How Vouchers Were Defeated In Texas by Sammy Smoot (December 1999)

This speech was delivered on Nov. 5, 1999, before the 22nd annual FFRF convention, San Antonio. Samantha Smoot was introduced by Catherine Fahringer:

“About five years ago here in Austin, the organization started by the daughter of our former governor, Ann Richards, set out to do something about the danger of the Christian right. She recognized that these ‘good Christians’ were really not very good at all, and were using religion to justify everything, and making a general nuisance of themselves in every aspect of life by imposing their interpretation of ‘the good book’ on others. Their ultimate aim was to wrest the government from the hands of the people and put the reins in the hands of God.

“The Texas Freedom Network was born and we lost Cecile Richards to geography–she went out of state. The capable Samantha Smoot became the executive director of the organization. She didn’t miss a beat. She is just fantastic.

“Samantha is a 5th generation Texan and a Navy brat. She is no stranger to politics, having managed campaigns at the local, congressional and statewide levels for office-seekers from Connecticut to Michigan to Houston, Texas. From observation I am aware that Samantha Smoot has not stepped into shoes too big for her. She is a veritable whirlwind and indefatigable in her efforts to shore up the fatigued wall of the separation between church and state. I know you will welcome her as one of us. Labels aside, we are all good people who want to preserve freedom for all.”

By Samantha Smoot

The Texas Freedom Network is a statewide, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and fights here in Texas many of the same battles that I know each of you fight in your states: everything from curriculum battles and textbook censorship, to monitoring and publicizing the money and the leaders and the agendas behind religious political extremists.

I want to give you an idea of the Texas political climate right now. What’s on the front page of the papers these days is prayer in schools, especially before the holy of holies–Texas football games. Religious political extremists are using fear and fanning the flames of fear in the wake of tragedies at Columbine in Colorado and the Wedgewood Baptist church. After creating this fear they are offering as a panacea the posting of the Ten Commandments, praying before football games, inviting God back, as if a god could be taken out.

When you take prayer and marry it to football, that’s one heck of a battering ram in Texas. The wall of separation of church and state is undergoing some strain here, let me tell you.

In the last election cycle, not just Republicans but very conservative Republicans won every single statewide office in Texas, including all judicial elections. School boards all over our state have had letter after letter from the governor and the attorney general’s office telling them that absolutely they can pray before football games, they just have to make sure students are doing the praying.

Sadly, many students in our state are being used as pawns.

Most of what we’ve done here in Texas on the legislative front has been to fight the very strong, well-funded push to pass state-funded vouchers for private and religious education.

Each of you will face voucher battles in your states, if you haven’t already. Texas is a bit of a case study. So far in Texas we’ve won, which is kind of surprising given what we were facing. There are so many connections between school prayer and vouchers, between the move to stop anti-hate crimes legislation and vouchers. There certainly are connections between the push to teach creationism and vouchers. In Texas, we’re only two votes away on our state Board of Education from Kansas. I really feel that vouchers are the key in the strategy to transform our country into a theocracy.

The voucher lobby has become very clever about disguising and shielding this agenda. We have a very unholy alliance of religious political extremists who would like everyone to be taught the bible in school, and they’ve linked up forces with some dangerous partners–free market thinkers and wealthy individuals who stand to make untold amounts of money off privatizing our public schools. This is a dangerous combination.

What we have on our side is a national and fundamental commitment to quality, secular public education for every kid. We can win, but only if we are very careful and very smart, because we will always be outspent in this fight.

My organization is secular, but we have a wing called the Texas Faith Network with 400+ religious leaders from a variety of faiths, very brave individuals who stand up to the religious right and say you don’t represent the religious point of view or the Christian point of view. This past Wednesday, we had a press conference in Austin to attack Governor Bush and Vice President Al Gore’s plans to endorse so-called charitable choice. The very first specific policy proposal of Gov. Bush’s presidential campaign was an $8 billion expenditure of social service monies directly to pervasively sectarian organizations–a shocking amount of money, a stunning proposal! The news media hardly blinked! Not one reporter in the accounts I read asked, first of all, where is this money even going to come from? Where are the corollary cuts? Bush assures people that this would pass constitutional muster because the money wouldn’t be used to proselytize. Yet he’s also made it clear that his intention is to push the envelope just as far as it can go. Of course, if he’s the individual responsible for nominating Supreme Court justices, that envelope may go quite far indeed.

Gov. Bush said every time his administration sees a human need he will look to a church or a religious institution to fill it. Unbelievable! Our ministers did a press conference and got some good press saying the religious community does not support this. The wall of separation between church and state is fundamental to protecting our religious liberties and state government should never be in a position of picking which churches get funded and which don’t. Government shouldn’t be in a position of regulating religion–we don’t want it.

Afterwards, we had a meeting and got started talking about school prayer and football, and shaking our heads–as progressives in Texas do when we get together, so often–and one Baptist minister told the following story. He’s a big guy. He had been a football player in high school, and every single game throughout his high school career the coach would tap him to say the prayer before the game. His coach had designated him as pray-er. Larry didn’t mind praying, he said, except for the fact that no sooner was “amen” out of his mouth than the coach would say, “Okay you guys, get out there and get your butts in the dirt,” and they’d run out. And Larry said, “You know, I just always felt strange about that. That the two things were so close together. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I realized what the coach was saying to us was entirely appropriate for a football game–it was the prayer that was not.” Thank goodness we have religious leaders who are willing to stand up and say that.

Let me come back to vouchers now and set the scene for you of what we faced just this last year. Thank goodness this is a state whose legislature meets only every other year for five months! (You would think that that would keep them out of trouble, but it doesn’t always work that way.) We just came out of a legislative session last spring running from January through May. The one before that was in 1997. That year the voucher folks brought a voucher bill to the floor of the Texas House three different times. It was defeated the first two times and the third time the vote was tied, 68-68.

The voucher lobby–which had already spent a million dollars on a very slick public relations campaign with 800-numbers and radio ads, TV ads, all the lobbyists money can buy–got this 68-68 vote and tasted blood. What we saw in the intervening year and a half before this last legislative session was an unbelievable expenditure of funds.

A pro-voucher group announced that they were going to lay down $50 million to create the nation’s largest single privately-funded voucher program. They chose a public school district in San Antonio, a particularly small and poor one, with 95% of the families living at or below the poverty level, called Edgewood Independent School District. In Texas, Edgewood is famous for being the original plaintiff in a school-funding equalization lawsuit more than 25 years ago. They chose Edgewood, already a well-known poor, largely Latino district, to hold up as a voucher fishbowl, to show us all what vouchers would do. There’s been harm done in Edgewood, but it worked in our favor in the end.

So first, $50 million dollars on the table. Second, parents in Austin Independent School District started getting pieces of mail that looked kind of like Publishers Clearinghouse packets–you will have this $4,000 certificate to spend on the private school of your choice . . . if you support vouchers in the next legislative session. Third, we started seeing expenditures in Texas in the 1998 campaigns. We don’t have any limits on what individuals can spend in campaigns in Texas. Unfortunately that means that one individual or a handful of people can have an overwhelming impact on an election. Having tasted blood, having had a tie vote on vouchers, that’s what the voucher lobby decided to do.

One man, also from San Antonio, Dr. James Leininger, spent $3.8 million in Texas elections just in 1998. This gentleman had pledged $45 of the $50 million for the Edgewood private voucher program. He also had started Putting Children First, the primary voucher lobby group, and to undergird their efforts, a conservative litigation organization, the Texas Justice Foundation, a conservative think tank known as the Texas Public Policy Foundation, several private voucher programs, CEO San Antonio, which became CEO America, which spawned in turn the biggest one in the country, the Children’s Scholarship Fund, and numerous other anti-choice and anti-gay rights organizations.

Basically every Democrat in the state was losing, except for two on the statewide level. Two races were absolutely neck and neck, and James Leininger guaranteed a loan, one for $950,000 and one for $1.1 million, the week before the election. The money put these candidates over the edge. Literally I believe our Lieutenant Governor and our State Comptroller owe their elections to this one religious political extremist. It is absolutely chilling. That’s why my organization this year got involved in campaign finance reform. (But that’s another story.)

In Texas, we have a weak governor (many of you may have figured that out already). The lieutenant governor is stronger; he controls all the legislation in the Senate. The pro-vouchers had a clear majority in the Senate. They were already starting to spend more money. The governor highlighted vouchers in his State of the State speech in January. The very next day state senators from both parties started getting phone calls from constituents, who all basically said: “I just got this phone call and they asked me if I supported school choice like the governor does, and I do, and they told me they’d patch me through to you and I should tell you.” These phone calls, by the way, cost $8 to $12 apiece.

This is what a money-is-no-object lobbying campaign can do. It can pull the trigger the very next day, turn on the telephones, and make it look to office-holders like there is some grassroots presence out there demanding these vouchers. Well, let me tell you, it’s a wind machine and nothing more than that. But we, on our part, have to work very hard, both to expose it, and show them live grassroots activity, because that’s what exposes it for the wind machine that it is.

We took a look at the political situation in front of us which was bad, and created a strategy composed of just a few prongs. First and foremost, we wanted to keep this issue controversial enough that Gov. Bush would never put his shoulder into it. We wanted it to be in the papers, and we wanted him not to feel that he should risk any of his 75% approval points by doing something about this issue. On that count we were certainly successful. By the end of the legislative session, Gov. Bush himself said he supports vouchers, but the opponents of school choice had done a good job of scaring people by telling them that vouchers will hurt public schools. Unfortunately, he’s no longer as gun-shy about this issue nationally because he’s made it a part of his campaign, so I think we all need to work to turn the heat up on this issue and back him off. Because you can’t be pro-public schools and pro-voucher. You can’t. We can’t let him have it both ways in this presidential campaign.

Next we started doing research, uncovering all this money. It wasn’t until January that we found out about most of this $3.8 million. We went to the state ethics commission. Page by page we spent 250 hours painstakingly documenting and counting this, and released it to the news media . . . to not very much fanfare initially. But during the course of the legislative session, every time vouchers were covered, it was mentioned: how much money the voucher lobby had sunk into these races. And that was really our goal–to show that it was an effort funded by a small handful of ultra-wealthy individuals who had ties to religious extremist organizations.

Then we rolled up our sleeves and began to organize. We took our coalition-building very seriously. We had at the table, and talking to office holders, people who represented urban Texas, suburban Texas and rural Texas. In rural Texas, vouchers don’t hold much appeal, because Friday night everyone’s at the football game. There’s one school, everyone goes there, and there are no private schools. There wasn’t anything in it for them. Suburban folks, same thing–people moved to these areas for the schools. Parents are not happy about money coming out of their suburban schools to finance a voucher program.

We made absolutely sure that the communities that were most likely to be most affected and hardest hit by vouchers were represented. In Texas, that’s African-Americans and Hispanics. The voucher lobby used to be: “competition will cure public schools” and “child-centered funding” and “school choice.” Now they talk about poor minority children trapped in failing schools. We all know that you don’t take an urban failing school and take a quarter of the money and the best-performing students out of it and expect it to do better! The best messengers for that message were the respective leaders from communities who were going to be affected.

Finally, and obviously, we made sure that we were bi-partisan. In Texas, in most places, this issue mostly falls on partisan lines, but we certainly have pro-public education Republicans who are not interested in a voucher scheme. We worked very hard to surround them with enough people and comfort level so that they were able to say that publicly, and that turned out to be critical as well.

It is critical to make the faith community part of a coalition. People will assume that because the religious community stands to benefit financially from publicly-funded vouchers for religious education, that they must be for it. There are obviously some church leaders who are for vouchers but I wouldn’t say that most are. It’s a very important part of our outreach to find those religious leaders who understand that quality public education for all kids is important for our community and that vouchers threaten the separation of church and state, and let those people step forward and say so. We organized 100 of them around the state to sign a statement of opposition against vouchers, which we distributed to all the legislators, and had them hold a press conference in the Capitol outside the hearing room where a voucher bill was being heard, and it was very powerful.

We got on the phones and did our grassroots best to make sure that legislators were hearing from Texans on this issue. School board members, parents, religious leaders, everyone expressed a sense of outrage about this threat to public education. That is how we exposed the wind machine, the fake grassroots activity of the other side. We have so many more people on our side if we will go find them and be public in our activities.

The three things most important here to our victory, which you can take home with you, are the following:

Number one: stay on the offensive. Get out there first and talk about what vouchers would mean for public schools, that they would hurt public schools, they would take money out of public schools. Make sure that you are exposing the money and the motives behind the people who are pushing vouchers. Generally, in a legislature the people who are pro-voucher are also the people who have voted against smaller class sizes, school lunches, longer school year, higher teacher pay, everything that everyone agrees would be good for education. So let’s expose them for who they are–these aren’t people who have any education credentials whatsoever. The year that we had the tie vote in Texas the other side would come to town, had these rallies, bus in kids from religious schools. This year every week or ten days we were in the press doing something, hammering at them on their money and what was happening in Edgewood. We organized a briefing for the news media featuring 100 parents from Edgewood. That room was packed. The parents would start crying about what was being done to their schools and it was unbelievably moving. Just keep out there, be first, be in the news.

Second: stay on message. In our hearts we are terrified about what vouchers would mean for separation of church and state. I know that I am. But our best message for talking to people who are undecided on this issue (this is still a politically new issue and many people are just hearing about vouchers for the first time) is that vouchers take money out of already under-funded neighborhood schools. Say it over and over and over again: vouchers hurt public schools.

We need to reinvest in education. In every community it’s going to be a different debate, but we need to be about real reforms that help troubled public schools, whatever those are in your state, but not about a badly unproven voucher scheme that would drain monies out of our schools. The pro-voucher lobby this time let themselves be distracted. I’m afraid that they learned their lesson so it’s even more critical that we stay on our message.

Third: bring it home. Talk about the school down the street. Go visit with the principal and ask, if you had to cut 10% out of your budget, what would you cut? Then tell people what he or she said. We tour public schools, and I haven’t been to an over-funded public school yet. I don’t think they exist. Parents and concerned community members understand this. There’s no 10%, there’s no 20% to be cut in our public schools. Every new proposal that was put forth we would calculate the dollar amount that would be taken out of each legislator’s school district, bring it home to them.

We know in Texas the pro-voucher lobby is coming back. Should Governor Bush remain the Republican front-runner and become the nominee and possibly even the President, the voucher lobby gains what they haven’t had before: a well-known, good-looking, national spokesperson on message on their issue, and that’s when we all get in trouble.

Samantha Smoot is Executive Director, Texas Freedom Network. A Texas native, she has managed campaigns for Democrats and Republicans running at local, congressional and statewide levels. Before joining TFN in 1998, she served on the political staff of EMILY’s List, a pro-choice women’s political organization. The Network is a group of 6,000 Texans concerned about the growing influence of the religious right political movement, and mobilizes grassroots support for public education, religious liberties and civil rights.

Freedom From Religion Foundation