Want more tax dollars spent on schools without regard to performance or accountability? Billionaire Charles Butt’s lobbyists have you covered.
Raise Your Hand Texas, funded by the H-E-B grocery magnate from San Antonio, pushes for increased public-school spending while opposing every substantive education reform at the state Legislature.
“The reality is that Raise Your Hand Texas is an organization focused on protecting the status quo. They do not want to empower parents and, more than anything, they do not want children to have educational options,” said Randan Steinhauser, lead organizer of the Texas School Choice Coalition.
In an article headlined “In Education reform Debate, One Group Stands Out,” the Texas Tribune reported that “Raise Your Hand Texas has become a seasoned lobbying force on education issues.”
The praise wasn’t surprising. RYHT is a corporate sponsor of the Tribune, and benefactor Butt has contributed $300,000 to the left-leaning website.
Also bankrolled by Butt, one of the biggest political donors in Texas, RYHT commands the attention of state lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike.
This year, the group helped scuttle a bill that would have provided K-12 scholarships to low-income and at-risk children. SB4 passed the Senate, but died in the House.
Anthony Holm, a spokesman for Texans for Education Reform, said Raise Your Hand Texas is not “advancing agendas, they restrict bills.” That strategy, he said, makes it “much more difficult to advance affirmative legislation or to come up with solutions.”
“Raise Your Hand Texas painted the tax scholarship as a voucher,” noted Arif Panju, attorney with the Institute for Justice, which promotes school choice across the country.
“But,” he added, “they’re losing credibility. Parents understand the choice issue, and they’re more than capable of making a choice for their children.”
Steinhauser blames House Speaker Joe Straus for bottling up education reform initiatives.
“With more than 100,000 students on charter school wait lists, it’s clear that parents in Texas want options. And shame on Joe Straus for standing in their way,” she said.
Matthew Prewett, founder of the competition-oriented Texas Parents Union, puts it bluntly: “Straus is taking his cues from Raise Your Hand Texas.”
Jeff Judson, who is challenging Straus in the 2016 Republican primary, told Watchdog.org:
“A majority of states have enacted school choice programs, but not Texas. School choice is a priority of the Republican Party, is supported by huge majorities of Republican voters, was a priority of the lieutenant governor — and passed with a bipartisan super-majority in the Senate. But under Joe Straus, it did not even get a hearing in the House.
“Who does Joe represent when he blocks such a popular bill?”
Founded by Butt in 2006, Raise Your Hand Texas is headed by David Anthony, former superintendent of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District.
Anthony also serves as a spokesman for the Texas Association of School Administrators.
Courtesy of RYHT, hundreds of public school principals have taken summer courses at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Butt, whose mother was a schoolteacher, believes principals are crucial to successful public schools.
Though a graduate of the private Wharton (Pa.) School of Business, the 77-year-old Butt feels private competition undermines government schools.
Anthony assails what he calls an “inequitable funding system” for K-12 education in Texas. To make ends meet, he said he scaled back support staff positions at Cypress-Fairbanks.
Yet the latest data from his district show that non-instructional staff continue to outnumber teachers.
Exercising its connections at the 2015 Legislature, Butt’s Raise Your Hand Texas lobbying team included Michelle Smith, daughter of Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock. Aycock was appointed by Straus to chair the House Education Committee, the panel that wouldn’t give a hearing to SB4.
Aycock told Breitbart Texas his daughter’s main client was another K-12 advocacy group, Fast Growth School Coalition.
Without referencing RYHT, the Killeen Republican said, “If any of her bills regarding Fast Growth School Coalition come to my committee, then I’ll certainly recuse myself from that decision.”
Smith also works at Austin’s powerhouse lobbying firm, HillCo Partners, another corporate sponsor of the Texas Tribune.
“They say it’s all about the children — it’s all about the teacher unions and the bureaucrats,” says Robin Lennon, co-chairman of the Kingwood Tea Party. “It’s all cronyism.”
Despite obstructionism by Butt & Co., Steinhauser says the tide is shifting toward reform and competition in education.
“We are seeing more and more organizations focusing on parental choice options, and a large number of legislators are vocalizing their support for school choice,” she told Watchdog.
Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected].