It was like a double header on June 1. Two prominent and often controversial fixtures affiliated with Texas public education announced back-to-back that they would not seek re-election when their terms end next year — Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), the state House Public Education Committee chair over the past two legislative sessions, and Thomas Ratliff (R-Mt. Pleasant), Vice Chair of the State Board of Education (SBOE).
Although revered by their bases, neither have been champions to many because of blaring conflicts-of-interest during their respective terms… but will they be gone for good?
“I will not return,” said a tearful Aycock, 68, in a brief farewell address on the last day of the 84th Legislative session on Monday. He was first elected in 2006.
The Austin American-Statesman reported that the lead education policymaker was enveloped by nearly all of his colleagues on the House floor when he made the announcement. Aycock urged lawmakers not to think “about to the right or left but think about good policy” for the state’s 5.2 million public school children who “depend on you.”
Aycock was applauded by Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) for his thoughtfulness, care, and even his unsuccessful attempt at overhauling the state’s public school finance system this session. This involved a $3 billion bill that was shelved after Senate leaders opted to wait on a Supreme Court ruling over last year’s decision by State District Judge John Dietz, which called the funding mechanism unfair and unconstitutional.
“I don’t think there is anybody in this body who has garnered the respect that you have for your evenhanded way of dealing with things, authentic way of being, and willingness to do what’s right for the state of Texas,” State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) told Aycock on the floor, the Texas Tribune reported.
He also was praised by education ideologue Diane Ravitch, who called him a great defender of the public institution against pro-school choice advocates and “other devious means that would siphon money away from public school,” serving the interests of those who would “harm public education” through vouchers and parent triggers.
An even more jarring conflict-of-interest has been the relationship between the lawmaker and his education lobbyist daughter Michelle Smith, who works for HillCo Partners. Texas Monthly placed the firm “at the top of the lobby pyramid” since 1998.
Smith’s clients include pro-public education advocacy organization Raise Your Hand Texas, which places combating private school vouchers and imposing restrictions on the growth of charter schools in Texas at the forefront of their agenda, and the Fast Growth School Coalition (FGSC).
Watchdog Arena described FGSC as hungry for “public dollars for its public school membership. School choice is seen to threaten not only existing, but also future funding.”
In 2015, for the 84th Legislature, Aycock offered to recuse himself from education legislation connected to his daughter to avoid growing public scrutiny, Breitbart Texas reported.
Two days after the article ran, Aycock’s daughter withdrew her lobbyist registration. This allowed Aycock to maintain his chairmanship over the public education committee without further public debate, even though other HillCo reps continued to lobby legislators, which Breitbart Texas also reported.
Aycock is considered to be the architect of House Bill 5 (HB 5), which revamped Texas public education to align with College & Career Readiness Standards, Texas-style, in 2013. Common Core state counterparts have parallel pathways. HB 5 also addressed a reduction in the number of end-of-course exams from 15 to five.
Despite retirement, rumors are already swirling that Aycock will run for the state senate seat of Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), who announced he was stepping down less than 24 hours after Aycock gave notice. The Killeen Daily Herald reported that Aycock has denied contemplating a senatorial bid at this time.
Also on Monday, state board Vice Chair Thomas Ratliff, 47, issued a press release announcing he would not seek re-election after his term ends in December 2016. He has served on the SBOE since 2010. He said he felt he had accomplished his goals, under which he listed raising public awareness about the state’s board, improving the relationship between the board and the Legislature, and reducing “the influence of partisan politics within the board.”
Interestingly, the East Texas Republican’s gripe largely has been with conservatives. There is a lot of bad blood between Ratliff and Texans over concerns he has not been an honest broker on the board. Ratliff is a paid Microsoft lobbyist. The technological giant holds a pivotally vested business interest in the college and career digitally-driven learning marketplace, including hardware and software products.
He is also perceived as having had a key role in pushing Senate Bill 6, which transitioned schools away from hardbound textbooks and printed instructional materials to online products, technology, and services.
Despite a 2011 Attorney General opinion that “a registered lobbyist who has been paid to lobby the legislative or executive branch on a matter relating to Board business is ineligible to serve on the Board,” Ratliff has remained on the board. He has always asserted he has done nothing wrong.
Ratliff defended the use of the divisive CSCOPE for rural school districts that couldn’t afford to develop their own curriculum. CSCOPE came under fire nationally for its politicized lessons. Furthermore, findings from an 18 month CSCOPE audit revealed fiscal monkey-business.
Ratliff’s region 8 (Mt. Pleasant) stood out in the investigation as unable to provide its 2005 contract for the development and implementation of the curriculum management system, because all supporting documentation had been destroyed. Nor were auditors able to determine the total amount of rebates paid to Ratliff’s region.
Texas Watchdog Wire considered Ratliff “a foe of citizens trying to obtain public records.” It appeared he had tried to silence dissenting opinion in a 2007 lawsuit against the Austin area Eanes School District. Ratiliff did so “saying its practice of responding to voluminous open records requests was an illegal expenditure of public funds,” claiming that a small group of residents made nearly 1,000 requests for about 100,000 pages of record.
The lawsuit alleged that the cost of complying with those requests had exceeded $500,000. They noted that “Ratliff…once pushed unsuccessfully for a bill that would have limited the amount of information that people could request from government agencies.”
He is the son of former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, who serves on the advisory board of Raise Your Hand Texas. His brother Bennett was ousted by Tea Party favorite Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving) in North Texas District 115 last November.
Last year, Breitbart Texas reported that Ratliff and Aycock teamed up to speak at the 2014 SXSWedu conference, where they commended curious tactics used by education special interest mom group TAMSA to affect the passage of HB 5 two years ago. One method involved overwhelming phone lines in former Gov. Perry’s office until the state’s top official agreed to support the legislation. Aycock called the group’s actions savvy “political trades” and deals.
The Texas Tribune has begun speculating a possible Ratliff run for Sen. Kevin Eltife’s seat (R-Tyler) should the incumbent not seek re-election. For now, the always outspoken Ratliff promised not to go quietly as he finishes out his term.
He insisted, “I may be a duck, but I’m not considering myself lame,” according to the Longview News-Journal.
Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.