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'Fear', 'intimidation': Texas school districts, experts respond to AG's electioneering lawsuits

A classroom with a yellow floor is seen with empty student tables and chairs.
Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
KUT News
Ken Paxton has sued school districts across the state.

Attorney General Ken Paxton's lawsuits accusing at least seven school districts of electioneering ahead of last week’s primaries have school administrators and attorneys worried about how it will shape the conversation around school vouchers this election year.

Gov. Greg Abbott unsuccessfully pushed for the creation of education savings accounts — a school voucher-like program — throughout the 2023 legislative session and ensuing special sessions. The programs would set aside public funds for parents to use to pay for their children’s tuition at private schools, homeschooling or other alternative education programs.

James Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University, said it’s not surprising educators raised the alarms about school vouchers ahead of the primary elections. He said Paxton's flurry of lawsuits is another sign of the growing polarization in Texas politics and education, and the political motives behind Paxton’s lawsuits are especially clear.

“Obviously, what the Republican leadership at the state level is trying to do is leverage letting go some money for public schools and for teacher salaries predicated upon some kind of a school voucher program," he said. "And teachers are opposed to school vouchers.”

People gathered to protest school vouchers during a demonstration at the Texas Capitol.
Becky Fogel
People gathered to protest school vouchers during a demonstration at the Texas Capitol.

The ripple effects of last year's legislative session

Things came to a head in the fourth special session of the legislature when House members voted to remove the creation of an education savings account from House Bill 1. The bill failed to pass as a result, even though it also would have provided teacher raises. Leading up to the primaries, Abbott endorsed challengers to House incumbents who opposed his school voucher plans.

The basic per-student allotment for Texas public schools, which was also wrapped up in HB 1, was $6,160 in the 2022-2023 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency. That amount has remained the same since 2019. Frisco ISD and other districts say this lack of a funding increase to account for inflation has left them millions of dollars behind 2019 funding levels.

Opposition to vouchers has not only come from Democrats, but also conservative Republicans living in rural areas where there are no private school alternatives.

“This is not a unilateral situation where it's just teachers against everyone else," Riddlesperger said. "This is a complex issue that divides people not only by political party, but also by place of residence and has really complex implications for public education.”

Paxton said in a news release he filed the lawsuits to ensure elections are not “illegally swayed by public officials improperly using state resources.”

Like the governor, Paxton used his own endorsements in the primaries to unseat lawmakers he saw as political enemies — in his case, those who voted for his impeachment. Some of his endorsements overlapped with Abbott’s, while others didn't.

“These are government employees charged with the education of our children,” the statement reads. “They must respect our laws. I will continue to use every legal remedy available to me to stop this unlawful conduct.”

Three people sit behind computers at a long, rounded podium. On a projector above them is a page with the Frisco ISD logo. The text at the bottom of the screen reads: A. Act on the offer of settlement presented to Frisco ISD by the Office of the Texas Attorney." Dynette Davis, Gopal Ponangi, John Classe, Mark Hill, Marvin Lowe and Stephanie Elada are shown as voting yes, marked by a green "Yes" next to their names. The slot next to Rene Archambault's name is blank because she was not present for voting.
Toluwani Osibamowo
Frisco ISD trustees vote on whether to negotiate a settlement with the Texas Attorney General's Office on Thursday, March 7, 2024. The state's lawsuit accuses the district of violating state law by electioneering for particular candidates or parties on FISD's government affairs Facebook page ahead of the March 5 primary elections.

How are school districts responding?

Frisco ISD voted last week to negotiate a settlement the attorney general’s office proposed after a Collin County judge issued a temporary restraining order against the district, requiring officials to change the language of social media posts on the district’s government affairs Facebook page.

Esther Kolni, general counsel for the district, said she sought opinions from other school district lawyers who she said are concerned the state’s interpretations of electioneering laws might be too broad and overreaching.

Kolni said despite the ongoing litigation, Frisco ISD will continue to cultivate what it calls a “culture of voting” among faculty, staff and students who can do so.

“We as a school district have an obligation to educate,” she said. “It is our job. It is fundamental to our existence. We cannot let fear or intimidation prevent us from upholding the principles of this republic.”

Four lawsuits are still pending against Denison ISD north of Sherman, Huffman ISD northeast of Houston, Hutto ISD near Austin and Aledo ISD west of Fort Worth.

Frisco ISD isn’t the only school district that was sued to publicly criticize Paxton’s litigation. Aledo ISD put out a statement on X March 1, about an hour before the attorney general’s office announced the lawsuits against it and Huffman ISD in a news release.

“To suggest that our public school budget is not impacted by this Primary Election - the Primary Election through which those who make decisions for funding for public schools will be elected - certainly seems less than transparent to us,” the statement reads.

Denton and Castleberry ISDs have reached agreed temporary injunctions with the state.

The Castleberry lawsuit accused Castleberry School Retirees Association President Linda Jo Galvan of sending an email encouraging people to vote for Pat Hardy in the State Board of Education primary against Brandon Hall — misspelled as “Hill” — who, according to his campaign website, supports school choice and charter schools.

Renee Smith-Faulkner, Castleberry ISD’s superintendent, allegedly forwarded that email to staff. She told KERA News in an email that realizing there was “no intended violation of the law” led to the lawsuit's resolution.

Hall, who defeated Hardy in the March 5 Republican primary, addressed the lawsuit in a post on X.

“If liberals in the educational establishment are coming after me this hard, you know I am right over target,” he wrote. “Renee Smith-Faulkner is failing students by illegally electioneering during school hours with school resources. She needs to focus on education and drop the politics.”

Jim Whitton, an attorney with Brackett and Ellis in Fort Worth, has represented primary and secondary schools — both public and private — for more than 40 years. He said his guess is that the emails and posts under legal scrutiny were honest mistakes made by administrators ignorant of the state’s education and election codes, which he said most people are.

“I view my job as a school district's lawyer to keep it and its employees out of the courtroom, to advise them in advance," Whitton said. "So, ‘yes, you can do this’ or ‘no, you can't do that’ so that they don't get in this situation.”

What’s new to Whitton is the subject matter at the center of these lawsuits and the attorney general’s role in them. In his experience, Whitton said he's mostly had to warn administrators about political advertising ahead of school bond elections.

And he said citizens are usually the ones to make complaints to the Texas Ethics Commission, which reaches out to school districts directly to resolve any potential law violations rather quietly.

Whitton said he’s worried that in an abundance of caution, school faculty and staff will be afraid to do or say anything about the causes that affect them.

“I'm afraid they may think, ‘I better not do this. I better not lobby my state rep or my state senator for or against vouchers because I don't want to get drug into one of these lawsuits,’” he said. “Not knowing the fine line that says, yes, they can do it as an individual. They just can't do it using public money.”

Got a tip? Email Toluwani Osibamowo at You can follow Toluwani on X @tosibamowo.

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Toluwani Osibamowo is a general assignments reporter for KERA. She previously worked as a news intern for Texas Tech Public Media and copy editor for Texas Tech University’s student newspaper, The Daily Toreador, before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She is originally from Plano.