A new landmark law to boost public school alternatives in Texas followed a surge in political contributions by current and former board members and employees of the state's six-largest charter school operators, an analysis by The Associated Press has found.
Texas Ethics Commission filings show charter school-affiliated donations to officeholders and key candidates peaked during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles with a combined $518,000 -- nearly double the total from the election cycles of 2006 and 2008.
Although the total amount is relatively small -- especially given deep-pocketed donors in the oil and natural gas sectors -- the uptick came ahead of the Legislature approving in May a law that will expand by 42 percent the maximum amount of charter school licenses allowed in Texas by 2019.
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Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, a progressive-leaning political watchdog group, said Texas spends about $55 billion a year on 5 million-plus public school students, with only about 4 percent of those attending charters.
"So there's potential for huge increases in political spending by charters seeking larger slabs of the pie," said Wheat, who helped compile the analysis.
AP's analysis tracked 112 contributors who wrote 926 checks from Jan. 1, 2005, to June 30. Donations totaled about $133,000 and $132,000 before the 2006 and 2008 elections, respectively. Political contributions ahead of the 2010 election exceeded $290,000; and nearly $228,000 poured in before the 2012 vote.
Other states have seen political contributions from charter school-affiliated donors rise, coinciding with GOP-controlled legislatures in South Carolina, Missouri and Michigan also voting in recent years to expand charter schools. In many other places, the bulk of the donations went to Republicans -- but Texas' top overall recipient was a Democrat, 2010 gubernatorial hopeful Bill White.
David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, said he couldn't speak to the impact of political donations, but noted the law won wide bipartisan support -- even in the Texas House, which had failed to approve charter bills that cleared the state Senate in 2009 and 2011.
"That's because we've been working hard and because it's the right thing to do," Dunn said.
The law was the largest expansion of charter schools statewide since 2001, boosting the maximum amount to 305 from 215. It also overhauled the charter approval process. Instead of leaving it up to the State Board of Education to approve new charters as in years past, the law gives the governor-appointed Texas education commissioner the power to approve new charter licenses.
The board still retains veto power.
Donors affiliated with KIPP Houston Public Schools, Texas' fourth-largest charter network by enrollment, accounted for the most political contributions during the last four election cycles -- nearly $452,000. The network with the second-largest donor base was Uplift Education, whose allied donors contributed about $124,700.
Some of the charter board members making sizeable donations, however, are simply well-connected executives who would be contributing to Texas political leaders regardless of their affiliation with charter schools.
The largest overall donor was Stan Marek, president and CEO of the contracting giant, Marek Family of Companies. He gave nearly $122,000 between 2006 and last year, with the biggest donations going to White.
Marek said he supported leaders who will push meaningful immigration reform that helps businesses stay competitive -- not charter school advocates.
"I think charter schools are great," he said, "but I'm not going to send money to X politician for that alone."
The largest beneficiary of charter school-related donations was White, the former mayor of Houston, which is the state's most-active area for charter schools. He raked in nearly $132,000 between 2005 and 2010, when he unsuccessfully ran for governor.
Gov. Rick Perry was second, with his charter-school linked donations totaling $83,000 between 2005 and the first six months of this year.
The third-highest recipient was state Rep. Dan Branch, a key lieutenant with the ability to marshal votes for Texas House Speaker Joe Straus. Branch received $14,250, much of that from donors associated with Uplift Education, which has its hub in his district in suburban Dallas.
Branch, who is now running for attorney general, responded: "Our campaign is pleased to have a broad base of support from all across Texas, including those who believe that children need more educational options, especially when trapped in failing schools."
Straus received $10,000 between 2010 and last year from Will Harte, a charter school advocate once listed as an interim Texas CEO with Arizona-based Carpe Diem Schools. In November, the state education board endorsed Carpe Diem for a new charter operating license. It plans to open five campuses in San Antonio.
Harte declined comment. Straus spokesman Jason Embry said, "Mr. Harte is a family friend of the speaker's, but decisions about charter schools are made by the commissioner and the State Board of Education."
Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, who issued nine charter school-related opinions from his post and is now the frontrunner in next year's governor's race, got just under $12,000 from donors with major charter school ties.