Forest Wilder writes in the Texas Monthly about a scheme hatched by charter operators and voucher zealots to launch private school vouchers, which have been stalled in the legislature for years. Vouchers were originally intended to allow white students to escape racially integrated school. Now they are falsely sold as a means of helping poor kids “escape failing schools,” but in fact they are almost always used to subsidize the private school tuition of affluent families.

The article shows how a charter chain—ResponsiveEd—is trying to sneak vouchers into the state. Responsive Ed was called out in Slate in 2014 for teaching creationism. Slate wrote: “Responsive Ed has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state.”

Today, ResponsiveEd has two charters in Texas which operate 91 different charter schools, including an online school. When Betsy DeVos was Secretary of Education, she gave ResponsiveEd a five-year grant for $40.8 million to expand. The CEO of ResponsiveEd is Board Chair of the Texas Charter School Association. State Commissioner Mike Morath approved 13 new campuses for the chain in 2022.

Wilder writes:

The proposal landed on Greg Bonewald’s desk like a pipe bomb. Bonewald, a soft-spoken career educator, had served as a teacher, coach, and principal in the fast-growing Hill Country town of Wimberley for fifteen years. In 2014, he took a bigger job as an assistant superintendent in Victoria, about two hours to the southeast. But he maintained an affection for Wimberley, and when its school board sought to bring him back as superintendent this year, he was thrilled. His honeymoon would be short.

In a document obtained by Texas Monthly, stamped “Confidential” and dated May 3—the day after Bonewald was named the sole finalist for the job—a Republican political operative and a politically connected charter-school executive laid out an explosive proposal for “Wimberly [sic] ISD.” (Out-of-towners frequently misspell “Wimberley,” much to the annoyance of locals.) Apparently, the plan had been in the works for months and had been vetted by the outgoing superintendent. But Bonewald said no one had bothered to mention it to him.

One of the authors of the plan was Aaron Harris, a Fort Worth–based GOP consultant who has made a name for himself by stoking—with scant evidence—fears of widespread voter fraud. In June, he cofounded a nonprofit called Texans for Education Rights Institute, along with Monty Bennett, a wealthy Dallas hotelier who dabbles in what he regards as education reform. The other author was Kalese Whitehurst, an executive with the charter school chain Responsive Education Solutions, based in Lewisville, a half hour north of Dallas.

Their confidential proposal went like this: Wimberley would partner with Harris and Bennett’s Texans for Education Rights Institute to create a charter school tentatively dubbed the Texas Achievement Campus. But “campus” was a misnomer, because there would be none. The school would exist only on paper. Texans for Education Rights would then work with ResponsiveEd, Whitehurst’s group, to place K–12 students from around the state into private schools of their choice at “no cost to their families.”

The scheme was complex but it pursued a simple goal: turning taxpayer dollars intended for public education into funds for private schools. The kids would be counted as Wimberley ISD students enrolled at the Achievement Campus, thus drawing significant money to the district. (In Texas, public schools receive funding based in large part on how many students attend school each day.) But the tax dollars their “attendance” brought to the district would be redirected to private institutions across the state.

The plan was backed not only by an out-of-town Republican operative and a charter-school chain with links to Governor Greg Abbott, but by a Wimberley-based right-wing provocateur who bills himself as a “systemic disruption consultant.” Texas education commissioner Mike Morath—an Abbott appointee—also seemed to support the deal.

Its proponents have called the scheme pioneering and innovative. Though the effort ultimately failed in Wimberley, one of its backers says he is shopping the plan around to other districts. Critics have raised all manner of alarms.

I’m not accusing anyone of laundering money, by the legal definition, but there sure are a lot of hands touching a lot of money in this,” said H.D. Chambers, the superintendent of Alief ISD, a district in the Houston area that serves 47,000 students. He also pointed to another, more sweeping, concern: “It’s a Trojan horse for vouchers.”

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