Tag Archives: Ken Paxton

12 Days of Voting: Intimidation

Early voting is underway NOW for the November 6 elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote TODAY! In this post, we’re taking a closer look at voter intimidation efforts targeting educators.


You may not be shocked to find out that some public officials who support defunding and privatizing our public schools do not like the idea of hundreds of thousands of educators voting their profession.

What you may find shocking, however, is how some public officials are using the power of their elective office to deliberately intimidate teachers from voting!

It’s no secret that educators are mobilizing like never before, and many school districts are enthusiastically exercising their legal obligation to encourage voting and civic engagement among both staff and eligible students. As a member of the Texas Educators Vote coalition, ATPE has worked alongside other education and civic groups to increase voter turnout among educators and share nonpartisan election resources with school employees. These efforts came under attack earlier this year when state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) engaged Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a naked attempt to chill these efforts.

Soon after, the state’s most notorious privately funded special interest group staged its own voter intimidation campaign directed at teachers. The campaign backfired spectacularly, with the internet uniting behind the social media hashtag #BlowingTheWhistle to highlight the impactful stories of dedicated educators making a difference. ATPE wrote about the Twitter backlash on our Teach the Vote blog.

The whole debacle didn’t escape the notice of retiring House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), who sided squarely with educators encouraging a culture of voting.

“Put me down as supporting a culture of voting, among teachers and all eligible Texans,” Straus said in a newsletter dated February 23.

In his letter, the Speaker explicitly called out voter intimidation efforts aimed at educators. Straus wrote:

“I’ve often said that we need more Texans voting in primaries so that candidates are responsive and accountable to a broader set of Texans and their concerns. Unfortunately, some elected leaders in Austin and their allies have been trying to discourage voting among one important group of Texans: School teachers.

Some members of our community have received a letter from an Austin special interest group criticizing local school leaders for promoting a ‘culture of voting.’ This group apparently feels threatened by the fact that education leaders are encouraging civic participation.

It’s easy to understand why educators and others who support public schools want to vote. Those of us who have prioritized public education have been met with resistance from other elected leaders. As a result, our school finance system still desperately needs reform, and the lack of state dollars going into public education is driving local property taxes higher and higher.”

Speaker Straus is not running for reelection, which means those who vote in the elections underway now will determine what type of leader takes his place and will oversee the actions taken by the Texas House during the 2019 legislative session that begins less than three months from now..

At the same time, Paxton continues his efforts to intimidate educators and discourage them from going to the polls, perhaps fearful that educators will vote for his opponent in the contested AG’s race happening now. Paxton’s office has sent threatening letters full of dubious legal warnings to multiple school districts throughout the year. Yet ATPE has pointed out that educators, including administrators, not only have a right to encourage voting — Texas law encourages doing so!

The law is simple: School district resources can’t be used to support a specific candidate, party, or ballot initiative. That means don’t use your school e-mail to share a candidate’s campaign e-mail. Easy enough, right? Other than that, you are perfectly fine encouraging colleagues, students, and staff to do their own research to find out where candidates stand and to make sure they vote in this week’s elections.


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on this and other public education issues.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting and making informed choices at the polls. While it is illegal to use school district resources (like your work e-mail) to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, there is NO prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 general election runs Monday, October 22, through Friday, November 2. Election Day is November 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 26, 2018

During this first week of early voting, here’s your roundup of education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


Early voting for the 2018 general election began on Monday with Educator Voting Day. Educators were encouraged to the head to the polls and cast their ballots alongside friends, family, and colleagues. Many educators took to social media to share their “I voted” selfies. While there is no tally of how many educators have turned out at the polls thus far, counties across the state are seeing record numbers of voter turnout for early voting in a midterm election.

Educators especially must remember what’s at stake during this election with regard to school funding, teacher pay, retirement benefits, and a myriad of other issues. It is important to go into this election as informed as possible. For more information on candidates, where to find polling places in your county, and what’s needed in order to vote, check out this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

With such a robust start to the early voting period, it’s only fitting that this week end with today’s Student Voting Day. As decreed by Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos last October:

The first Friday of the early voting period [is] Student Voting Day in Texas. This is a day when our entire community is called upon to urge and encourage all eligible students in Texas to make their voices heard by casting their ballots at ANY polling location in the county of their registration.

Early voting will continue through Nov. 2. For many voters, this weekend offers the only opportunity to early vote on the weekend. The general election is on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Whether you vote early or on election day, take time to learn about the candidates and build and print out your sample ballot before heading to the polls.


Much attention has been paid nationally to the competitive race for U.S. Senate between incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz and his challenger Congressman Beto O’Rourke, but Texans know that isn’t the only race at issue in this election. Contests for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and many other down ballot races will be decided in this election, and the outcomes of those contests on Nov. 6 could set the course for education policy in Texas for generations to come. As recent media reports show, educators and public education issues are taking center stage in a number of high-profile races, including statewide contests.

Monty Exter

“The expectation is that teachers just don’t vote,” Exter said. “But I feel like what we’ve been seeing over the last couple of elections is that the enthusiasm and participation of educators is on the rise.” – as reported by the Texas Tribune.

In an article published this week by the Texas Tribune and reposted here on Teach The Vote, ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter explained that for quite some time the education community has been expected to lay down and take whatever the legislature gives them. But that tide may be starting to change. Educators have been becoming increasingly vocal and active in recent elections. A popular target of educators’ dissatisfaction with the status quo has been Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), and the Texas Tribune‘s article highlights the role educators have played in the bid by Democratic challenger Mike Collier to unseat him.

Another statewide race where public education has emerged as an issue, somewhat surprisingly, is the election for Texas Attorney General. There, Justin Nelson (D) is challenging the current AG Ken Paxton (R) and calling out the incumbent for eyebrow-raising stances he has taken on questions of political involvement by educators. Earlier this year when educators started activating behind another challenger vying to unseat Lt. Gov. Patrick in the Republican primary election, Paxton issued a non-binding legal opinion questioning the propriety of certain actions being taken by school officials and pro-public education groups like ATPE to increase voter turnout among educators and even students who are eligible to vote. Paxton has used the AG’s office to continue to intimidate school district leaders out of promoting voting, and Nelson has responded by appealing directly to educators in the late stages of his campaign.

Read more about how educator involvement in this election has become a central focus in the AG’s race and how the education community is responding to the attempts to tamp down educators’ enthusiasm in this post by ATPE’s Exter. For public school employees who still have questions about what is and is not permissible political speech under state law, the Texas Educators Vote (TEV) coalition of which ATPE is a member also created this guide on Election Do’s and Dont’s for educators.


If you want to beat the crowds on Election Day, you’ll want to turn out at the polls during the “12 Days of Voting” happening now. But ATPE can point to numerous other reasons for educators to get out and vote regardless of the crowds or lines.

As has been stated many times before, the results of this election happening now are crucial to every Texan but to educators especially. During this early voting period, we’ve begun highlighting some of the reasons why educators should take this election to heart. It doesn’t take much to see that with state leaders campaigning on boasts about non-existent pay raises for teachers, with continuous increases in the cost of healthcare, and with local taxpayers bearing more and more of the burden for school funding, it doesn’t take much to see that it’s time for a change. Check out the latest installments of our 12 Days of Voting series at the links below, and keep watching for new posts in our blog series throughout the early voting period:


A brand new poll released by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune today shows that high numbers of Texas voters are enthusiastic about the general election happening now. As reported by the Texas Tribune today, 76 percent of the voters polled said they were “absolutely certain” they would be voting in the midterms. Both Republican and Democratic voters displayed such enthusiasm according to the new polls results. In most recent midterm elections, the actual percentage of registered voters who turned out at the polls in Texas has been only about 38 percent.

The poll also showed statewide officeholders holding considerable leads over their challengers among likely voters. Here are more excerpts from the Texas Tribune‘s reporting:

 

 

 

Election do’s and don’ts and perspectives of the Texas AG candidates

If you’re reading this blog post, you no doubt know that today is the first day of early voting for the midterm elections; and that in just over two weeks the tone will be set for how the next legislature will address public education issues in the upcoming session.

With such an important election upon us, many Texas educators have asked, as public servants/employees, what can you do and what can’t you do with regard to election-related communication and other activities. To answer that question we created this handy document in coordination with our coalition partners at Texas Educators Vote.

Some of you may also be aware that in the lead-up to this election, Attorney General Ken Paxton put out a somewhat unusual document on how he would like to see Texas educators engage (or NOT engage) during this election. While the language in the document may not be clear, the AG’s intent certainly seems to be minimizing the pro-public education voter turnout. Please note that AG opinions, which this document does not even purport to be, are non-binding and do not have the force of law.

Justin Nelson, Paxton’s opponent in the Attorney General’s race, has issued the following statement in response to the document put out by Paxton.

We urge all educators to exercise their right to vote in this and every election.

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: 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.

Texas teachers are #blowingthewhistle in the best possible way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 26, 2018

It was a busy week in the world of public education, with your ATPE Governmental Relations team keeping tabs on various business at the state level. Here’s a rundown of this week’s developments:


ELECTION UPDATE: Are you registered to vote? There are just ten days left to register to vote in the upcoming primaries! Texans who are eligible to vote but have not yet registered to do so must sign up on or before February 5 in order to cast their ballot on March 6. Check the status of your registration here.

Also be sure to check out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. All candidates running for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Texas Legislature, and the State Board of Education have been invited to participate in ATPE’s candidate survey and have their views on education issues shared with voters through our website. New survey responses are being added to the site frequently as more candidates take advantage of this opportunity. If the candidates you are interested in learning about have not yet responded, please ask them to participate in our survey. Candidates or their campaign consultants may contact government@atpe.org for additional information about the survey.

Early voting for the March primaries begins Feb. 20. Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos has issued a new proclamation naming the first Friday of early voting period (Feb. 23, 2018) to be “Student Voting Day.”  Secretary Pablos is calling on communities “to urge and encourage all eligible students in Texas to make their voices heard by casting their ballots at ANY polling location in
their county of registration.” The Secretary of State’s office has been an important partner in efforts to promote voter awareness within our public schools, and we appreciate his support.

Since we last reported on Attorney General Ken Paxton’s opinion about Get Out The Vote (GOTV) activities spearheaded by ATPE and other members of the Texas Educators Vote coalition, more Texans are speaking out in support of our coalition and expressing displeasure with the not-so-subtle efforts of some elected officials to try to rein in politically active educators. The Houston Chronicle‘s Lisa Falkenberg wrote an opinion piece on Saturday, Jan. 20, in support of ATPE’s and the coalitions efforts to increase voter turnout and awareness. Falkenberg wrote that voter apathy “doesn’t stop if we do nothing. Some folks in this state are trying to do something. We should let them.” Falkenberg concluded, “No opinion from the Texas AG, or from Bettencourt, has dissuaded me from believing their efforts are vital for the young voters, to the public in general, and to the future of this state we love.” Retired Superintendent Joe Smith also expressed support for Texas Educators Vote on his TexasISD.com website, and educator Danny Noyola, Sr., an ATPE member, similarly wrote an opinion piece for the Corpus Christie Caller-Times defending the coalition’s work. Noyola called AG Paxton’s opinion “an intimidating assault on teachers, administrators, and educational groups to stifle citizenship and voting learning opportunities for all students in a non-partisan, pro-education, creative hands-on way.”

ATPE is pleased that school districts are continuing to support our nonpartisan coalition efforts with additional school boards adopting the coalition’s model resolution on creating a culture of voting, even after the issuance of General Paxton’s opinion. We appreciate the support of school leaders to continue to encourage public school employees and eligible students to be informed and vote in the upcoming primaries.

 


Texas Commission on Public School Finance meeting, January 23, 2018.

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance held its first meeting Tuesday in Austin following its creation as part of House Bill (HB) 21, which was passed during the 85th Texas Legislature’s first special session. The first meeting quickly established the divide between members of the commission focused on improving public school performance and those solely focused on finding ways to cut taxes. House Public Education Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston) correctly noted that school finance reform and property tax relief go hand-in-hand, and the Texas Senate abandoned a proposal that could have made progress on both fronts in order to pursue voucher legislation.

The meeting was restricted to invited testimony, which included a supporter of school privatization and the heads of a number of state departments, including Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath. Read more about the meeting in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) held a formal hearing today, Jan. 26, to take public testimony on rules pertaining to school district and charter school partnerships. The regulation being considered is Proposed New Commissioners rule 19 TAC Chapter 97, Planning and Accountability, Subchapter EE, Accreditation Status, Standards, and Sanctions, Division 2, Contracting to Partner to Operate a District Campus, §97.1075, Contracting to Partner to Operate a Campus under Texas Education Code, §11.174, and §97.1079, Determining Processes and Criteria for Entity Approval under Texas Education Code, §11.174.

The bulk of the testimony was provided by educators, administrators, and parents. While there were charter advocates in attendance, none offered testimony. All testifiers opposed the rules as currently proposed. Common themes among those who testified included: agency overreach in defining “enhanced authority” that a district must give to a charter in order to enter into a partnership, despite no statutory authority or even implication in the law to do so; a lack of acknowledgment of teacher protections and pre-agreement consultation, which is required under the law; and a general lack of specificity about the approval process, including what factors TEA will consider and the timeline TEA will work under in approving the partnerships.

ATPE has turned in written comments to the proposed rules which you can read here. The text for the new rule can be found on TEA’s website.

 


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) opened its online survey this week to solicit feedback regarding the agency’s initial draft plan to correct inadequacies in special education services. This comes in response to a directive from the U.S. Department of Education that Texas correct systemic denial of special education services due to a de facto “cap” uncovered by a Houston Chronicle investigation. The initial draft plan includes four main actions, with explanations for each.

The agency has been ordered to seek input from stakeholders, including parents and educators, which will be collected through an online survey available on the TEA website since Jan. 23. The agency will accept public comment on this draft plan through Feb. 18, 2018, after which a new Proposed Plan will be released on or around March 1. Public comments on this new plan will be accepted through March 31. The agency expects to submit a Final State Corrective Action Plan to the U.S. Department of Education on or around April 18, 2018. You can read more about the plan and find a link to the survey here.

 


Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 19, 2018

The snow and ice have melted, and here’s the latest education news from ATPE’s Governmental Relations team:


After federal officials criticized Texas for failing to meet the needs of students with disabilities, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has released a draft of its plan to take corrective action to improve special education. Gov. Greg Abbott gave the state agency one week to develop the plan after findings of the federal investigation were announced last week. The proposed corrective actions by TEA include hiring additional staff to monitor the identification and evaluation of students who may need special education services and creating professional development opportunities and resources for educators.

Read more about TEA’s plans in this new blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


On Wednesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an advisory opinion about certain get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts in public schools. The opinion was requested by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who has complained about activities promoted by the Texas Educators Vote coalition, of which ATPE is a member, to increase voter turnout among school district employees and eligible students. The senator suggested in his opinion request and related press statements that school district resources, including school buses, were being used to promote  partisan activities in support or opposition of specific candidates. The attorney general wrote in his opinion that using school buses to transport school employees to the polls might run afoul of the Texas constitution, and he also noted that school districts should not use public funds to promote websites that support particular candidates.

ATPE has pointed out in media statements following the release of the opinion that all of the coalition’s GOTV initiatives and website resources, including ATPE’s own TeachtheVote.org website, have been nonpartisan. Read more about the opinion in this week’s blog post.

 


State grants are being made available to school districts to encourage high school students to enter the teaching field and to prepare future principals for certification. TEA has announced its launch of the “Grow Your Own” and “Principal Preparation” grant programs for the 2018-19 school year. The first of the two programs is a grant that can be used to interest high school students in the teaching profession and to support student teachers, paraprofessionals and classroom aides in their pursuit of certification. The latter grant program is for educators pursuing certification as a principal.

The application deadline for both grants is March 13, and potential applicants may learn more about the grant programs through webinars to be offered by TEA on Feb. 1. For additional information, check out the information on the TEA website here.

 


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) announced today a grace period it is offering for retirees or dependents who recently left the TRS-Care program but would like to return. From now through Feb. 28, TRS will allow former participants to re-enroll in TRS-Care if they terminated coverage or dropped a dependent due to the 2018 plan changes.

For additional information on the announcement from TRS, check out today’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter.


 

Texas Attorney General questions voter engagement activities in schools

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a non-binding opinion on Wednesday, Jan. 17, at the request of Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) regarding certain school district and third-party activities to encourage and facilitate voting by school employees and students. Sen. Bettencourt filed the request in response to school district activities being encouraged by the Texas Educators Vote (TEV) coalition, of which ATPE is a member.

ATPE was one of several education groups that weighed in on Sen. Bettencourt’s request through formal correspondence to the Attorney General’s Opinion Committee. General Paxton invited stakeholders involved in the coalition effort to submit their input on the request by Jan. 12, 2018; Paxton’s opinion in response to the senator’s request was issued by the morning of the next business day (following a state holiday and closure of most state offices for one additional day on account of this week’s ice storm).

Jennifer Canaday

“ATPE is disappointed that the Office of the Texas Attorney General spent so little time considering the merits of the request and the ancillary materials that it requested,” said Jennifer Canaday, ATPE Governmental Relations Director. The attorney general’s opinion actually makes no reference to the additional information supplied by ATPE and other coalition partners in response to Sen. Bettencourt’s request. “Nevertheless, there is nothing in today’s opinion that warrants a change in our direction. ATPE intends to continue our non-partisan get-out-the-vote efforts and our work with the Texas Educators Vote (TEV) coalition to encourage voter participation within the education community.”

Much of the attorney general’s opinion focuses on questions about the use of school buses to transport students and school district staff to the polls during voting periods. In a press release yesterday, ATPE said that it disagrees with Paxton’s opinion that a court would likely find school-sponsored transportation of employees to polling places unconstitutional. However, both ATPE and the TEV coalition have always deferred to school district leaders to make decisions about any such transportation services.

“We trust that school boards will continue to make prudent decisions on this matter in light of all the legal advice available to them,” Canaday said.

ATPE stands by the information provided to the AG’s office in our correspondence dated Jan. 12, 2018. In that letter, ATPE pointed out a number of facts that had been overlooked or distorted in the senator’s request for an opinion. For instance, the “culture of voting” model resolution that has been promoted by ATPE and other members of the TEV coalition makes no reference whatsoever to political candidates, parties, or ballot measures. As such, ATPE continues to believe that adoption of such a resolution by school boards does not give rise to any potential violations of political advertising restrictions. We also highlighted the fact that ATPE and other member partners of the TEV coalition have worked to ensure that the coalition’s educational materials include guidance about what educators can and cannot do related to elections, including prohibitions on using school district resources for political advertising, which General Paxton similarly cited in his opinion.

Neither the TEV coalition website nor any other website linked to it as an external resource (such as ATPE’s TeachtheVote.org website and the Secretary of State’s Project V.O.T.E.) is used to promote specific candidates or ballot measures. Thus, ATPE maintains that the coalition’s and ATPE’s web-based GOTV resources, much like the Texas Secretary of State’s online voting resources, do not engender any violations of political advertising laws even in the event that a school district or its employees were to spend public funds to promote such Internet resources.

It’s also noteworthy that General Paxton’s opinion makes no mention of Sen. Bettencourt’s complaints about promotion of the TEV Coalition’s “Educator’s Oath to Vote” and about school district initiatives to encourage educators to vote and wear their “I voted” stickers to school. Sen. Bettencourt complained in his request for a legal opinion that such activities amounted to coercion by school administrators. The attorney general’s silence on these topics reinforces ATPE’s position that these types of nonpartisan GOTV activities are well within the legal rights of educators and school district officials and do not run afoul of any existing laws.

ATPE and our coalition partners are committed to emphasizing the importance of voting to the strength and future of our democracy, and we wholeheartedly support the he rights of educators and eligible students to participate in elections. We will continue to provide resources and suggestions to school districts and respect their administrations’ decisions about how to facilitate voter engagement on their campuses for educators and students.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 12, 2018

Happy Friday! Here’s a look at this week’s education news higlights:


The Texas education community was rocked this week by federal officials announcing that Texas violated laws by failing to provide adequate evaluation of and services to students with disabilities. The findings concluded a lengthy investigation in which federal officials visited Texas schools, interviewed parents and educators, and reviewed documentation about how students with special needs were identified and treated.

One of the issues at the center of the investigation was evidence that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) had either explicitly or tacitly compelled districts to keep the percentage of their students receiving special education services below a cap of 8.5 percent. ATPE supported legislation, Senate Bill 160 by Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), that was passed last year to end the practice.

Gov. Greg Abbott responded to this week’s announcement by directing Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to craft a plan within seven days to reform the system and make recommendations for any needed legislative changes. Abbott also angered many educators by stating in a press release that school districts had been at fault. The governor accused school district administrators of a “dereliction of duty,” prompting rebuttals from the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education and other groups who noted that school district officials had merely been following the instructions and requirements given to them by TEA.

Read more about federal investigation findings in this republished post from The Texas Tribune.

 


ATPE has issued a response to one state senator’s complaints about efforts to improve voter turnout in school communities. As we reported before the holidays, Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has asked Attorney General Ken Paxton for guidance on whether it is legal for groups like ATPE and the Texas Educators Vote coalition to work with school districts on programs to encourage and make it easier for educators and eligible students to vote. Bettencourt has complained about school boards adopting a coalition-drafted resolution supporting a culture of voting in Texas public schools; school administrators encouraging teachers to vote; and school districts providing transportation to the polls.

Today, ATPE joined other education-related groups who have written to the attorney general in response to Sen. Bettencourt’s misleading claims about our nonpartisan Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts. Read the letter from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday to Attorney General Paxton here.

 


In response to changes sought by the federal government, Texas Education Agency (TEA) officials earlier this week submitted a revised plan for state compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Learn more about the adjustments proposed by state officials, many of which relate to the state’s accountability system and implementation of state law changes made last legislative session, in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.

 


The 2018 Texas primary elections are now less than six weeks away, with early voting scheduled to begin on Feb. 20. Have you checked out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote? Our profiles of candidates running for the Texas Legislature, State Board of Education, Governor, and Lieutenant Governor include links to campaign websites, notes on significant endorsements made by other groups, legislative incumbents’ voting records, and responses to our candidate survey. If your area candidates have not yet responded to our survey, ask them to participate! For additional information, contact the ATPE Governmental Relations team at government@atpe.org.

 


A commission created by lawmakers of the 85th Texas Legislature to study the issue of school finance is scheduled to hold its first meeting January 23 in Austin. Tacked onto House Bill (HB) 21 during the August special session, the 13-member commission is tasked with making recommendations for the improvement of the public school finance system, including:

  1. The purpose of the public school finance system and the relationship between state and local funding in that system
  2. The appropriate levels of local maintenance and operations and interest and sinking fund tax effort necessary to implement a public school finance system that complies with the requirements under the Texas Constitution
  3. Policy changes to the public school finance system necessary to adjust for student demographics and the geographic diversity in the state

The commission is composed of members appointed by the governor, speaker of the Texas House, lieutenant governor, and chair of the State Board of Education (SBOE). Board Chair Donna Bahorich (R-Houston) appointed SBOE Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) to serve on the commission. Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) appointed former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister to chair the commission. The governor also appointed Todd Williams, who serves as education policy advisor to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, former state Rep. Elvira Reyna, and Galena Park ISD teacher and ATPE member Melissa Martin.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Texas) named Senate Education Chair Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), and Pflugerville ISD superintendent Doug Killian. House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) appointed House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston), Vice-Chair Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), Educator Quality Subcommittee Chair Ken King (R-Canadian), and Austin ISD CFO Nicole Conley Johnson.

The commission must report its recommendations by December 31, 2018.