In Texas elections, as in schools, participation is part of the grade
Political candidates wanting a major boost from a public education voting bloc last week saw their hopes fall when teachers did not show up to the polls in the numbers they had expected. But educator voting advocates argue their political strength is only growing.
Texas Elections 2018
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When Fort Bend ISD board president Kristin Tassin announced in September that she was running for state Senate against incumbent Houston Republican Joan Huffman, public education advocates lined up to support her.
Outspoken about the state's failure to overhaul its school funding system, Tassin won an early nod from outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus and picked up endorsements from former and current superintendents, a parent-led political action committee and Texas' chapter of the national teachers' union. Gov. Greg Abbott, while endorsing her opponent, appointed her to a state committee on special education.
Tassin also received the endorsement of a Facebook group, "Texans for Public Education," which planned to organize its thousands of members to vote in the Republican primary for a set of candidates the group deemed "friendly" to public education.
She lost badly.
Huffman was the favorite to win, as an incumbent endorsed by the governor — but the race was expected to be competitive. Instead, Tassin received just 27 percent of the vote. "[Block voting] wasn't effective in my race. The teachers didn't show up. They didn't show up to vote," she said. "If they voted, they voted in the wrong primary."
She said she ran into teachers who said they were block voting — but who registered for the Democratic primary.
Tassin argued educator voting groups, despite their efforts, did not motivate a significant-enough faction of teachers to vote. But block vote cheerleaders say the primary elections were a shaky test run for a much larger mission: shedding teachers' reputation for being politically apathetic or uninvolved and building their political clout in Texas over the next several election cycles.
Like Tassin, Granbury ISD Superintendent Jim Largent partly attributed his loss against incumbent state Rep. Mike Lang in House District 60 to the failure of teachers to show up at the polls. "The block voting group certainly was effective in a way and was able to get a large group talking about the same things," Largent said. "There was still low voter turnout."
Troy Reynolds, founder of Texans for Public Education and an administrator at Splendora ISD north of Houston, publicly presented his mission at a rally on the Capitol green in July: to oppose Abbott's proposed agenda for the summer special session, which educators argued was chock full of unfunded mandates for public schools. He rallied fellow educators to vote based on issues, not party, meaning party loyalists would need to hold their noses and support candidates on the other side of the aisle.
"What we're doing has never been tried before," Reynolds said after the primary. He argues educators helped tip the vote for more than two dozen moderate Republicans vying for competitive state House seats. But he acknowledges the group's limited success: "It truly strategically is not realistic to think a new organization can walk in and undo 10 to 15 years of infiltration by these profiteers in one election," he said, referring in part to Empower Texans, a key conservative activist organization that poured more than $1 million into state-level campaigns this year.
The education group's most visible efforts revolved around a long shot: running little-known Rockwall Republican Scott Milder to oust incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Milder spent most of his time campaigning for educators' votes — and was crushed, gaining only 24 percent of the vote.
Milder first posted his concession statement on Reynolds' Facebook group on primary night. In the spirit of the block vote, he encouraged teachers to give their vote to Democratic candidate Mike Collier in the general election. “I will be casting my vote for Mike Collier, the rational Democratic nominee for Lt. Governor, and will strongly encourage all Texans who voted for me in this race to cast their votes for Collier as well," he wrote.
Some also posit educators were scared away from voting after Attorney General Ken Paxton released an opinion saying educators could not promote specific candidates or measures with public money, school district equipment or on school time. He also said school districts can't pay to drive students to polling places "absent an educational purpose."
Soon before the primary, Paxton sent cease-and-desist letters to educators at three Texas school districts he said were conducting "unlawful electioneering" by using public money to advocate for political candidates.
"I do think it's disappointing that anyone, let alone the leaders of our state and elected officials, would go out of their way to discourage anyone from voting when there was no evidence of any wrongdoing," said Laura Yeager, founder of Texas Educators Vote, a civic engagement group encouraging educators to be politically active.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who first asked Paxton to weigh in on what he saw as illegal electioneering, said Paxton's letters did not stop educators from voting. "There's simply no way that's intimidating. Unless you're doing it. And then you're being told to stop, and nobody's filing charges on you. They just want you to stop — stop doing it," Bettencourt said.
Retired Spring ISD teacher Margaret Womack started researching candidates for the primary after lawmakers put a Band-Aid on the broken teacher health care system, leaving many retired teachers with higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs. The block voting group sounded like a good vehicle for first-time political involvement, she said. "In 30-plus years of seeing what has happened in education, educators could never quite get themselves together to say, 'This isn't right.' We'd wring our hands and we'd say, 'Geez, I wish it was different,'" she said.
Womack was disappointed but not surprised that Milder didn't make it through the primary. She said she often votes for Democrats but eagerly voted in the Republican primary to support him. She knows other teachers had a harder time crossing over.
Womack said she is still motivated to vote for Collier and will continue to recruit educators to block vote in the general election — but that she is dismayed at the evidence she's seen on how little research voters do before voting. She said the movement needs to prioritize widespread voter education to be successful. "If we don't have that, I don't know. I'm at a loss."
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