Saturday, July 23, 2016

In School Choice Fight, a Fresh Force Emerges

*Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that Texans for Education Opportunity co-founder Stacy Hock was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to the Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability.

An ambitious new player has emerged in the controversial effort to use taxpayer dollars to help Texas parents send their kids to private or religious schools.

Texans for Education Opportunity, which launched in May, supports all forms of “school choice,” including charters and traditional public schools, said Executive Director Randan Steinhauser, an Austin-based school choice activist and public relations consultant who co-founded the nonprofit advocacy organization.

But she said the group’s main goal is to get Texas lawmakers to create “education savings accounts” — a program under which the state would dole out taxpayer money directly to parents via debit card to cover approved education-related expenses, like private school tuition, tutors or homeschooling materials. About a half-dozen other Republican-dominated states, including Florida and Arizona, have already created such programs, although most of them target specific student populations, including disabled and low-income students. (Nevada is an exception, offering assistance to all students.) 

Literature provided by Texans for Education Opportunity, which appears to be the first statewide organization focused solely on school choice, suggests the state offer up to $7,800 for any student pursuing an alternative schooling route. That is about 90 percent of what the state provides on average to traditional school districts per student for annual maintenance and operations, the pamphlet says.

The concept is similar to private school vouchers, in which taxpayer funds are awarded directly to schools, but it is larger in scope.

Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said education savings accounts are worse than vouchers because there is no good way to control how parents spend the money. The states that have implemented such programs have included no provisions that allow them to reclaim money if parents spend it on "a flatscreen TV or a bag of crack," he said.

"Who's to say that a laptop isn't an educational expenditure, but who's to say that it is? Who is going to police that?" he said. "Are we going to pay someone at the state level to monitor this program, and how much is that going to cost?"

Exter said that concern is separate from the larger one school and teacher groups have long expressed in opposing such programs — that they divert much-needed dollars away from struggling public schools.

But Steinhauser said such a program would have “the biggest benefit to families” because — unlike private school vouchers — it would empower parents to choose the option that works best for their child.

“We’re working to educate legislators on the specifics,” she said, arguing that there is rampant misinformation about how such a program would function. “We’re making sure they understand the positive impact it could have on the state of Texas and on students in their district and families in the state who are desperate for another option.”

Literature provided by Texans for Education Opportunity, which appears to be the first statewide organization focused solely on school choice, suggests the state offer up to $7,800 for any student pursuing an alternative schooling route.

The group, whose board of directors includes former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, has so far raised more than $100,000 from a variety of local and national organizations to fund its work, Steinhauser said. And it expects to raise hundreds of thousands more dollars through the political action committee it will form this fall to dole out campaign contributions to the state lawmakers who assist with its mission. 

Businesswoman and philanthropist Stacy Hock, who co-founded the group, has spearheaded fundraising. (She serves on the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott also appointed her to serve on the Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability, where she serves as vice-chair.)

“We’ll be supporting legislators who stand up and fight for an education savings account during the session” next year, Steinhauser said.

Creating such a program is a top priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has tried unsuccessfully to do so since he was a state senator. Last year, under his leadership, the Senate passed a bill that would’ve provided up to $100 million in tax credits to businesses that donated money for scholarships for school choice families. But it died in the House, where a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers has long blocked such proposals. 

Steinhauser said she has worked closely with Patrick since her 2013 move to Texas, where she was surprised to find that school choice initiatives weren’t further along. She had previously traveled the country lobbying for school choice legislation as national director of external affairs for the American Federation of Children, the nation’s largest school choice organization.

In addition to her new role heading Texans for Education Opportunity, Steinhauser also is an adviser for both National School Choice Week and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. And she is a partner at the political and public relations consulting firm she co-founded with her husband, Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas native whose clients include U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Open Carry, Funding Likely Police Issues Next Session

Within hours of the recent ambush killings of five Dallas police officers — and again 10 days later, when three Baton Rouge officers were killed — messages of respect and support for law enforcement coursed through the nation's social media, filled the airwaves and prompted countless press releases.

As politicians nationwide rushed to reiterate their support for police, Texas elected officials figured prominently in the calls for a greater societal embrace of officers and more protections for first responders who perform some of the toughest jobs.

"As Texans and Americans mourn the loss of our men and women in uniform, we must continue to remember that police officers put their lives on the line every day to ensure our safety and our freedoms," Abbott said in a statement a day after the July 7 Dallas shooting.

But while grateful for the rhetoric, law enforcement groups have seen some disconnect between the professions of support and the track record of Texas elected officials in listening to their concerns.

Most notable was the 2015 legislative session, when lawmakers — including Patrick and Abbott — enthusiastically approved the open carry of handguns by licensed Texans despite opposition by many of the state's law enforcement officials.

As the 2017 legislative session approaches, law enforcement groups say they'll be asking lawmakers to consider revising the open carry law, as well as looking at restoring funding for programs that help police do their jobs. They say they'll focus on bread and butter issues like funding officer training and maintaining retirement and death benefits.

"We're always thinking about what it is that's desperately needed," said Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. "And we try to weigh in what it's like for that legislator to expose themself so much, to put their name on the ballot, to go out and open themselves up to public and political ridicule."

Shootings in Minneapolis, Dallas and Baton Rouge have inspired calls to review Texas' policy allowing registered individuals to openly carry firearms in most public places. Supporters say openly displaying firearms is a Second Amendment right, while detractors say it can lead to confusion during a disturbance.

The Texas Republican Party's platform may foreshadow a new open carry fight next year. The state's dominant party urges passage of “constitutional carry” legislation, which would remove many restrictions on accessing and keeping firearms.

Last session, law enforcement groups told lawmakers open carry would be a disaster for them, especially in a crisis. When lawmakers didn't heed them, Wilkison's group pushed for training, strap requirements, visible licenses and other provisions to be part of the legislation.

“We were hurling rocks at the tanks the whole time,” he said.

Lawmakers didn't budge, Wilkison said.

After the shootings, Dallas Police Chief David Brown commented that open carry laws can complicate telling the difference between the "good guy with a gun" and the criminal.

CLEAT won't push for a repeal of open carry but will make similar suggestions from last session to make the law work for law enforcement, Wilkison said.

"(Guns) bring with them a responsibility to maintain control, even in a struggle," he said. "They bring responsibility to maintain control in daily life, walking and talking."

Wilkison said he's prepared for "constitutional carry" arguments.

"I expect to stand in committee and say all our rights are abridged everyday," he said. "You still can't even yell fire in a theater. So my freedom of speech is abridged just like yours. There is a greater good called the community. We'll try to make our stand there."

Amid that debate, law enforcement groups also expect to tackle funding woes.

In a previous session, lawmakers raided the state's auto theft fund to help balance the budget. Law enforcement agencies relied on grants drawn from that fund to investigate and prevent local auto thefts and burglaries, said Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback, legislative director for the Sheriffs' Association of Texas.

The state also tightened the flow of money to agencies by reducing how much it doled out in funds for training from a fund supported by court filing fees, Louderback said. Getting more funds from those resources would help law enforcement, he said.

"It's being diverted and used for other purposes instead of law enforcement purposes," Louderback said.

A more urgent need has been finding the resources to address mental health in county jails, the sheriff said. It's been a problem especially in rural Texas, Louderback and his colleagues have testified in legislative hearings. Sandra Bland's death in the Waller County Jail in 2015 highlighted the problem and pushed lawmakers to demand changes.

"We've got to have additional mental health funding for our local mental health authorities for our mental health problem in our jails," Louderback said. "That's still a top priority for us."

Employee benefits are also a top priority for officers, said Joe Gamaldi, second vice president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, who expressed concern about defined-benefit plans being turned into a 401(k) plan, making it defined contribution.

"If it went to a defined contribution plan, what we're essentially looking at is whatever that officer had in his 401(k) at the time is what the family has, and it says well thank you for your service, here's the money that was in his 401(k). Good luck," Gamaldi said.

A change would not be fair, he said.

"If that were the case, the five Dallas police officers that were murdered in cold blood, their families would essentially get nothing, after everything is said and done," Gamaldi said. "So for us, it's being secured in our future and knowing that our families will be taken care of if God forbid something were to happen to us in the line of duty."

While those efforts have yet to emerge, state and federal officials are proposing legislation that could be seen as both symbolic and substantive.

U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., introduced legislation on July 13 that would make killing current and former police officers a federal crime.

Under that proposal, someone who killed or conspired or attempted to kill a public safety officer, a federally funded law enforcement officer or a federal judge would be eligible for the death penalty as well as a mandatory minimum 30-year-sentence for murder and 10 years for attempted murder, according to Cornyn's office.

Though killing a police officer in Texas is already a death-eligible offense, some states don’t have penalties as harsh as what the Senate bill calls for, Cornyn’s office said. Under the Senate bill, the U.S. Department of Justice could pursue its own criminal case against a defendant, were it inclined.

“Most states allow for the death penalty — but many of the states do not include a mandatory minimum of 30 years, meaning the criminal could get off with a lighter sentence,” a Cornyn aide said via email. “Since current federal law does not allow for prosecution of the murder of state and local police officers, this legislation would be important for cases where the state governments are unwilling or unable to prosecute the crime.”

The Senate bill also would protect officers from lawsuits and extend firearm rights.

“This bill would prevent officers from being sued for intervening to stop a crime of violence, and it would give off-duty law enforcement additional authority to carry firearms, defend themselves, and prevent violence even when not in uniform,” the aide said.

Gov. Greg Abbott proposed Monday that state lawmakers send him a bill extending hate crime protections to law enforcement and increasing criminal penalties for any crimes in which the victim is a law enforcement officer. Though a bill by state Rep. Jason Villalba is in the draft phase, it remains unclear the effect it would have on prosecutors who would try these cases.

“The governor’s proposals send a clear message to anyone considering targeting law enforcement officials that their actions will be met with severe justice,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement.

Texas already enhances penalties for crimes against people because of their race, sex, religion, sexual preference and other factors. Law enforcement officers should be added to the hate crimes list, said Gamaldi. 

"Why shouldn't it be for profession?" Gamaldi said. "In our case, it's because we wear blue that people are attacking us. But where clearly the motive is to kill or harm the police officer, they should be subject to strict penalties. We have the rule of law in this country, and for someone to attack police officers simply based on their profession, it's unconscionable."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Oil Patch Schools Facing Budget Nightmare

Rough Patch Logo
How plunging oil prices are reversing fortunes across Texas. Read all the stories in this series.

In December 2014, the week Pam Seipp became interim superintendent of Runge schools, the tiny South Texas district held a symbolic groundbreaking for schools and sports facilities to be paid for by a $22 million bond that local voters overwhelmingly approved just as oil prices began to slip.

Seipp’s main responsibility since then?  

“The bearer of bad news,” she says.

Four months into the job, she had to inform the board of trustees that local property values were expected to drop by more than half from the previous year because of a major slowdown in oil and gas drilling, and that the $6 million savings account the 300-student district had built up during the recent boom would quickly evaporate. She delivered a similar message this year with property values expected to plummet another 42 percent amid the lingering low oil prices that have brought drilling in the state — and across the U.S. — to a near halt.

The district is now operating on a deficit budget and moving to restructure its bond because it can’t afford payments

Pam Seipp, interim superintendent of Runge schools, looks over ongoing construction of a new football stadium. In May 2014, before oil prices tanked, local voters approved a $22 million bond to build — and renovate — new campuses, sports facilities and a bus barn.Robin Jerstad for the texas tribune

“It’s not been a good experience for me,” Seipp said. “I can hardly wait ‘til they get a permanent person here.”

Runge is a worst-case example of the budgetary difficulties facing school districts in oil producing regions across the state, where a drilling frenzy raged for nearly a decade until oil prices tanked. But the bust is threatening to deal a serious financial blow to many districts — particularly if it lingers. Several are projecting sizable deficits for the upcoming budget year, with some looking at dipping into savings to break even. Those in a better financial position are delaying pay raises and hiring and hoping that oil production will pick up again. 

“More or less a disaster,” said Cuero interim schools superintendent Ben Colwell, when asked what he was expecting for the upcoming budget year, and beyond.

Property values in DeWitt County, where the district is located, are projected to drop 35 percent this year, which will force the district to cut its $23 million budget by as much as 22 percent. (Final values won’t be known until late July.) That may be doable for one year, Colwell said, but — even as oil prices tick up — he fears there will be a similar drop in valuations next year.  

“In two, three years, you are basically bankrupt,” he said. “This thing is unfortunately not just a one-year cycle.”

“People don’t realize what a catastrophic thing this is going to be for schools.” 

Aside from making deep budget cuts and draining savings, Colwell said the other option districts have is to raise taxes. But many in the region are already taxing at the maximum rate, or at least high enough that they’d have to ask voters to approve an increase — something superintendents say is unlikely to happen during the downturn.

In 1999, the Legislature passed a law allowing the state to help districts facing “a rapid decline in the tax base” due to factors outside their control by adjusting the taxable value of the property. But lawmakers cut that funding in 2011, said school property tax expert Dan Casey, a partner at Moak, Casey & Associates, an Austin-based consultancy.

“If you get compounding decreases in value, it becomes very difficult to address,” he said. “They need some kind of safety net, and they just don’t have it right now.”

The problem is particularly pronounced in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale, which — unlike West Texas’ Permian Basin — hadn’t seen widespread drilling activity until the recent boom, which rapidly expanded the region’s tax base.

Long considered property poor, many school districts in the region took advantage of the newfound wealth by asking voters to pass sweeping bond measures to renovate and build state-of-the-art schools, performing arts centers and football stadiums.

While Runge appears to be the only school struggling with bond repayment, several Eagle Ford superintendents said it could become an issue for more districts if the bust persists. They note that local voters backed the measures with industry assurances the boom would endure for another decade or longer and that the expectation was that the bonds would largely be paid off by the time it ended. (The state must back bonds if a district defaults, but that has never happened.)

“I really feel for those doing the 30-year notes who don’t have the property values to keep it up,” said Karnes City schools superintendent Jeanette Winn, explaining that her district opted for a shorter bond in case the boom ended earlier than expected. 

“What we did was we socked a ton of money away to the principal [of the bond], and we’re only paying on ours for 10 years,” she said.

Still, the district is postponing all big expenses and plans to cut its budget by 1 percent annually over the next 15 years. 

Many school officials foresaw the budgetary nightmare a bust would bring, but they say it is much worse than they expected — a "massive thunderstorm" rather than a "shower," quipped Colwell. 

In less financially fortunate districts, the burden for paying off the bonds will increasingly shift to residents.

“The smaller the tax base, the more your taxpayers have to pay because that burden is spread out evenly,” said Mary Springs, the incoming superintendent of Three Rivers schools. During the boom, the district passed a bond to build a new secondary campus.

“The $11 million school featured terrazzo floors, a Valero-sponsored agriculture and vocational building, and a football field carpeted with the same lime-green turf used by the Dallas Cowboys,” according to a Texas Monthly report

Now the 700-student district in Live Oak County, at the heart of the Eagle Ford, is facing a 22-percent budget cut.

Renovation and construction work continues at Runge's middle and high school campuses, which was made possible by the $22 million bond local voters approved in 2014.Robin Jerstad for the texas tribune

Most Eagle Ford school districts were able to build up savings during the boom that will help carry them through the bust. But the drop in appraisals has been so dramatic in some areas that any financial cushion will quickly disappear. 

And superintendents point out that most of the newfound wealth has not been not theirs to keep. During the boom, many Eagle Ford districts became classified as property wealthy for the first time, requiring them to send millions of dollars to the state each year to help buoy property-poor school districts under the state’s Robin Hood program. For most Eagle Ford districts, that “recapture” payment is larger — in some cases multiple times larger — than its entire annual budget.

Superintendents complain that the state calculates those recapture payments on year-old property tax data, meaning this year’s tabs will be based on collections before the bust took full effect. 

Districts in the Eagle Ford may look wealthy on paper right now, but they’re really not, said Winn, the Karnes City schools chief. 

“We have to treat ourselves as poor if we’re going to survive the bust,” she said.

Seipp, the Runge interim superintendent, is hoping the district will lose its property-wealthy status soon and ultimately break even. But she readily admits she’s not really sure what will happen.

“I’ve got to let them know the picture is looking pretty bleak,” she said of her school board.

Several superintendents expressed hope that the boom will bounce back and save them from a yearslong budget nightmare. Industry analysts expect that it will, at some point, although how quickly it will happen remains to be seen.

“We’re being very, very conservative here and very cautious and we’re hoping, we’re hoping it’s supposed to pick back up,” said Linda Bettin, interim superintendent of Yorktown schools. “It will never be like it was, but I think oil prices are going back up.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

In Unusual Race, Houston Democrats Vie to Succeed Ellis

In the span of a month, a Texas Senate seat will have been vacated and effectively filled, an unconventional turn of events that has Houston Democrats scrambling to replace one of their most venerated legislators. 

The highly abbreviated contest is unfolding in Senate District 13, where Rodney Ellis is vacating his seat of 20-some years to serve on the Harris County Commissioners Court. His successor on the ballot will be picked July 16 by precinct chairs in the Senate district, which is spread across Harris and Fort Bend counties. 

"It's going to be a sprint," acknowledged state Rep. Borris Miles, who's vying for the seat along with House colleague Senfronia Thompson and former City Controller Ron Green.

The race was sparked by Ellis' election last month as the Democratic nominee for Harris County commissioner, a post he is all but guaranteed because no Republican is on the ballot in November. Winning the nomination virtually ensured him the job. The same is true for Senate District 13, meaning whomever can win the support of a majority of the precinct chairs later this month will likely succeed Ellis in the Senate. 

The domino effect might not stop there. If the winner is either Miles or Thompson, that would open a House seat and a spot on the November ballot, setting up another succession scramble among Houston Democrats. If either or both lose, on the other hand, they'd remain on the ballot for re-election to the House.

For those running for Ellis' seat, the race almost exclusively entails courting the 96 precinct chairs in Senate District 13 — 78 in Harris County and 18 in Fort Bend County, according to the state Democratic Party. 

"The No. 1 issue is the personal connection between the person and the precinct chair," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. "This probably advantages Miles, whose whole district resides within SD-13." 

"This is an odd race where money doesn’t matter," Rottinghaus added. "There’s not going to be any advertising. No one’s going to go door-to-door. This is all about who’s in the room and who can be persuaded."

Miles' House District 146 may lie almost entirely within Senate District 13, but his rivals are not without advantages when it comes to courting precinct chairs. Thompson's House district also shares some real estate with the Senate district, and "Ms. T" is a household name for many Houston Democrats. Green is the only one of the bunch to have won election citywide, and before that, he was a City Council member whose district was 85 percent within the Senate district. 

"For me quite frankly, it would be really hard to say who has a significant advantage," said Rodney Griffin, a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee and a precinct chair in Senate District 13. Thompson, he added, may have a "slight advantage" due to her long tenure in the House and the name recognition that comes with it.

As the field formed last week, one looming question was whether another state representative from Houston, Garnet Coleman, would throw his hat in the ring. He eventually took a pass, saying in a statement Thursday that he wants to remain in the House "as one of the most senior members of the body."

Retaining influence in the Republican-dominated Legislature appears to have been a consideration for both Green and Thompson. Green said one of the main reasons he decided to run was because he did not want to see Democrats lose their clout in Austin.

"I don’t believe it’s a zero-sum game," Green said. "I don’t believe we have to give up seniority in the House to be effective in the Senate."

Thompson has served longer in Austin than any other African-American or woman in state history. First elected in 1973, Thompson said it was not an easy decision to seek Ellis' seat, but she ultimately decided it would allow her to serve constituents "on a much larger scale in a smaller body — 31 as opposed to 150." 

Thompson believes her long experience would make her a senator in the mold of not only Ellis, who was first elected in 1990, but also Barbara Jordan, the ground-breaking African-American politician who represented Houston in the Texas Senate before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972.

"I believe I bring to this body of individuals that same kind of stature, that same kind of integrity and the same ability to work with people across the aisle," Thompson said. 

Miles brings a shorter resume to the race, having served in the Legislature for a fraction of the time Thompson has. He is positioning himself as a more forceful advocate for his constituents, promising not to go along to get along in the upper chamber.

"What's different from me and my other opponents is I'm a proven fighter for my community," Miles said in an interview, putting a finer point on the pitch he made after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down Texas' abortion restrictions. "With [Wendy] Davis gone, we need warriors in the Senate more than ever."

Miles launched his campaign as soon as it became clear Ellis would vacate his Senate seat, reportedly distributing yard signs outside the meeting where precinct chairs nominated Ellis for Harris County commissioner. He said he plans to cast a wide net in his outreach to precinct chairs and not just court those in his House district.

Green, meanwhile, is touting his ability to fill the seat without tipping the balance of power even more in favor of Republicans in Austin. 

"At the end of the day, I looked where Democrats stand and what we stand to lose as the session starts," Green said. "I don’t have to give up any sort of seniority in order to serve the district."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Abbott Ad Asks British Businesses to 'Declare Independence'

Gov. Greg Abbott is using this July Fourth weekend to urge British businesses to "declare independence" by moving to Texas — a pitch that coincides with the United Kingdom's own recent step toward sovereignty. 

TexasOne, a non-profit organization that serves as the marketing arm of the state's economic development office, announced Saturday it is pushing the message with a digital and social media campaign aimed at executives in London. The campaign includes ads that urge companies to "declare independence from high taxes" and relocate to Texas, where they will enjoy the "freedom to prosper." 

The idea of independence has been omnipresent in the United Kingdom lately. Abbott's pitch dovetails with the fallout from the UK's remarkable vote to leave the European Union, the so-called "Brexit" that rocked world markets and created economic uncertainty across the continent. 

"Independence Day is the perfect opportunity for Texas to launch this campaign in the U.K. to highlight how Texas offers companies the freedom to prosper and is a beacon of opportunity,” Tracye McDaniel, president and CEO of TexasOne, said in a statement. "Texas is inspiring a business revolution."

TexasOne said the ads can be seen on the Financial Times home page and 7,000 other London-based websites, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. 

Abbott is taking a page from his predecessor, Rick Perry, who launched advertising campaigns in California and New York in 2013 to lure businesses to relocate in Texas.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Ken Paxton's "Family Friends" Help Foot Legal Bill, Disclosure Shows

Editor's Note: This story has been updated throughout. 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, facing federal and state securities fraud charges, is getting more than a little help from his friends to foot his growing legal bill.

The Republican accepted more than $329,000 earmarked for his legal defense from donors and “family friends,” according to a newly released financial disclosure statement.

The document, which Paxton filed to the Texas Ethics Commission on Friday, shows gifts from more than two dozen people or couples labeled “family friends.”

That included a $100,000 gift from James Webb, a CEO of a medical imaging firm who lives in Frisco and is a major Paxton donor. He and his living trust have donated more than $355,000 to Paxton’s campaign.

Steven and Carrie Parsons, who have also donated thousands of dollars to Paxton’s campaign, chipped in $75,000 for his legal bills — the second-biggest gift, according to the filing.

Paxton is accused of misleading investors in a technology company — raising hundreds of thousands of dollars without disclosing that he was making a commission.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has filed a civil lawsuit against him, and he faces three felony criminal counts in a Collin County court. Paxton has vehemently denied the accusations and pleaded not guilty on all the criminal charges.

Paxton's defense team contains some of the state's top legal talent, and his tab is expected to reach millions of dollars in cases that could take years to resolve. The question of who was paying had swirled for months

Paxton has said he is not tapping campaign contributions or taxpayer dollars. Texas law bars such practices because his case does not involve his official duties.

In his filing Friday, Paxton categorized the defense fund money as a "gift." 

State bribery laws prohibit elected officials from receiving gifts from people or entities subject to their authority, and as attorney general, Paxton's could extend broadly. Seeking to circumvent those barriers, Paxton's filing cited an "independent relationship" exception. That allows gifts from family members and those "independent" of an officeholder's "official status."

A Paxton spokesman said Tuesday that the McKinney Republican carefully followed the law when raising the funds. 

"The financial burdens of defending against politically motivated prosecutions can be significant and Attorney General Paxton is grateful for the support of his friends in fighting back against these false allegations,” Matt Welch, the spokesman, said in an email.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Texas Announces Hundreds of Schools Receiving Pre-K Grants

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Texas will divvy up more than $116 million among 578 school districts and charter schools to bolster high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced Tuesday.

State lawmakers approved the grant program during last year’s legislative session after Gov. Greg Abbott named early education as his top legislative priority, though some pre-K advocates argued that the grants didn't go far enough.

The funding will reach nearly half of the state's more than 1,200 school districts and charters. Qualifying districts can receive up to $1,500 per student under the program, but received $734 per student. Grant awards ranged from $3,600 for smaller school districts to $9.2 million for the Houston school district, the state's largest. The awards will be paid out in two installments: the first one coming immediately and another this fall. 

"Implementation of this important grant program, which remains a priority of Gov. Abbott, provides important educational support to our youngest Texans," Morath said in a statement. "By working to ensure and expand high quality prekindergarten programs across our state, we take an important step toward ensuring every child is prepared for the classroom from the very first day."

The passage of House Bill 4 during last year's legislative session was uncertain at times amid criticism from staunch conservatives — including those on a panel that advises Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who saw it as an expansion of state-funded pre-K.

Early education advocates also lobbed criticisms at the legislation, hoping it would emerge stronger from the legislative meat grinder. They complained that it did not mandate — or fund — full-day pre-K or fully restore a similar, $200 million grant program lawmakers gutted in 2011. (The state currently funds half-day pre-K programs for students who are needy, including those in foster care and those from military families.)

But Abbott, and the lawmakers who championed the legislation on his behalf, stressed that the grant program would incentivize high-quality programs by allocating funding to districts that met certain standards including certified teachers and a parent engagement plan. It also would require districts to report pre-K enrollment and other indicators to the state for the first time, as they do for K-12, they noted.

At one point, the program was pegged to receive $130 million. That later fell to $118 million.

“It will be a challenge for school districts to turn these relatively small grants into sustained improvements in program quality and student performance,” said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children, in a statement. “These pre-K grants are a good step but state leaders will have to continue the $118 million per school year investment and support other community pre-K improvement efforts to see real returns for kids.”

The children’s policy organization emphasized that the $734 per-student grant award falls far short of the maximum $1,500 allowed under program. Twenty-eight districts that applied for the funds were either denied the grants or ultimately chose not to participate in the grant program, the group noted in a news release.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Featured Post

Political Trip Fundraiser