Texas educators face a political choice in next month’s primaries: Help their last remaining Republican allies fend off challenges from the right, or support a burgeoning movement of new Democratic candidates?
In bright red Texas, educators have often thrown their support behind Republicans who oppose their own party on vouchers and school choice.
Both the left and right agree it’s those Republicans, including retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, who for years have stopped conservatives’ education agenda in GOP-controlled Austin.
But a wave of liberal activism this year, including a host of educator candidates, is drawing many of them to Democratic primaries — where voters are already turning out in force in Texas.
That dynamic worries some public school advocates, who say the Democrats’ newfound energy could backfire this primary season, hurting their longtime allies on the right.
“Democrats, if you are concerned about public education, you need to cross over in the primary and vote in the Republican primary for those who support public education,” said Bobby J. Rigues, an Aledo school board and vocal public education advocate.
Public education’s champions on the right are an endangered species in Texas.
Though the Texas Republican Party platform calls for “freedom of choice” for education — a nod to charter schools and vouchers — rural Republicans have traditionally sided with educators, who fear those policies could hurt public schools that are central to their communities.
After years of failure to pass significant reforms despite controlling both chambers in Austin, conservatives are determined remove the last remaining roadblocks from their own party in 2018.
Stephanie Matthews, vice president of public affairs for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said conservatives are “cautiously optimistic” that a change in the House leadership, along with a new class of GOP allies on next month’s primary ballot, will finally yield progress on top priorities like school choice, which allows parents to enroll their students in schools and courses other than the ones assigned by their address.
That prospect terrifies educators, who say the right’s plans for education would decimate the public school system. They’ve long fought conservatives in Austin to stop those policies and are signing up as candidates themselves in both parties.
“November 8, 2016, made me an activist,” said Gwenn Burud, a deaf education teacher in North Texas who is running for the state Senate against Republican Kelly Hancock.
Burud, a lifelong Democrat, saw Straus as an ally and called him the “voice of reason” in the last legislative session. This year though, she said: “We have a primary, and we need to have Democrats to come to the primary.”
So far, Democrats have seen an uptick in early voting. For the first time since 2008, when Texas helped decide the results of the Democratic presidential primary, Democrats cast more votes than Republicans on the first day of early voting.
But many of their candidates, including Burud, face long odds in November. In the general election, they could go up against candidates educators say are hostile to public education.
At a GOP forum in Denton on Wednesday morning, Republican state Rep. Lynn Stucky encapsulated moderate Republicans’ frustration. Stucky served for 15 years on the Sanger school board, and his wife was a public school teacher. His enthusiastic GOP challenger, Mark Roy, home-schools his children and has the backing of a far-right group, Empower Texans.
Roy used his time at the forum to rail against failures of the public school system, the influence of big education companies and standardized testing. In an interview after the forum, he accused textbook companies of turning children into “little socialists.”
“Your public education is broken in a lot of different ways,” said Roy. “Teachers are passing kids that don’t pass.”
Leaders in the school choice movement describe their movement differently. They say they support the public school system, in addition to alternative schools.
“We are not an either/or movement; we believe that there are fabulous traditional schools, and that teachers love their kids and teach because they want to make a difference,” said Matthews.
Democrats facing their own competitive primaries say they need educators to stay focused on Democrats in next month’s primaries. They say relying on Republicans to help stop other Republicans isn’t giving students or teachers the advocates they need.
“I don’t think we need someone just keeping things in check,” said Rhetta Andrews Bowers, a Democrat running in a competitive primary for state House District 113. “We need to proactively take the interests of teachers, administrators and students … it needs to be about them.”