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In 1998, about a decade before Tim Dunn would become known as the benefactor behind one of the state’s most aggressive conservative advocacy groups, the West Texas oil and gas developer founded a school.
Starting out in a local church with about 30 students, the Midland Classical Academy offered an education steeped in study of the Bible and the Western canon. The approach appealed to evangelical Christians who might otherwise have chosen to homeschool, which Dunn, a first-generation college graduate, and his wife had done with five of their six children.
“Life is a team sport, and we need some like-minded people around,” Dunn said in a 2011 informational web video for the school. “We don’t want to be out of the world; we want to be in the world. But where are you going to learn not to be of the world? That’s where this whole idea was born.”
The school’s founding marked Dunn’s growing personal interest in state education policy, which would soon dovetail with the small-government philosophy promoted by the conservative organizations and candidates supported by his increasingly large political donations. Dunn declined to comment for this article.
The private Midland Classical Academy is a nonprofit funded through tuition and a variety of fees, and held about $8 million in assets as of its 2012 tax filing. In comments in the 2011 web video, Dunn described the school’s philosophy toward study as a “discovery process” that encouraged questioning.
“We have our kids read Darwin’s Origin of the Species, but we really believe that God created the Earth,” he said. “We have kids read Nietzsche, who said God is dead, but we believe God is the truth.”
The school, which had more than 400 students in 2012, is unaccredited by the state, which monitors the operation and curriculum quality of private schools through an independent commission. That is by choice, Dunn writes on his personal website, because he has found that the requirements for accreditation “deal mainly with processes and credentials rather than focusing on an excellent academic and student life opportunity.”
The school also operates with little “administrative dictation” or overhead, Dunn said, with teachers free to give students as much control over their own learning as possible — what he described as a “dynamic tension between freedom and responsibility.”
"If you try to have freedom without responsibility, you have disaster,” he said. “If you try to have responsibility without freedom, you have slavery.”
An emphasis on individual freedom — in this instance, from governmental regulation and the expenses that go along with it — also drives Empower Texans, the group Dunn created in 2006. At the Legislature, that has translated into political opposition to tax increases and to additional spending on public schools.
"The Constitution requires the Legislature to establish 'an efficient system of public free schools,' but the Legislature has allowed the courts to define what that means and allowed them to establish a system no one likes or can even understand,” Michael Quinn Sullivan, the group’s president, wrote in an email.
The organization’s political action committee and an affiliated nonprofit, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, have in recent years expanded their activism beyond the state Legislature. The groups have supported Tea Party candidates in local school board races and opposed bond elections with varying degrees of success.
Empower Texans has also been behind a push to allow students to use public money to attend private schools through vouchers or so-called taxpayer savings grants.
Dunn himself has kept quiet on the topic publicly. But state Sen. Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican who has held the West Texas district that includes Midland and Odessa since 2004, said a law that would allow students to use public money to attend private schools is foremost on Dunn’s agenda.
“He made clear to me that the most important thing to him was public school vouchers," Seliger said of his first meeting with Dunn 10 years ago.
Soon after that initial meeting, Dunn donated to Seliger's first successful campaign for state Senate. But he has since become one of Seliger’s most outspoken critics, largely over the senator’s voting record, which Dunn says is too liberal.
A school voucher policy, which proponents have tried to enact in various forms since the mid-1990s, has struggled to take hold in Texas because of opposition on both the left and the right. Last legislative session, despite support for a taxpayer savings grant program in the Senate, the House overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the budget banning the use of public dollars for private schools.
Since then, Empower Texans and a related web-based outlet, AgendaWise, have cast that loss as a vote to “give more money to entrenched bureaucracies.” They have also used it as a talking point to rally conservative activists against the leadership of House Speaker Joe Straus, the San Antonio Republican who has been among the top targets of the organization since he unseated Dunn’s Midland neighbor, Tom Craddick, in 2009.
The bureaucrat charge is commonly lodged against those who find themselves on the other side of Empower Texans on education issues, including the Texas Parent PAC, a political action committee largely funded by San Antonio grocery mogul Charles Butt and whose priorities include supporting candidates who oppose the privatization of public schools.
In a typical attack, a 2012 post on AgendaWise described the PAC as funding Austin’s “Big K-12 crowd,” whose members wanted “more money for a broken system system that they will fight to keep unchanged.”
Prior to this year's March primary, another post said the PAC was a liberal group seeking to “maintain a status quo in which Texans fatten education interest groups in a system that continues to underperform at educating children.”
“They have tended to just make up what they chose to say, whether it is true or not,” said Texas Parent PAC chairwoman Carolyn Boyle. “We are not liberal, and we are not an advocacy group. We are bipartisan, and we do not believe that education should be a partisan issue.”
Aman Batheja contributed reporting to this story.