Tag Archives: Greg Abbott

Does Gov. Abbott want to spend more on schools?

Election season is truly magical.

There’s just something about the seething mercury, the colorful proliferation of yard signs, and the specter of an existential showdown that awakens a – dare we call it – miraculous clarity in political combatants seeking votes.

When else can one witness folks who’ve spent the past 20 months fighting in bitter opposition to a particular set of constituents suddenly discover a deep love for the values they hold? The Lord works in mysterious ways.

It’s no surprise that we’re now hearing support for improving the school finance system from unexpected corners. To a certain degree, it’s positive evidence that educators are being heard, and that the powers-that-be realize that there is more to gain by working with the education community than working to dismantle it.

That doesn’t mean that efforts to dismantle it behind the scenes will stop. In politics as in statistics, things tend to revert toward the mean. The governing happens long after the polls close. Nonetheless, election season opens a brief window of opportunity to use our seat at the table to advance the conversation.

Let’s apply this lens to the latest Dallas Morning News opinion column by Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas), with the promising headline, “Texas must boost school funding.” The key passage summarizing Gov. Abbott’s message is as follows:

“We need to pay our best teachers more, reward teachers and districts for student growth, prioritize spending in the classroom and reduce the burden of skyrocketing property taxes. I’ll add up front that I believe the state will have to provide more funding.”

That last line seems to offer an acknowledgment of what we in the education committee have known for some time, but which many in the Capitol have resisted mightily.

The problem, of course, is that many of the people who have opposed investing more state dollars in public education have falsely argued that the state is already increasing education spending year over year. They point to raw dollars going back to a low-water point in 2006 in order to obscure the reality of the deliberate and steady erosion of state support for local schools. Troublingly, Gov. Abbott takes this very tack in writing that “overall education spending in Texas has increased by more than 50 percent since 2006, and the state is contributing 29 percent more education funding per student in that time period.”

Let’s look at that claim.

The numbers in the latter half of that statement come from a Texas Education Agency (TEA) presentation before the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. The headline of the slide below seems to confirm the governor’s assertion, but look at the orange line indicating funding adjusted for inflation. It clearly shows that in terms of purchasing power, total per-student funding has risen only slightly since 2006, and is roughly equal to per-student funding in 2008. (Click the image to view a larger version.)

Source: Texas Education Agency

What’s perhaps more telling is the blue bar indicating how much funding the state has contributed. I’ve added the red brackets and red horizontal line to make the minute changes easier to see. You can tell that the raw dollar amount the state has contributed has actually decreased slightly since 2008 – and that’s not even adjusted for inflation.

To get to the inflation-adjusted number, we look at the Legislative Budget Board’s (LBB) Fiscal Size-up for the 2016-2017 biennium. In the chart below, we can see how spending from local property tax revenue (circled in green) has increased, while state aid (circled in blue) has changed little from 2008 levels. In total constant dollars adjusted for inflation (near the red arrow), we see that total funding has in fact decreased.

Source: Legislative Budget Board

The governor also wrongly suggests that funding is not making it into classrooms. According to the TEA’s 2016-17 Pocket Edition statistics, districts only spend an average of 3.1 percent on administrative costs.

To his credit, the governor advocates that increases in funding should go to teachers. No disagreement there. His idea is to implement a system in which top-performing teachers can earn significantly higher pay by teaching in areas facing the most need – similar to the “ACE” system tested in Dallas ISD. It’s a conversation that’s worth having, provided that educators are involved in the process and that the system doesn’t rely primarily on student test results to identify those “top-performing” teachers.

Governor Abbott also suggests moving away from a per-pupil funding model and, implicitly, toward a more outcomes-based approach. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is identifying which metrics with which to measure student performance and the threat of schools faced with the most significant socioeconomic challenges receiving even less support.

Finally, the governor writes that school finance reform must be accompanied by reforms in property taxes. It’s true the two are inextricably intertwined.

Increasing the state’s share of public education funding is the surest way to provide relief in property taxes. The governor proposes forcing taxing entities to lower their rates as appraisals go up, with the state presumably stepping in to make school districts whole. That’s a lot to presume, especially to do so in perpetuity.

Districts could hardly be blamed for wanting to see the legislature commit money up front before committing to voluntarily lower their tax rates – and it will take a sizable appropriation to shift the burden back toward the state in a way that will be meaningful to local property owners. School board members are politicians too, and they don’t want to be blamed for high taxes any more than their counterparts in Austin.

So what does it all mean? Does the governor’s column signify a dramatic reversal of his stance on public education, and school finance in particular? Does it mean he’s ready to stop attacking educators through anti-teacher payroll deduction bills and focus on improving teacher pay instead?

At a minimum, the governor is now talking about public education as an important priority, and that’s a good thing. The onus is on us to engage respectfully yet forcefully, and to shape the conversation, to the extent we can, by correcting inaccuracies and providing meaningful input. At best, we hope the governor will listen to educators and incorporate our feedback, even after the elections are over.

Of course, just as election season begins in the frantic furnace of summer, it ends in darkness on a winter night. When the legislature returns in January, we’ll all be faced with cold reality.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 20, 2018

Here’s your weekly wrap-up of education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


Shannon Holmes

This week included some big news for our central office. ATPE announced Hardin-Jefferson ISD Superintendent Dr. Shannon Holmes will take over the reins as our new ATPE executive director starting in September. Dr. Holmes was recommended by a search committee composed of ATPE stakeholders and was approved by a vote of the ATPE Board of Directors.

Dr. Holmes has led HJISD, a 4A school district based in Sour Lake in Southeast Texas, since 2005. He brings 20 years of experience with Texas public schools, a long history of involvement with public education organizations, a strong background in business and finance, and proven engagement with issues facing public education in Texas. He currently serves as chair of the 2018 Legislative Council for the University Interscholastic League (UIL) and has experience testifying before committees of the Texas Legislature.

We’re excited to welcome Dr. Holmes to the ATPE family! Please join us in making him feel at home. You can read more about Dr. Holmes in the official ATPE press release.


The Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security met again Wednesday of this week at the Texas Capitol. This marked the third meeting of the committee formed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the wake of the horrific shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. The Texas House of Representatives has held similar hearings through its Public Education and Public Health committees. The agenda for Wednesday’s meeting was laid out as follows:

Examine the root cause of mass murder in schools including, but not limited to, risk factors such as mental health, substance use disorders, anger management, social isolation, the impact of high intensity media coverage — the so-called “glorification” of school shooters — to determine the effect on copy cat shootings, and the desensitization to violence resulting from video games, music, film, and social media. Recommend strategies to early identify and intercept high-risk students, as well as strategies to promote healthy school culture, including character education and community support initiatives.

Lawmakers heard plenty of calls for additional resources, such as counselors and psychologists, to address these issues. However the Senate in particular has a history of being resistant to initiatives that involve increasing state spending on schools. You can read a recap of the hearing by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann here.


A busy and successful ATPE Summit last week in Dallas didn’t slow down ATPE’s state officers, who were back to work Monday morning advocating for ways to keep campuses safe.

ATPE State President Carl Garner, State Vice President Byron Hildebrand, State Secretary Tonja Gray, and State Treasurer Jimmy Lee were invited by the governor’s staff to participate in stakeholder meetings covering a range of topics pertaining to school safety.

This included feedback relating to law enforcement in schools, the marshal program, and students removed from traditional classrooms for disciplinary reasons. ATPE leaders were able to share their personal experiences with Gov. Greg Abbott’s staff and make suggestions for ways to maximize campus safety. Read more about their meeting in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.

ATPE state officers offer input on school safety

The ATPE state officers were in Austin yesterday to offer input on Governor Greg Abbott’s School and Firearm Safety Action Plan. ATPE State President Carl Garner, State Vice President Byron Hildebrand, State Secretary Tonja Gray, and State Treasurer Jimmy Lee were invited by the governor’s staff to participate in stakeholder meetings covering a range of topics pertaining to school safety.

ATPE state officers (from left) Tonja Gray, Jimmy Lee, Carl Garner, and Byron Hildebrand at the Texas Capitol.

The meetings consisted of stakeholders representing a number of different industries, organizations, and interests. All were asked to share their perspectives as practitioners and experts in their respective fields. The discussion covered a broad array of topics dealing with school safety, including law enforcement in schools, the school marshal program, emergency response plans, campus security programs, mental health, students who disrupt the classroom, social media tactics, and training for educators and students.

Carl Garner shares feedback on the governor’s school safety plan.

ATPE leaders shared feedback from their perspectives as educators in the classroom. For example, Garner provided context with regard to students who are removed from the traditional classroom due to disciplinary reasons. When his school noticed that many of their alternative education program students became repeat offenders, they instituted support and intervention services that helped such students assimilate back into the traditional classroom. These students can be drawn to the structure of smaller classrooms and more individualized support that differs from many large, and sometimes overcrowded, classrooms. The supports on his campus are aimed at stopping the cycle and addressing the needs of these students to prevent ongoing behavioral issues or threats.

ATPE will continue to follow school safety developments and report on relevant information. At the 2018 ATPE Summit last week, the importance of this issue was solidified. The ATPE House of Delegates passed a main motion that reiterated ATPE members’ desire to remain advocates for their students and informed voices on the important and timely topic of school safety. We are committed to supporting those efforts.

The Governor’s Office will hold one additional school safety meeting on Wednesday. This meeting will focus on aspects of the governor’s plan that pertain to gun safety, background checks, and gun ownership.

In last-minute meeting, revenue working group gets orders

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance working group on revenues met briefly Tuesday evening after the commission’s formal meeting adjourned. Unlike the other two working groups, the revenues group led by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) did not post a public notice following Texas open meetings guidelines.

Texas’s open meetings law was passed to limit secret government meetings and ensure the public has access to deliberations of public interest. The law explicitly applies to the school finance commission as a whole, however its application to working groups of the commission is less clear. The only notice was posted the day of the meeting in an obscure portion of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) website. Because notice was not provided according to guidelines laid out by the open meetings law, few people attended the revenues meeting and no audio or video of the meeting is available.

According to those inside the meeting, Sen. Bettencourt stated the working group will aim to score various spending and revenue proposals, including raising the state sales tax or gas tax, enacting the performance pay program proposed by TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, limiting recapture, extending the Universal Service Fund (USF) tax on land telephone lines to cell phones, and the 2.5 percent tax cap proposed by Gov. Greg Abbott during the special session. Bettencourt requested members submit their ideas for study topics before the full commission meets again July 10.

A snapshot of the proceedings was posted on social media:

Abbott outlines school shooting response plan

Texas Governor Greg Abbott unveiled his school safety action plan Wednesday in response to the deadly school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. The 40-page plan, which can be read in its entirety on the governor’s website, is the end product of three roundtable discussions held last week in Austin which included shooting survivors, school administrators and activists on both sides of the gun control debate.

“No one provided a more powerful voice for those strategies than the victims themselves,” Abbott told reporters gathered in Dallas for the announcement.

“I am so proud and inspired by their strength and resiliency,” Abbott added. In summing up the roundtable discussions, the governor concluded, “There seems to be a consensus about the need to act.”

Abbott summarized the elements of his plan as ideas that could be put in place before the next school year begins. According to governor, this includes $70 million in funds to which the state already has access, as well as $40 million in federal funds from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 for which the state can compete. Altogether, Abbott claimed this adds up to $120 million in funds that do not require a legislative appropriation.

A crisis response team consisting of counselors from the National Organization of Victim Assistance (NOVA) has been deployed to Santa Fe, and the governor’s Criminal Justice Division (CJD) has an open reimbursement application. CJD grant funding is also available for costs associated with long-term behavioral health response by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC). The state has already secured a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for mental health services, teacher overtime, security staff and substitutes for Santa Fe ISD.

Many of the governor’s plan would require legislative action. Gov. Abbott is suggesting the state consider offering a $10,000 matching grant to schools that draw down federal funds to help pay for additional law enforcement on campus. Abbott also recommends a state policy authorizing schools to prioritize retired law enforcement officers and military veterans to serve as school resource officers.

Gov. Abbott quoted one student who said during the roundtable discussion, “Arming teachers and not knowing who is armed, that is what we need.”

Accordingly, the governor’s plan calls for increasing the number of “school marshals” – armed school personnel who have completed a specialized law enforcement training program – on public school campuses. To do so, Abbott is asking the Texas Legislature to direct funding to be used for additional training this summer at no charge to districts, as well as act to double to number of marshals allowed per campus to one for every one hundred students, up from one for every two hundred students under the current law. The plan also calls for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to issue a letter encouraging administrators to identify personnel to participate in the program. Additionally, Abbott is asking lawmakers to reduce the training required to be a marshal and to change the current requirement that marshals keep their firearms stored in a safe to instead allow them to keep firearms on their persons.

In a nod to local control, Gov. Abbott noted that the plan does not mandate school marshals, and acknowledged that some schools will not adopt the program.

“We understand that when it comes to education, one size simply does not fit all,” Abbott told reporters.

The governor’s plan recommends expanding the state’s active shooter training through the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) program, and CJD has provided a $1.25 million grant to offer the program free of charge to participating school districts and charter schools for the remainder of the calendar year.

In his remarks to media, the governor proposed reducing the number of entrances and exits in order to “harden” school campuses. This has already been incorporated into the design of many schools built following the Columbine shooting in 1999, and has significant implications regarding fire safety. The written plan recommends actions such as installing metal detectors and controlling access to campus facilities. The plan also calls for installing active shooter alarm systems separate and different from fire alarm systems.

The TEA will direct $62 million in additional federal funds under the Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) grant program to districts for improving campus safety, such as metal detectors as well as mental health programs.

Gov. Abbott spoke of the need to prevent people from becoming shooters in the first place, and recommended doing so by expanding the Telemedicine Wellness Intervention Triage and Referral (TWITR) project headed up by Texas Tech University, which current being utilized by ten different school districts to identify potential threats before they manifest. Abbott is asking lawmakers to provide $20 million to expand program further, eventually making it statewide.

In order to further prevent threats from turning into violence, Abbott recommends expanding campus crime stopper programs. The plan aims to make it easier for students to anonymously report suspicious behavior through an upgraded mobile app called iWatch Texas, which will is scheduled to launch June 7. Concomitant with this, Abbott recommends increasing the number of fusion centers that identify threats that appear on social media in order to allow law enforcement to intervene before an event occurs.

Abbott further suggested allowing educators to remove threatening students from the classroom through a zero-tolerance policy for students who commit assault. Noting that the 85th Texas Legislature passed a law removing teachers who assault students, the governor is now asking legislators for a law removing students who assault teachers.

The governor also outline a number of steps aimed to enhance gun safety.

“I can assure you, I will never allow second amendment rights to be infringed, but I will always promote responsible gun ownership,” said Abbott.

The governor pointed to current law requiring gun owners to safely store firearms from children under the age of 17. Because the Santa Fe shooter was 17 years old, his parents cannot be criminally charged under this statute. Gov. Abbott suggested lawmakers change the law to apply to “children 17 years of age and younger.”

Furthermore, the governor advocates requiring gun owners report lost or stolen firearms to police, and requiring courts report mental health adjudications within 48 hours, instead of the current 30 days, in order to prevent mentally ill people from purchasing firearms. Gov. Abbott is asking lawmakers to consider mental health protective order procedures that would allow family or law enforcement to remove firearms from the home of someone who has proven to be a danger to themselves and others. This would be accomplished in a manner respectful of due process, and for a specified period of time.

Gov. Abbott concluded by listing his top recommendation as greater investment in mental health, especially in crisis intervention counselors. Abbott called the plan outlined Wednesday “a starting point, not an ending place.”

The governor disclosed he will soon be participating in a program to educate the public about safe storage and use of gun locks, as well as pursuing a grant program to provide $1 million for 100,000 free gun locks.

Asked what must change over the summer, Gov. Abbott answered that schools must ramp up personnel and strategies to show a greater law enforcement presence. Additionally, the governor said schools should focus on active shooter training, going back over school safety plans and look into implementing TWITR program.

Questioned about calls from a handful of lawmakers for a special session this summer focused on school shootings, Gov. Abbott told reporters he remains open to calling one if there is a consensus of legislators in favor of passing specific legislation. Abbott also correctly noted the constraints of the legislative process would make any laws passed in a special session unlikely to take effect before the next school year begins.

Why March 6 Matters: School Finance

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 school finance.


Perhaps no issue impacts every Texan more than school finance. For all of the lip service politicians pay to reducing property taxes, the only way Texans will ever see meaningful property tax relief is if the legislature puts more state money into public education.

Journalists such as Texas Monthly‘s R.G. Ratcliffe and the Texas Tribune‘s Ross Ramsey have exhaustively reported how state lawmakers have gradually reduced the share of state dollars spent on schools, shifting the burden instead onto the backs of local taxpayers. School funding has gone from a roughly fifty-fifty split between state and local funding sources a decade ago to a situation in which local taxes make up more than half of the burden, with the state ponying up just 38 percent. That’s an inconvenient reality for some incumbent lawmakers who want to place the blame elsewhere for the rising costs on Texas homeowners, even going so far as to characterize well-documented reports of the decline in state funding as “fake news.”

The current school finance structure that relies so heavily on locally generated property taxes is a great deal for legislators: First, they run campaigns promising to lower property taxes and rein in government spending. Then they get points for reducing state spending, and let local officials face the music when they’re forced to jack up property taxes to make up for the state’s miserliness. The budget signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2017 actually reduced the amount of state dollars spent on public schools by $1.1 billion, and let the balance fall once again into the laps of local taxpayers.

Yet some legislators have shown an interest in restoring the balance. Under the leadership of House Speaker Joe Straus, the Texas House passed legislation during the 85th Texas Legislature that would have put as much as $1.9 billion in new dollars into the public education system. The infusion of new money was intended to begin the long process of fixing the state’s “lawful but awful” system of public school finance. The Texas Senate slashed that amount to $530 million, then ultimately killed the legislation as payback for the House’s refusal to pass a voucher bill.

Those hoping for school finance reform in 2017 had to settle instead on a new state commission created to study school finance. Some fear this commission could devolve into yet another vehicle for those pushing school privatization, and educators are watching closely.

The next chance to fix the school finance system and lighten the load on local taxpayers will come when the legislature meets in 2019, but public education supporters will have their work cut out for them. The next two-year state budget is expected to be even tighter, and lawmakers will have to carefully prioritize spending in order to meet even their most basic funding obligations.

What this means is simple: Texans will only see lower property taxes and better-funded schools if they elect legislators and leaders who will prioritize public school funding as a core principle. Without additional public education supporters in the Texas Capitol, the current leadership can be expected to continue the trend of defunding public schools and dumping the load onto local taxpayers.

Our kids deserve better.


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on school finance 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!

 

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!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 22, 2017

Happy holidays! Here’s your week in review from ATPE Governmental Relations:


Earlier today, President Donald Trump signed into law a major tax overhaul bill approved by Congress this week. The president also signed off on a short-term funding bill to keep the federal governmental operational for a few more weeks until longer-term legislation can be passed. The final $1.5 trillion tax bill omits some provisions that were worrisome for educators employed in public schools, which ATPE urged our congressional delegation to remove from earlier versions of the legislation. For more on the tax law that was approved, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.


Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has announced his appointments to two key state commissions. First, the speaker revealed his picks to serve on the new Texas Commission on Public School Finance, authorized by the legislature earlier this year. The House appointments include Reps. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), and Ken King (R-Canadian). Fittingly, all three of the representatives chosen by the speaker also hold leadership roles on the House Public Education Committee: Huberty as committee chair, Bernal as committee vice-chair, and King as chair of the Subcommittee on Educator Quality. Also appointed to serve on the commission is Nicole Conley Johnson, who is currently employed as Chief Financial Officer for Austin ISD. Additional members of the school finance commission were previously announced by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Yesterday, Straus also announced that Reps. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), Stan Lambert (R-Abilene), and Poncho Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass) would serve on the Sunset Advisory Commission, along with public member and retired accountant Ron Steinhart of Dallas. The commission is charged with overseeing and making recommendations to the legislature on periodic reviews of various state agencies.


Twenty Texas school districts will have an opportunity to take part in a pilot program using locally designed accountability measures. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath named the districts selected earlier this week from a pool of 50 applicants. The pilot program falls under Rep. Dan Huberty’s House Bill 22 passed earlier this year. For more on the local accountability pilot study, view information on the Texas Education Agency’s website here.