A newly elected band of bankrupt, bought and criminal-abetting representatives joined the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) this year. The 15-member SBOE sets curriculum standards; reviews and updates instructional materials; makes decisions on new charter school applications; and oversees the state’s Permanent School Fund—a $56 billion endowment that gives Texas local public schools another form of revenue besides tax dollars.
Redistricting led the state board of education even deeper into conservative hands, increasing its Republican majority from 9-6 to 10-5 and ushering in an ever-more radical crop of idealogues. Republicans flipped District 2 in South Texas and pushed out more moderate Republican incumbents Jay Johnson and Sue Melton-Malone. The four GOP newcomers to the board — Evelyn Brooks of District 14 in North Texas, Julie Pickren of District 7 in Southeast Texas, LJ Francis of District 2 in South Texas, and Aaron Kinsey of District 15 in the Panhandle — are pushing the board further right.
Brooks, Pickren, Francis, and Kinsey all campaigned to eliminate “critical race theory” from public school curriculums and support charter schools while evoking Christian values.
The conspiracy theories that these new SBOE board members are pushing foreshadow what debates around the state’s curricular updates could look like. Last year, conservative backlash forced the SBOE to delay updating the state’s social studies curriculum until 2025, when conservatives could count on a stronger contingent of right-wing voices on the board.
These new Republican SBOE members also took a record-breaking amount of charter PAC money, which is not incidental: The SBOE possesses the final authority to approve charter recommendations from Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath. Once an application is approved, a charter entity can expand across the state without the input of local or state elected bodies. All they need to do is to apply for what’s called an “expansion amendment” with charter-friendly TEA commissioner. Because of this, charter campuses increased by 43 percent across the state from 2013 to 2020.
These are the new Republican members who are now making major policy decisions for a state with the second-highest number of public school students.
But a look into Brooks reveals she has not been forthright about her background. In March 2021, Brooks told Community Impact News that she holds a Texas teaching certificate, but the Texas Observer found no record of Brooks’ teaching license on the State Board for Educator Certification’s official search site. When we asked Brooks why the state did not have a record of her teaching license, Brooks replied she did not need one since it was transferred automatically from the Virginia Department of Education. However, according to the Texas Education Agency website, those who hold a teaching certificate from another state still need to apply for a Texas state license in order to teach.
Brook’s financial history brings into question whether she is qualified to manage the $56 billion Permanent School Fund. In 2018, Brooks and her husband filed for bankruptcy. At the time they filed, they owed $152,728 in credit card debt and $102,602 in student loans. Brooks told the Observer that the debt was due to a business loss, but the couple filed for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, which is for personal — not business — debt.
Brooks’s commitment to public schools itself is questionable. She homeschooled her daughters and then enrolled them in a private religious school. When asked why her daughters do not attend public school, Brooks said public schools “were not working effectively” and that she hoped to “restore and repair public schools to have knowledge-based education,” meaning teaching only “factual and scientifically proven facts” with “no subjectivity.”
But Brooks herself is a religious extremist with anti-vaxxer and transphobic views. During her campaign for Frisco school board, she promised public school students “a curriculum in line with God’s principle.” On her Texas Education Agency profile page, she describes herself as someone with “extensive experience helping youth develop a Biblical worldview.” In a video from a September 2021 Frisco ISD Board Meeting, Brooks accused the board of “accepting funding from the health department to provide vaccines, contraceptives, hormone blockers, and eventually abortions” to students.
District 7 Member Julie Pickren served as a board member for Alvin ISD and private religious schools before joining the SBOE. She ran on a platform of banning “critical race theory,” using Texas’ tax revenue surplus for property tax relief rather than public school funding, and putting the Texas Constitution ahead of federal laws (the state education board, alas, does not have jurisdiction over the country’s entire legal system).
Pickren achieved notoriety after she participated in the Jan. 6 riots. She proudly documented her attempt to overturn the election results on social media, describing how she sang “God Bless America” as rioters forced their way into the Capitol. She has blamed antifa for the riots. As a result, voters booted Pickren from her seat on the Alvin ISD Board in 2021.
Her seditious activities do not end there. Brooks, Pickren, and reelected SBOE Member Will Hickman of District 6 have all signed the Texas First Pledge, committing to “work toward a fair and expedient separation of Texas from the federal government.” While Texiters might argue that secession is their God-given right, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional after the civil war in Texas v. White (1869).
Pickren has spread her own conspiracy theories. In a Facebook post, Pickren suggested the Biden administration has allied itself with the Taliban, writing, “Biden Administration: Taliban is Professional Easy to Work With.”
Pickren campaigned on “financial responsibility” all while working alongside a felon who has been imprisoned for defrauding government agencies. In October, Pickren, then executive director of the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency (GCCAA), touted the organization’s experience in fighting “woke” education in an interview with the Dallas Express. The TEA, which oversees all of the state’s public school districts, contracted GCCAA to train new school board trustees and district superintendents on how to administer their duties. The TEA used GCCAA as a conservative alternative to required training normally provided by the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), which conservatives have depicted as a promoter of “critical race theory” and supporter of the “far-left” National School Boards Association. Pickren facilitated this training until last winter, when her cohort and GCCAA founder James Dunn was exposed as a convicted felon, as reported by the Texas Tribune.
Dunn’s criminal history dates back to 2009, when he was convicted and sentenced to 33 months in federal prison for filing false reimbursement claims with the U.S. Department of Education. Dunn received funds from the Department of Education for contracts to provide vocational rehabilitation training to the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, a state agency that helps people with disabilities get jobs. But clients received no such training. A year later, Dunn was indicted and pleaded guilty to participating in a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs housing scheme.
Dunn served a total of four and a half years in prison for the two crimes, but his criminal activity did not stop there. The Houston Police Department confirmed with the Texas Observer that, in October last year, Dunn was charged and is wanted for aggregated theft. The police department did not give further details.
It is unclear how much knowledge Pickren had of Dunn’s past criminal activities. Pickren did not respond to our inquiries regarding her relationship with Dunn. Pickren acted as the executive director of GCCAA when it appears to have broken federal tax laws. According to the Internal Revenue Code, the IRS prohibits nonprofit organizations with tax-exempt status from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign.” GCCAA advertises its political campaigning services for school board candidates on its website. This campaign consulting agreement we found on its site offers school board candidates services in “campaign budgeting, strategic advising, and branding” for costs upwards from the $10,000 up-front fee.
Bennett’s donation to Francis is his second largest after the $294,246 donation Francis received from charter PAC Texans for Educational Freedom. The organization recruits, trains, and supports candidates who support “school choice” privatization efforts under the cover of eliminating “radical indoctrination, anti-American curriculum, and sexually explicit materials” from schools. Major contributors to Texans for Educational Freedom include longtime proponents of school privatization. These contributors include Texas Public Policy Foundation founder James Leininger, who since 1998 has attempted to push school vouchers in Texas; Richard Weekley, board member of the charter and voucher proponent Texans for Education Reform; and Stuart Saunders, board chair of the Heritage Classical Academy.
Last year, Heritage Classical Academy submitted its third charter application with a proposal to use curriculum from the conservative Christian Hillsdale College. The SBOE had rejected Heritage’s application two previous times. This time, after Republican SBOE members Jay Johnson and Matt Robinson joined Democratic members in rejecting Saunders’ charter, Johnson lost his seat to Aaron Kinsey, who was bankrolled with a $132,420 contribution from Texans for Educational Freedom.
Kinsey’s list of contributors reads as a who’s who of wealthy public school defunders: Texans for Educational Freedom; Charter Schools Now PAC, supported by the Walton family; oil tycoons Tim Dunn and Alex Cranberg, who have long funded private school voucher efforts; and Collin Sewell, CEO of the charter chain IDEA Public Schools, which used $15 million of public money to lease a private eight-passenger jet for its executives.
None of this bodes well for our public schools that are continuing to lose funding from charter school expansion. According to the public school advocacy group Texas State Teachers’ Association, charters enroll only six percent of Texas students but receive about 16 percent of the state’s public school funds.
The SBOE now oversees a statewide system struggling with students’ pandemic learning gap, years of underfunding, and a teacher shortage, fueled by low pay, ballooning class sizes, and right-wing attacks. The stakes are high for Texas students, parents, and teachers. Public integrity, on the other hand, is not.
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