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School leaders encouraging voter participation called into question

The following editorial ran in The Facts on Feb. 25:

State government officials, who are calling for independent school district leaders to essentially keep their mouths shut about urging people to get out and vote or supporting candidates who simply are strong backers of public education, need to slow their roll.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton targeted the Brazosport, Holliday and Lewisville districts with intimidation tactics he attempted to pass off as an effort to clamp down on “unlawful electioneering.” His claims, however, are highly tenuous and appear more akin to the state government’s usual tricks of trying to keep voters who disagree with them at home. In this case, the disagreement is simply about the value and importance of strong public schools.

Paxton recently sent cease-and-desist letters warning the districts, alleging they are violating state law by using taxpayer money to distribute messages to their staffs advocating for specific candidates and policies.

Brazosport ISD Superintendent Danny Massey made it convincingly clear this was not the case, saying neither he nor district officials used taxpayer funds to endorse any candidates.

“There was no district funds or resources used to express favor toward any candidate,” he said. “We will certainly comply with the election code.”

Paxton referred to posts made to Massey’s personal Twitter account, which were retweeted by the Brazoswood High School Twitter account, including a picture of the superintendent and Scott Milder, the Republican challenging Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the March primary race.

“Thank you @smilder for standing up for public ed,” read the post, dated Jan. 29. “Red dot for Scott. Vote in the March 6 Primary.”

Other posts made from Brazoswood High School Principal Rita Pintavalle’s personal account and retweeted by Massey appear to advocate for Milder in the lieutenant governor’s race. Massey also retweeted a post from Bob Covey, vice president of the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD board of trustees, that linked to an interview with candidate Kristin Tassin.

Tassin, president of the Fort Bend ISD board of trustees, is challenging state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, in the March Republican primary.

“This woman is my choice if I could vote for her (Tassin),” Covey posted Jan. 24.

“She has stood up to LG Patrick and his continuing knock on public schools! We need her in our TX Legislators for all students!”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with these tweets or for public school officials to support candidates who in turn support public schools. It’s natural and commonplace. What would be strange is if public school leaders backed a candidate who wanted to undermine public schools, such as through a voucher or so-called school choice plan that would rob already cash-strapped public school districts of more badly needed funding.

There are concrete reasons why public school teachers, administrators and other supporters of public education support particular candidates. It’s because those candidates’ platforms align with their own interests. This is not rocket science.

“Uniting behind the common cause of public education is not a violation of any law,” points out Jeff Crownover, the Lewisville school district’s general counsel, in a letter stating the obvious to Paxton.

School administrators and teachers and/or their trade groups have supported candidates who shared their interests for as long as memory goes back, but mainly they usually just urge teachers and staff to vote and make their voices heard. So why the sudden — and unusual — accusations by top officials in charge of Texas that schools districts and educational groups are trying to unfairly sway elections?

The first place to look to answer that question is the state’s recent history of attempts to tamp down voter participation of certain groups of voters. Federal courts in fact have recently ruled that both the state’s voter ID law and highly gerrymandered electoral maps for congressional and legislative voting districts suppressed voter turnout by discriminating against poor people and minorities.

But aside from that shady track record, there’s another factor that could have sparked the misguided cease-and-desist letters from Paxton. That is simply this: Since early voting began, Democrats have so far seen participation dramatically surge compared with the last midterm primary elections in 2014.

When power is threatened, we might expect it to lash out in an attempt to protect itself. Perhaps some of that is at play here.

As for Massey, he has said his tweets or posts were always his own, and now his Twitter handle makes that even more clear: @DannyMassey44, with “Tweets are my own!” in the section below his picture.

Maybe the most troubling part of this situation is that even if the state does not carry out the threats mentioned in the letters sent to school districts, those letters still could have a chilling effect among school officials and educators and prevent them from exercising their right to urge votes in favor of public education’s interest. That would be a shame.

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