Joe Straus may be leaving as speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. But he's still fighting for public schools.
Days before the March 6 party primary elections, he sent an email blast to supporters, including teachers, urging them to reject efforts to discourage educators from election activities.
"Unfortunately, some elected leaders in Austin and their allies have been trying to discourage voting among one important group of Texans: School teachers," Straus wrote in the email Friday (Feb. 23).
"Some members of our community have received a letter from an Austin special interest group criticizing local school leaders for promoting a 'culture of voting,'" Straus said.
He was referring to the right-wing group "Empower Texans," funded largely by Midland oilman Tim Dunn, who favors public money subsidizing private school tuition.
"This group apparently feels threatened by the fact that education leaders are encouraging civic participation," Straus wrote.
The group sent letters to teachers and other school district employees, recruiting "whistleblowers" to report on school officials using public resources to support candidates.
“Alert!” began the letter, from Empower Texans’ legal counsel Tony McDonald, reported The Dallas Morning News. “Some school districts across the State of Texas are vowing to illegally misuse school district recourses [sic] to electioneer for liberal candidates in upcoming elections.”
Non-profit education groups, like the Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Texas Association of School Boards, had organized a coalition to create the Texas Educators Vote project.
It encourages school districts to "create a culture of voting." On the group's website, it has an "Educator's Oath," which asks signers to vote "in support of the more than 5.4 million Texas school children."
More than 100 school districts have signed on with the Texas Educators Vote proposal. The coalition members say they observe state law, avoiding partisanship, while encouraging increased voter participation, without advocating for a particular candidate or party.
That caused state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, an ally of Senate presiding officer Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, in December to request an official opinion from Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton.
Bettencourt asked if a district can legally "espouse a political perspective on education" by encouraging teachers to vote "in support of public education."
Also, can school districts send reminders of where and when to vote, and provide transportation to and from polling places?
Paxton's non-binding official opinion in mid-January said school districts can't bus students or school personnel to polling places unless the trips serve "some educational function."
Paxton called out Lewisville ISD for a tweet from the district's account which read, "We are asking for support from our state Legislature. We're not getting it. It's time for change."
In a statement, Lewisville ISD officials said the district "respectfully disagrees" with the attorney general, but said the tweet was taken down after a day.
"We dispute any characterization of the district’s get out the vote campaign as anything other than an effort to engage the LISD staff and community in their constitutional right to vote and advocate for themselves," the district said in a statement.
"The district will reiterate again with staff that they alone can make the decision to support a candidate and measure, and the district does not wish to impose the beliefs of its Board or Superintendent."
An interesting sidelight to Straus's counsel to teachers and others to ignore what may seem like threats is the continuing battle with the efforts of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to favor private education over public.
That issue, which had come to a head during both the regular and special sessions in 2017, when Straus's House stymied Patrick's efforts to shift more state money for education to the private sector, while Patrick blocked Straus's work to add $1.8 billion to the school budget, is now being discussed in a special joint legislative committee on school finance.
And, Patrick has drawn an opponent in the GOP primary, former Rockwall city councilman Scott Milder, who with his wife co-founded an organization more than a decade ago called Friends of Texas Public Schools. He has the backing of thousands of public school advocates.
Patrick, though probably a shoo-in for re-election, nonetheless has spent more than $5 million on TV ads and other election costs.
One of those ads, incidentally, where he said he sought to increase teacher pay by $10,000 a year, was judged by PolitiFactTexas to be an overstatement.
He may have favored that, the assessment said, but never proposed any state money for it, instead seeking to instruct local schools to shift more money to teacher pay.
The battle continues.