A long-overdue war has broken out between the state's billion-dollar education establishment (Big Ed) and conservative state lawmakers who sometimes vote against Big Ed's wishes.
The battlefield is the ballot box. Organizers of the anti-tea party campaign set a goal of getting every school district employee in every district to register and vote in next year's Republican primary on March 6.
The movement is endorsed by the Texas Association of School Boards and many other pro-education groups.
The problem here is, it's against state law to use public resources paid by taxpayers to campaign for a specific candidate. It's very easy, in the heat of a campaign, to break the rule by sending an email, posting support on social media or holding "informational" meetings on school property and using school time.
Despite the easy pitfalls, whichever side you're on, this movement might reshape Texas politics.
A top leader of the movement in support of public education is a charismatic pastor, the Rev. Charles Foster Johnson of Fort Worth. I heard him speak about the coming battle at the Texas Association of School Boards convention in Dallas last month.
The title of the session at which Johnson spoke was provocative: "You can't fix stupid but you can vote it out."
His audience was a room filled with school board members and superintendents from across the state.
The session description promised to teach "a successful turn-out-the-vote effort" and how school board members can build "a culture of voting in the schools and the community."
Johnson has worked for years to pair local churches with neighborhood schools to build relationships. (His Pastors for Texas Children group received a starter grant of $30,000 two years ago from the Meadows Foundation of Dallas.)
Now he has most of Big Ed behind him. He's the guest of honor at next month's Friends of Texas Schools gala in Waco.
Dirty little secret
"I'll tell you a dirty little secret," Johnson told the standing-room-only crowd. "Nobody holding office wants you to vote. ...
"We've got a Senate in the state of Texas — and I hope there's somebody here who will quote me — that does not believe in public education for all children. It needs to stop right now."
The math is there. Voter turnout is close to worst in the nation. Johnson estimates that there are maybe 700,000 school district employees. If they all vote, everything changes.
"We will get a different Senate, y'all. It's as simple as that," the pastor told educators.
Imagine how this would boost tax-increase elections, bond elections, even votes for a new football stadium, too.
Tinkering with template
Plano ISD trustee Yoram Solomon shows The Watchdog how much this matters. Of 190,000 potential voters, about 10,000 voted in a school board election. A winner only needed 3,800 votes.
Plano ISD has 6,700 employees. "They could have swung any race they wanted, if they were influenced to do so," Solomon says.
A draft resolution supporting a "culture of voting" is on the agenda in hundreds of state school districts. In Plano this week, Solomon raised enough questions to get it postponed.
The resolution urges districts to offer employees a voter pledge or oath. ("I am a Texas educator and I commit to vote in the March primary and the November general election. I will vote in support of public education in the interest of the more than 5 million Texas schoolchildren.")
The resolution also urges time off for early voting for employees and allows for school buses to take employees to the polls.
Plano trustees will edit the template (good for them!) and add new language to the resolution "that will assure that there will be absolutely no influence on our employees, and that their votes will be confidential," Solomon says.
Complaining even louder are leaders of Empower Texans, the political group that supports lawmakers who are targets of Big Ed's ire.
One commenter on the group's website calls the movement "registration, indoctrination and mobilization" of district employees by their bosses.
Empower Texans leader Cary Cheshire calls it "government electioneering" and reminds us that public money and resources including employee time, facilities, equipment and technology cannot be used to support or oppose candidates on a ballot.
Johnson agrees, telling me about campaigning: "Don't do it on school time. Don't do it on school property."
What to watch for: If you see any school district employee or elected official use taxpayer resources such as email or district social media accounts to promote a candidate or cause, let The Watchdog know.
Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.
Ways school districts encourage voting
From the Texas Rural Education Association's guide to "the Civic Responsibility of Voting":
— Allow school departments to vote as a group on the first day of early voting.
— Ask all new employees to fill out voter registration cards.
— Require employees to notify the district of a change of address for re-registration.
— Host demonstrations of voting machines for 18-year-old students.
— Hold a special assembly for them to register.
— Use parental notifications to inform parents of election dates and voting locations.
— Post voting reminders on outdoor school signs.
— Host before-school "Muffins with Mom" breakfast and "Donuts with Dad" along with encouragement to go vote during early voting.
— Inform parents and students that Texas elections for state government are won in the primary.
— Offer extra credit for students who vote.
What school districts can do in an election
Until 2004, Texas school districts had great leeway to promote their causes in elections.
For bond elections, for instance, they could promote with phrases like "Put children first" and "Good schools are the foundation of a good community." Those were construed as vote-yes slogans, but no one got scolded.
In 2004, the Texas Ethics Commission issued an order against Decatur ISD. A just-the-facts mentality took over election season. Districts and board members had to be more careful in their promotions.
State policy now is that only factual information can be provided using district resources to the public through meetings, web pages, emails and more.
"They are not supposed to advocate or urge any support in voting one way or the other," says DeEtta Culbertson of the Texas Education Agency.
The use of school district resources to produce or distribute what's called "political advertising" in connection with an election is a violation of state election law.
The Texas Ethics Commission says "any amount of advocacy is impermissible." Violation is a Class A misdemeanor.
Outside of school, individuals can campaign in their free time, at their own expense.
ABOUT THIS COLUMN
The Watchdog Desk works for you to shine light on questionable practices in business and government. We welcome your story ideas and tips.
Contact The Watchdog
Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265