- By Julie Chang American-Statesman Staff
An ambitious effort by a conservative group to ferret out public school employees who might be illegally endorsing political candidates appeared to backfire this week.
Empower Texans sent letters to an unknown number of public school teachers and their supporters across the state asking them to report colleagues using public money to promote liberal candidates.
By Thursday, public school employees and their supporters — including school board members, lawmakers and family members of teachers and students — had posted hundreds of tweets condemning Empower Texans and using the hashtag #blowingthewhistle to highlight the good things teachers and public schools do.
One tweet referenced a teacher who continued to wake up at 4 a.m. and stayed late at school despite battling Stage 4 cancer. In another tweet, a student said her coach spends the night at school so he can make it to practice early the next morning.
“We’re doing great things in public education and we want you to see that,” Bastrop middle school teacher Cristie Plummer told the American-Statesman. “It’s not just education in the classroom. It’s caring for our students.”
Using the #blowingthewhistle hashtag and tagging Empower Texans, Plummer several hours earlier had tweeted about a colleague buying athletic shoes for a homeless student who came to school on a winter day in sandals.
Officials with Empower Texans did not respond to a request for comment.
In the letters addressed to school district employees, Empower Texans attorney Tony McDonald asks for whistleblowers to “expose illegal misuse of district resources in upcoming elections.” McDonald writes that some school districts “are vowing to illegally misuse school district resources to electioneer for liberal candidates in upcoming elections.”
On Feb. 1, McDonald posted a tweet of a pallet of letters. School employees across the state have reported receiving the group’s letter at their home addresses, which Texas State Teachers Association officials say are publicly available through the State Board for Educator Certification.
As early as November, Empower Texans have questioned the “get-out-the-vote” tactics of school districts. The concerns led state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, in December to request Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on the legality of the practices of one group, Texas Educators Vote, and participating school districts including Austin, Eanes, Del Valle and Pflugerville.
Bettencourt specifically asked whether school districts can use public money to electioneer and to bus students and teachers to polling places for the March primaries.
Paxton said both practices are illegal.
“The other point in the opinion is simply the common sense of Texans which (Bettencourt) believes would determine that ISDs linking to websites that promote candidates and specific measures to be unlawful,” Bettencourt’s spokesman Robert Flanagan said Tuesday.
Texas Educators Vote and the Central Texas school districts have denied doing anything illegal. Other teacher groups, such as the Texas State Teachers Association and Texans for Public Education, a grass-roots group of mostly current and former educators, have called the whistleblower letters an attempt to intimidate teachers from voting.
Over the last few months, several school districts, including the Austin district, have received multiple information requests for thousands of pages of documents about voting and interactions with candidates from conservative groups or groups with ties to conservatives.
Organizing via social media with another hashtag #blockvote, the groups have encouraged their members to vote for candidates they view as supportive of public education, mostly Democrats and moderate Republicans. They want to see defeated Bettencourt and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has been a leading proponent of measures that would subsidize private school tuition and restrict teacher unions.
“Educators are really tired of overcrowded classrooms,” said Clay Robison with the Texas State Teachers Association. “They’re tired of school boards having to cut back on programs because of inadequate state funding. They’re tired of the hypocrisy coming from Gov. (Greg) Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick crying over high property taxes when they’re largely responsible for them because they inadequately fund public education.”