Category Archives: Election

Guest Post: Following the money in Texas politics

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.

Why March 6 Matters: Vouchers

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!

Why March 6 Matters: Teacher Pay

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!

Answering your questions on 2018 Texas primary ballot propositions

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!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 16, 2018

Here’s ATPE’s wrap-up of education news developments this week:


ELECTION UPDATE: Tuesday, Feb. 20, marks the start of early voting for the March 6 primary elections. ATPE is urging all educators and registered voters in Texas to participate in the primaries, where most of Texas’s elected offices are filled. For more tips on when and where to vote, check out this blog post from ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz.

We’ve known for a long time that educators have power to use their numbers to influence the outcomes of these pivotal primaries. Now it’s becoming clear that some politicians and special interest groups are very worried about the potential for high voter turnout within the education community. With enthusiasm growing among grassroots groups like Texans for Public Education, which is promoting a #blockvote campaign to elect pro-public education lawmakers in the Republican primary, some elected officials facing primary challengers are taking to the airwaves in a last-ditch effort to tout their own records on education. For example, the Texas Tribune reports that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spent $5.1 million in January for television ads, amounting to roughly one-third of his campaign war chest. Several of the lieutenant governor’s ads, both on tv and radio, feature claims about support for public education and efforts to raise teachers’ salaries by $10,000, but many are questioning the veracity of the ads in light of failed leadership-backed bills last session that called for much lower pay increases, which school districts would have been forced to fund without new or additional money from the state.

Another group aiming to influence these elections is the Texas Educators Vote coalition, of which ATPE is proud to be a member. We are continuing our efforts to get out the vote, despite disturbing attempts by some in power to intimidate school leaders and shut down our nonpartisan initiatives. This week, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued cease and desist letters to three school districts, alleging that their leaders had used school district resources for “unlawful electioneering.” The basis for the threatening letters from the AG’s office appears to be a handful of Twitter posts and retweets, which likely involved no expenditure of school district funds, and some districts’ adoption of our coalition’s nonpartisan resolution promoting a “culture of voting,” which obviously does not advocate in any way for specific candidates or ballot measures.

ATPE is dismayed that school board members and administrators are being unfairly targeted for efforts to encourage educators to vote, and that support for public education in general is now being characterized by some elected officials as a “partisan” endeavor. ATPE is not alone in objecting to the witch hunt; Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) this week wrote back to AG Paxton asking him to withdraw the cease and desist letters. In his letter, Sen. Menendez wrote, “As elected officials,… our role includes urging people to vote, not intimidating them from participating in this highly regarded democratic process.” Menendez further suggested that intervention by the federal Department of Justice might become necessary.

We at ATPE have worked along with other members of the Texas Educators Vote coalition to help educators understand the restrictions on using school district resources for political advertising, and we believe that most, if not all, school officials have complied with the law. It is not illegal for individual educators to endorse candidates, and there is nothing partisan or illegal about encouraging school employees to vote and to support the cause of public education. We hope that Texas voters will not be deterred by the efforts of a few politicians and dark money groups to keep educators from exercising their constitutional right, and we encourage the school community to  continue spreading the word about the importance of the 2018 elections. Most importantly, get out and vote early next week!

 


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) board of trustees has been meeting in Edinburg, Texas this week. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that the board has been discussing a change to the retirement fund’s assumed rate of return, which will have a significant impact on the future of the fund and budget discussions when the legislature returns in January 2019.

For more on the implications of these changes, read Exter’s blog post this week about the additional funding that TRS will be needing and why the upcoming primary elections will have so much impact on active and retired teachers’ pensions and healthcare.


On Friday, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced that it will be extending to Tuesday, February 20, the deadline for members of the public to participate in a survey regarding its corrective action plan for special education.

In January, TEA released the initial draft of a plan to make good on the state’s legal obligation to serve all students with special needs. The U.S. Department of Education ordered the state to take corrective action after an investigation by the Houston Chronicle revealed that the state had wrongfully denied special education services to thousands of Texas children through the enforcement of a de facto cap on the number of students allowed to participate.

Members of the public are encouraged to review the four-point plan and submit feedback by taking an online survey available on the TEA website. The survey was originally scheduled to close Sunday, February 18, but the agency announced Friday that survey responses will be accepted through Tuesday, February 20. According to the TEA, the survey takes roughly 15 to 20 minutes to complete.

Once public comments have been received, a revised draft plan will be posted and open to additional feedback in March.


President Trump released his 2019 federal budget proposal this week, which highlight’s the president’s priorities before lawmakers begin work on the actual budget in Congress.

Much like last year’s budget request, Trump’s 2019 budget proposal requests a big chunk of funding for public and private school choice, maintains funding levels for Title I and special education, and seeks large cuts to hand-chosen K-12 programs within the Department of Education (ED). Read more about the president’s proposal in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.


TRS board discusses future shortfalls as critical primary election looms

I was listening to a retired educator testify before the TRS board at their annual board retreat this morning. She expressed that retirees are scared about increasing healthcare premiums and upcoming changes that will greatly impact the actuarial picture of the pension fund. She also asked for TRS to advocate on behalf of retirees in dealing with the legislature. It was moving testimony. However, I wish she and all educators, active and retired, would shift their mentality from scared to angry and look not to TRS to take care of them next session, but instead look to themselves to be their own best advocates, at the polls where these decisions are really made.

The reality is TRS is an administrative agency, and while the TRS staff does a phenomenal job, their job is to implement the legislature’s will, NOT to lobby the legislature on behalf of TRS members. In fact, all state agency staff, TRS staff included, are prohibited by state law from engaging in lobbying efforts.

TRS has hard days ahead. If the defined benefit pension system or TRS-provided retiree healthcare are going to continue to exist, active teachers and retired teachers alike will have to use their voices not only at the capitol but also at the polls.

What are the factors that underpin this bleak reality?

First, TRS is set to drop its assumed rate of return from 8 percent to 7.25 percent. This one action, at least on paper, will make the fund go from healthy to anything but. There is already extreme pressure from Wall Street money managers and the politicians willing to work on their behalf to convert TRS to a 401(k) style system off of which they could make huge profits. Without other changes offsetting the drop to 7.25, this pressure will likely increase exponentially as the pension fund will look considerably more vulnerable going forward.

Second, despite the draconian changes to TRS-Care coming out of the last legislature, the retiree health insurance system, as it stands today, still is not financial sustainable. And the issues with retiree health care don’t even take into account the significant health insurance burden on active teachers, which is forcing many of them out of the education profession.

Sometimes there are smart policy initiatives that can solve statewide challenges with little or only indirect additional costs. The challenges facing TRS are NOT those kinds of challenges. The truth is that the state has for years gotten by knowingly underfunding both the pension trust fund and the retiree healthcare trust fund. On the pension side, in fact, the state’s share of an educator’s pension (at 6.8 percent) is less than half the teacher retirement system contribution rate set by the next lowest state not paying into Social Security.

Texas has now reached a point where getting by on barebones funding can no longer happen – not  if we want to continue providing teachers with a pension or retiree health insurance. What has changed?

As stated above, in response to long term market trends and despite best-in-class fund management by TRS staff, the agency is expected to reduce the assumed rate of return on the fund to 7.25 percent, down from 8 percent. This change will increase the pension’s unfunded liability by $10 billion and raise its funding period from just over 30 years to a whopping 86 years. (Anything under a 30-year funding period is considered actuarially sound, and for TRS the 30-year period has been linked to providing cost of living increases (COLAs) for retirees.) At 8 percent there was an expectation that the fund would be in a position to offer a COLA within the next few years, at 7.25 percent the fund would not be considered healthy enough to offer retirees a COLA for at least the next 56 years.
In order to offset the adjustment to the assumed rate of return, the TRS pension fund’s contribution rate will need to be increased enough to generate an additional $1.4 to 1.6 billion per biennium.

TRS must be honest and stay above political bias or pressure in setting its estimated rate of return. In truth, a lower assumed rate of return, as long as it is coupled with a proper contribution rate, will produce a healthier pension system in the long run. However, because it is up to the legislature and not TRS to adjust the contribution rate, it is vital that the agency be diligent and expedient in communicating to its members the realities and potential consequences of a decision to adjust the fund’s assumed rate of return.

In addition to needing $1.5 billion or more in new pension contributions, TRS will also need substantial additional dollars just to sustain TRS-Care at the new 2018 levels. In all, TRS estimates that it will be asking the legislature to appropriate between 2 and 2.5 billion additional dollars next biennium. Lobbyists for each of the four statewide educators groups (including ATPE), the retired educators group, and a group representing school districts, when given the opportunity to comment, expressed their belief that such an ask would be a complete non-starter with the current group of legislators, particularly the Governor, Lt Governor, and the majority of Texas Senate.

Without substantial additional funds; TRS-Care will quickly go bankrupt and cease to exist. Active teachers’ health insurance costs will continue to rise unchecked pushing more and more good teachers out of the profession, and the TRS pension fund will be on a certain path toward being abolished. That is the very likely future, unless retired and active educators alike decide to make their voices heard at the polls this election year. Early voting starts Tuesday, Feb 20, and runs through Friday, March 2. Election day is Tuesday, March 6. With over one million active and retired education professionals in the state of Texas, the question is not whether you can save your retirement, fix your health insurance, and improve public education policy for 5.4 million students in this state. No, the only question is – will you?

Tips for voting in the 2018 Texas primary election

The 2018 primary elections are around the corner! Do you have what you need?

This election is your chance to take control of the issues that matter most to you and your family. As registered voters, each and every one of us has a say in determining our future, so let’s seize the moment. Before you head out to the polls, do your homework by reviewing these quick tips.

When and where can I vote early?  

Early voting in the primaries runs from Feb. 20 through March 2, 2018. During early voting, voters may vote at any location within their county. Polling locations and hours are determined at the local level. To find early voting locations and hours in your district, Visit the Texas Secretary of State’s “Am I Registered” website and enter some general information about yourself in order to verify your registration status, find early voting locations, and more. You can also check your local newspaper or call your local voter registrar’s office to find early voting locations and hours in your area.

What if I wait until Election Day to go vote?  

Primary Election Day is March 6, 2018. Most polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. that day. You must vote in your assigned precinct on election day unless your county is participating in the Countywide Polling Place Program, which allows voters to cast their vote at any precinct in their county, even on the day of an election. Check your county clerk’s office or website to find out if they are participating in the program.

What’s on the ballot?  

Use our TeachtheVote.org website to find out which candidates are running for Texas legislative or State Board of Education seats in your area. Our candidate profiles will help you learn more about the individuals running for Texas State House, Texas State Senate, Governor, and Lieutenant Governor before you head out to the polls. ATPE has compiled incumbents’ voting records, links to their campaign sites, responses to ATPE’s candidate survey about education issues, and more to help you determine which candidates are likely to support public education. You can also learn about non-binding propositions that the Republican and Democratic parties have placed on their respective primary ballots to shape each party’s official platform on education and other issues.

What form of ID will I need to show in order to vote?   

You must show a valid photo ID before you get your chance to vote. Acceptable forms of ID include but are not limited to a valid Texas driver’s license, an Election Identification Certificate (EIC) issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety, a Texas concealed handgun license, a Texas personal identification card, a U.S. citizenship certificate that includes a personal photo, U.S. military ID card, or a U.S. passport.

Send a reminder to family and friends!

Here’s my challenge to you. When you’re at home, take a couple of minutes to personally call or text five friends or family members in the coming days. Encourage them to vote in the upcoming primary elections, which is where most of Texas’s contested races will be decided this year. Please be sure to remind them about the importance of voting and why you are supporting candidates who support public education. Also, be sure to let them know about our resources here on TeachtheVote.org. Your vote is your voice!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 9, 2018

Check out this week’s education news headlines from ATPE:


At its second meeting, the Texas Commission on Public School Finance on Thursday elected a new vice-chair and heard from Commissioner of Education Mike Morath and other witnesses about the current state of public education funding. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and provided this report for Teach the Vote. The commission’s next meeting on Feb. 22 will feature invited testimony from ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey. The commission will also meet on March 7 and will allow members of the public to testify at another meeting on March 19. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates as the commission fulfills its interim charge to study and make recommendations for how Texas funds its public schools.

 


ELECTION UPDATE: We’re now less than two weeks away from the start of early voting for the March 6 primary elections. ATPE urges educators to check out our Teach the Vote candidate profiles ahead of the first day of early voting on Feb. 20. All candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, State Board of Education, Texas State Senate, and Texas State House are profiled on our website, with additional information about incumbents’ voting records, the candidates’ responses to ATPE’s survey about education issues and priorities, and links to their campaign websites and social media accounts.

As you gear up for the primaries, we’ve also got information about the nonbinding propositions that will be included on your ballot as way to shape the platforms of the state Republican and Democratic parties. Find out what will be on your ballot by checking out this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell Canaday. In addition, we’ve shared tips courtesy of our friends at the Texas Tribune on how voters can get more involved in shaping party platforms by participating in election year conventions. Read about the process for becoming a convention delegate here. We’ll have even more election resources for you on Teach the Vote next week, so stay tuned!

 


As ATPE, the Texas Educators Vote coalition, and other groups work to motivate educators to vote in the 2018 elections, those fearful of high voter turnout among the education community are getting desperate in their attempts to intimidate teachers. Today on our blog, ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell Canaday reports on the surprising and heartwarming way that educators used social media this week to respond to threatening letters they received from an anti-public education lobbying group. Check out her new post about teachers who are #blowingthewhistle here.

 


ATPE’s lobbyists were interviewed this week for multiple stories about the impact of Texas’s District of Innovation law on teacher certification. The DOI law passed by the legislature in 2015 allows certain school districts to exempt themselves from many education laws. One such law is the requirement for hiring certified teachers, which the Texas Tribune wrote about this week. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann was interviewed for the story, which highlights the fact that half of Texas’s school districts are now able to ignore the certification law by using DOI exemptions. In Waco, Taylor Durden reported for KXXV-TV about how area school districts have used the DOI law to waive certification requirements for some of their teachers, and ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell Canaday was interviewed for that story. Check it out here. For more about the DOI law, see the resources available from ATPE on our website here.

 


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) today released the accreditation statuses for school districts and charter schools for the 2017-2018 school year. The accreditation status is primarily based upon the new “A through F” accountability system and the Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (FIRST).

A total of 1,185 out of 1,201 districts and charters received a status of “Accredited” for the current school year, and four districts received a “Not Accredited-Revoked” status. Four districts and five charters received warnings to fix deficiencies in academic or financial performance or face probation or revocation. Two districts were placed on probation for exhibiting deficiencies over a three year period.

Districts whose accreditation has been revoked have an opportunity for review by the TEA and the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). For the 2017-2018 school year, those districts include Buckholts ISD, Sierra Blanca ISD, Winfield ISD and Marlin ISD – the latter two of which were given an “A” in the overall state accountability ratings despite earning “improvement required” designations under the previous accountability system.

Carpe Diem Schools, Dell City ISD, Dime Box ISD, Hart ISD, Montessori For All, Natalia ISD, The Lawson Academy, Trinity Environmental Academy and Zoe Learning Academy all received warnings. Hearne ISD and Trinity ISD were placed on probation.

The full list of accreditation statuses can be found on the TEA website.

 


 

Texas teachers are #blowingthewhistle in the best possible way

With enthusiasm growing within the education community for voting in the upcoming primaries, we’ve been reporting here on Teach the Vote about the efforts of some elected officials and special interest groups to try to quell educators’ momentum by questioning the legality of our nonpartisan get out the vote (GOTV) programs. Now it appears that those efforts, which many believe are aimed at voter suppression, are backfiring as educators continue to rally their colleagues to vote later this month.

We’ve recently reported on an attorney general’s opinion issued at the request of Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) who objected to GOTV initiatives led by the Texas Educators Vote coalition of which ATPE is a proud member. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly issued a nonbinding opinion that school districts should not bus staff and students to the polls, because Paxton questioned the educational value of such an activity.

We’ve also watched as the notorious anti-public education group Empower Texans (ET) and its affiliates have used scare tactics to try to shut down GOTV initiatives in schools and political activism by education employees. Late last year, ET, whose wealthy donors have spent millions to fund the campaigns of Paxton, Bettencourt, and other officeholders like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, bombarded school districts with open records requests demanding copies of employee emails and other documentation that they hoped would show evidence of illegal activities. When the open records requests apparently yielded no bombshells, Empower Texans resorted to the desperate measure of mailing letters to individual educators around the state inviting them to act as “whistleblowers” and report on colleagues who might be violating the attorney general’s “ruling.” Many of you educators who are readers of Teach the Vote have reported receiving one of these letters from ET’s lead attorney, general counsel Tony McDonald.

The letters that ET has spent huge sums of money to mail to teachers are misleading and unethical. First, the text of the letter mischaracterizes AG Paxton’s nonbinding opinion as a “ruling,” implying that it has the force of law when it is merely an advisory expression of Paxton’s views on the law. The letters also irresponsibly fail to mention that Texas’s whistleblower laws would not provide teachers any legal protection for reports made to an outside entity like ET. ATPE Managing Attorney Paul Tapp points out why the letter from ET’s lawyer is problematic and does not reflect how our state’s whistleblower statutes actually work.

“It’s unfortunate that Mr. McDonald has mischaracterized Texas law in a way that he apparently believes would benefit his organization at the expense of those he claims to care about,” says Tapp. “There would be no ‘whistleblower’ protection for any report to Empower Texas. As an attorney, Mr. McDonald should know that a report of suspected illegal activity is only protected if it is made to the appropriate law enforcement entity.”

It is highly unlikely that ET’s intimidation campaign will reveal any evidence of school administrators and trustees unlawfully using school district resources to campaign for specific candidates, and the Texas Educators Vote coalition has always included in its outreach materials guidance for educators on what types of political activities are and are not allowed in schools. In the meantime, educators are reacting to ET’s continuing attacks on the public school community by turning to social media.

Starting yesterday, educators took to Twitter in droves to share their support for public schools. Incorporating the hashtag #blowingthewhistle and tagging ET in many of their tweets. Teachers and other public education supporters used the social media tool not for ratting out colleagues for talking about the election as ET had hoped, but instead for praising educators who go the extra mile every single day to help students.

ATPE member Cristie Plummer, who teaches at Bastrop Middle School, was one of the educators who shared her own #blowingthewhistle tweet yesterday and was featured in this article by the Austin American-StatesmanATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins also tweeted his support for the teachers in his own family by #blowingthewhistle on them via Twitter.

The Twitter backlash from teachers was featured today in a new article from the Texas Tribune about the Texas Educators Vote coalition. Reporter Emma Platoff wrote about how our coalition’s GOTV efforts have rankled ET and Tea Party groups who are also worried about other grassroots movements igniting on social media and encouraging teachers to #blockvote in the Republican Party primary for pro-public education candidates. The #blockvote campaign mentioned in the article is being promoted by the Facebook group known as Texans for Public Education, and not by the nonpartisan Texas Educators Vote coalition. However, both groups share a desire to see higher turnout among educators at the polls this year.

The reaction this week to the ET whistleblower campaign proves, once again, that educators are rising above the baseless threats of the politicians and special interest groups that want to dismantle public education. The billionaires backing candidates and officeholders who refer to hard-working teachers as “educrats” and think that using taxpayer dollars to fund unregulated private schools should be the state’s top education priority are clearly terrified of the potential for high voter turnout in the March 6 primary.

We applaud Texas educators for their classy response to the continuing attacks on their profession. ATPE hopes that our members and their colleagues will keep highlighting the outstanding things happening in our public schools every day and will never weaken their resolve to be active and informed voters in the 2018 primaries and all other Texas elections. Kudos, educators!

From the Texas Tribune: Here’s how Texans can get involved in their party conventions

Attendees listen to speakers at the Texas Federation of Republican Women Convention in Dallas on Oct. 19, 2017. Photo by Laura Buckman for The Texas Tribune.

Today’s Texplainer question was inspired by reader Grace Chimene.

Hey, Texplainer: How do I join in on the action at the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian party conventions? Essentially, how do I get hyper-involved?

Texas primary season is quickly approaching, which means some Texans are wondering how they can engage with state politics beyond just casting votes.

Participating in political conventions is one way to get involved, and each party has lower-level conventions that build up to their state conventions. First there’s a precinct convention, then a county or senatorial convention — a senatorial district convention is held when the county includes two or more state senate districts — and a state convention.

The March 6 primaries and state conventions are right around the corner, so it’s important to start getting involved in the process now.

What happens at a convention?

At each convention level, delegates are elected to move up the hierarchy and represent their party. To participate as a delegate in a convention, a person has to have voted in his or her party’s primary. Anyone can attend a convention without becoming a delegate, but delegates have more power to determine the course of their party. Among other tasks, the delegates shape party platforms, elect leadership and update party rules.

We talked to officials from the Democratic, Libertarian and Republican parties to help us explain how to navigate the convention system.

What’s each party’s process like for getting involved in conventions?

Democrats:

Glen Maxey, a senior party adviser for the Texas Democratic Party, said getting involved in conventions is the best way to begin a political network, take advantage of volunteer opportunities and meet candidates and party officials. It’s also easy — all you have to do is vote, show up for the convention and fill out some forms. Here’s how it goes, according to Maxey:

  1. Visit texasdemocraticconvention.com to find out where your county convention is being held and register.

  2. Once you’re at the county convention, you’ll debate resolutions on policies and issues. If any policies or rule changes are passed at the county level, they’ll be added to the agenda at the state convention.

  3. Rather than holding separate precinct conventions, Democrats caucus together with their precincts during the county convention to elect their delegates to the state convention. Maxey said this process is more competitive during presidential election years, but in most cases anyone who really wants to be a delegate to the state convention will be elected in a non-presidential election year.

  4. Once you’ve made it to the state convention, you’re ready to participate in the highest level of party governance in the state. You’ll elect party leadership, write and adopt the state party platform, pass resolutions and update party rules. This year’s convention is June 21-23 in Fort Worth.

Libertarians:

Becoming a party delegate is a way to amplify voters’ voices, said Libertarian Party of Texas Chair John Wilford. Here’s how he suggests getting involved:

  1. Start by getting involved at the local level. Find out who’s the county party chair of your area. Introduce yourself and be vocal about your intent to become a delegate. Becoming a delegate for the Libertarian Party is competitive, especially during presidential years.

  2. Find out where and when your precinct convention is taking place on your county chair’s website, social media or your county commissioners court bulletin board.

  3. At the precinct convention, run for a position as a delegate.

  4. Take the same steps to participate in the county/senatorial and state conventions. This year’s state convention is April 13-15 in Houston.

Republicans:

Going to a convention gives a regular voter a glimpse into the lives of legislators, Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson said. It’s a fun, active process that allows voters to help shape the platform of their party, he said. Simpson told us the best way to get involved in the Republican conventions:

  1. Vote in the primaries and then attend the precinct convention on the same day. Details of the precinct conventions are usually posted on the county party’s website. Inform the county chair of your intent to become a delegate.

  2. It’s typically pretty easy to become a delegate in the precinct convention because there are usually more spots than people to fill them.

  3. Attend the county or senatorial convention and follow the same steps to become a delegate for the state convention. This year’s convention is June 14-16 in San Antonio.

In addition to conventions, getting involved in the local level is just as important, Simpson said.

“I’m a big believer in doing more than just going to conventions,” he said.

Members of all three parties can also volunteer for campaigns or join local party clubs. Visit Texas’ party websites and county chairs’ websites to find out more about how to get involved beyond the conventions.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/02/07/heres-how-texans-can-get-involved-their-party-conventions/.

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The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.