School Board 3
Collage Made By Josue Rawmirez

COMMENTARY: IN SCHOOL BOARD BATTLES BIG MONEY WINS BIPARTISAN SUPPORT

Words by Thomas Garcia 
Edited by Abigail Vela 

In 2022, our public schools have become a political battlefield. From limiting what students can read to restricting the topics teachers should teach, issues involving K-12 education have taken on heightened political importance.

In Texas, anger over mask mandates and school shutdowns has boiled over into attacks on intellectual freedom in the form of book bans, spearheaded by State Representative Matt Krause, and crackdowns on our history curriculum through Senate Bill 3.

With precision, energy, and money, right-wing forces are targeting down-ballot education races in Texas by fueling the culture wars. By placing divisive topics such as critical race theory and vaccine mandates at the forefront, conservative politicians are transforming grievance politics into electoral power.

The recent GOP wave of election victories in Virginia and strong performances in New Jersey should be viewed as warning signs, not simply of an apathetic Democratic voter base, but an empowered conservative coalition forming over grievances – both real and imagined – centered on K-12 education.

The progressive response must not lose focus on the big picture. For every heated school board meeting and every inflammatory remark that sways our attention, the war on public education continues to be fought over who receives our taxpayer money and what they do with it.

Today’s K-12 culture wars risk overshadowing other systemic battles that will decide the future of public schools in Texas. These battles will determine whether we will maintain a robust public education system designed for all students, especially our most at-risk.

Seldom do we read about our schools’ stranded costs resulting from where our taxpayer money flows, from private school vouchers to charter schools. Little do we hear about Charter Schools Now, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit dedicated to electing politicians who will approve, expand, and fund charter schools, no matter their quality, for private interests.

And rarely do we organize to exert influence on all the mechanisms of power, including lesser-known entities such as the Texas State Board of Education.

What is the State Board of Education?

The State Board of Education (SBOE) directly impacts over 5.4 million students in our K-12 schools. From establishing graduation requirements to adopting curriculum standards, the SBOE holds significant power over what our teachers teach and what our students learn.

The SBOE’s wide-ranging impact spans determining the language we use to define our history to managing a $46 billion endowment making up the Permanent School Fund.

This 15-member board, currently composed of 9 Republicans and 6 Democrats, had made headlines in the past when it reviewed controversial textbooks on Mexican-American Studies and clashed over science learning standards involving evolution.

However, Little media attention has been given to one of the SBOE’s most consequential duties: approving or rejecting new charter school applications recommended by the Texas Education Commissioner. Since 2019, the SBOE has approved two-thirds of all new charter school applications.

Many of these charter school applications were fraught with problems ranging from ethical malpractices to high teacher attrition rates. In 2021, Texas AFT highlighted the history of Rocketship Public Schools, based in California, finally passing on an 8-7 vote after the SBOE previously vetoed their application three times.

During this 2021 round of charter reviews, the SBOE approved only three out of the seven applicants. Traditionally, votes during the charter reviews have not fallen neatly onto partisan lines, with a few Republicans occasionally voting to reject charters while select Democrats frequently vote for charter approval.

SBOE District 2, which now includes nearly all of the Rio Grande Valley except for Starr County, is a Democrat-leaning seat currently occupied by Ruben Cortez Jr., who has a record of opposing new charter applications.

With Mr. Cortez now running for Texas House of Representatives District 37, the seat has opened for the first time since 2012. Spotting an opportunity to fill the seat with a pro-charter advocate, private interests have weighed in on the race.

My Race Against Private Interests in State Board of Education, District 2

As a former Democratic candidate for SBOE District 2, I ran a progressive campaign focused on expanding mental health resources, developing a 21st-century statewide curriculum, and reducing administrative tasks on teachers.

The issue of approving or rejecting new charter schools was not a focal point of my campaign until late in the primary, when Charter Schools Now PAC spent over $105K on behalf of both a Democrat and a Republican candidate in the race.

Early in the primary, I was contacted twice by Charter Schools Now PAC. After I stated, “I am not your candidate,” they would go on to endorse my competitor Mr. Victor Perez, a former Pharr-San Juan Alamo ISD school board member.

This endorsement initially flew under the radar because Mr. Perez did not publicly disclose it. In fact, I blew the whistle on it and called for him to renounce the PAC’s involvement in our primary. He did not.

Big Money influences school board elections.

A few days later, a revealing exchange occurred during a live interview by the Rio Grande Guardian. Questioned on the Charter Schools Now PAC endorsement, Mr. Perez claimed, “I have not accepted any money from the charter schools, or whoever they are.” (minute 14:10)

According to the Charter Schools Now PAC campaign finance report, the group spent over $62K on political mailers, telephone forums, texting services, and digital ads on behalf of the Victor Perez Campaign. Over $18K was deemed in-kind contributions, which Mr. Perez failed to disclose on his campaign finance report.

Charter Schools Now PAC is primarily funded by two out-of-state billionaires. In this primary, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings donated $640K through the Educational Equality PAC, of which he is the sole donor. Walmart heir Jim Walton donated $450K. Both men have records of supporting privatizing public education and supporting conservative candidates.

From these facts emerge several key takeaways. First, $62K is an abnormal amount of money to spend – much less in a one-month period – for an SBOE race. In neighboring District 1, Charter Schools Now PAC spent over $200K attempting to elect charter school founder Mr. Omar Yanar in the Democratic primary.

Secondly, the secrecy surrounding Charter Schools Now PAC lies not only in Mr. Perez’s hiding their support. The group requires inputting a residential address on their website to learn who they have endorsed and do not publicly announce their candidates ahead of elections except through targeted political advertising.

Thirdly, Charter Schools Now PAC’s involvement in this race demonstrates a strategic approach to achieving their goal of influencing the SBOE to approve new charter schools, no matter who wins. Mr. L.J. Francis, the Republican nominee, received over $45K in support through direct expenditures and in-kind contributions.

In addition, the newly formed right-wing group Freedom Foundation of Texas PAC also spent over $85K on behalf of Mr. Francis.

FFOT PAC has spent big money on electing a select number of right-wing politicians.

Finally, pro-charter industry advocates often attempt to turn pro-public education candidates into enemies of charter school students and families. Progressives should note that opposition to conservative political groups like Charter Schools Now PAC and FFOT PAC has nothing to do with charter school employees, parents, and students; it has everything to do with private interests attempting to profiteer off new charter school chains.

With both Mr. Perez and Mr. Francis’ campaigns bankrolled by out-of-state billionaires and corporate lobbyists aiming to privatize public education, it will be interesting to see how they will vote on the topic if either is elected to the SBOE.

The Path Forward

With so many dynamic races on the ballot, from Congress to District Attorney, it can be easy to overlook unfamiliar down-ballot races. But in 2022, progressives must focus intently on the SBOE and their local school boards. 

Fighting back against some of the most regressive policies in politics today, from limiting free speech to diverting taxpayer funds to a select few individuals, starts with getting involved in education races.

The path to a more progressive future begins with advocating on behalf of our public schools, the places that educate our future leaders. Rather than allow right-wing forces to thrive by attacking these places of progress, we must build coalitions with high school graduates, concerned parents, and school employees on the issues that matter. 

The opposition would rather have us argue over the definition of critical race theory rather than ring the alarm bells on the profiteers attempting to buy seats on the SBOE, or training activists and candidates to run for school board.

Policies impact schools.

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