As the campaign for governor churns into its final weeks, Greg Abbott has made a huge point of championing charter schools around the state. Charter schools are funded by the government but operated independently of the state. For conservatives in Texas, charter schools have been a crucial rallying cry under the guise of “school choice.”
School choice has been a major platform for the Texas GOP for years, but it has certainly escalated recently. Across the state, Abbott has pledged his support for a voucher program that would allow Texas students to attend private or charter schools.
For critics, the governor’s fealty to charter schools comes at the expense of public schools, a major target for Abbott. In the past few years, Abbott has blasted public schools over COVID-19 protocols, critical race theory curriculum (which is not taught in K-12 schools), and books that purport to have adult or pornographic material.
Under his tenure as governor, Abbott has also overseen a disastrous teacher shortage in public schools, exacerbated by the pandemic and his own demonization of teachers. But, when it comes to education in Texas, Abbott has nothing but love for charter schools.
Abbott declared May 8-14, 2022 “charter schools week.” In a statement he noted, “At this time, I encourage all Texans to learn more about charter schools and to support the dedicated educators working to innovate and improve our public school system.”
Abbott’s promotion of charter schools aligns with the Texas GOP platform, but it’s also a lucrative source of campaign funds for Abbott. Some of the biggest charter school donors also happen to contribute mightily to Abbott.
The largest charter network in Texas is IDEA Public Schools, which was formed in June 2000. Across four states, they serve over 80,000 students. In Texas, they have campuses throughout the state, from Rio Grande City to El Paso to Tarrant County.
IDEA has faced scrutiny over its expenditures through the years. The Texas State Education Agency has conducted two separate investigations into IDEA’s spending. According to The Houston Chronicle, that first investigation dates to 2015, after a whistleblower came forward.
Despite a pledge to adhere to better financial practices, IDEA’s board approved the purchase of a private plane lease in 2019. That lease was halted after reporting from the Chronicle. The Chronicle also noted that since then, IDEA has gotten more than $3 billion in public education funding. The Board of IDEA also instigated their own internal review about funds, which prompted the departure of IDEA’s CEO and CFO last year.
That the largest charter school network in Texas has a pattern of financial impropriety is troubling enough, but it’s even more worrying that IDEA’s leadership is stacked with high-dollar Abbott donors. The Acting Chief Executive Officer, who is also the Chair of the Board of Directors, of IDEA is Collin Sewell. According to Open Secrets, he made two separate donations to Greg Abbott in June of $75,000 (totaling $150,000).
Abbott also has received over $11,000 since 2017 from another IDEA board member, Saam Zarrabi, again according to Open Secrets. A Houston Regional Board Member, Ernest Cockrell, donated $10,000 to Abbott in April of this year. In 2017 and 2019, Cockrell gave $25,000 to Abbott, as well.
An Austin Regional Board Member, Rex Gore, donated $10,000 to Abbott in 2020, and $50,000 in 2016. Another Houston Regional Board Member, Kathy Britton, made two separate $15,000 donations to Abbott earlier this year; as well as two separate $25,000 donations in March.
Last month, Abbott stopped at King’s Academy in Dallas, which is not affiliated with IDEA, to once again tout vouchers for charter schools. That prompted his opponent, Beto O’Rourke, to criticize his actions. “Abbott wants to defund our public schools with a voucher program that takes our tax dollars out of our kids’ already underfunded classrooms,” he said.
With early voting starting in less than a month, Abbott is pulling out all the stops to make his case for re-election. And it’s clear that promoting charter schools is a part of his plan. Given all the money Abbott has taken from the charter school field, nobody should be surprised.
A longtime writer and journalist, Jessica was thrilled to join the Texas Signal where she could utilize her unique perspective on politics and culture. As the Features and Opinion Editor, she is responsible for coordinating editorials and segments from diverse authors. She is also the host of the podcast the Tex Mix, as well as the co-host for the weekly SignalCast. Jessica attended Harvard College, is a onetime fitness blogger, and has now transitioned to recreational runner (for which her joints are thankful).