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Advocacy or Electioneering? Education Leaders Walk Fine Line in School Voucher Debate

Texas attorney general Ken Paxton last week took the unusual step of suing seven school districts, alleging that a handful of leaders had engaged in electioneering before the March 5 legislative elections.

The lawsuits are a new chapter in a protracted and volatile fight over the future of public education in Texas, analysts say. But they also demonstrate the increasing difficulty district leaders face in balancing the advocacy they feel is necessary for their schools’ survival against the complexity of state campaign finance rules.

The lawsuits, beginning with one against the Denton Independent district, filed Feb. 22, contend that principals and superintendents asked their colleagues to vote against candidates who favor private school choice policies, like vouchers. Such communications violated state law that prohibits the use of district resources to “electioneer for or against any candidate, measure, or political party,” the lawsuits claim.

Of the seven school districts that were sued—Denton, Aledo, Denison, Castleberry, Hutto, Huffman, and Frisco—state courts have granted injunctions against the Denton and Castleberry districts and a restraining order against Frisco. Both rulings prevent the school districts from putting out more information about specific candidates or policies that impact public schools.

Some advocates believe the lawsuits are motivated more by politics than a good-faith effort to enforce campaign- finance laws. Vouchers for private schools have been a top legislative agenda for Gov. Greg Abbott, whose proposal last year failed to pass, and Abbott has since made it a goal to replace the dissenting representatives with more pro-voucher candidates.

The seven lawsuits, all filed within one week, could create a “chilling effect” on principals and superintendents who want to advocate for public schools, said David C. Bloomfield, an education law professor at Brooklyn College.

“The attorney general is clearly trying to suppress the opposition to the voucher plan that he and the governor favor,” he said. “He has a bully pulpit so he can warn or argue against school district positions. He has plenty of options at his disposal. But he also had this obvious legal cudgel, and he used it.”

Paxton’s office did not return emails and phone messages seeking comment.

Shades of gray

State officials in Texas do give guidelines about what school districts and principals can say, although the rules can be obscure and hard to follow. Generally speaking, educators can show their political preferences in personal emails and forums, but cannot do so in their capacity as public officials.

“Principals can use their school newsletters to share information about dates for voter registration and voting. They can also share facts about a proposed legislation, like vouchers,” said Archie McAfee, the president of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals. “What they can’t do is use their school’s equipment to tell people not to vote in favor or against specific candidates.”

In the Denton district, two elementary school principals sent out emails from their district addresses to their staff, with information on voting days and times. One of them included a list of candidates specifying those more “friendly” towards public education, and both emails highlighted a looming budget deficit for public schools as a reason to urge educators to vote.

In the Castleberry district, Superintendent Renee Smith-Faulkner urged her colleagues in an email to vote in favor of public education, and accompanied it with a forwarded message containing a list of candidates who had “stuck their neck out” for public education.

And in the Denison district, a post on the school website thanked House Representative Reggie Smith, a Republican, for voting in favor of public schools and warned educators that there was still strong support for private school choice policies amongst Texas’ legislators.

But in the case of Hutto, Frisco, and Aledo districts, there were no mentions of specific candidates or policies in the emails or social media posts put out by district officials. Those communiqués contained information on budget deficits and staff positions that would be cut if more funding was taken away from public schools, and they also claimed that state lawmakers hadn’t increased funding for public schools since 2019.

A new normal

The Aledo district said it wasn’t given any notice before Paxton’s office filed the lawsuit, the Dallas Morning News reported.

In an email to Education Week, the Denton district’s chief communication officer, Julie Zwahr, said district officials agreed with Paxton’s assertion that election laws should be followed. It added that the district had “adopted board policies in 2018 and 2021 regarding elections and campaign ethics, and we train all trustees and administrators on these policies annually. It is our expectation that these policies be followed.”

Zwahr’s email noted, however, that districts across the state are facing critical budgeting decisions, and Denton’s officials want their community to know that the decisions elected officials make directly impact students, teachers and families.

In all, the situation shows that even seemingly neutral messages can expose district officials to rebuke if they come too close to an election or hint at a controversial measure like private school vouchers, said Tom Hutton, the former executive director of the Education Law Association, a nonprofit profit organization that works on legal issues that impact education.

Still, Paxton’s move will probably have downstream effects.

“A phone call or email would have been enough to sort this out. Principals will have a more conservative approach now, to speech that might be misinterpreted,” said McAfee of the state administrators association.

Indeed, the lawsuits put officials in a tough place.

“Public school employees might feel like they need to do something about these resources being taken away. They shouldn’t do it through their public institution but it’s an easy to run afoul of that guideline. It can seem like a trap to them,” said Hutton.

The March 5 elections resulted in the ousting of five of the 21 representatives who opposed the voucher bill, both Democrat and Republican, and sent three others to a runoff election in May.

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