Mimi Swartz, a writer for the Texas Monthly, explored the background, the funders, and the consequences of the well-coordinated campaign to privatize public schools—by defaming them and discrediting those who run for local school board seats. She focuses on the travails of one dedicated school board member, Joanna Day in Dripping Springs, Texas, who contended with insults and threats in her life.

The following is a small part of a long article, which I encourage you to read in full:

The motivations for these attacks are myriad and sometimes opaque, but many opponents of public education share a common goal: privatizing public schools, in the same way activists have pushed, with varying results, for privatization of public utilities and the prison system. Proponents of school privatization now speak of public schools as “dropout factories” and insist that “school choice” should be available to all. They profess a deep faith in vouchers, which would allow parents to send their children not just to the public schools of their choice but to religious and other private schools, at taxpayers’ expense.

But if privatizing public education is today cloaked in talk of expanded liberty, entrepreneurial competition, and improved schools for those who need them most, its history tells a different story. In 1956, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, a group of segregationist legislators in Texas, with support from retiring governor Allan Shivers, began concocting work-arounds for parents appalled by the prospect of racial integration of public schools. One idea: state-subsidized tuition at private schools. That never came to pass, but it was Texas’s first flirtation with vouchers.

Privatization proponents have since switched up their rhetoric, pitching vouchers as an opportunity for poor urban families to save their children from underperforming neighborhood schools. That hasn’t worked out either. In various experiments across the nation, funding for vouchers hasn’t come close to covering tuition costs at high-quality private schools, and many kids, deprived of the most basic tools, haven’t been able to meet the standards for admission.

School funding in Texas is based largely on attendance—as the saying goes, the money follows the child. Considerable evidence suggests that vouchers would siphon money from underfunded public schools and subsidize well-to-do parents who can already afford private tuition. Critics frequently cite a program in Milwaukee, where four out of ten private schools created for voucher students from 1991 to 2015 failed.

“I don’t think that vouchers serve any useful purpose at all,” said Scott McClelland, a retired president of H-E-B who now chairs Good Reason Houston, an education nonprofit. Ninety-one percent of Texas students attend public schools. “There isn’t enough capacity in the private school network to make a meaningful difference in their ability to serve economically disadvantaged students in any meaningful numbers, and it will divert funding away from public schools.”

In Texas, an unusual alliance of Democratic and rural Republican leaders has for decades held firm against voucher campaigns. The latter, of course, are all too aware that private schools aren’t available for most in their communities and that public schools employ many of their constituents. But the spread of far-right politics and the disruption of public schools during the pandemic created an opening for activists to sow discontent and, worse, chaos. “If they can make the public afraid of their public school, they will be more likely to support privatizing initiatives. Then that puts us back to where we used to be with segregation of public schools,” says former Granbury school board member Chris Tackett, who, with his wife Mendi, has become an outspoken advocate for public education and a relentless investigator of the attempts to undermine it.

They have their work cut out for them. In the past, just a few right-wing legislators pushed for privatization and were routinely ignored. After all, the state constitution spelled out “the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” But as times have changed, so has the interpretation of that guarantee.

Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s former Education Secretary, set up shop in Dallas with her American Federation for Children to push against “government schools” in favor of “school choice.” Political PACs such as Patriot Mobile Action, an arm of a Christian wireless provider in North Texas, continue pouring millions into school board races and book bans to promote more religious education. Patriot has joined other recently formed PACs with inspirational names such as Defend Texas Liberty and Texans for Excellent Education, all of which supposedly support better public schools but are actually part of the privatization push. But by far the most powerful opponents of public schools in the state are West Texas oil billionaires Tim Dunn and the brothers Farris and Dan Wilks. Their vast political donations have made them the de facto owners of many Republican members of the Texas Legislature through organizations such as the now dissolved Empower Texans and the more recent Defend Texas Liberty, which the trio uses to promote restrictions on reproductive rights, voter access, and same-sex marriage. Almost as influential is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, where Dunn is vice board chair.

A November 2021 TPPF fund-raising letter, sent to supporters in advance of the Eighty-eighth Legislature convening, argued that “public education is GROUND ZERO” in the fight for freedom. “The policy team and board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) believe it is now or never,” it read, signaling that the long-standing and robust alliance against vouchers was unusually vulnerable. “The time is ripe to set Texas children free from enforced indoctrination and Big Government cronyism in our public schools.” The letter went on to herald a $1.2 million “Set the Captives Free” campaign to lobby legislators to save Texas schoolchildren from “Marxist and sexual indoctrination” funded by “far-Left elites for decades.”

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, generously backed by Dunn, the Wilks brothers, and their organizations, has long been a proponent of privatizing public education (and of starving it through reductions in property taxes). He has made vouchers a primary legislative goal of the current session. Mayes Middleton, of Wallisville, a Republican state senator and former chair of the TPPF-aligned Texas House Freedom Caucus, filed a bill to create the “Texas Parental Empowerment Program,” proposing education savings accounts that are essentially a form of vouchers. Representative Matt Shaheen, of Plano, who is a member of the Texas Freedom Caucus, has introduced a measure that would guarantee state tax credits for those who donate to school-assistance programs—such as scholarships for kids wishing to go to private schools.

Governor Greg Abbott, knowing all too well the political headwinds that vouchers have faced, has long been wary of publicly supporting them, so he has undermined public schools in other ways. While campaigning early last year, he promised to amend the Texas constitution with a “parental bill of rights,” even though most, if not all, of those rights already existed. By then, “parental rights” had become a dog whistle to animate opponents of public education. (As the Texas Tribune put it: “Gov. Greg Abbott taps into parent anger to fuel reelection campaign.”)

During the recent intensifying crisis on the border, Abbott publicly floated a challenge to the state’s constitutional obligation to give all Texas children, including undocumented ones, a publicly funded education—a step his Republican predecessor, Rick Perry, had denounced years earlier as heartless. Then last spring, Abbott made headlines with his first full-throated public endorsement of a voucher program.

So here we are, with distrust in public schools advancing as fast as the latest COVID-19 variant. The forces behind the spread of this vitriol are no mystery. Those who would destroy public schools have learned to apply three simple stratagems: destabilize, divide, and, if that doesn’t work, open the floodgates of fear