- By Julie Chang American-Statesman Staff
Incensed by lawmakers’ recent attempts to divert state money from public education and curtail the power of employee unions, public school teachers could prove to be a formidable force in upcoming Texas elections.
“It’s just the hostility shown by a large number of elected officials toward public education,” said Troy Reynolds, a Splendora school administrator and the founder of Texans for Public Education, an 18,000-member group that mostly operates on Facebook. “What we do want are representatives that we trust, and we don’t have that right now.”
A handful of groups appear to be leading the movement using the hashtag #blockvote to mobilize online efforts. Their aim is to get the state’s 1.2 million active and retired educators to vote for candidates they view as supportive of public education, mostly Democrats and moderate Republicans. Their top target: Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who was a leading proponent of measures that would have subsidized private school tuition and restricted teacher unions.
The efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by conservative groups and lawmakers, who have questioned the legality of tactics used by one of the groups, Texas Educators Vote, and participating school districts including Austin, Eanes, Del Valle and Pflugerville. Government employees are prohibited by law from using public resources to endorse candidates or measures but can do so on their own time and with their own money.
“I absolutely want every citizen in Texas to exercise their precious right to vote, but schools have to follow campaign laws like everyone else and we must be sure they aren’t using public resources for partisan campaigns,” Patrick said in a statement.
School district officials and teacher group leaders said they’re merely asking teachers to be models for their students by participating in the civic duty of voting. They say their opponents feel threatened because teachers and their supporters, which include many of their students’ parents, have the potential to swing elections.
The first tests of the new effort will come in the March primaries and then November general election.
“You really have to look at the year, the election, the district and the particulars of the district, but (teachers) have certainly been active for a long time,” said Sherri Greenberg, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas. “Teachers have been a powerful force in their own right in politics nationwide and in Texas.”
Proof that teacher groups’ efforts are making waves is a countereffort by opponents to muzzle them through intimidation tactics, teacher voting group organizers say.
One such ploy is requesting hundreds of pages of documents under the Texas Public Information Act from school districts about their voting efforts and correspondence with certain candidates, according to Scott Milder, who is running against Patrick in the Republican primary. Milder is the founder of Friends of Texas Public Schools and an executive with Stantec Architecture, whose clients include schools.
“Dan Patrick and his campaign are scared. The polling that they are seeing is showing that educators are stepping up and that they are going to vote … so they’re doing all they can to scramble to suppress the educator vote,” said Milder, a former Rockwall City Council member.
Milder said some school districts have received public information requests for hundreds of pages of documents about him. Milder provided a copy of the requests to the American-Statesman.
Zach Vaughn, who sent the requests, said when contacted by phone that he had asked for the information from at least two school districts, Marble Falls and San Diego. Asked whether Vaughn was acting as an individual or as a part of an organization, he or someone else listening to the conversation said, “No comment.”
According UT’s New Politics Forum at the Moody College of Communication , Vaughn has worked or is working for John Doner and Associates, which finance reports show Patrick’s campaign has paid for consulting work.
Patrick’s campaign did not return a request for comment.
The Austin school district has received two information requests related to voting and interactions with certain teacher voting groups — one from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, and another from the Texas Monitor, which identifies itself as an independent news website.
The influential conservative group Empower Texans has accused some school districts of acting illegally through their work with Texas Educators Vote, a partnership of mostly pro-public education groups, including the Texas Association of School Boards, which writes policies for school districts. Many of the 260 school boards participating in Texas Educators Vote’s efforts have adopted resolutions to “create a culture of voting” and “providing district transportation to and from polling places.”
Multiple messages left with Empower Texans went unanswered. The group says on its website that the voting group’s actions “appear to be thinly veiled attempts to electioneer for Democrats.”
Kevin Roberts, executive vice president of the conservative, Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, said partisan information on Texas Educators Vote’s website has been read into the minutes of school board meetings.
“Texas law could not be clearer. Teachers groups cannot spend as much as a postage stamp on election advocacy. What I’m seeing is not just advocacy, but partisan advocacy,” he said.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, in December asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in. Bettencourt fears that school districts, through their work with Texas Educators Vote, were requiring teachers to take an oath that in part said they promised to “vote in support of public education.” That has since been taken out of the oath.
“The underlying public policy issue here is whether taxpayer monies should be spent on issue or candidate specific electioneering that pushes one particular outcome over another,” Bettencourt said in a news release. “In my experience, as a Texas senator and a former election official, the Texas Constitution is clear on this point and I am asking for Attorney General Paxton’s opinion on the matter.”
Laura Yeager, head of Texas Educators Vote, as well as officials from the Austin, Dripping Springs, Pflugerville and Eanes school districts, said they do not promote candidates or a particular agenda. They maintain they’re acting legally.
Ylise Janssen, an attorney for the Austin school district, said the district does not plan to give rides to polling places.
“Staff and students are, however, always encouraged to embrace their civic duties in accordance with state law and board policies,” Janssen said, adding that teachers through state education standards are required to teach students civic engagement.
Del Valle school officials did not return a request for comment.
Ramping up efforts
According to teacher voting groups, last year’s regular legislative session was a wake-up call for public education advocates.
Conservative lawmakers prioritized bills that would have used state dollars to subsidize private school tuition for children who leave public school, a proposal that opponents characterized as school vouchers. They also pushed measures that would have prevented union dues from being automatically deducted from paychecks of teachers and other government employees. All this while an even more divisive legislative proposal was playing out: an effort to ban transgender-friendly bathrooms and locker rooms in public schools and other public buildings.
None of those measures passed, but neither did legislation favored by public education advocates that would have given teachers a pay raise, overhauled the state’s beleaguered school finance system and permanently fixed the rising health insurance costs for retired teachers.
The displeasure felt by teachers culminated in a raucous rally on the steps of the Capitol in July, with many of the thousand or so in attendance promising to vote out legislators they considered unfriendly to public education.
“As a union leader in public education, it’s just kind of a one-two punch — one being against public education, two being against labor — and we’re constantly battling this, and so within our ranks, I think we have a lot of reason to get out to vote,” said Ken Zarifis, head of the Austin teachers union Education Austin.
Zarifis points to the high turnout for the Austin school bond referendum in November as an indication of more public education supporters voting. The $1.1 billion bond measure was approved with 72 percent of the vote.
Since most Texas races are determined in the primaries, teacher voting groups are ramping up their efforts now. Teachers have a slightly better voter turnout than the general Texas population. Turnout for primaries in a nonpresidential election year is in the single digits, and in the 2014 general election, statewide turnout was 34 percent.
Since the legislative session, more teachers have been visiting the website for Teach the Vote, an offshoot of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, which disseminates surveys to candidates and posts their answers, said Monty Exter, a lobbyist with the association.
Reynolds, the founder of Texans for Public Education, said he’s adding 10 to 15 people every day to his Facebook group, which is composed primarily of educators. Reynolds and other members of the group are rating whether candidates are considered friendly or unfriendly to public education.
Conservative Republicans don’t want voters to see them as working against the best interests of public school teachers and students, said Daron Shaw, a government professor and co-director of UT’s Texas Politics Project.
Being “hostile to public education is a bad thing to not just teachers but all the parents who have an investment in the public school system,” Shaw said.