By Kimberly Burkett
I’m currently teaching my preschool-aged son to read. We work regularly on sight words. We study Dick and Jane-like readers together. We encourage every new word that he identifies. As we go through these important exercises and celebrate new milestones, I’m reminded of what George Carlin once said. Not only is it important to teach our children to read, but also “teach your children to question what they read.” Sadly that important lesson seems to be lost on many.
I recently read a blog posted by Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility entitled “Maybe They Should Call it the ‘Superintendent’ PAC.” The blog questions the backers and agenda of Texas Parent PAC, a political action committee “for parents, grandparents, parents-to-be, and anyone who supports high quality public education.” Texas Parent PAC works to identify and encourage pro-education candidates.
The Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility blog alleges that Texas Parent PAC isn’t who they claim to be because in addition to parents, superintendents, H-E-B supermarket’s CEO Charles Butt, and former State Senator and Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff (many of whom are also parents) donate to their organization. According to the article, “‘Superintendent’, ‘consultant,’ and ‘educator’ are the primary occupations of Parent PAC’s donors in the last cycle.” The blogger then infers that because educators contribute to an education-focused PAC that their candidates are “hand-picked by school superintendents to find ways to pick our pockets clean.”
If you look beyond the fact that Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility opposes additional funding for public education and endorses candidates that will continue the trend we saw last session when $5.4 billion was cut from public education, there still remains something bothersome about their irrational rant against Parent PAC. So as Carlin suggested, I questioned what I read. I asked the Texans for Fiscal Responsibility Facebook page what is the difference between Texas Parent PAC, their supporters, and political endorsements and the PAC arm of Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, their supporters, and their endorsements? What has Texas Parent PAC done that is so reprehensible to warrant an attack blog? What was odd about educators supporting an education-focused organization? Is that in any way surprising or nefarious?
My questions were not answered, and apparently not welcomed. Rather, Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility president and CEO, Michael Q. Sullivan and social media coordinator Dustin Matocha attacked me online with tired clichés like “liberal,” “troll,” “teacher-hating,” “big-spending,” and “bureaucrat.” (Ironically, I’m none of these things with the possible exception of big-spending; but I have no idea how they would know about my personal Target and Amazon shopping habits.) They also claimed I had “anti-religious” and “anti-parent” agendas. Mr. Sullivan also inferred that I wasn’t an involved parent – a baseless and random attack.
With those kinds of attacks, I had to wonder – did I hit a nerve? Perhaps Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility isn’t accustomed to being questioned about their supporters and deep-rooted agenda. When one of my discussions following their attacks was deleted (which to their credit, Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility rarely seems to do), I began to believe that perhaps there was something they didn’t want their followers to realize.
Who Are They Really?
So, here’s their secret — Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility have their own backers driving an agenda that is, in most cases, distinctly at odds with those of Texas Parent PAC and other pro-public education organizations. The views of public education espoused by their leaders would likely dismantle Texas’ public education system and, in many cases, put it into the hands of non educators and profit margin-focused business people.
Texans for Fiscal Responsibility is the advocacy arm of Empower Texans, a non-profit organization that promotes “free markets” (my translation: no taxes, pro-business and profit, cut spending to allow for more tax breaks for business). According to their website, the six-member board of directors of Empower Texans Foundation includes Mr. Sullivan and three members of the Dunn family of Midland, Texas. The four-member board of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility is comprised of Mr. Sullivan and three members of the Dunn family. It seems the Dunn family may have an inordinate amount of influence on Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility – perhaps more than a handful of superintendents donating to an education-focused political organization. In case you’re not familiar, allow me to introduce you to the Dunn family. According to his online biography Mr. Timothy Dunn is a lifelong oil man and serves as “chairman of the board of directors of Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. He is also vice chairman of the board of directors at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.”
So let’s talk about Texas Public Policy Foundation. The foundation declares a mission to “promote and defend liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise in Texas and the nation.” This think tank is similar to the Heritage Foundation in their pursuit and promotion of right-wing policy. The Texas Public Policy Foundation seemingly has considerable influence over many conservative lawmakers, including Governor Rick Perry. In fact, the copyright of Rick Perry’s conservative fringe manifesto, “Fed Up!”, is owned by none other than the Texas Public Policy Foundation. If you review their website, you will find an education center that promotes policies representing all the greatest hits of conservatives’ views for education, including school choice (my translation: giving tax money to for-profit private schools and charters), virtual learning (my translation: promotion of the questionable and yet-to-be fully vetted for-profit online schools that are cropping up around the nation), market-based incentives to teacher compensation (my translation: tie teacher pay to standardized testing results), and the Texas taxpayer savings grant program (code word: school vouchers).
Mr. Dunn is also the founder and member of the Board of Trustees of the Midland Classical Academy, a private school that describes itself as an academy that provides an “academic foundation from a Biblical worldview.” Their website goes on to describe that they are “committed to recovering classical education and the Christian worldview in order to revitalize the impact of the Holy Scriptures on human history through such godly and educated disciples of Jesus Christ as God may raise up by this means.” Further, the website states that “Midland Classical Academy strives to operate as an extension of the family under the conviction that education is the primary responsibility of parents and the immediate family rather than that of the State.” (Unfortunately this seems at odds with Article I Section 7 of the Texas state constitution, which indicates that supporting and maintaining education IS the responsibility of the state Texas and its legislature.)
What Does it All Mean?
Okay, now that you know the leaders and their causes — what do you think? Is there a reason that Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility might benefit from attacking public education, attempting to defund it, and trying to discredit pro-education organizations through illogical blogs and attack pieces? Could it be helpful to Mr. Dunn’s academy to replace pro-public education lawmakers with those that might support school vouchers to private academies with missions like his? Would attacking a political action committee that supports pro-public education candidates possibly further those goals? Is there a deeper agenda than their simple and oft-repeated “fiscal responsibility” mantra suggests? Could it be the desire to profit from public education through private schools, charter schools, virtual schools, or other for-profit interests? Could it be the desire to re-model education into the holy grail of conservatives — the very vision laid out by the Texas Public Policy Foundation education center? What’s the motivation behind their crusade against public education and groups like Texas Parent PAC? The facts are there. You decide.
Despite what Mr. Sullivan and his little henchmen suggest, I’m just a mom. I don’t work for the government. I’m not a lobbyist. I’m not a bureaucrat. I’m not a politician. I am not an educator. In fact, I’m not even a contributor to Texas Parent PAC. I’m just a mom. My husband is a principal at a Title I elementary school. Despite the fact that he’s an “overpaid educrat,” he owes more money in student loans for his degrees in education than the annual salary he brings home. Yet my husband struggles daily with the stresses of ensuring that his low socio-economic (and in some cases homeless) students receive the education they rightly deserve. In addition to my husband’s students, we worry about our son — one of the 160,000 students the 82nd legislature did not fund last session (despite the convoluted spin some lawmakers and even the state comptroller have tried to put on this). If groups with ulterior motives continue to attack public education, what will our son’s opportunities and future look like? I can assure Mr. Sullivan and Empower Texans, my child is my only agenda. Can they say the same?
In the end, I’m a mom who was attacked for questioning what I read on the Empower Texans website.
“Teach your children to question what they read.”
Truer words have never been spoken. When my child advances beyond Dick and Jane readers, here are some of the lessons I’m going to teach him:
- The difference between a blog, a news article, an editorial, and commentary: Many blogs like to disguise themselves as news articles by using official-looking, news-like bylines to give an air of authority. Sometimes new sites will run commentary or opinion pieces (a photo of the author is often a good tip that you’re not reading a news article). On occasion, sites like Yahoo! News will even pick up blogs and run them. Understand what you’re reading. A blog is often nothing more than an online personal journal. What you are reading now is my opinion, not news. There isn’t any guarantee to its validity. Always keep that in mind.
- Consider the source: My absolute favorite example of this is the scary “article” I read after Obamacare had passed. It said we were all going to be micro-chipped so the government could track us. The “article” (which has since been discredited by various sources, including Snopes) was on a website that was encouraging people to buy gold and other supplies in preparation for some unknown, apocalyptic, government-ending event. Many groups like this promote uncertainty and paranoia to make a quick buck. Don’t fall for it.
- Lies, damned lies, and studies: Who funded that “study?” Is a study that supports school vouchers funded by an association of private schools that would benefit from passing school vouchers? Check the fine print — is a study that says eating burgers and fries offers health benefits actually funded by a fast food restaurant association? Make sure the authors or funders of a study don’t have a horse in the race. Any one can do a “study” with varying degrees of validity. Check to see how the study was conducted. If it isn’t scientifically sound, originating from a research-based university, or coming from a peer-reviewed journal or magazine, there’s likely nothing to see there.
- Use the About Us link: when reading an article or blog from a group you’re not familiar with, find the “about us” link on their website before you read any further. Who funded them? Who’s on their board of directors? What is their stated mission? These are all important clues to the slant you’re possibly about to read.
- Research and follow the money: Who stands to profit from what you’re reading? What benefit would a group have to gain from influencing your opinions? Research to find this — it won’t necessarily be handed to you nor will they admit to it freely. All of the information I’ve presented and linked in this blog didn’t come from a team of private investigators. I didn’t do a deep internet dive looking for dirt nor did I perform extensive background checks. How did I do it? Google. It’s a powerful tool and available to most everyone — use it.
But the most important lesson I will teach my son is to always have the courage to think critically, analyze what he reads, and make his own decisions. And above all else, take the time to question what you read.
- Taking Aim at Public Schools (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
- Grading my High School Teacher on Public Education Issues and Texas Parent PAC (educatefortexas.wordpress.com)
- Lies, Damned Lies, and State Budgets: The Fictional World of Texas Lawmakers (educatefortexas.wordpress.com)
- Breaking the Code – Translating Candidates’ Rhetoric on Education, Part One (educatefortexas.wordpress.com)
- Breaking the Code – Translating Candidates’ Rhetoric on Education, Part Two (educatefortexas.wordpress.com)
- Grading my High School Teacher on Public Education Issues (educatefortexas.wordpress.com)