Pro-charter PAC spends $200,000 on El Paso State school board candidate

A pro-Texas charter school political action committee has pumped more than $200,000 into the March 1 Democratic primary race for the open seat of the El Paso State Board of Education.

Charter Schools Now PAC contributed $206,908 in in-kind donations to Omar Yanar’s campaign for the council’s District 1 seat, according to Yanar’s Feb. 22 campaign fundraising report covering Jan. 21 and Feb. 21. 19 fundraising period. Contributions include political advertising, campaign consulting services and a municipal teleforum.

Yanar is the founder and CEO of El Paso Leadership Academy, a small public charter school that enrolls approximately 300 students. He takes on former middle school science teacher Melissa Ortega and former special education paraprofessional Laura Márquez in the March 1 Democratic primary.

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Omar Yanar

Yanar did not respond to requests for comment.

Anthony Elmo, political director of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a statewide union of educators, called the in-kind donation “a very crazy, very striking and unusual thing.”

Elmo said he believes Charter Schools Now, the Austin-based political arm of the Texas Public Charter Schools Association, sees District 1’s open seat “as an opportunity for them to pick up a win and get a very strong following.” pronouncement of the charter” to replace Georgina Pérez. .

Pérez, an advocate for increased charter school accountability, did not seek reelection and will step down in December after serving two terms; she endorsed Ortega. El Paso County comprises 45% of the 30-county District 1 seat, which extends into suburban San Antonio.

The 15-member State Board of Education sets curriculum standards for public schools, reviews and adopts textbooks, sets graduation requirements, and oversees the Texas Permanent School Fund. Board members can veto or approve the Texas Education Commissioner’s recommendation for new charter school applicants.

A Charter Schools Now board member said he was helping Yanar’s campaign because of his charter school background.

“No one is better qualified to fairly evaluate proposals for new charter schools than an educator who has gone through the entire process and been successful,” said Starlee Coleman, CEO of the Texas Public Charter Schools Association, in a statement. , speaking in his role as Charter Schools Now. crew member.

Coleman said Pérez “refused to act in good faith. She voted against almost every charter school seeking to open, regardless of quality – including the only ‘no’ vote for a small public charter school that has had incredible community support and will specialize in supporting students. autistic. This vote, for Thrive Center for Success, took place in June 2021.

Texas PAC funded by supporters of the national charter

Charter Schools Now said it spent more than $1 million on various primary candidates statewide from Jan. 21 to Feb. 21. 19. This includes a $1,000 donation to State Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, who is unopposed in the March 1 primary, according to the Feb. 22 PAC filing.

The PAC gave three re-election campaigns Republican incumbents from the SBOE in addition to three Republican primary candidates and five Democratic primary candidates.

Charter Schools Now is heavily funded by two well-known charter advocates: Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings and Walmart family member Jim Walton.

Hastings serves on the board of directors of KIPP Public Schools, a national chain of charter schools with campuses in Austin, San Antonio, Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He was previously a member of the national board of public schools for Rocketship, which opens its first Texas campus in August in Fort Worth.

Hastings donated $1.5 million to Virginia-based Educational Equity PAC on Feb. 15, the same day PAC donated $570,000 to Charter Schools Now. A few days earlier, Educational Equity donated $70,000 to Charter Schools Now.

Walton gave Charter Schools Now $450,000 in December 2021. The Walton Family Foundation has invested millions over the years to support public charter schools across the country.

The opponent calls the contribution ‘pay-player’

Elmo of Texas AFT said the union sees these contributions as an attempt “to buy out the state board on behalf of the charter school industry.

“That’s what it’s about – it’s about getting enough members of the State Board of Education to approve all the charter applications they want and getting as many charter schools through as they can through the State Board of Education.”

Melissa Ortega

Texas AFT, which endorsed Márquez for the District 1 seat, wants charter schools to follow the same regulations as traditional school districts in the state, be subject to the same level of state oversight and have school boards. locally elected. Charters are funded entirely by the state, while districts derive their funding from state and local property taxes.

Yanar’s top Democratic challengers echoed similar sentiments.

“It is now clear to everyone that Mr. Yanar is being bought and paid for by the charter school lobby,” Ortega said in a statement. “When an application is presented to the SBOE to open a new charter channel that will compete with our local schools for scarce educational resources, is there any doubt as to which side Mr. Yanar will take?”

The campaign contributions candidates choose to accept reflect their values ​​and intentions if elected, Márquez said. She accused Yanar of adopting a “pay-to-play tactic to gain power and influence in the National Board of Education”.

“As a community, we shouldn’t tolerate this,” Márquez said. “Our students are not for sale. What we have seen (in Yanar’s campaign finance report) is very discouraging to those of us who are true advocates of public education who seek true justice and fairness for all of our students. .

Both Ortega and Márquez have said they would push for greater charter school accountability if elected.

Little money flowing into candidates’ campaigns

Aside from Charter Schools Now’s in-kind contribution, few cash donations have gone to the District 1 race in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.

Laura Marquez

Ortega reported raising $300 on his Jan. 18 campaign finance report. Ortega did not submit subsequent reports for January 31 or February 22.

Márquez said he raised $6,550. She also received a $5,000 in-kind donation from State Representative Mary González, D-Clint, for online advertising.

Yanar raised $5,345.

Republican primary candidate Michael Stevens, a language arts teacher in the Northside Independent School District outside San Antonio, received $909 in contributions. His Republican opponent Lani Popp said he raised $1,450.

Cover photo: Mailers El Paso residents received from Omar Yanar’s campaign for the State Board of Education District 1. (Molly Smith/El Paso Matters)

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