By SHELLY WILKISON
A vote for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the Republican Primary is a vote for public funding of private schools.
That’s the message Liberty Hill ISD Superintendent Rob Hart is sharing with staff, encouraging them to learn more about issues impacting teachers and vote in upcoming primary elections.
“I can’t tell you who to vote for,” he told Liberty Hill Junior High faculty during a staff meeting after classes were dismissed Jan. 17. “I can tell you who I’m voting for.”
Hart, who is attending staff meetings at every campus in the school district and encouraging employees to participate in state elections, said he will be supporting Scott Milder in the Republican Primary against Patrick.
“For two reasons — something he is and something that he’s not. He is pro-public education and he’s not Dan Patrick,” Hart said.
Hart informed the staff about actions taken during the 2017 legislative session that if passed would have hurt public schools in Texas. Most of the blame was directed to Patrick, who as chair of the Texas Senate, pushed an agenda that would have allowed taxpayer funds to be used to pay for private school tuition. While the Senate passed a bill allowing vouchers, it didn’t make it through the House because the House Education Committee and House Speaker Joe Straus were supportive of public education, Hart said.
With Patrick up for re-election this year, Hart and other school superintendents across the state are encouraging their teachers to go to the polls.
Historically, Texas teachers have only significantly impacted the election of one statewide official when they voted in 1982 to elect Democrat Mark White as Governor. While campaigning for Governor, he promised to raise teacher salaries and implement sweeping education reforms as part of House Bill 72. But the changes also included teacher accountability, requiring already certified teachers to pass the TECAT (Texas Examination of Current Administrators and Teachers) that tested reading and writing.
White was defeated for re-election four years later by the same voting block of teachers. He passed away in August 2017.
“There are 1.2 million teachers, retired teachers and administrators,” Hart said. “There’s more of us now than there were then. Why can’t we do that now?”
Hart said that in recent weeks some principals received shipments of yellow scarves promoting National School Choice Week, which is this week. He said principals didn’t order or pay for the scarves.
“They want you to wear these out on duty, when it’s cold, and they’re yellow. Science teachers know it’s the easiest color to see. It sticks out,” he said. “You know what school choice really is? Vouchers. This is a voucher program hidden behind a nice yellow scarf.”
Hart said promotional materials and publicity supporting school choice “never really lets you know that it’s vouchers. Well, we’ve been sending these (scarves) over to the Transportation Department because they’re great grease rags.”
Hart said the push for school vouchers gains momentum every legislative session. But, the issue is bigger than the possible impact of vouchers on Liberty Hill schools. He said private schools would have a hard time competing against Liberty Hill with its high performance ratings.
“It’s the state as a whole I’m worried about,” he said. “The state’s public education system is in danger right now.”
He was critical of State Rep. Terry Wilson, R-Marble Falls, who represents LHISD voters in the House.
“I was told by our State Representative just a few months ago…he dropped by and said, ‘Don’t worry about this. I can guarantee you there will never be a voucher bill passed in the House of Representatives. It’s just not going to happen’,” Hart said.
In the Special Session, the House adopted an amendment to the state budget bill that stated it would be illegal to spend public money on private schools or Education Savings Accounts. Hart noted that among the no votes were Rep. Wilson and State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Leander, and Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs.
“A vote against it means a pro-voucher stand,” Hart said.
Wilson has no opponent in the Republican Primary, but faces Democrat Stephen M. Wyman of Georgetown in the General Election.
“I believe in school choice. I believe you can send your kids to public school or to private school, but you pay for it out of your pocket,” Hart said. “You don’t have the right to ask the State of Texas to pay for that.”
Hart also told teachers about Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reduce property taxes by requiring that a school bond election pass by a two-thirds majority as opposed to a simple majority as is currently the case.
“I went back and ran some numbers,” Hart said. “If that had been in effect in 2010, the high school bond wouldn’t have passed. They’re trying to make it more difficult for us. They’re throwing more hurdles in front of us every time, trying to stop us (public school districts) from building schools.”
Hart said LHISD received an Open Records Request in December from an organization wanting all written communications from teachers and administrators that could relate to voting, elections, political parties and other topics that are pertinent to upcoming elections. The requestors, he said, are suggesting that public resources are being used to encourage educators to vote for certain candidates.
He said the pro-voucher proponents are nervous about an Election Day outcome that is heavily influenced by public school teachers.
Hart said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, had requested an opinion from the Attorney General as to whether it was legal for school administrators to talk to staff about politics and elections.
“It even asks if it’s okay or legal for them (school administrators) to be implementing no cost incentives for voting, such as wearing jeans (if teachers wear the ‘I Voted’ sticker),” he said.
Hart confirmed that his staff meeting conversations are legal because he isn’t promoting a certain candidate, or telling employees how to vote. He is, however, sharing how he will vote and informing them about what happened in the Legislature and the issues that directly impact them.
“In Texas now, the climate is whoever wins a Republican Primary is going to win in a statewide election,” he said. “Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter. You can vote in the Republican Primary. That’s where the decision is going to be made.
“So, March 6 is the day. Vote on March 6 and vote your conscious,” he told employees. “Get friends to vote, spread the word and let people know what’s going on. It’s time to get motivated.”