Primary Runoff Election Yields Mixed Results for Texas Public Schools 

Lauren Simmons and another rally attendee hold up a sign that says, "Save our schools from Mike Miles."
Aldine A-F-T members writing postcards for endorsed candidates in the primary runoff election.

Left: Texas AFT COPE-endorsed Democratic candidate for House District 146 Lauren Simmons, pictured at a March rally with the Houston Federation of Teachers, prevailed in Tuesday’s primary runoff election. Right: Aldine AFT members write postcards to voters on behalf of Charlene Ward Johnson, endorsed candidate for HD 139, who also prevailed on Tuesday. 

This past Tuesday, May 28, was Election Day in the primary runoff election, and as usual, public education was front and center. Several Republican incumbents who crossed indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton by voting for his impeachment were swept out of the Texas House in Tuesday’s primary runoffs, including a handful who also opposed school vouchers last fall.  

Some reports are suggesting these primary runoff victories handed Gov. Greg Abbott a tentative majority in the Texas House to pass his long-sought school voucher program, seemingly ignoring the fact that voters will weigh in once again in November. 

“I’m sure glad Texas public schools taught the governor how to count his chickens,” said Zeph Capo, Texas AFT president, in a statement Wednesday. “I regret that we didn’t teach him to count them after they’ve hatched. That’s a lesson this state’s educators will reiterate to him next year.” 

Speaker Dade Phelan smokes a cigar at his primary runoff watch party.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan’s (R-Beaumont) squeaker victory, in the most expensive house race in history, will be pivotal in whether school vouchers even see a vote in the next legislative session, along with the fate of billions in school funding that have been held hostage because of that voucher scheming.

Phelan, in his victory speech, vowed he would remain speaker in the next session, which would likely result in a chaotic legislative term with Phelan at odds with the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general at the same time. Unsurprisingly, and continuing a storied tradition of far-right politicians complaining about electoral losses, Phelan’s opponent decried his loss as a “steal” by accusing Democratic voters of legally casting votes in a public election. 

The American Federation for Children Victory Fund, a super PAC supported by Betsy DeVos and other far-right billionaires, spent millions of dollars to defeat anti-voucher Texas House Republican incumbents and buy its desired policy outcome: the defunding of public schools in favor of giving coupons to wealthy families already sending their children to private schools. It is well established by nationwide research that vouchers don’t result in better student outcomes, so why does Gov. Greg Abbott, as well as the PACs that support him, continue to fight for this failed policy?  

In short, money. As the Texas Tribune reported after the election: “A large chunk of the spending has been underwritten by Jeff Yass, the Pennsylvania-based GOP mega donor and TikTok investor whose priority issues include school vouchers. Yass has contributed nearly $12 million to Abbott and AFC Victory Fund, about half of which came from a single $6 million check to Abbott’s campaign in December.” 

Other Important Primary Runoff Results 

At the State Board of Education, conservative incumbents Pam Little (R-Fairview) and Tom Maynard (R-Florence) survived primary challenges from ultra-right activists who made culture war issues central to their campaigns. Notably, the Charter Schools Now PAC supported Jamie Kohlmann, Little’s opponent, with a $50,000 in-kind donation, even after Kohlmann expressed support for rewriting social studies TEKS to present “both sides” of controversial issues, like the Texas Rangers’ racist history. It would beg the question, “Why?,” if the answer weren’t so obvious:  Kohlmann’s pledged support for more charter school chains in Texas.  

On the Democratic side of this election, former Houston Federation of Teachers organizer  Lauren Simmons, a Houston ISD parent, defeated state Rep. Shawn Thierry, the House District 146 incumbent whose rhetoric has become increasingly anti-LGBTQ+ and explicitly transphobic. Thierry has yet to file a recent Texas Ethics Commission report on her campaign spending, in contravention of the law, but has been supported previously by far-right voucher donors like Doug Deason.  

Elsewhere, Houston Community College Trustee Charlene Ward Johnson won her runoff for House District 139 against a pro-voucher challenger, while former State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez lost his House District 37 runoff to a pro-charter school opponent.  

Each of the winning candidates now moves on to the ballot of this November’s general election. With a presidential race, a high-profile Senate contest, and these contentious challenges for control of the Texas Legislature, the rest of this election year will be highly consequential for our public schools and all who work and learn in them.  

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