Electioneering in Public Schools is Illegal, Says Texas AG

AP Photo/Don Ryan
AP Photo/Don Ryan

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion Wednesday that voter registration tactics targeting teachers and eligible students of voting age violate the state Constitution and electioneering laws.

In December, state Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) asked Paxton if school districts can legally use taxpayer dollars for political advertising or communications designed to influence voters on a particular measure or candidate. He also questioned if school districts can provide transportation for employees and eligible student voters to election polling locations or if this action violates state law.

Breitbart Texas reported Bettencourt’s request for an AG opinion came in response to a resolution by Texas Educators Vote, a third party advocacy group which identifies as nonpartisan and asserts its school-based voter registration drive only promotes “civic engagement” and creates a “culture of voting.”

However, it fosters a “culture of voting” resolution that nudges school employees to take an educator’s “oath,” promising to vote “in support of the more than 5.4 million Texas school children.” Slightly more than 100 independent school districts have signed the resolution endorsed by the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), a lobbyist organization that advocates in the interests of the state’s public schools.

TASB represents the largest group of publicly-elected officials in the state and includes all 1,030 Texas school districts, 20 regional education service centers, 50 community colleges, 16 tax appraisal districts, and 137 shared service arrangements. TASB opposes school choice program funding.

In his letter to Paxton, Bettencourt argued that Texas Educators Vote “espouse a political perspective on education” and that it directs traffic to other websites that are equally “partisan in nature.” The website links to Teach the Vote and the Texas League of Women Voters as go-to sources “to learn about candidates’ positions on public education issues.” In 2015, conservative think tank Capital Research Center called out the national League of Women Voters for their support of Democratic candidates and left-wing politics.

The state’s leading teacher organization, the Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE), created Teach the Vote. It, too, claims nonpartisanship and a quest to provide information on candidates running for office in Texas, but they also want voters to “understand ATPE’s positions on education issues and consider candidates’ education stances when casting votes.”

As a point of reference, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association (TCTA) created the similar Texas Teachers Vote in 2016. It advocates that people vote based on picking “teacher-friendly candidates.”

Earlier this week, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a nonprofit free market research institute, wrote to Paxton, in support of Bettencourt. The Austin-based foundation echoed concerns “over the legality of what appear to be actions tantamount to coercion of government employees to swear an oath in support of a specific political point of view.”

On Wednesday, Paxton responded that schools cannot drive students or employees to polling places unless the trip “serves an educational purpose.” The five-page nonbinding opinion read: “Absent an educational purpose in providing students transportation to the polling locations, a court would likely conclude that the transportation serves no public purpose of the school district and therefore it violates article III, section 52(a) of the Texas Constitution.”

The AG also cited Texas Education Code Section 11.169, which prohibits electioneering. The state Election Code, subsection 255.003(a) clarifies unlawful use of public funds for political advertising. Essentially, school districts may not use public funds to promote or oppose candidates or measures via political advertising such as literature, flyers, or emails that link to campaign websites.

“A court would likely conclude that the use of public funds to link to an Internet website promoting a specific candidate or measure is itself a communication supporting or opposing a candidate or measure in violation of this provision,” advised Paxton. The opinion stated that anyone who violates this subsection of the Election Code “commits a Class A misdemeanor.”

Breitbart Texas spoke to Bettencourt after the Attorney General weighed in against public school electioneering.

“This group, Texas Educators Vote, clearly engaged in new political activity, in my opinion, including employees taking oaths, posting partisan political materials in schools, and linking to partisan websites,” said Bettencourt. “The key thing is all this behavior started in the fall and it needs to stop.” He called the AG’s rendering, “a center stripe opinion of what the law really is in Texas.”

Bettencourt said his “belief is that taxpayers give their money to school districts to educate kids and not be used for politics.”

Subsequently, TPPF applauded Paxton’s “common-sense” ruling. “All ISDs should respect the rule of law and comply,” wrote General Counsel Robert Henneke. “All school districts that have adopted this resolution should immediately take steps to ensure that its unlawful requirements are not implemented, in conformance with the Attorney General’s Opinion.”

ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday contested Bettencourt’s concerns in a six-page letter she sent to Paxton last Friday. She disputed the senator’s viewpoints as mistaken and charged they had no merit. Canaday insisted ATPE’s and their affiliated groups are nonpartisan and only educate students about the right to vote and encourage voter participation within the education community.

Responding to the AG’s opinion, Canaday brazenly remarked: “There is nothing in today’s opinion that warrants a change in our direction. ATPE intends to continue our nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts and our work with the Texas Educators Vote coalition.”

Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.


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