One of the state's most influential conservative groups has fired the latest salvo in the battle on how much a school district can do to mobilize voter turnout among its students and employees.
The group, Empower Texans, mailed letters to school district employees across Texas last week, asking for them to become "whistleblowers" against districts that overstepped their bounds to "accomplish political objectives."
"Alert!" the letter from Empower Texans' counsel Tony McDonald began. "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."
Teacher advocates labeled the letter "ridiculous" and "offensive," calling it the latest in an effort to suppress voter turnout among the state's educators.
A copy of a letter by conservative group Empower Texans, asking for "whistleblowers" to report Texas school districts that have overstepped their bounds in get-out-the-vote efforts.
Letters were sent statewide, to employees in districts including Aubrey and Splendora.
Nonprofit education organizations -- including powerful groups such as the Texas Association of School Boards and the Association of Texas Professional Educators -- have created a coalition that's pushing a get-out-the-vote campaign for the state's 705,000 school employees.
Even a modest increase in turnout from public educators could have a significant impact in the March primaries and May school board elections.
But the coalition and its member organizations say they are following state law by being decidedly nonpartisan, careful to promote nothing more than increased voter participation, not a particular candidate, party or measure.
'A culture of voting'
In making its case for educators to report "suspicious activities," Empower Texans' letter cites a section of the state's election code that prohibits the use of public funds for political advertising.
It also references an official, yet nonbinding opinion issued by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in mid-January on whether school districts can transport students or employees to and from polling places.
Despite Paxton's "clear ruling," McDonald's letter reads, "some districts have pledged they will ignore the ruling."
Paxton's opinion -- prompted by a request from Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston -- stated a "court would likely conclude" that busing students to a polling place would serve no public purpose unless it served "an educational purpose."
Bettencourt was troubled by the efforts of the coalition, the Texas Educators Vote project, which encourages school districts to "create a culture of voting."
In his request to Paxton, Bettencourt said viewpoints on the project's website "espouse a political perspective on education." One of the items on the website is an Educator's Oath, asking for those who sign it to vote in March and November. "I will vote in support of the more than 5.4 million Texas school children," the oath reads.
The project asks school boards to adopt a resolution supporting its voting culture through items such as district reminders on when and where to vote, permitting employees to wear "I Voted" stickers, and -- where allowable -- using district transportation to and from polling places.
More than 100 school boards in the state, including Allen, Coppell, Denton, Grapevine-Colleyville and Lewisville, have approved some version of the resolution.
Texas Educators Vote director Laura Yeager called Empower Texans' letter "not founded in fact."
The coalition has been very deliberate to describe to school districts what is, and what is not, allowable under state law, she said.
"I find it very disturbing," Yeager said of Empower Texans' latest efforts. "My heart is heavy that people are actively trying to suppress the vote."
'Teachers are fed up'
Copies of the whistleblower letter, including one addressed to Aubrey ISD employees, were circulated this week on Facebook among teacher groups.
When asked to clarify some of the claims in the letter and identify the districts that were targeted, Empower Texans' McDonald declined to comment.
Aubrey Superintendent David Belding said his school board has not approved a resolution similar to those recommended by Texas Educators Vote.
Belding did, however, pledge to participate in a turnout effort led by Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos to promote student voter registration. A provision in the state's election code requires all high school principals to serve as deputy voter registrars.
"I think, as educators, that it's critical that we model good civic engagement, and we can do that by participating in all elections and modeling that to our students," Belding said. "But we're not going to get outside of the bounds of what's allowable by law."
Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, a district that's been targeted before by Empower Texans for its mobilization efforts, issued a statement that said, "We are confident that the GCISD's support of the Culture of Voting initiative comports with the laws of the State of Texas."