Anti-CRT, pro-charter PAC money floods school board and State Board of Education campaigns across Texas

From local school boards to the State Board of Education, wealthy donors are spending big money in the campaigns that will decide the role of charter schools in Texas public education, what books students can read and how teachers discuss race and gender.

By Dominic Anthony Walsh, Houston Public MediaNovember 7, 2022 10:15 am

From Houston Public Media:

Opponents of so-called “critical race theory” are taking their battle against diversity, equity and inclusion from school board meetings to the campaign trail — in the form of large-dollar donations to a new political action committee (PAC).

The group claims school children are being subjected to “radical indoctrination, anti-American curriculum, and sexually explicit materials.”

Since the beginning of 2021, it’s supported winning candidates in some of the largest school districts in Texas. The PAC expanded its scope this year to the State Board of Education races, where candidates from both parties have shattered political contribution records.

“It’s unprecedented in the State Board of Education races,” said Jennifer Mitchell, governmental relations director at the non-partisan Association of Texas Professional Educators. “It was definitely new to see that level of investment, and it seemed very clearly aimed at opportunities to pick up more support on the board.”

The elections will determine who controls curriculum, textbook orders and the expansion rate of charter schools in Texas.

Critics call some of the donations “unethical,” and some State Board of Education members want changes to campaign contribution rules.

‘Critical race theory’ hits school boards

Pastor John Ogletree won his first election to the school board of Cypress Fairbanks ISD in 2003. Since then, he said, things were mostly calm, quiet and non-partisan in the fast-growing rural-suburban district, just northwest of Houston.

“As the district was growing, with over 100 different language groups, we were trying to make sure our motto — which was ‘opportunity for all’ — that’s where our focus was,” Ogletree said.

Ogletree, a registered Democrat, guided that growth alongside his longtime school board colleagues Don Ryan and Bob Covey — both registered Republicans. Despite the party differences, they ran for the non-partisan school board as a coalition called “the R.O.C.”

“R-O-C, Ryan, Ogletree and Covey,” he explained.

The three, along with four other trustees, signed onto a resolution condemning racism in 2020.

“I have always been a Christian person,” Covey said. “I’ve always believed in the Bible, and I believe in God. And it’s just like Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come unto me.’ And he wasn’t saying which color they were. He just said ‘Come unto me.’ And I feel that if you are a true Christian, you want equity, you want inclusion.”

But people in the community, including some parents, began to argue the resolution itself is racist and that “critical race theory” had permeated district policy.

Don Ryan — the R in the R.O.C. — wasn’t available for an interview. During a board meeting last year, he tried to explain that the district’s curriculum comes from state requirements.

“This does not include critical race theory, and it never has,” he said.

“It does,” members of the audience yelled back.

State representative Jon Rosenthal of Houston spoke during the public comment section of the same meeting.

“I also notice what’s not in the budget: anything about critical race theory, which has been grossly mischaracterized for political purposes to create an emotional wedge issue,” he said, over shouts and boos from the audience.

Ogletree and Covey said they never saw anything like this at board meetings.

“The issue with them was CRT,” Ogletree said. “That we were ‘doing CRT,’ and that there should be no emphasis on social emotional learning, and that the only thing the students needed was reading, writing and arithmetic. That’s what started this past June in 2021.”

“There is so much misinformation,” Covey said. “And the sad thing is I find that people are willing to follow whatever is printed or said on social media as being the truth without checking it.”

Opponents also attacked Ogletree for social media posts critical of “white evangelicals” and for sharing a Washington Post article about a Norfolk city council person who drew connections between the Ku Klux Klan and some police officers.

Ogletree — who is Black — apologized and said he overgeneralized white evangelicals.

In November, they were up for re-election. They lost.

By the time the diversity, equity and inclusion audit was complete, the board had changed. One of the new members, self-described “data guy” Scott Henry, reacted to a suggestion that the district’s teachers should reflect the demographics of the Cy Fair student body.

“The statewide average for Black teachers is 10 percent,” he said. “Houston ISD … you know what their percentage of Black teachers is? 36 percent. I looked that up, you know what their dropout rate is? 4 percent. I don’t want to be 4 percent. I don’t want to be HISD.”

Houston ISD earned a solid overall B rating from the Texas Education Agency last school year.

A survey of Cypress-Fairbanks community members, presented to the board in August of this year, showed 69 percent of parents agreed with the statement, “It is important to me that my child’s teachers reflect the diversity of the student population.”

At the school board meeting after Henry’s comment, Black teachers and other community members spoke out against the racist implications of what he said. Henry denied actually saying what his statement clearly implied.

“Any suggestion that I said ‘More Black teachers leads to worse student outcomes’ is a lie, and those spreading it should be ashamed of themselves,” he said.

All three new board members — Scott Henry, Natalie Blasingame and Lucas Scanlon — opposed the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

“I just found it very sad,” Bob Covey said, remembering the final election results rolling in. “And I thought that the reasons for the vote were based on non-facts and innuendos and, in some cases, outright lies.

“Our opponents were very organized, and they had a lot of financial backing,” Ogletree said. “And there was a lot of animus. I mean, people acted like we had really done something to their children.”

It wasn’t just parents angry about diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that ushered Henry and other “anti-CRT” candidates into office.

Scanlon, Henry and another Cy-Fair trustee candidate received support from a new PAC. At the time, it was called Freedom Foundation of Texas PAC. Blasingame received support from the Conservative Republicans of Harris County, while also running on an anti-equity platform.

Scanlon, Henry and Blasingame did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

According to campaign finance reports and Meta’s library of Facebook political advertisements, the PAC has supported at least 27 school board candidates across nine Texas school districts over the past two years.

More than half of them won, and eight are on the ballot next month.

Those districts include Houston, Cypress-Fairbanks, Klein, Spring Branch, Prosper, Katy, Humble, Leander and Conroe.

The PAC’s website says these “freedom-minded” candidates will fight “anti-American” values in schools.

Candidates aren’t always aware that a PAC plans to support them until they receive notification. The boilerplate language in campaign finance reports notes that certain types of contributions “may have been made without the candidate’s or officeholder’s knowledge or consent.”

The contributions have still raised concerns for some elected officials at the state level.

Conflict concerns at the State Board of Education

Republican Pat Hardy is one of the longest-serving members to ever sit on the State Board of Education. The 15-member elected body sets statewide curriculum standards, approves textbooks and has veto power over new charter schools. Hardy was first elected in 2002, and for years has been wary of certain PAC contributions.

“I never have taken funding from anything to do with charters in the past because I did not want that to sway my feeling — like whether or not I’m going to support a charter, or vote this way — because you get PAC money,” she said. “So I have never done it before.”

That changed this election cycle, when she said her campaign worked with the Charter Schools Now PAC on a voter engagement event listed as “campaign consulting services” on a finance report.

Despite accepting the contribution — which was much smaller than some received by many other candidates — Hardy said she might support a ban on campaign contributions to state board candidates from charter-affiliated organizations.

“It would not bother me if we were told that absolutely no charter money could get into a race,” she said.

Earlier this year, some members of the board directly addressed the surge in charter-related money flooding the races. The new Freedom Foundation of Texas PAC had expanded its scope from local school board policy to statewide curriculum. One of their donors is affiliated with a proposed charter.

Conservative banker Stuart Saunders spoke to the board in June. He wanted approval for a charter school called Heritage Classical Academy in Houston. It had already been rejected twice. Saunders is the board chair of Heritage Classical.

“One of the big takeaways from the pandemic is that parents are paying more attention to their schools,” he told the board. “They are waking up to what is and what is not being taught to their children.”

He and his father — members of a wealthy banking family — donated more than a quarter million dollars to the Freedom Foundation of Texas PAC in February.

Stuart Saunders made his donation in mid-February. Earlier that month, the PAC had begun running digital advertisements for a primary challenger running against State Board Republican incumbent Jay Johnson – even though he says he’s opposed to “CRT.”

Kinsey won the primary for District 15, which runs from the High Plains through the Panhandle. He faces no Democratic challenger, but his contributions shattered the record for his district. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment. More than half of his support came from a handful of PACs.

In a text message, Jay Johnson said he’s been reluctant to comment on the race “because I didn’t want to appear a bad sport or express an attitude of sour grapes.”

“The reason I was primaried was my vote against HCA charter school,” Johnson wrote. “Any other reason you may have heard is a smoke screen. Follow the money!”

He also described himself as a conservative, adding, “I am very opposed to the philosophy of CRT.” The PAC that supported his challenger has mentioned banning “CRT” in many of its advertisements, including for Johnson’s opponent.

During that SBOE meeting in June, Republican board member Matt Robinson called out the donations.

“Whereas that’s undoubtedly legal, it really appears to be unethical — appears like you’re trying to remake this board after last summer, when you were denied this charter school for the second time,” he told Stuart Saunders.

Saunders told the board that he thought this PAC would only be involved in school board races — and that he wanted to stay out of the State Board campaigns to avoid exactly what he was being accused of.

“But I stand behind my decision to support an organization that wants to support strong local school boards and wants to root out sexually explicit materials in schools,” he added. “To the extent that they got involved in SBOE politics — that’s beyond my control, and it’s regrettable.”

In a written statement, Saunders called the PAC “a group of concerned citizens that is not completely satisfied with the current condition of public education.” He also argued the group “is not an anti-CRT PAC,” despite many of its advertisementspromoting bans on “CRT.”

Christopher Zook Jr., the president of the PAC, said in a Twitter message that the Freedom Foundation of Texas PAC recently rebranded as the Texans for Educational Freedom PAC. He was not available for an interview and did not answer any written questions — including why the PAC was involved in a district with two apparently anti-CRT Republicans and no Democratic challenger.

Jennifer Mitchell — with the non-partisan Association of Texas Professional Educators — wrote about the donations earlier this year.

“The people who are trying to get more charters approved in Texas, I think they’ve been able to seize upon this movement and the fervor behind stopping instruction of CRT or stopping what many of the candidates are calling ‘indoctrination of students,'” she said. “And so they’re using that as another way to launch arrows at the public schools … and then come in and say that’s why we have to fund these options, whether it’s private school vouchers or more charter schools.”

The PAC supported four state board candidates this cycle.

Pro-charter PACs flood campaign contributions to candidates from both parties

PAC money has flowed to State Board of Education candidates for years, but contributions this cycle have shattered records — for candidates from both parties.

That’s problematic to State Board member Robinson, who called out the Saunders donations during the June meeting.

“My concern is some of the new members who have had large sums of money donated to their campaign from the pro-charter groups,” he said in an interview. “They’ve almost completely been funded by the pro-charter groups, and I’m concerned with how that will translate into their votes they will take next summer on the new charter schools.”

Robinson said he would support a ban on charter-affiliated campaign contributions to state board candidates.

The state board candidate with the largest contribution haul is actually a Democrat with no Republican challenger. Staci Childs from District 4 in Houston initially didn’t believe that she received more contributions than any other State Board of Education candidate.

“I don’t think it was the most out of everybody in the State of Texas. That’s incorrect,” she said. “I mean, I’m no mathematician but I’m pretty sure there was more money raised for other candidates.”

Legacy 44 and other PACs were responsible for more than half of her $581,000 in contributions — more than twice the amount of support received by Aaron Kinsey in District 15, who was also backed by Charter Schools Now PAC.

Legacy 44 is supported by the Walton family, who have used their wealth from Walmart to push for charter expansion. The Walton Family Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.

Childs described the PAC as “very forward-thinking when it comes to education, when it comes to education reform,” adding “I feel like Legacy 44 and myself — we both align on the fact that things need to be improved.”

Proponents of more charters argue they increase equity in education. Opponents of too many charters say they lack accountability and drain resources from traditional public schools, which already face a history of underinvestment.

It’s a key wedge issue for both parties, especially in primary races for the State Board of Education.

“I’m pretty annoyed with the fact that people are using public charters — or my support or people’s support in general of public charters — as a political point to try to pit people against each other,” Childs said. “I think that we lose the opportunity too often to work together and to come together on things that we agree on to make the educational outcomes for students better.”

The Houston Federation of Teachers supported her primary opponent, Coretta Mallet-Fontenot, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Jackie Anderson is president of the Houston ISD teachers’ union. She called the influx of charter money a “red flag.”

“You have already compromised yourself,” she said. “That’s my opinion.”

“If a charter application does not meet the standard for good opportunities for children, I’m not going to let money or a political contribution influence my decision on what’s best for children,” Childs said.

Legacy 44 did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Democrat Victor Perez and Republican LJ Francis are running for the state board seat in District 2, which stretches along the Gulf of Mexico in South Texas.

Victor Perez received support from Legacy 44. LJ Francis received support from Texans For Educational Freedom.

“This is the most competitive State Board of Education district in the state,” Francis said. “Obviously, the Republicans want to flip the seat, and we think we will.”

Both candidates received support from Charter Schools Now PAC.

“I vote my mind,” D2 Democratic candidate Perez said. “I did not commit anything to anybody. I feel good that I am who I am.”

Starlee Coleman is a board member of Charter Schools Now, which has also received support from Jim Walton of the Walmart fortune.

“Our goal is to support pro-charter candidates in primary elections, so that when general elections roll around we don’t have to get involved,” she said. “Because in an ideal scenario, a pro-charter Democrat is running against a pro-charter Republican, and that’s great for us. Our interest is in electing pro-charter folks, not in any kind of partisan politics.”

Coleman said the group wants to oppose candidates with unequivocal opposition to charters, rather than converting them to a pro-charter stance.

“I think people have a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that political donations work,” she said. “They think that a candidate will support a cause or an issue if that cause or issue supports them … the equation is backwards. People support candidates who share their values. You can’t ‘sell out’ if you already share someone’s values.”

From local school boards to the State Board of Education, wealthy donors are spending big money to make sure their values are reflected by the people who decide the role of charter schools in Texas public education, what books students can read and how teachers discuss race and gender.

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