Does What” materials. Even fewer registered voters participate in primary elections, waiting to cast votes in the November general election or not voting at all.
This means pro-public education voters can also make a big splash if they vote in the 2022 primary elections when many of these races will be decided (as the candidate who wins in March will face no opposition in November). Voter turnout will be the factor that influences the direction taken by the SBOE and the Texas Legislature in the next few years on vouchers, charter schools, curriculum, funding, educator pay and benefits, retirement, and so much more.
Money talks, but voters vote.
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