Texas school board races see increase in PAC spending. Critics say donations are ‘unprecedented’

Political action committees with conservative ideologies or supporting charter schools are raining cash on races statewide and in the Houston region.



FILE: A 2016 photo of the Texas State Board of Education

Texans for Educational Freedom, a political action committee, or PAC, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to several local school board candidates on the ballot May 6.

The conservative PAC made vast donations last election cycle to State Board of Education candidates opposed to alleged indoctrination in public schools, such as the supposed teaching of critical race theory.

The strategy was an effective one: TEF-backed republican LJ Francis flipped District 2 in south Texas, giving the GOP a two-thirds majority on the State Board of Education.

"With the COVID-19 pandemic, parents had the opportunity to see exactly what their children were being taught in the classroom, resulting in parents standing up to take back control of their child's education," said TEF's president, Christopher Zook, Jr.

Zook said the candidates the group is funding in Houston-area elections are people who advance the PAC's mission of electing "freedom-minded" candidates.

"These Katy and Spring Branch candidates are committed to getting back to the basics – improving student outcomes, giving parents a voice in their child's education, and ensuring teachers have the resources they need to be successful," he said.

Mark Wiggins, a senior lobbyist for the nonpartisan Association of Texas Professional Educators, said the PAC funding devoted to State Board of Education elections in recent years is unprecedented.

"These races for the state board of education typically cost ten thousand dollars, twenty thousand dollars to run, and they’re funded largely from small contributions from supporters," said Wiggins. "But this PAC, in particular, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on state board of education candidates, just gobsmacking amounts of money."

Wiggins said that while the PAC uses hot-button ideological concerns to raise support, it is largely funded by a small group of wealthy donors who, he said, strongly prioritize school vouchers and privatization.

"Ultimately, in many of these cases, it all comes down to just another justification for trying to push a voucher that would take money out of the public school system and use it to subsidize tuition for elite private schools," said Wiggins.

The fact that several such donors may have personal interests tied to the opening of charter schools leaves some critics saying the contributions are "unethical."

One of the group's top donors is Stuart Saunders, Houstonian and attorney at Mission-Heights Enterprises. Saunders is also currently the board chair of Heritage Classical Academy, a proposed charter school on the northwest side of Houston. The State Board of Education has ultimate say over the approval of proposed charter schools, and TEF previously made sizeable donations to a primary challenger running against a Republican incumbent who opposed the creation of Heritage Classical Academy. Both candidates described themselves as conservatives who opposed critical race theory.

Together, Stuart Saunders and his father, Fred Saunders, donated nearly $300,000 to TEF last election cycle.

Another top donor for the PAC is Houston native and real estate developer, Richard Weekley. Real-estate investors around the country have increasingly shown interest in charter school development over the past decade. While charter schools themselves are usually run by non-profits, they usually rent or buy their space from private real-estate developers, causing some to speculate these investors see charter schools as money-making opportunities.

Cecilia and James Leininger are among other big donors to the PAC. James currently serves on the board of directors for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which Wiggins said was "founded in order to try and pass vouchers."

"It's hard to not see this as a wholesale effort to purchase an entire regulatory arm of government," said Wiggins.

Zook did not provide comment on whether TEF specifically supports voucher programs.

The PAC funded mail advertisements for current school board candidates in Katy ISD — including Mary Ellen Cuzela, Amy Thieme and Morgan Calhoun — promoting them as candidates who would "stick to the basics," and "keep tax dollars in the classroom."

TEF also has supported Courtney Anderson and Shannon Mahan in their bids for election to the Spring Branch ISD Board of Trustees, as well as Nancy Morrison, Marques Holmes and Dru Gutierrez in their campaigns for Humble ISD school board.

Today in Houston Newsletter Signup
We're in the process of transitioning services for our Today in Houston newsletter. If you'd like to sign up now, fill out the form below and we will add you as soon as we finish the transition. **Please note** If you are already signed up for the newsletter, you do not need to sign up again. Your subscription will be migrated over.