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Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 4:56pm

In education reform debate, one group stands out

MGN Online
Monday, May 13, 2013 - 10:53am

As his legislation expanding the state’s virtual school network reached the floor of the Texas House in early May, Rep. Ken King was focused on what it was not.

“This is not a voucher bill. This is not a vendor bill,” said King, R-Canadian. “I’m the last guy on this floor that’ll ever vote for a voucher.”

That did not reassure several of his colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, who objected to allowing profit-making companies to offer online courses to public school students.

The debate over King’s bill, which ultimately passed, put the dynamics that have frustrated efforts to pass education overhaul legislation this session on full display. It also demonstrated the influence a single education advocacy group has come to wield over policy decisions.

At one point during the House debate, state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, asked whether that group, Raise Your Hand Texas, a staunch opponent of vouchers, was opposed to the measure.

After being handed a phone by state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican who is the chairman of the House Public Education Committee, Rep. Dan Huberty, a Humble Republican who supported bill, responded, “I have a text message right here that says they were for it as it came out of committee.”

The reference to the group was not the first made on the House floor — or in legislative hearings — and it shows the muscle Raise Your Hand has flexed in a legislative session in which many school choice advocates had high hopes for sweeping reforms.

Founded in 2006 by the San Antonio grocery mogul Charles Butt, Raise Your Hand Texas has become a seasoned lobbying force on education issues at the Capitol. It supports policies that advance high-performing public schools for all students, says its chief executive, David Anthony.

No. 1 on its list of legislative priorities is combating private school vouchers. In the current legislative session, much of the group’s efforts have been aimed at shaping charter school policy.

A measure broadly expanding the state’s charter school system became the primary legislation of new Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, who with the backing of Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, made increasing school choice a chief goal of the legislative session. When Patrick, R-Houston, initially proposed it, Senate Bill 2 made wide reaching changes to the state’s charter school system, creating a separate state oversight board and eliminating entirely a state law that capped charter contracts at 215.

But the bill only cleared the Senate after Patrick agreed to put restrictions on the growth of the charter schools, in response to concerns raised by Raise Your Hand about the state’s ability to properly monitor such a rapid increase. It awaits consideration on the House floor, after the lower chamber’s public education committee put additional limits on the increase in state charter contracts.

Patrick said the organization’s suggestions had improved the final legislation.

“We may not always agree, but in the end they have been key players in everything that we’ve done, and I think it’s worked well for both sides,” he said.

Raise Your Hand’s influence in negotiations over the legislation has won it both respect and exasperation in education circles.

“I’ve seen Raise Your Hand play the role of cautious supporter and maybe even a little bit of concerned supporter,” said Mike Feinberg, a co-founder of the KIPP charter school network, who sits on Raise Your Hand’s board.

Feinberg said he supported the measure but was disappointed in changes made by the House committee.

The strongest criticism of Raise Your Hand has come from Texans for Education Reform, an advocacy organization that emerged at the beginning of the legislative session. The group, whose legislative package includes measures designed to encourage the growth of online education and charter schools, diverges philosophically from the more-established Raise Your Hand.

Though he said there was room for overlap in the policies both advocacy groups support, Anthony Holm, a Texans for Education Reform adviser, said he viewed Raise Your Hand as one of the special interest groups that have obstructed progress in the state’s public schools.

“It took me six to eight weeks to realize that most of the other interest groups in this space weren’t advancing agendas, they were restricting bills,” Holm said. “It’s much more difficult to advance affirmative legislation or to come up with solutions.”

Though the fate of Texans for Education Reform’s measures is unclear, with just over two weeks left in the legislative session, many of them have struggled in the House, Holm said.

Aycock said the Senate has typically been “much more aggressive in what we call pro-reform issues” than the lower chamber — but he said he expected more legislation to move out of his House committee now that a major testing bill had progressed in the Senate.

“The House’s focus is on the nine out of 10 kids in a traditional classroom setting,” he said. “I’m very pro-charter, pro-home school, pro-private school, pro-all of the above. But my focus as chair of public education has been trying to find good policy for those nine out of 10 kids.”

Regardless of whether the organization’s policy agenda succeeds this session, Texans for Education Reform’s long-term mission is to spark a transformation in the way Texas educates its students, by promoting solutions in a way that other advocacy groups have not, Holm said.

Texans for Education Reform will spend at least $645,000 in lobbying contracts this year to build awareness for those solutions, according to filings with the Texas Ethics Commission. (This is an estimate because reporting requirements allow multiple contracts to reflect a single payment shared by representatives of the same firm.) Among the group’s founders are Dick Weekley and Richard J. Trabulsi Jr., veterans of the state’s tort reform battles who now control one of the state’s wealthiest political action committees. Florence Shapiro, the Plano Republican who preceded Patrick as leader of the Senate Education Committee, is a lobbyist with the group, along with Mike Toomey, a former lawmaker and chief of staff to Perry.

Raise Your Hand has its own political firepower. It reports spending an estimated minimum of $350,000 on a lobbying team that includes former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and Aycock’s daughter, who works at the Austin firm HillCo Partners. Though the group does not make contributions, Butt is a top political donor in the state who has given substantial sums to both Republicans and Democrats, as well as to a public schools-oriented political action committee.

All of the group’s advocacy efforts are aimed at making it a reliable, credible source on education policy for members of the Legislature, said Anthony, who joined Raise Your Hand in 2010 after serving as the superintendent of the Cypress-Fairbanks school district for seven years.

Challenging the idea that Raise Your Hand was defined by what it was against, Anthony said that the focus of the group, which runs professional development and school turnaround programs, extends well beyond the legislative session.

“You don’t get invited to the table if you don’t bring something [you are] in support of or just talking points in the areas that you don’t agree,” he said.

Whether Texans for Education Reform will also become a financial player in elections is a decision the group will make after the legislative session ends, Holm said.

“We are committed to successfully increasing the delivery of education, period — this session and sessions to come,” he said. “All tactics to that objective are available to this organization.”

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/05/12/fight-education-reform-one-group-wields-power/.

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