Civic engagement or illegal electioneering? How a school voting project became a conservative target

Powerful conservatives have taken several shots over the past few months at an educational advocacy group aiming to promote voting. 

Austin ISD school buses at the terminal near John H. Reagan High School on July 26, 2017.

Austin Price / The Texas Tribune

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Laura Yeager founded Texas Educators Vote in fall 2015 to spur local educators to practice what they preached. Why, she wondered, were Texas teachers talking about the importance of political participation in class but not always modeling that behavior themselves? 

More than two years later, her civic engagement effort has stirred up a right-wing maelstrom, leading conservative organizations and some powerful elected officials to question whether it's breaking the law. 

Headed up by the influential group Empower Texans, adversaries say the educators’ organization, and others like it, might be using illegal tactics to boost liberal policies. Yeager counters that her group is merely trying to promote voting — and is only drawing backlash because staunch conservatives are worried public education-focused voters will unseat their candidates. 

Some public education advocates allege that Empower Texans has had its eye on teachers' groups since last year, when the Texas Legislature's failure to reach a deal on a sweeping school finance overhaul left many educators across the state fuming. Education groups pledged to take that anger to the polls.

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Since its early days, Texas Educators Vote, along with several partner groups, has been promoting a version of its “culture of voting” resolution. That document suggests school boards encourage students and employees to vote by implementing “no cost” incentives, including driving students and staff to polling places if district policy allows. More than 100 school boards in the state have signed on to some version of the proposal, which — like Texas Educators Vote — doesn't back any particular party or candidates. The group on its website does ask supporters to vote “in support of the more than 5.4 million Texas school children.” 

Conservative groups in general and Empower Texans in particular are deeply suspicious of the resolution, which they allege promotes electioneering on the taxpayers’ dime. 

“Voting in mass, they would influence statewide office and state legislative races. Locally, the combined voter block would have the mass to virtually guarantee approval of tax ratification elections and bond propositions. All it takes is registration, indoctrination and mobilization,” Tom Fabry, treasurer of the Frisco Tea Party, wrote for Empower Texans in November. “And it’s all being done under the guise of ‘civic responsibility.’”

Fabry said in an interview this week that he is a deputy voter registrar and encourages voting — but that when government entities try to influence government employees’ actions, and implement measures to encourage compliance, “that is by definition tyranny — and illegal.”

This isn't the first time Empower Texans has clashed with public school advocates. The conservative group funded in part by Midland oilman Tim Dunn has also backed "private school choice," which would allow state money to subsidize private school tuition, and called for measures to limit increases to property tax revenue that local schools and other government entities collect. This year, it has been pouring money into Republican primaries to contest candidates who have opposed its priorities. 

Some of the anxiety over Texas Educators Vote seems to also stem from concerns that a large block of public school-affiliated Democrats will cross over and vote for weak candidates in the Republican party primary this March — a tactic that has been discussed in some educational advocacy groups, including Texans for Public Education, and fretted over in several Empower Texans news items. Texas’ open primary system allows voters to choose which party’s primary to vote in. The crossover scheme is not mentioned in Texas Educators Vote’s resolution.

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In December, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, asked Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on the legality of the resolution’s provisions. Paxton responded with an official, nonbinding opinion last month that school districts cannot bus students to polling places unless the trips serve an educational purpose. The educators group has insisted that none of its efforts violate the law.

In the latest chapter of the ongoing battle, Empower Texans sent a letter to public school employees across the state asking them to quietly report the “illegal misuse of school district resources" in advance of elections. The group warned recipients against school districts that are “vowing to illegally misuse school district recourses [sic] to electioneer for liberal candidates.”

“Alert!” the letter begins. “Some districts have pledged they will ignore [Paxton’s] ruling and continue to misuse school district resources to accomplish political objectives.”

In response, Texas teachers and their allies have taken to Twitter, facetiously “#blowingthewhistle” on educators who engage in such activities as spending their own money on school supplies, coordinating weekend activities for students and staying hours past the afternoon school bell. 

Yeager called Empower Texans’ letter — and similar efforts that have preceded it — a willful misinterpretation of her group’s aim, which she said is simply to promote civic engagement. And efforts to counter that mission have amounted to voter suppression, education advocates said.

“My guess is that the people who have been calling the shots are worried that everyday Texans are waking up and realizing that they should vote,” Yeager said. “And it is going to dilute their power, and maybe end up with a different landscape of decision-makers.”

Empower Texans declined to comment on its recent efforts.

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Yeager said her organization’s basic goals have not changed since its inception in 2015. But she did not notice opposition from Empower Texans until November 2017.

That’s when Frisco's local Tea Party group began opposing the resolution and asking the school board to do the same. Later that fall, Yeager said, she became aware that the group was submitting records requests to school districts across the state in what she called an effort at intimidation.

Empower Texans President Michael Quinn Sullivan, who has tweeted several times about these requests and mentioned them in messages to supporters, has said his organization has received numerous reports from teachers about unethical or illegal activities from school administrators. 

“Now we start verifying,” he tweeted this week. “Lots of [open records requests] going out.”

At least some of those inquiries appear to be sparked by concerns about Scott Milder, a longshot Republican challenger to conservative favorite Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Milder — who founded a public education advocacy group with his wife, Leslie, in 2004 but stepped down from the organization’s helm Nov. 22 to focus on his campaign — is an explicit target of Empower Texans. In explaining the reason for its public records requests, the group has cited complaints from teachers that Milder’s campaign newsletter was disseminated across a school district.

Milder’s group, Friends of Texas Public Schools, is one of Texas Educators Vote’s partners.

Troy Reynolds, the founder of Texans for Public Education and an administrator in Splendora ISD, said his district received several records requests from Empower Texans, including one specifically regarding Milder and one asking for communications including words like “election,” “cross-over” and “primary.”

Reynolds called those efforts a “bullying technique” — and a waste of taxpayer resources.

“[Dan Patrick] is spending thousands of public school man hours doing opposition research for himself,” Reynolds said. “They know that they’re hampering our day-to-day operations.” 

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.