Mike Hixenbaugh and Kate Martin: Texas politicians rake in millions from far-right Christian megadonors pushing private school vouchers
Texas is a state that has long remained impervious to school vouchers, perhaps because rural Texans like their local schools and don’t want to see them bled dry. But in this year’s election, voucher advocates are investing heavily in their preferred candidates. This report is from NBC News.
Groups committed to giving parents the option of sending their children to private schools using taxpayer dollars — sometimes known as “school choice” or “vouchers” — have given millions of dollars to Republican candidates in Texas this year, helping to win key races and pushing some establishment lawmakers further to the right on the issue. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott recently pledged to make school choice a priority in the next legislative session if he wins re-election over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.
As a result, political observers say, public school funding is effectively on the ballot Tuesday.
The push for private school vouchers has been funded in large part by Defend Texas Liberty, a Christian nationalist-aligned political action committee led by a former far-right Republican state lawmaker and bankrolled by a pair of West Texas billionaires. The PAC has spent nearly $10 million this year, largely backing candidates who support public funding for private education and attacking those who oppose it, according to an NBC News analysis of Texas Ethics Commission campaign finance reports and data compiled by the nonprofit OpenSecrets.
In Texas the strategy has been the same as that used across the nation–do whatever you can to destroy trust in public education.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said big spending by groups like Defend Texas Liberty and local fights over the way schools address racism, history and LGBTQ identities have “softened the ground” for school privatization — in Texas and nationally.
“These groups have been demonizing what is being taught in public schools, and that’s the fastest way to erode faith that public schools work,” Rottinghaus said. “Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant. If people believe that it’s true, then it’s politically potent.”
Defend Texas Liberty has been spending heavily, one more example of how a handful of very rich guys can throw money around in hopes of swaying the vote.
Defend Texas Liberty is led by former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Republican who earned a reputation as the state’s most conservative lawmaker before leaving the legislature in 2021. Nearly 90% of the PAC’s funding this year has come from Tim Dunn and the family of Farris Wilks, a pair of billionaire oil and fracking magnates who have expressed the view that Texas state government should be guided by Biblical values and run exclusively by evangelical Christians. Combined, they’ve spent tens of millions of dollars over the past decade funding far-right Texas candidates and a network of nonprofits and advocacy groups that push conservative policy ideas.