AUSTIN — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an official, nonbinding opinion Wednesday saying school districts cannot drive students to polling places unless the trip serves an educational purpose.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, asked Paxton to weigh in on the issue last month, arguing that a civic engagement group called Texas Educators Vote was violating state law by encouraging school administrators to incentivize voting. The group's leaders have said they are doing their civic duty and have not run afoul of the law; they said Bettencourt's question is part of a backlash against public education.
Paxton's opinion said school districts can't pay to drive kids to polling places "absent an educational purpose." The same goes for driving employees: "Absent the performance of some educational function on behalf of the district's students, we question whether providing transportation for employees to and from polling places serves a public purpose of the school district," the opinion reads.
Paxton also said school employees cannot promote specific candidates or measures with public money, school district equipment or on school time. That includes distributing flyers or sending emails with links to campaign websites.
More than 100 school districts across the state (including Lake Dallas, Lewisville and Ponder ISDs) adopted the resolution from Texas Educators Vote. However, not every school district that adopted the resolution included the transportation item. Denton ISD did just that during its board meeting Jan. 9.
Denton ISD board member Doug Chadwick voiced concern over the transportation item during a board meeting in December.
"I think it raises a lot of questions in the mind of the public about whether or not we're using school buses to take people to vote," Chadwick said. "It's using staff and vehicles and time. Since it seems like we're not in the situation like West Texas, where you have to drive 100 miles to go vote, I think we should just leave that out to avoid controversy."
School districts aren't required to follow Paxton's advice, but government officials often consult written attorney general opinions when determining what is allowable under state law.
Bettencourt first asked for the opinion after learning that Texas Educators Vote had been encouraging school boards to adopt a resolution that authorizes administrators to implement "no-cost incentives" for students and employees to vote. The resolution says administrators should check district policy to see if they can use district-owned vehicles to transport voters to polling places. And it includes an "oath" educators can sign promising to "vote in support of the more than 5.4 million Texas school children."
That language concerned Bettencourt, who interpreted it as a violation of state law.
"You can't force people to register, you can't force them to vote, and you can't offer a reward for that," he said last month.
Laura Yeager, who heads the group, said the resolution clearly told administrators to check with their lawyers before using district-owned vehicles. She said some legislators did not want educators to vote.
"We're there to model civic engagement for the kids," she said last month.
Yeager and Bettencourt did not respond to immediate requests for comment.
A current Texas law on the books requires school administrators or other designated registrars to circulate voter registration forms and notices to eligible high schoolers at least twice a year. Voting rights advocates have argued school administrators are doing poorly on that front.
Denton Record-Chronicle staff writer Caitlyn Jones contributed to this report.
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