'Support public schools': AG Ken Paxton sues 6 Texas districts over electioneering claims

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Judges have granted restraining orders or injunctions in the past week against two of the six school districts Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued over claims that they're illegally using public money to advocate for candidates or policies in the Texas primary elections.

The accusations come after last year's state legislative session left many school districts financially frustrated as lawmakers didn't pass meaningful increases to public education spending with Texas schools facing the lowest inflation-adjusted state and local funding since 2020, according to an American-Statesman analysis.

The Texas House also rejected school choice proposals that would have used public money to pay for private education, which were championed by Gov. Greg Abbott, leaving Republican members who voted against the governor's legislative priority vulnerable to his wrath and campaign war chest at the ballot box.

A 429th District Court judge in Collin County granted a restraining order against the Frisco school district and a judge in the 17th District Court in Tarrant County granted an injunction against the Castleberry school district, Paxton announced Thursday night.

Both orders were part of civil cases in which Paxton last week accused six school districts of electioneering, or encouraging voters to cast their ballots for a specific candidate or purpose.

Primaries: Why Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas AG Ken Paxton are seeking to influence voters in Bastrop

Paxton also brought cases against the Denison, Denton and Aledo school districts in North Texas and the Huffman district near Houston. The Castleberry district is near Fort Worth, and the Frisco district is north of Dallas.

The six lawsuits largely center on accusations that school district administrators encouraged employees or community members to vote for candidates who are pro-public education.

For example, Paxton accused administrators at a Denton elementary school of sending emails to the staff encouraging people to “vote for candidates who ‘support public schools’ and, apparently, who are against ‘vouchers,’” according to the lawsuit.

School choice, or vouchers, dominated Texas education policy discussions in 2023. Abbott threw his political weight behind school choice, touring the state to advocate for the proposal and even asking religious leaders to push for the measure from the pulpit. The efforts to pass the program died during the regular and subsequent special sessions last year, and Abbott vowed to oust from office the GOP House members who voted against school choice.

A coalition of Democratic and mostly rural Republicans House members concerned that a school choice program would syphon money away from already cash-strapped school districts successfully blocked the measure from advancing out of the lower chamber.

Last week, campaign finance reports showed Abbott spent $4.7 million in the past month to back GOP primary challengers to incumbents who voted against school choice. The governor's spending blitz on campaign advertisements, text message drives and polling came after he received in December a $6 million donation from Jeffrey Yass, a Pennsylvania billionaire and leading advocate for school choice issues.

More: Gov. Greg Abbott spends $6 million on Texas House candidates who back 'school choice'

While there's nothing wrong with school administrators encouraging community members to vote in general, they can't use school resources to ask people to vote for a specific candidate or ballot measure, said Jim Whitton, an attorney who practices school law with Brackett & Ellis PC in Fort Worth.

The most typical time schools face accusations of electioneering is during school bond referendums, which are ballot measures on which voters decide whether to pay for large projects such as campus renovations and construction, Whitton said.

"The schools must be very careful that any materials they put out about a bond election is strictly factual," Whitton said. "You cannot put out anything that's persuasive."

Typically, if someone accuses a school district of wrongfully using school resources to advocate for candidates or measures, the Texas Ethics Commission sends a warning and the district stops the activity, he said.

Advocacy questions have previously created tension between state lawmakers and local governments, such as school districts, counties and cities.

Lawmakers for years have taken issue with local governments sending employees to the Capitol to advocate for or against certain bills and policies.

Last year, Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston introduced a bill that would have made it illegal for local governments to hire lobbyists or pay for membership in an organization that hires lobbyists. The bill made it through the Senate but didn’t get through a House committee.

Election day for the primaries is Tuesday. Voters will cast ballots for all 150 House offices.

Who represents me? Find your federal, state, local officials with the Statesman's database

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Paxton sues six school districts over electioneering claims