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Meet your “education reform” groups

The Observer provides a primer.

For 20 years, Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) has been protecting our hospitals and business leaders from meddling trial lawyers, convincing the Texas Legislature to cap damage awards and closing the courthouse doors to some potential plaintiffs. For two decades, TLR has been wildly successful, perhaps the most successful special interest in Texas. Having conquered the civil justice system, TLR is moving on—to education.

Texans for Education Reform launched midway through the 2013 legislative session, and shares lobbyists, board members and a spokeswoman with TLR. (TLR president Dick Trabulsi, for example, sits on the school reform group’s board.) The two groups also share a few of the same deep-pocketed donors, wealthy individuals like Dick Weekley, Ray Hunt and Doug Foshee who helped the education group raise nearly $1 million for its new political action committee. Just under $200,000 was distributed to candidates ahead of the March primary.

It might seem strange that Texas’ preeminent tort reform advocates have taken a keen interest in public schools, of all things. But TLR’s move into education mirrors a nationwide trend over roughly the last decade: Advocacy groups and business leaders have spent big money trying to apply business principles to schools, a particular brand of school reform built around school choice and fewer job protections for teachers.

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Texans for Education Reform emerged last year to make up for lost time and to shake schools from the status quo. “Most of the other interest groups in this space weren’t advancing agendas; they were restricting bills,” Texans for Education Reform consultant Anthony Holm told the Texas Tribune last year. The group dispatched 19 lobbyists to the Texas Capitol, many of them highly paid, pushing charter school expansion, online learning and state takeover of low-performing schools. Texans for Public Justice noted the group was the 2013 session’s most formidable newcomer, debuting by spending as much as $1.2 million on lobbyists like former Senate education chairwoman Florence Shapiro, Rick Perry’s old friend Mike Toomey, and Adam Jones, a former deputy education commissioner.

The group’s spokeswoman, Sherry Sylvester, declined to discuss what the group will go after next session, offering only that it will advocate “research-proven reforms that empower parents, reinforce local control and provide pathways for intervention in chronically failing schools within a morally responsible timeline.”

Whatever that means, Texans for Education Reform will likely find itself in agreement with Democrats for Education Reform, which recently launched a chapter in Texas. That group—through a spinoff group called Education Reform Now Advocacy—has already distinguished itself as Texas’ No. 2 “dark money” spender in this year’s elections. Dark money is cash culled from undisclosed, usually corporate, contributors. In a flurry this spring, Democrats for Education Reform dropped $114,000 in anonymous cash on phone banks and mailers supporting four candidates: El Paso Reps. Marisa Marquez and Naomi Gonzalez; Ramon Romero, who upset longtime Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam in March; and Erika Beltran, a Teach for America alum who’s worked on school reform in Dallas, in a race for the State Board of Education.

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Democrats for Education Reform has been around for years, with support from multi-billion dollar hedge fund managers. But its Texas branch is just getting started, led by Jennifer Koppel, whose past titles include vice president for growth at the IDEA charter school chain. Koppel says she’s still forming the group’s Texas-specific strategy. “We are definitely still trying to think about where we’ll get involved legislatively,” she tells the Observer, but that they’ll support candidates who’ve been engaged with school reform issues and aren’t “beholden to the old way of doing things.”

Texans for Education Reform may have the power of the Texas GOP establishment behind it, but Democrats for Education Reform’s national scope gives the group a different sort of strength. Koppel speculates her group might take Texas lawmakers to see school reforms in action in other states.

“For Democrats there is this constant questioning to say, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’” she says. “And they’re asking these questions. It’s hard in a vacuum to build that confidence.”

While conservative groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation have embraced school choice from a free-market perspective, Koppel says there’s a simple reason Democrats should be enthusiastic about reform: “You’re looking at the places where these failing schools are, and they’re overwhelmingly places that are represented by Democrats. And you wonder where the disconnect is.”

Let’s start by stating the obvious: Texans for Lawsuit Reform is a malignant force in our politics, and any effort that is associated with them should be treated with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility. It’s always possible that they could end up on the right side of a given issue, but those cases are highly likely to be exceptional, and one should not lower one’s guard without a long and sustained demonstration of good faith on their part. Seriously, as much as possible, stay away.

As far as Democrats for Education Reform is concerned, the picture is a bit murkier. This is an area of often strong disagreement among people that otherwise agree on a lot of things. A lot of the dispute is about strategy and solutions, since for the most part there is common ground on what the problems are and what the goals, broadly speaking, ought to be. It’s a rift within Democratic circles that isn’t going away. Still, any time “dark money” is involved there’s ample reason for mistrust, and until Democrats for Education Reform articulate an agenda, it’s hard to know what to think. Keep your eyes and ears open and we’ll assess as we go.

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