Category Archives: Guest Post

From the Texas Tribune: Are charter schools private? In Texas courts, it depends why you’re asking.

Texas charter schools are sometimes private and sometimes governmental — a legal framework that has helped them avoid costly lawsuits.

by Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune

May 7, 2018

istock.com

In 2006, in Dallas, a construction company sued a charter school, alleging that the school stiffed workers on a building contract to the tune of a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Eight years later, in Houston, a third grade teacher sued the charter school where she worked, alleging that it had falsified test scores, that it failed to properly provide for students with disabilities and that mold in her classroom had made her sick.

Their claims did not make it very far.

The teacher couldn’t sue the charter because, the Texas Supreme Court said, it’s not a government entity. The construction company couldn’t sue, the same court said years earlier, because it was.

Questions about the legal status of charter schools — which receive taxpayer money but are privately run, usually by nonprofit corporations — are broad, existential ones in Texas, where disputes over school funding are among the Legislature’s most contentious. But those categories take on intense practical significance in the courtroom, where the rules that govern private- and public-sector employers vary widely. In two significant Texas Supreme Court cases over the last decade, charter schools and their lawyers have sidestepped lawsuits over employment and contract issues by playing both sides of that fence. In some cases, charter schools can’t be sued because they’re government entities; in others, they’re immune because they’re private.

That difference is intentional. Charter schools were designed, as former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett wrote in the construction company opinion, to “operate with greater flexibility than traditional public schools, in hopes of spurring innovation and improving student achievement.”

Because of that aim, charter schools are not subject to all the same laws as their traditional counterparts. That legal structure helps charter schools retain their “freedom and flexibility,” said Joseph Hoffer, who argued successfully for the charter school in the Houston case.

But some advocates point out that the rules for charter schools seem to target the wrong things.

The Whistleblower Act — which did not allow the teacher to sue — is perhaps the best example.

“How is it innovative to ensure that your employees are silenced if you are doing something inappropriate?” questioned Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “I would think that you would want to have those internal watchdogs looking out for kids.”

“When do the rules apply to you?”

There are a lot of unresolved legal issues surrounding charter schools, which are still relatively young educational institutions. Most of them center, as former State Board of Education Vice Chair Thomas Ratliff puts it, on the question, “Is a charter school a public school or a private entity?”

“It’s not that easy,” Ratliff said. “The answer, in a lot of cases, is both.”

In 2015, lawmakers said that for the purposes of the law, charter schools should be considered government entities when the lawmakers say so — and only then.

Some of those “when”s are common sense. Charter schools are subject to the Texas Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. Their teachers can be covered by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. And they enjoy, for the most part, the same protections and immunities from lawsuits that traditional public school districts have, said David Anderson, who worked as the Texas Education Agency’s general counsel for two decades.

In other instances, charter schools are considered private; in many cases, they’re protected from suit. That’s a good thing, Hoffer said.

“Remember,” he said, “since they’re publicly funded, we want to protect the public funds from being attacked.”

But traditional public schools subject to whistleblower claims are also publicly funded. Employees who claim retaliation under the law can win monetary damages or even get their jobs back. That’s not the case with charter schools, and advocates say it’s unfair that those schools are given essentially all the protections of a school district while also enjoying some benefits of private employers.

“You have a charter school that can, in one breath, say, ‘Hey, we’re a public school, don’t sue us,’ and in the next say, ‘Hey, we’re not a public school, don’t sue us,’” said Lorna McMillion, who defended the would-be whistleblower in Houston. “If you’re a charter school who wants to get funding like a public school and wants to be treated like a public school, when do the rules apply to you and when do they not?”

The public-private dance has saved charter schools, in several cases, from lawsuits — like those filed by the third-grade teacher (the charter school’s lawyer dismissed her as a “serial litigator” — the TEA looked into a “testing security” complaint but determined it did not merit a full investigation) and by the construction company (the charter school’s lawyer in that case said the school followed its written contract). In the case of the few charter schools not run by nonprofit corporations, the legal waters are even murkier.

Lindsey Gordon, general counsel for the Texas Charter Schools Association, said the organization supports the Legislature’s current framework and protested that charter schools are not harder to sue than school districts. Every lawsuit, she argued, succeeds on its individual merits.

But would-be litigators have at least some options for suing a traditional public school that they can’t use to sue charter schools. McMillion said the Texas Supreme Court has made it impossible to sue charter schools using the most common legal avenues.

Meanwhile, charter schools have to follow some of the laws that many educators argue most directly impede schools’ ability to innovate. Charter schools are subject to the same test-based accountability system as school districts.

The legal exemptions, advocates said, seem not to foster creativity but rather to help the non-traditional schools avoid costly litigation.

“Charter schools are straddling the fence, on both sides, to make sure they have an advantageous legal position where it is harder to get them,” sad Evan Lange, a Dallas workers’ rights attorney who recently lost a case to an area charter school. “They take the benefits of being private and the benefits of being government. They’re choosing both.”

The Legislature has, in the past, added legal restrictions to charter schools when the need presented itself. In 2013, the Legislature brought nepotism laws for charter schools in line with those for other public schools. The change came after the Texas Education Agency investigated several potential abuses where charter school board members hired family members and paid them generous salaries.

The Whistleblower Act might very well go that way, said Thomas Fuller, a North Texas lawyer who works mostly with charter schools. While the law continues to develop on the relatively new species of school, there may be some “curious outcomes,” he said.

“It left a lot of us scratching our heads, too,” Fuller said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a number of those [bills] filed in the next session making charter schools subject to the Whistleblower’s Act.”

But in the meantime, advocates warn, the ruling could deter other charter school teachers from reporting abuse they see at work. Just this year, Michael Feinberg, the founder of one of the country’s most successful networks of charter schools, was dismissed following claims that he sexually abused a student in Houston in the 1990s. Cases like Feinberg’s make clear why it’s important for school personnel to feel safe bringing forward such allegations, advocates said.

And while the Legislature can go back and correct oversights that arise, it will be difficult for lawmakers to predict every possible legal fight that could ensnare a charter school — meaning more oversights are near-unavoidable.

“Not a good place to be an employee”

The peculiar legal status of charter schools has a particular impact on employees.

Teachers in traditional public schools enjoy a suite of protections that is not mandated for charter school teachers — including, for the most part, year-long contracts that grant teachers due process rights, Exter said. Texas charter school teachers don’t all have to be certified teachers, meaning they’re more easily replaced. They’re easier to fire in the middle of the year. And if they’re fired, they have even less recourse for challenging the decision.

And unlike teachers at private schools, charter school teachers don’t get the shield of the National Labor Relations Act, which contains some of the nation’s strongest protections against unfair labor practices. Texas charter schools — unlike other states’ equivalents — are not included in that protection because they are considered arms of the government. Texas is, so far, the only state whose charter school teachers are not protected by that act.

That’s thanks to a ruling that came down in March. The case made a difficult scenario worse for teachers in a state that’s already “not a good place to be an employee,” said Lange, the Dallas workers’ attorney.

Charter school supporters might argue that more freedom for the schools allows them to get rid of bad teachers and bring in better ones.

But in a sector of public education with far less oversight than traditional school districts, it’s easy to see how a teacher could find herself fired and out of options. A public school teacher who speaks out against a school practice she disagrees with — STAAR testing, say — is protected from government retaliation by the First Amendment.

But, Lange said, a charter school employee, who enjoys no such protection, could be fired more easily. Their schools, meanwhile, can in one breath claim the privileges of being public and in the next enjoy the freedom of the private sector.

“They literally want to have their cake and eat it too. That’s all charter schools do,” Lange said.

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

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/04/20/texas-teachers-employee-benefits-dead-last-retirement-funding/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

From The Texas Tribune: Texas teachers’ pay is average. But their pensions are among the lowest in the country.

By Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune

Photo by Jacob Villanueva/iStock

Today’s Texplainer question was inspired by reader Tiffany Adair.

Hey, Texplainer: How do employment benefits for Texas educators compare to those in other states?

This question has been a point of contention between lawmakers and educators for many years. Texas teachers say they’re frustrated due to a lack of state funding for public education. But lawmakers say the uncertainty surrounding the budget makes it hard to allocate better benefits for educators.

If you look at the raw numbers, Texas ranked 27th in the nation for teacher pay in 2016, according to the National Education Association. On average, Texas teachers earned $51,890 — roughly $6,500 below the national average.

However, teachers have long argued that inadequate funding for public schools cuts into their salaries. During the 2008 fiscal year, the state covered roughly 48.5 percent of the cost of public education, according to the Legislative Budget Board. By the 2019 fiscal year, that figure will be closer to 38 percent. Over the same period, teacher salaries remained about the same [Texas teachers, on average, earned roughly $47,000 in 2008].

“One of the biggest costs to education are the teachers and other employees at a school district. That’s the biggest cost to the state,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. “When you start cutting education in Texas, you’re shortchanging teachers. We’re already behind the national average when it comes to teacher pay, and we’re getting further behind.”

But salaries aren’t the only component to consider when looking at how Texas teachers fare compared to their peers in other states, said Ed Allen with the American Federation of Teachers.

“When looking at a nationwide comparison, most people factor in the salaries. But when teachers get older, what’s being paid into retirement and the health insurance becomes a really big deal,” Allen said.

When it comes to health care benefits, advocates say Texas teachers are stuck in 2002. That’s when state lawmakers created the plan known as TRS-ActiveCare. The teacher health insurance program, which is run by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, requires the state to contribute $75 per employee toward monthly health care premiums.

Nearly 430,000 public school teachers and retirees are covered under the plan, which is used by many of the state’s 1,200-plus school districts. Since the program went into effect, employees’ share of premiums have more than doubled, while the state’s contribution to teacher’s health care has remained the same.

“When your salary is barely going up year after year, health care costs are going up considerably and you’re not getting any additional money put toward those healthcare cost by your employer — which is the state in this case — then effectively you’re taking a year over year cut to your salary,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Under the TRS-ActiveCare program, districts are also required to put a minimum of $150 per employee per month toward health insurance premiums, with the option of contributing more. But Exter said that can be difficult for districts as education budgets are squeezed.

Joel Solomon, a senior policy analyst with the National Education Association, said it’s hard to compare Texas teacher health insurance programs to other states since the structure of such programs varies nationwide. But, he said, “when we look at educators’ health benefits around the country and how important … ensuring quality health benefits to educators are, what we see in Texas is deeply troubling.”

When it comes to retirement funding, a majority of states pay into both a pension plan and Social Security. Texas is in the minority of states that only pay into a pension fund and does not pay into Social Security for the majority of its teachers — which means most Texas teachers won’t have access to Social Security benefits when they retire. Fewer than 50 of the state’s districts participate in Social Security on their own.

Among states that only offer a pension plan for teachers, Texas is dead last when it comes to funding its pension programs — by a lot.

For years, Texas only paid 6 percent — the constitutional minimum — into the Teacher Retirement System. It now pays 6.8 percent, according to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. And the Texas Constitution says the state’s contributions to pension funds can’t eclipse 10 percent without a constitutional amendment approved by voters.

“The next closest non-Social Security state had a retirement contribution rate at least double ours,” said Ann Fickel, the associate executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. The median contribution for the other 14 other states that don’t pay into Social Security for their teachers is around 18 percent, she added.

“As retirees’ costs rise, especially for medical care, there will be pressure on lawmakers to find a way to increase benefits for retired teachers,” Fickel said.

The bottom line: When it comes to teacher pay, Texas ranked 27th in the nation — right around the middle. But Texas is dead last in teacher retirement funding and puts a little more than the minimum into the Teacher Retirement System.

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

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/04/20/texas-teachers-employee-benefits-dead-last-retirement-funding/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

From The Texas Tribune: Will Texas school finance panel tell schools to do more with less? Some members think it’s predetermined

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
March 16, 2018

Justice Scott Brister, chairman of the Commission on Public School Finance, listens to a commission member at the panel’s second meeting Feb. 8, 2018. Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune.

A state panel responsible for proposing improvements to Texas’ embattled public school finance system is facing criticism from an unexpected source: some of its own members, who say the panel’s hearings seem geared toward a predetermined outcome of making schools do more with their current funding.

Texas school districts have repeatedly sued the state over the past few decades, arguing it hasn’t provided enough money to ensure public school students an adequate education. During the 2017 session, lawmakers failed to make immediate changes to how the state allocates money to public schools — and instead agreed to create a 13-member commission to undertake a longer-term study.

That panel, which includes appointees from House Speaker Joe Straus, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and the State Board of Education, has held four hearings since it was assembled in January. Its next hearing is scheduled for Monday.

In those hearings, some commission members argue, presentations by experts have been skewed toward making the case that schools do not necessarily need more money to produce better outcomes for students.

“There’s a steady stream of presenters … trying to convince us that there’s enough money in the system and that adding more will not show results — that districts are essentially spending the money incorrectly,” said State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, one of four members appointed by Straus.

He said the commission has also heard from school leaders with innovative ideas, such as how to keep the best teachers at the most challenging schools and how to use full-day pre-K to get students at an academic baseline early in life.

“Those two things without question cannot be funded or sustained with the current funding levels we have,” Bernal said. “Even the districts that piloted it said they were about to run out of money.”

But the panel’s chair, Scott Brister, disagreed that the hearings were staged for any predetermined outcomes. He said the Texas Education Agency’s staff has worked to bring experts who can provide a framework for how school finance works and what an adequate education looks like.

“You’ve got to figure out what you would like the schools to look like before you figure out whether you need more money or less money or where that money’s going to come from,” said Brister, a former state Supreme Court justice. Appointed to the commission by Abbott, Brister was the sole justice to dissent in a 2005 lawsuit brought by school districts claiming the school finance system was inadequate and inefficient. The court ruled in favor of the districts and forced lawmakers to overhaul the funding system.

“I’m not interested in spending more money and getting no change. What’s the point of that?” Brister said this week. “The Constitution requires school districts to be free and efficient. … Surely it means you don’t waste money on stuff that doesn’t work and doesn’t make a difference. That’s one of our constitutional standards. We have to consider it.”

Over the past decade, the state has decreased its share of public education funding, allowing rising local property taxes to make up the difference. Currently, less than 40 percent of school funding comes from the state, while local property taxes pay for more than half. In 2011, lawmakers cut more than $5 billion from schools to close a budget deficit and never completely restored the money.

Texans will have their first, and potentially only, chance on Monday to publicly address the commission. Texas school leaders and public education advocates are expected to spend several hours, if not the whole day, testifying that they want the state to invest more money in public schools, instead of relying on local property tax revenue, and that they cannot educate students on the budget they have.

“Only after you get past that question [of adequate funding] do you get to talk about how to spend that funding,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators, who plans to testify Monday. Exter said he sees three different groups on the commission: one that wants to increase funding to public schools, another that believes public schools are important but that increasing funding isn’t feasible, and a third that wants to defund public schools.

“My argument is that you haven’t funded us enough to get better outcomes,” said Nicole Conley Johnson, a member of the commission and chief financial officer of Austin ISD.

According to the TEA, Austin’s school district is expected to pay the state $545 million this school year to help subsidize poorer school districts, through a function of the school finance system nicknamed “Robin Hood.” Austin ISD has the highest Robin Hood payment in the state and has gone through several rounds of budget cuts over the last few years.

Johnson, who was appointed to the commission by Straus, agreed that the commission hearings seem to be skewed toward efficiency: “They want more for the same amount of resources.”

During the inaugural commission hearing in January, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch showed members a chart of 2011 student state test scores for school districts mapped against the amount of money those districts spent.

“There is a pattern here, but the pattern is not based on how much money is available,” he said. “In fact, the school district that performs the best is the school district that gets $2,000 less per student than the average funding.”

He suggested the state look into why certain school districts do better with less funding, and why others do worse with more. “Scholars and education experts are divided on the extent to which there is a demonstrable correlation between educational expenditures and the quality of education. The thing that matters is student outcomes,” based on test scores or high school graduation rates, he said.

Johnson and fellow commission member Doug Killian, the superintendent of Pflugerville ISD, pushed back on Enoch’s chart, pointing out the data was outdated and not comprehensive.

Chandra Villanueva, policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, said the commission should be trying to ask what schools need to educate students, instead of asking what they can do with existing resources. “Let the Legislature decide if they want to raise taxes or shift other priorities in the budget,” she said. “I don’t think the [commission] should prematurely tie their hands.”

The commission will split into three subcommittees to brainstorm recommendations to the Legislature at the end of the year on where the state should get revenue to fund public schools, how it should overhaul existing formulas to allocate funding more equitably, and what it should expect its public school students to achieve. Each subcommittee will get to decide whether and how to include the public in its discussions, according to Brister.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican chairing the panel’s revenue subcommittee, said it’s too early to say what those recommendations will look like.

“We’ve been drinking from the fire hose on public policy. I haven’t had any discussions with anybody yet to step back and get out of the line of fire and see where we are now. For me personally, I’m still in listening mode,” he said.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Center for Public Policy Priorities have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/03/16/school-finance-efficiency/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

From The Texas Tribune: Texas AG Ken Paxton ramps up fight against schools’ “illegal electioneering”

By Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune
March 16, 2018

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera.

The first Valentine’s Day note that Kevin Dyes received from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last month was a “cease-and-desist” letter. The next two were open records requests.

All three seemed aimed at warning Dyes — the superintendent of Holliday ISD, a North Texas school district that enrolls just over 1,000 students, employs just over 100 staff, and occupies just under 300 square miles — to stop his “illegal electioneering.”

That was not what Dyes thought he’d been up to in the months leading up to Texas’ March 6 primary election.

“All I was trying to do in any of that — on Twitter, or in communications with my staff or the public — was to advocate for public education,” he said.

Dyes suspects that it was his Twitter presence, where he often retweets educators pledging to “#blockvote” in favor of pro-public education candidates, and that of the district, that drew Paxton’s attention.

Dyes was one of more than a dozen administrators whose districts were hit last month with open records requests from the Texas Attorney General’s Office seeking district communications about Texas primaries, voting and certain candidates and races, documents obtained by The Texas Tribune in a records request show.

And he was one of a smaller group of educators whose district also received a cease-and-desist letter from Paxton, the state’s top lawyer. After sending three letters last month, Paxton’s office sent two more Friday morning — to Elgin ISD and Galena Park ISD, both districts that had received records requests — asking administrators to stop using taxpayer money to advocate for political candidates.

“School districts violate the Texas Election and Education codes when they exhort faculty or others to vote for a particular person or ballot measure,” Paxton said in a statement Friday. “Spending taxpayer dollars on advocating for or against political candidates is unacceptable.”

The letters are just the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over the role Texas public schools play in elections. Long-standing civic engagement initiatives aimed at getting more Texas teachers out to vote have come under fresh attack this election cycle, with conservative groups and Paxton himself warning that some efforts constitute “illegal electioneering.” A January ruling from his office advised districts that busing teachers and voting-age students to polling places is illegal unless such trips serve an “educational purpose.”

The records requests probe school administrators’ words and actions in an effort to identify illegal activity committed on the taxpayers’ dime. Public school employees can register students to vote and promote civic engagement, but they’re not allowed to use public money or other resources to support particular political candidates or parties.

The AG’s office did not return requests for comment on the records requests themselves, but has said several times it’s investigating complaints of election law violations and will continue to do so. But educators and advocates see a political motivation behind the probes, and the other missives that preceded them.

“To me it’s voter suppression — an attempt to bully us,” Troy Reynolds, the founder of Texans for Public Education and an administrator in Splendora ISD, which did not receive an AG request last month. “I’ve never seen anything like this before… They’re trying to shut us up.”

But state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican who asked Paxton in December to weigh in on whether schools could bus employees to the polls, said claims that Paxton’s work is politically motivated are “an emotional response not based in reality.”

“When I see political activity not just creeping into schools but galloping into schools, you just gotta pull the reins and stop it,” Bettencourt said, adding that Paxton is merely working to ensure schools “educate the kids, not get into politics.”

Paxton’s office’s recent inquiries went to school districts of all sizes all across the state. Many requests were broad, asking for communications among top school officials that included words like “vote,” “voting,” “Texas Legislature” and “primary.” The AG’s office also sought campaign emails and information about “get out the vote efforts.”

While Paxton’s office said it’s targeting suspected lawbreakers, educators and advocates have pointed out that many were sent to the sites of tight Republican primary races, including two districts — Frisco ISD and Allen ISD — that fall into Senate District 8, where Paxton’s wife Angela Paxton recently won an expensive, hard-fought Republican primary against Phillip Huffines.

Granbury ISD — whose superintendent, Jim Largent, had the backing of many in the education community in his unsuccessful challenge against state Rep. Mike Lang — received three separate requests from the AG. Lang, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, had the support of Empower Texans.

The AG’s office asked Granbury ISD for a copy of an email from Largent to district staff announcing his campaign and another from the superintendent containing the words “Their goal is to demonize and destroy public education and it is working.”

“One could probably connect the dots and come up with some theories about what they were doing,” Largent said in an interview this week.

Many requests also honed in on another Republican race: the face-off between sitting Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and challenger Scott Milder, a public education advocate backed by many in the education community. Milder ultimately lost to Patrick by more than 50 percentage points.

Milder said he sent campaign emails to about 100,000 educators, and those messages appeared in response to several of the AG’s requests. A disclaimer at the top of one Milder email advises recipients that “forwarding this email would be considered a violation so please do not forward from district email or device,” but merely receiving the email at a district address “is not a violation of any law.”

Some district administrators took care to pass the email along from their personal email addresses, records show. But others shared it from their official district addresses.

Joe Coleman, a principal in Galena Park ISD, was cited for doing just that in Paxton’s second round of cease-and-desist letters Friday.

“I agree that we need to support Scott Milder in his quest to become the Texas Lieutenant Governor,” Coleman wrote, passing along Milder’s email. “Remember, to ask for Republican Ballott, you can vote in Texas in the primaries for a Republican or Democrat. Let’s support Scott Milder. Please tell all of your friends and family this is critical.”

Coleman wrote back the next day: “I probably broke some type of rule with this email, probably not good judgement. I have not had a complaint but just letting you know in case you get one. Joe.”

Milder said it was “thoroughly disappointing” that Paxton would go to such lengths to “intimidate educators” out of voting.

“We know that the AG runs in the same circle as the lieutenant governor and they’re going to help each other out with their re-election campaigns,” Milder said. “The best way for the AG to get involved to help the lieutenant governor and the Empower Texans candidates is to intimidate regular Texans, rational Texans from voting. And it’s working.”

Some advocates allege that the process behind the AG’s office sending the requests was political as well.

Before the AG’s office began submitting records requests, school districts had already received similar inquiries from conservative groups, including the aggressive and influential Empower Texans. The Texas Civil Rights Project, a voting-focused advocacy group, pledged this week to “shine a light on any coordination” between the groups. Empower Texans did not return a request for comment on this story.

Dyes said the coordination is obvious. In October, his district signed on to a “culture of voting” resolution. Dyes said his office turned the signed resolution over to Empower Texans when that group submitted a records request, but that the document wasn’t posted anywhere online.

Then, a copy of the signed resolution appeared in the cease-and-desist letter Paxton’s office sent to Holliday ISD last month.

“They must be working together,” Dyes said. “Evidently somebody in Empower Texans gave them that resolution… because it’s not available anywhere else.”

Reynolds, the education advocate, agreed.

“I don’t believe that’s an accident at all. I think there’s an agenda behind it,” he said. “It’s so they can maintain the power they have in the Legislature and push vouchers. No one’s ever had a problem with public sector employees activating before.”

Some educators suspect that the new scrutiny on their election-related activities is motivated not by a concern for the law, but a concern that education-backed candidates could unseat many of the Legislature’s most conservative members. After lawmakers failed to deliver the school finance overhaul many sought during last year’s legislative sessions, educators pledged to come out to the polls in force this election cycle.

Educational advocates said those numbers had begun to scare those in power  — although last week’s primary results suggest educators’ numbers were not as high as some anticipated.

“I think it’s absolutely politically motivated,” said Laura Yeager, whose educational engagement group’s years-old voting resolution has been attacked for the first time this election cycle as suspicious and illegal. “It’s just so disappointing. Really, they should be encouraging people to vote…. This is not what our country is supposed to be about.”

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

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/03/16/texas-ken-paxton-illegal-electioneering-school-districts/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

Guest Post: Learn about Republican party precinct conventions

Party Precinct Conventions:
How educators can influence Texas politics from the grassroots up – it’s easier than you think!

By Mark Terry
March 2018

As an educator, you’ve done your civic duty; you have voted in the primary election and made your voice heard. And, you are to be applauded for exercising your right to vote, as a citizen and an educator! We are all hoping that our ‘teacher voices’ will be heard. If all 700,000 teachers across Texas vote…in a primary that usually has less than 2 million voters, we will definitely be heard. But, would you like to change the course of politics in a way that is lasting and takes far fewer dedicated educators? It can happen!

Yes! You can dramatically change the way both political parties view public education. Imagine: You can set the party platforms, you can help select public education friendly candidates, and you can play an active role in the leadership of your precinct-county-state party leadership! And, it only takes the amount of time you want to commit.

Let’s talk grassroots influence starting with the basics.

Mark Terry | TEPSA Deputy Executive Director

Click here to see Mark’s video about precinct conventions.

When you vote, you vote in your precinct; it’s kind of like your neighborhood. Each legislator’s district is made up of many smaller precincts, and House member districts are smaller than Senate member districts. For example, my precinct is 3035 within my Texas House District 98 and Senate District 12. Each precinct has a precinct chair. The chair is responsible for helping candidates of their choice to win election (more on that later) and for the Republican party, holding a “precinct convention” immediately after the primary election. Wait…I know you just rolled your eyes, keep reading.

When I was first ‘elected’ to be the chair of Precinct 3035, I thought, “No way! I put in enough time as an educator and I do not want hundreds of people yelling at me.” Well, it doesn’t work that way. Your precinct convention is held 30 minutes after the polls close at your primary polling place. You, gather a dozen or so seats together in corner, and you hold your convention. My first convention had 11 people, and four of them had my last name. Four more were neighbors who were public school educators. And, the election judge has all the directions and forms you require for your convention! Your lesson plans are ready!

What did we do at the precinct convention? Well, first we elected delegates to the senate district convention. (Check out my video where I show maps for precincts, house districts, and senate districts.) We also reviewed the party platform (Republican in my case) and adopted it with any resolutions brought forth. Here’s where it gets fun! No one had any resolutions except one person…me! One resolution stated, “We resolve that the State of Texas shall NOT use any public funds for private education.” The second resolution I proposed said, “We resolve that the Republican Party shall support and adequately fund Texas’s system of public education.” Both were unanimously passed! Those resolutions and the names of the senate district convention delegates we elected that night next went to the Tarrant County Republican Party for review.

I bet you never knew there were resolutions of this sort presented to the Republican Party. Why didn’t anyone see these resolutions after our precinct approved them? It’s simple. When the resolutions went to our senate district convention, the party’s Resolution Committee didn’t give them a hearing. Remember, you are fighting those who run the party. So, I made a combined resolution from the floor during our senate district convention. Even though I was told I wouldn’t get a second, I did…and the measure failed 57% – 43%. If there had been a few more delegates, the resolution would have gone to the Texas Republican Party’s state convention that summer.

This is where the conversation on education can change. Sounds like a bunch of rhetorical mish-mash to me, but elected officials look to the party platform for guidance. Delegates set the platform at the precinct level, at the county or senate district level, at the Texas political party level…and, at the national level. Those 11 propositions that you’ve seen on the Republican primary ballot this year…same thing. They are not binding, but your legislator looks to the results to justify his or her votes!

Do you see where this is going? How many educators do you think are in your precinct? I can tell you…there are plenty. More than 11? You bet! (And, you have access to the voter rolls, which you can compare to the school districts in your voter district.) What would happen if 25, 50, or even 75 educators showed up at each precinct convention and each passed the same resolutions? What if those same educators elected themselves as senate district convention delegates and then state convention delegates? You’d change the course of party politics in our state!

Is that all precinct chairs do? For many it is, but your sphere of influence just grew. For one, you’ll receive requests for donations from everyone running in your senate district. You’ll also be the first to see the nasty little rumors and comments about ‘the other candidates’ as folks from county commissioners, to family court judges and up, try to curry your favor. Most importantly, folks in your precinct look to you for who should receive their vote. Again, do you see where this is going? You can campaign for your chosen candidate, in my case a conservative Republican who supports public education. The candidate will give you all the information you need to make “block walks” around your neighborhood with friends to introduce your candidate (he or she will often go with you) and you can put together four or five educators to man an “educator phone bank” (remember the voter lists). The point is, you and a small group of your educator buddies have an inordinate impact on who is elected in your voting district.

One last thing, how do you think the Tea Party took over the Republican Party? Protests? Voting? Nope, it started at the precinct conventions. Who told me that? A Tea Party-elected legislator.

You can do this! We can do this! We must do this for the sake of children, teachers, and the soul of our state. If you want more information, or to be reassured you can actually make it happen, give me a shout at mark@tepsa.org or @tepsamark on Twitter.


Mary Terry with Giovanni Capriglione

Mark Terry with his legislator, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione

Mark Terry is a former school principal and the Deputy Executive Director of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA). He serves as a Republican party precinct chair within House District 98 and Senate District 12.

 

 

From the Texas Tribune: One Texas Board of Education primary result could spell a return to culture wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenging a swing vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decisive primaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

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.

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/.

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

Guest Post: It’s Time to Fix the WEP

U.S. Representative Kevin Brady (R-Texas)

By Kevin Brady, Chairman
U.S. House Ways and Means Committee

The Windfall Elimination Provision or “WEP” is unfair. It’s unfair to public servants in Texas and across the nation, including places like California, Massachusetts and Ohio.  I’ve been working to repeal and replace the WEP for a decade. This is something we must do for our teachers, firefighters, police, and other public servants.

You probably know the history: When Social Security was created in 1935, state and local governments were excluded from participating due to Constitutional concerns.  Later, the law changed to allow state and local governments to offer Social Security to their employees.

As a result, many teachers, police, and firefighters still contribute to these longstanding retirement plans instead of Social Security since these substitute plans are often tailored to their chosen careers.  But many of these public servants also hold second (or third) jobs or have a second career where they’ve paid Social Security taxes. These folks rightfully expect to receive their earned Social Security benefits when they retire.  However, due to the WEP, their Social Security benefits end up being much lower than they were expecting.

Although the WEP may have been well intentioned in the start, today it’s simply unfair. Those affected by the WEP are subject to a different benefit formula than all other workers.  This arbitrary formula is based on a 1980’s one-size-fits-all Washington compromise and ignores a person’s actual work history.  The WEP also makes it harder to plan for retirement since the reduction doesn’t show up on a worker’s Social Security statement. When you are nearing retirement, surprises are never a good thing.

I think we can all agree that our teachers, police, and firefighters deserve better.

Working with my Democratic colleague from Massachusetts, Representative Richard Neal, and teacher, police, firefighter, and retiree groups, we’ve come together on a solution for addressing the WEP based on fairness, equal treatment and personal work histories.

Here’s how it would work.  The new proposal repeals the WEP as it exists today. Instead of only counting Social Security earnings as the current WEP does, we count all earnings of workers. This helps tailor benefits to your real-life work history.  This “proportional approach” calculates Social Security benefits using all earnings and then adjusts this amount based on the percentage of earnings that were subject to Social Security taxes.  This way, two workers with the same average earnings receive a Social Security benefit equal to the same percentage of their Social Security earnings.

Let’s look at an example for two teachers – one from Virginia who paid Social Security taxes on all of her earnings and another from Texas, who paid into a substitute retirement system like TRS but also tutored and paid Social Security taxes on these earnings.  Both teachers had average monthly earnings of $4,000.  The Virginia teacher had all of these earnings counted for Social Security purposes, while the Texas teacher only had $2,285 credited toward her Social Security benefits.

Under today’s law, the Virginia teacher would receive an initial monthly benefit of $1,776 if she claims at her full retirement age. That represents about 44 percent of her pre-retirement Social Security earnings.  On the other hand, because of the WEP the Texas teacher under today’s laws would only receive a monthly benefit of $800, which represents about 35 percent of pre-retirement Social Security earnings.

Under the new proposed “proportional approach”, the Virginia teacher would still receive a monthly benefit of $1,776.  But the Texas teacher would receive a monthly benefit of $1,015, which represents 44 percent of her pre-retirement Social Security earnings – or the same percentage as the Virginia teacher.

While the new proportional formula addresses the WEP for future retirees, we cannot leave current retirees behind. Our plan provides Social Security relief to current retirees affected by the WEP by providing special payments to these retirees. That’s only fair.

ATPE’s Monty Exter, Carl Garner, and Gary Godsey met with U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady in June 2017 to discuss fixing the WEP.

Over the years – with the help of groups like the Association of Texas Professional Educators, Texas Retired Teachers Association and Mass Retirees – we have taken important steps toward finally fixing the WEP.  With your help, we will finally ensure equal treatment for our teachers, firefighters, police, and other public servants.

This is a top priority for me, and we will not rest until we have a solution in law.

 

Election Update from the Texas Educators Vote coalition

TxEdVote

Early voting for the November 7th election ends this Friday, November 3rd.

Don’t wait! Vote today!

It’s easy to be an educated and informed voter.

  1. Build your own personal ballot at www.vote411.org.
  2. Learn about the seven constitutional amendments on the statewide ballot here.

Creating a culture of voting takes practice, but unlike eating all that Halloween candy, it has positive lasting benefits!

By modeling civic engagement for students, we can elect pro-public education leaders AND create good citizens who will become tomorrow’s leaders!

If you’ve already voted, give yourself a BIG pat on the back, and then –
Share the Oath with 10 friends today!

Educators Oath to Vote

If all Texas educators vote, we can get the leadership our students deserve!

Go Vote!

From Laura Yeager with Texas Educators Vote