Unmasking Vouchers: Charter Schools Now PAC

One participant in a community protest with McAllen AFT and other allies outside one of Gov. Abbott’s pro-voucher campaign stops this spring. Photo by Clarissa Riojas.

Texas has become awash in dark money seeking to influence public education over the past several years. This dark money represents political and business agendas working to undermine our public schools and degrade the quality of public education in Texas and to advance privatization and vouchers. 

While the dark money web of influence is complex, one need only pull on the threads of a few individuals and organizations to reveal how a few extremely wealthy “activists” use intermediary organizations and useful politicians willing to accept their contributions to advance privatization and the “education reform” movement in Texas. 

We will be digging deeper into public campaign finance data over the next several weeks to reveal who is pushing the privatization fight in our state. We will cast light on just how little privatization has to do with serving Texas students or improving public education in our state, and reveal connections between Texas politicians, national donors, and extreme political organizations.

Public education parent and researcher Chris Tackett recently produced an excellent tool for exploring the relationships hidden in the public campaign finance data. The flow of dark money for school privatization looks like this: 

Donations from billionaires including:

  • *Alice & Jim Walton
  • *Richard Weekley 
  • *Reed Hastings 
  • Tom Arnold 
  • Tim Dunn
  • Farris Wilks

To organizations including:

  • *Charter Schools Now PAC/Texas Public Charter Schools Association 
  • Legacy 44 PAC
  • Texas Federation for Children PAC
  • Texans for Educational Freedom/Freedom Foundation of Texas (FFOT) PAC
  • Educational Equity PAC
  • Family Empowerment Coalition PAC
  • Leadership for Educational Equity – Texas

In fact, the two highest individual donors to the Charter Schools Now PAC were Alice Walton and Richard Weekley, according to Chris Tackett’s analysis. Alice and Jim Walton are heirs to Sam Walton’s Walmart fortune, while Richard Weekley co-founded David Weekley Homes with his brother and is the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Richard Weekley was also the largest donor to State Board of Education member Julie Pickren’s campaign. Pickren is the SBOE member at the center of the recent controversy regarding “welcoming PragerU to Texas” as a curriculum provider. 

Both Alice & Jim Walton and Richard Weekley are major nodes in the network of dark money in Texas public education. But they’re not alone. Reed Hastings, co-founder and executive chairman of Netflix, made a $1.99 million contribution to an intermediary organization named the Educational Equity PAC, which then donated $1.2 million to the Charter Schools Now PAC.

The messy relationships between wealthy donors, intermediary organizations, and politicians accepting campaign contributions in exchange for influence is exemplified by a $5,500 donation from the Texas Public Charter School Association to the Texas Federation for Children for “research” on May 20, 2020 (TEC filer ID: 82775, report ID: 100784352, contribution ID: 120506088). The Texas American Federation for Children is an astroturf organization formed to push vouchers in Texas. Democrats and Republicans alike in the Texas Legislature accept campaign contributions from the CSN PAC/Texas Public Charter Schools Association.

After having their coffers filled by donations from those billionaires, these organizations then distribute this dark money to new candidates and to targeted politicians’ re-election campaign accounts. The influence of this dark money can be seen at work within the State Board of Education (SBOE) and the Texas Legislature.

State Board of Education 

After dark money-supported candidates won their seats on the State Board of Education in the last election cycle, the Texas Public Charter School Association has pushed for changes to the “no-contact rule,” which prevents new charter school applicants from contacting SBOE members prior to their public hearing in an effort to prevent lobbying by those groups. The no-contact rule reinforces the integrity of the application process by ensuring there is no undue influence that could raise concerns about ethics and that the process is conducted with as much transparency as possible. As you will read about next week in our full recap, the SBOE approved significant changes to the rule at its meeting on Friday, Sept. 1, in a final vote of 11-3. 

Texas Legislature 

An analysis of the Texas Ethics Commission campaign finance data reveals that members of the Texas Legislature belonging to both political parties have accepted significant donations from the Charter Schools Now PAC/Texas Public Charter Schools Association and other sources of dark money. Several prominent Democrats have received amounts totaling in the tens of thousands of dollars, with some accepting over $100,000 in dark money contributions. 

You can see the influence of this influx of cash in the Texas Legislature’s fights over vouchers and ESAs, SBOE veto authority over new charters, and charter school facilities funding. 

Some Texas legislators may be open to or proactively seeking to facilitate a deal on vouchers in a potential upcoming special session on public education issues. Texans are unraveling the connections between dark money and influence in Texas politics on public education, and Texans of all political stripes remain strongly opposed to such political corruption. 

Texas AFT will oppose (aggressively) any legislation resulting from “back-room, shady dealing” on additional school funding and teacher raises that includes a voucher or Educational Savings Account (ESA) provision, and we will hold our elected officials accountable for bad votes taken and other failures of leadership resulting from their acceptance of dark money campaign contributions. 

You can start by checking your representative’s voting record from the 88th Legislature and calling their office to say Texans want public schools funded that help kids thrive, not private school vouchers.

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