Paxton: School voting action appears to violate state law


Highlights

Resolution adopted by 103 school districts may have violated state law on electioneering, Paxton opinion says.

Group that sponsored the resolution likens Paxton’s conclusion to a political stunt.

A resolution encouraging students and public school employees to vote, adopted by school districts across the state, might have violated a state law that prohibits using public education money for partisan purposes, an opinion by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Wednesday.

Texas Educators Vote, a partnership of mostly pro-public education groups, last year circulated a resolution calling for the creation of a “culture of voting” that was adopted by 103 school districts, including those in Austin, Del Valle, Dripping Springs, Elgin, Jarrell, Lockhart and Thrall, according to the organization’s website.

Officials with Texas Educators Vote insist that the effort met state law because it did not promote candidates or a particular agenda.

But conservative politicians and organizations have questioned the effort, calling it a thinly veiled attempt to advocate on behalf of candidates and causes opposed to “school choice” programs that would allow public education money to be spent on private schools.

RELATED: Texas teacher groups forging into politics, but are efforts legal?

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, had sought Paxton’s written opinion on the legality of the voting effort, complaining that the school board resolutions included links to websites that promote preserving public education funding or contain additional links to partisan causes.

In his opinion, Paxton said state law prohibits using public education money “to work for a particular measure or candidate.”

“A court would likely conclude that the use of public funds to link to an Internet website promoting a specific candidate or measure is itself a communication supporting or opposing a candidate or measure in violation of this provision,” Paxton wrote.

Laura Yeager, director of Texas Educators Vote, said the project does not support or oppose candidates or ballot measures. “Our work focuses on strengthening democracy by encouraging educators to vote and model civic engagement for students,” she said.

Yeager said Bettencourt’s request and the speed of Paxton’s opinion — which was delivered only one business day after legal briefs siding with Texas Educators Vote were due at the attorney general’s office — “appear to be a political stunt intended to intimidate the hundreds of thousands of Texas educators from voting.”

The resolution circulated by Texas Educators Vote called upon districts to inform students and employees about the importance of voting and about when and where ballots can be cast.

The resolution also included two internet links — one to the Texas Educators Vote website, which includes a page directing readers to the League of Women Voters, and another link to Teach the Vote by the Association of Texas Professional Educators, the state’s largest teachers group.

Nothing in the resolution or websites discusses candidates or specific issues, said Jennifer Canaday, governmental relations director for the teachers group.

“There is nothing in today’s opinion that warrants a change in our direction. ATPE intends to continue our nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts and our work with the Texas Educators Vote coalition,” Canaday said.

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Officials with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, praised Paxton for a “common-sense ruling,” saying state law clearly stipulates that public education money cannot be used for electioneering.

“This opinion will also help keep the focus of public schools on education, where it should be,” said Stephanie Matthews, the foundation’s vice president for public affairs.

Bettencourt also complained that the resolutions improperly called for providing school district transportation to and from polling places.

Providing such transportation for students, Paxton concluded, would appear to violate the Texas Constitution’s requirement that school money be spent only for educational purposes. In addition, he wrote, districts that take employees to the polls would appear to violate a state law that requires education money to be spent on activities “necessary in the conduct of the public schools.”

Attorney general opinions attempt to determine how a court might rule on a particular legal question and are not binding.



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