Lawmaker Asks Texas AG If Electioneering Effort in Public Schools is Legal

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The Associated Press
Austin, TX

A Texas lawmaker called into question a voter registration campaign, encouraged by a third party advocacy group, which targets teachers and eligible students. He wants to know if the tactics they use violate the state’s Constitution.

In a written request for an opinion, Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) asks Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton what legal constraints are placed on school districts for using public taxpayer dollars in 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.

His letter came in response to a resolution by Texas Educators Vote, a third party advocacy group which identifies as nonpartisan and says its school-based voter registration drive only promotes “civic engagement” and creates a “culture of voting.” The resolution urges school districts to create “communications” that inform teachers and eligible high school students of the importance of voting.”

It also pushes schools to corral teachers into a voter pledge program through advocacy tools like Teach the Vote, created by the state’s leading teachers’ organization, the Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE). This group responded to Bettencourt’s request for the AG’s opinion by accusing him of being “frightened by the prospect of high voter turnout among educators” and paranoia.

The Culture of Voting Resolution is endorsed by the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), a lobbyist organization that advocates in the interests of the state’s public schools but opposes school choice options. TASB, in fact, 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.

The TASB-backed resolution nudges school employees to take an educator’s “oath,” promising they will vote “in support of the more than 5.4 million Texas school children.” The resolution also proposes “no cost” perks for employees who sport their “I Voted” stickers like wearing jeans to work. Additionally, the Superintendent’s Timeline for Creating a Culture of Voting instructed staff and employees to “pull out” their cellphones and logon to “sign the oath” in October 2017. It recommended administrators offer an unspecified “reward” to district employees who display their email verified submitted “signed oath.”

“I am concerned about the legal implications of coercing government employees to ascribe an oath to a particular political viewpoint as well as compelling the speech of government employees regarding the display of ‘I Voted’ stickers,” noted the senator in his request for opinion letter. He cited the Texas Constitution, which prohibits using public money for anything other than public purposes. Its “Gift Clauses” disallow the use of public funds for the private activities of special interest groups. The senator said this is done to “prevent the gratuitous grant of public funds to any individual or corporation.”

The resolution suggests “where feasible” school districts provide “transportation to and from polling places, noting in parentheses that this is if a district allows “non-school use of district-owned vehicles.” Similarly, the superintendent’s “culture of voting” timeline slated February 2018 for school districts to “plan bus dates, routes, and times for taking employees/students to the polls during early voting.”

Texas law tasks high school principals with distributing election registration application forms to students who are or will be 18-years-old at the time of an election but it bars the use of public funds to promote a candidate or influence the outcome of an election.

“I am particularly distressed about the highlighted portion of the resolution regarding the usage of taxpayer-funded transportation to take public employees and students to and from the polling locations to vote in favor of a particular political agenda,” wrote Bettencourt, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Property Tax Reform. He argued this transportation did not benefit the taxpayers but aided the “political agenda” of the private organizations affiliated with the “culture of voting” campaign.

Roughly 100 school districts adopted the “culture of voting” resolution, according to Texas Educators Vote. The group lists 250-plus participating districts in the 2017-18 school year. They account for nearly 20 public education “partners” including the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) and Fast Growth School Coalition; the latter lobbies for rapid development and spending on building new public schools statewide.

Texas Educators Vote provides 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, the conservative-minded think tank Capital Research Center called out the national League of Women Voters for their support of Democratic candidates and left-wing politics.

Bettencourt voiced concerns that these “website operators and its listed ‘partners’ are private organizations that aim to advance their own interests and protect the interests of their members,” specifically because their viewpoints “espouse a political perspective on education” and “links to other websites that are partisan in nature.” He noted that a school district’s “decision to implement a particular organization or association’s political agenda is of questionable service to the public.”

“No group should try to stampede ISDs into spending public funds to influence voters to vote for or against a particular measure or candidate,” commented Bettencourt in a prepared statement. “I am all for increasing voter participation in registration and elections, but it cannot be done by violating the Gift Clauses of the Texas Constitution, nor by spending public monies to influence voters to vote for or against a particular measure or candidate.”

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