Joanna Day has never been a fan of horror movies, which is why she didn’t yet realize she was starring in one in real life. If you had to pick a turning point in her story, the part when everyone in the audience feels their jaws and shoulders tighten because they know—unlike the oblivious, trusting protagonist—that really bad things are about to happen, it would be when a member of the Hays County Sheriff’s Office showed up at Day’s home, in Dripping Springs. 

It was a hot evening in August 2020, with the sun just about ready to give up on the day. The family was collected around the dinner table, which, thanks to its second-floor location, felt like it was in a tree house nestled in the branches of some comforting old live oaks. Day loved this house, with its rooms laid out every which way on three floors, the abundant windows filling the place with light. It was filled too with family: husband Eric, three towheaded children, two dogs, and all the accompanying detritus—kid toys, dog toys, books, and clothes dropped willy-nilly but in a good way, a happy way. Day’s indomitable optimism showed in the print hung in the stairwell with the famous Methodist maxim (“Do all the good you can by all the means you can”) and in the words on a multicolored abstract sculpture in the front yard (“Kindness can change the world one heart at a time”).

Tonight, as on most nights, plates clattered, silverware clinked, and the high-pitched voices of the kids—two boys and a girl, all under twelve—rose and fell as each competed to describe the best part of their day. “We only talk about the peak, not the pit,” is the way Day, 47 years old, describes this ritual. Focusing on the good calms the kids and fosters a positive outlook. 

On this evening, though, the doorbell rang while someone was just about to get to their good part. Everyone went silent. The house sits high atop a hill on several brambly acres, a ten- to fifteen-minute drive from the middle of town. No one ever just showed up at the door, except the occasional Amazon driver, and he just tossed the packages and raced off. 

The kids looked at their mom expectantly. Day pushed back from the table and trotted down the twisting flight of wooden stairs to the front door. When she opened it, a uniformed officer was holding her Lab mix, Heath, by the collar. Heath was panting proudly. How kind that he found our dog and brought him home, began Day’s internal dialogue. I have no idea how he got out

But when Day focused on the officer’s words, she realized he wasn’t talking about the dog at all. He was young and blond and, she thought, unaccountably anxious. “We got a call about a domestic disturbance,” he said. 

Now Day was confused. She didn’t know of any disturbance, except that with three kids, every day brought at least one. But rowdy children weren’t what the officer was talking about. Whoever had made the report, he said, “heard people threatening to kill each other.”

Day is a small, pale, brown-haired woman with a delicate, underplayed prettiness and a melodious voice. These characteristics can make her seem harmless, like someone who is maybe too nice for her own good. But before she became a full-time mom in Texas, Day was a public defender and an adjunct law professor at Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. She’d also taught in one of the city’s underserved public schools and lived a block away from an open-air drug market. Day had lingering fears about a stray bullet piercing the walls of her house. After she gave birth to her first child, in 2009, those dangers figured into her and Eric’s decision to move to Austin. Later, in 2015, they moved twenty miles southwest, to Dripping Springs, where ostensibly the biggest threats were fire ants and rattlesnakes. 

But in the past few months, Day’s sunny life had grown dark. There had been phone calls with no one on the other end and Facebook posts in which her name was attached to lie after lie. Once friendly faces shunned her in the grocery store. And just the other day, someone had told her about a local troll doxing her on a neighborhood website, posting her home address. Now this officer was suggesting the danger was coming from inside her house? 

After witnessing the quizzical faces of three clearly safe kids, the officer retreated. That’s when Day started fuming. She had no proof that the dinnertime disruption was related to previous threats, but logic suggested it was. Someone was trying to rattle her, and the reason seemed clear. Day had unknowingly made one big mistake after moving to town. In 2019 she had run successfully for the Dripping Springs Independent School District’s board, a job that not long ago had been about as controversial as cafeteria lady. 

But that was then.

plot to sabatoge public schools
Entering Dripping Springs on U.S. 290. Photograph by Jeff Wilson
plot to sabatoge public schools
One of Dripping Springs’ five elementary schools. Photograph by Jeff Wilson

The scenes have become weirdly familiar all across Texas. Just a few years ago, furious, placard-waving parents protested pandemic-induced school closings and mask mandates. Now that anger has been redirected toward school library books that deal with issues of race and gender and toward the supposed teaching of critical race theory, a college-level framework for examining systemic racism that is not actually taught in Texas public schools. 

A school superintendent in Granbury, southwest of Fort Worth, told a group of librarians that if they aren’t conservatives, they’d “better hide it.” In the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, northwest of Houston, three trusted incumbent school board members lost their elections, largely over their support for a resolution condemning racism. Other long-serving school board members throughout Texas have suddenly found themselves having to defend teachers who have been labeled, without a shred of evidence, as pedophiles or “groomers.” A Grapevine high school imposed new rules that led to a student walkout, with students calling the rules transphobic. Texas recently took the national lead in book banning (a frequent target is The Bluest Eye, by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison), and some school librarians who tried to hold the line against unwarranted censorship became targets of death threats. 

Taken individually, any of these incidents may seem like a grassroots skirmish. But they are, more often than not, part of a well-organized and well-funded campaign executed by out-of-town political operatives and funded by billionaires in Texas and elsewhere. “In various parts of Texas right now, there are meetings taking place in small and large communities led by individuals who are literally providing tutorials—here’s what you say, here’s what you do,” said H. D. Chambers, the recently retired superintendent of Alief ISD, in southwest Harris County. “This divisiveness has been created that is basically telling parents they can’t trust public schools. It’s a systematic erosion of the confidence that people have in their schools.”

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.

Just ask Joanna Day. 

plot to sabatoge public schools
Joanna Day at her Dripping Springs home.Photograph by Jeff Wilson

In retrospect, Day’s decision to run for the school board seems almost inevitable. She grew up in Houston, the daughter of a prominent Methodist minister, imbued with and rebelling against all the values that implies. She excelled at Lamar High, a well-regarded public school, and then at Rice University and in law school at American University, in Washington, D.C. 

Before she became an adjunct professor at both American and across town at Catholic University, Day held a prestigious fellowship to teach in a law program at one of the lowest-performing high schools in the district. She went on to become a public defender as some of her former students had their initial encounters with the criminal justice system. “He was fifteen and illiterate,” she said, recalling the arrest of one. Day also saw firsthand how learning disabilities can be destroyers of equal opportunity when a member of her own family was affected, another reason she had a soft spot for those who are left behind. 

By the time her family arrived in Dripping Springs, much of the town’s claim to rural simplicity was disappearing. Today there are few traces of what natives call Old Dripping, the sleepy spot with a handful of one-story limestone buildings lining a main street that gave way to dusty roads and cedar-dotted hills within just a few blocks. Even if it is the “wedding capital of Texas,” thanks to its Hill Country setting, Dripping Springs has become an extension of a bursting-at-the-seams Austin. It has more than doubled in size since 2014, to a population of around six thousand. A frenetic U.S. 290 slices through town. Some old ranches remain, set far back on caliche roads, but they’re outnumbered by Orangetheory and Starbucks and H-E-B chains that serve the inhabitants of sprawling housing developments with names like Belterra and Cortaro or the more nostalgically titled Double L Ranch. 

In the old days—say, before the end of the twentieth century—Dripping Springs was a go-along, get-along kind of place: a one-stoplight town where differences between Democrats and Republicans, or ranchers and hippies, didn’t amount to much. Not so long ago, social media was focused on identifying stray cows and on teenage boys driving too fast (“If this is your son, we need to talk . . .”). Explained resident Kent Willis, “The politics have always been fairly conservative in the sense that we understand there’s a role for government. We want that role to be minimal, but we understand you need things like schools, police, and firefighters. We want our kids to get a good education.”

In the old days—say, before the end of the twentieth century—Dripping Springs was a go-along, get-along kind of place: a one-stoplight town where differences between Democrats and Republicans, or ranchers and hippies, didn’t amount to much. 

The town’s school district, with its five elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school, has consistently received A ratings from the Texas Education Agency. The district’s success can be at least partly attributed to wealth—median annual household income is around $111,000. Roughly 20 percent of the kids are listed by the TEA as being at risk of dropping out, with 9 percent economically disadvantaged. In Austin ISD, by contrast, about half the kids are considered economically disadvantaged and at risk, statistics that are not coincidental to the growth in Dripping Springs. A major reason, if not the major reason, for the town’s explosive growth has been its schools. 

For a while, the Dripping Springs community united against the kinds of divisive culture wars that were raging in other Texas towns and cities. In the fall of 2016, Julie Pryor, the beloved principal of Walnut Springs Elementary, allowed a transgender third grader to use the girls’ restroom. (The child had previously been accommodated in the faculty restroom.) Because the school was small, many parents knew Lily (a pseudonym to protect her privacy) and her family and had no objection. “She was just a third grader,” said Andy Hutton, a soft-spoken Walnut Springs dad who is also a partner at a high-powered Austin law firm and was an assistant attorney general under Greg Abbott. “She was fun. She was well-liked and had a lot of friends. But she knew who she was in a way that I don’t know that a lot of third graders did.” 

plot to sabatoge public schools
A feedstore on Mercer Street, a vestige of the town’s pastoral era. Photograph by Jeff Wilson
plot to sabatoge public schools
Remnants of “Old Dripping.” Photograph by Jeff Wilson

There was also enormous support for Pryor, Hutton said. “We felt if Julie was making a certain decision, she had the interest of these kids at heart. She knew every one of them. She knew what would make them thrive. The parents had a high level of trust.” 

Still, word of the accommodation reached Jonathan Saenz—maybe from a local parent, maybe from a local pastor. Saenz, president of the far-right Austin-based group Texas Values, brought the equivalent of a traveling medicine show to an open field on the elementary school grounds to protest. Gray-suited and wearing a red tie, his dark hair slicked back against a harsh November wind, the 49-year-old Saenz stood at a podium and expressed his deep disappointment with Dripping Springs ISD’s supposed “efforts to hide the truth” about Lily’s use of the girls’ restroom. Eight more adults and two abashed-looking schoolchildren flanked him. 

State representative Jason Isaac next tried to speak over the wind, stating that his concern extended beyond the schoolchildren of Dripping Springs to the “safety of women throughout the state.” Isaac has worked on various projects with and for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the organization funded in part by billionaire Tim Dunn, who has long advocated allowing parents to use tax dollars to send their children to Christian schools—and who once told then–house speaker Joe Straus, who is Jewish, that only Christians should be in leadership positions. 

Republican state senator Donna Campbell, whose district includes an area stretching from San Antonio to Austin, sent a statement to her supporters that day, asserting that allowing Lily access to the girls’ restroom represented “a breach of trust” between the parents and the school leadership. Campbell, too, has links to TPPF. She’s also accepted political contributions from the voucher-supporting Texans for Education Reform and is a vocal supporter of charter schools. (Last cycle, she took $5,000 in contributions from Texas Charter Schools Now.) 

This performance happened to occur at the same time that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and a band of far-right legislators were touting the infamous “bathroom bill,” which would have required transgender Texans to use public restrooms according to the sex they were assigned at birth. The feeling among many in Dripping Springs was that lawmakers “were casting around and looking for a story to launch into some public forum before the legislative session,” said Hutton. He didn’t have trouble persuading others to join him in support of Lily and the principal. “I think we all felt that we would not let them make Julie Pryor into some sort of pariah who was trying some sort of social experiment.” 

Hutton added that it was also easy to win local support because so many residents viewed Saenz as “an outsider trying to shake up our town and score political points and, on top of that, use a third grader as a political football.”

One of the parents that Hutton enlisted was Day, who was just finding her footing in town. “I felt horrible for Lily and her family. We were concerned about her safety,” Day recalled. “We should be protecting all kids,” she added, expressing a sentiment she repeated often. Before long, Day and Hutton formed a group whose name was a play on the district’s mascot: “Many Stripes, One Tiger.” Within 48 hours they gathered five hundred signatures on a petition that supported Pryor. 

Day drafted and issued public statements and organized members of the community to show up for board meetings, where the emotional heat was quickly rising from a simmer to a boil. “Our messaging was, ‘This is our child, our community, our administrators,’ ” she told me. “That really resonated across our community.” Soon there were overflow rooms for the growing number of local speakers, most of whom supported Lily and Pryor. “It got to the point that meetings went on till midnight,” recalled resident Elizabeth Bryant, who had children in the school. 

Finding itself competing against a local group that was better organized and had a bigger megaphone, the outsiders from Texas Values and their supporters simply stopped showing up for board meetings. Soon after, they stopped showing up in town at all. “They expected they could pack the meetings with speakers saying how horrible this was that there would be sexual predators in the bathroom,” Day said. “They thought they could cow the board into thinking that this was what the community wanted. Instead, they got a huge backlash.”

In the end, the school board refused to overturn Pryor’s decision, and Lily was left in peace. “That was the Dripping Springs I came to and knew,” Day said. 

As it turned out, Day was both too optimistic and too naive. By the end of 2016, school board dustups had erupted across the state. Even victories turned into defeats: Lily’s family, for instance, eventually moved out of state, as attacks from Texas’s political leaders on transgender children and their parents escalated.

After Trump took office, in early 2017, such divisiveness intensified, even in Dripping Springs. Those who once might have kept their most extreme views to themselves now felt no need to do so. They included Del Bigtree, a right-wing talk-show host and anti-vaccine activist, and Phil Waldron, who was later subpoenaed by the January 6th Committee for his role in distributing a 38-page PowerPoint to Trump’s then–chief of staff Mark Meadows and other supporters of the president, containing plans to overturn the 2020 election. Some of the newer nondenominational evangelical churches in town began participating in school events more frequently than their old-fashioned Baptist or Methodist counterparts had, a few of them bringing along a level of intolerance for kids who were different.

The biggest catalyst for division, though, might have been Dripping Springs’ explosive growth. It became clear to the school board that it would have to build additional elementary schools and expand the high school, which was nearing capacity. The estimated price tag was $132 million, and a bond election was scheduled for 2018. 

In the past, bond elections did not often evoke, say, the Battle of the Alamo. But just as school board wars were escalating around the country, so did fissures appear—or widen—in Dripping Springs. A pair of newcomers named Valerie and Martin McConahay formed a group called CEEDS, Citizens for Excellent Education in Dripping Springs, and launched an online campaign largely driven by Facebook. Their website was a hot and heavy testament to their anti-bond passions: “This Bond is Full of Nonessential, Excessive and Wasteful Luxury Expenditures—DSISD Wants to Borrow Against Our Homes for Everything but the Kitchen Sink!” one post declared. “Taxes are Busting Our Household Budgets and Putting Our Homes at Risk!” read another. (Rare was the post without an exclamation point and random capitalization.)

According to Hutton and members of the school board at the time, none of these assertions were true. Yes, property tax bills in the district had skyrocketed, but that’s because the average home value had shot up to roughly $500,000. The property tax rate had stayed the same for years. “We were just building modern schools like everyone else, and it’s expensive,” said Hutton. 

But now, as with the fear-driven controversy over Lily, a small brush fire became a conflagration. Again, the attacks were personal. In this case, the target became the president of the school board, Carrie Kroll, whose family had been in Dripping Springs for generations and who had attended the local public schools. Kroll is a dark-haired woman in her forties whose diplomatic
finesse was honed during her years as a lobbyist for Texas hospitals. Hers was the last high school graduating class of fewer than 100 students, in 1994;
28 years later, her daughter’s class numbered 512. The Dripping Springs of her day, Kroll told me, was “a little slower and quieter,” and the community came together and pitched in. “People worked hard and wanted to provide for their kids. My mom was in the schools constantly. I followed the example I was given.” 

Kroll had served uneventfully since 2012. But now, because she wholeheartedly supported the bond, she was villainized by CEEDS—and its followers. Everything from her clothing to her acreage in the country were subject to attack on social media and at board meetings. The situation deteriorated to the point that Kroll began receiving death threats. “We went through a phase where we told our kids not to answer the phone or go to the door,” she said.

Meanwhile, the McConahays continued spreading propaganda, focused mainly on the supposed incompetence of the board and the assumption that property taxes would increase should the bond pass. “They managed to create a cultural movement that gets passed along from person to person,” said Hutton. “You start a conversation on Facebook that reaches out to one mom who didn’t like the idea of a $132 million bond, and she talks to her neighbor, and it grows.” (The McConahays did not respond to phone calls or emails.)

The couple weren’t tyros who got lucky, however. Both McConahays are experienced political consultants. And this wasn’t the first time they’d waged a fight against school bonds. “They were involved in a similar operation in Denton and ran a similar playbook,” said Willis. 

Sandy-haired and bespectacled, Willis is himself a political consultant, his rueful sense of humor a probable occupational hazard. He learned his trade at the feet of Karl Rove, widely credited with the rise of George W. Bush. Willis knows an orchestrated political effort when he sees one. “They got involved with bond issues, stirred up trouble, submarined them. That’s their MO. Now they’re here doing it,” Willis said of the McConahays.

It turned out that CEEDS, which at first glance appeared to be a purely local affair, was something altogether different. The biggest benefactor was Monty Bennett, a wealthy hotelier who lives in Dallas. Bennett is a growing player in the school-privatization movement. A cofounder of the nonprofit Texans for Education Rights Institute, he was recently involved in a secretive plan to implement a backdoor voucher scheme in the nearby Hill Country town of Wimberley. (Those efforts failed once community leaders discovered them.) His far-right bona fides are unassailable: he was a major Trump donor and was present at the U.S. Capitol insurrection, though he was not accused of entering the building. 

As it happened, the bond squeaked through by 50.47 to 49.53 percent, a margin of just 31 votes. Subsequently, CEEDS demanded and lost a recount, then sued. The vote was upheld, but the legal fight and construction delay ended up costing the district (and the taxpayers of Dripping Springs) roughly $500,000. 

It was clear that the district was coming under ever-larger attacks, and the more traditional, service-oriented board members such as Kroll saw the need for backup. A seat came open in 2019, and that’s when a group of locals began urging Day to run. She agreed to think it over despite the strife she had seen. “I really felt like I had the experience and skill set to do this,” she told me, apologizing for sounding so earnest. 

In a field of four candidates running for two open slots, she won a seat handily, with relatively mild opposition from CEEDS and a pinch of negative press from the Texas Scorecard, the powerful right-wing publication funded in part by Dunn. 

Like any newly elected official, Day was excited about her role. Never one to walk into a situation unprepared, she educated herself in all the different forms of accountability. She studied land acquisition. She investigated ways the district could improve its special ed programs. Her house filled up with binders and more binders. But there were some things she couldn’t anticipate. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she said.

plot to sabatoge public schools
Illustration by Justin Metz

By the time Day took office, activists had been chipping away at public education in much the same manner as those opposed to abortion and to measures that made it easier to vote. They moved deliberately, stealthily, and creatively.

In the nineties, the state’s most powerful school-privatization advocate was a San Antonio physician who became one of the richest men in Texas by manufacturing a better hospital bed. By the early aughts, James Leininger had become better known as the top political campaign contributor in the state. 

He created the Texas Public Policy Foundation, in 1989, as a nonprofit “research and outreach” arm devoted, its website claims, to “liberty, responsibility, and free enterprise.” A progressive lobbying organization described Leininger’s interests as “vehement opposition to tort laws, abortion, and gay marriage.” He also advocated for “the teaching of such conservative Christian ideas as creationism in private and public schools.” 

From the earliest days of TPPF, Leininger was a proponent of school vouchers. He spent millions on a program in the early nineties that was supposedly designed to help poor Latino kids in San Antonio but was quietly abandoned. Still, Leininger found an ally in Governor George W. Bush, who ran in 1994 on an education-reform platform that included, along with greater school accountability through standardized testing, support for charter schools and vouchers. Bush got nowhere with vouchers, though in 1995 Texas’s first bill creating charter schools passed, promising “schools of choice” for kids ostensibly stuck in failing public schools. 

Leininger spent millions on a program in the early nineties that was supposedly designed to help poor Latino kids in San Antonio but was quietly abandoned.

Charters, which are public schools run by nonprofit organizations (some of which contract out their operations to for-profit companies), are exempt from some of the regulations imposed on traditional public schools. They have more freedom to hire and fire teachers and do not have to abide by state-mandated curriculum standards. Once the Legislature signed off on the charter experiment, the number of such schools soared over the next five years, to 146, with minority students representing about 78 percent of their enrollment. 

Some well-managed and well-funded charters lived up to their promises, but many became mired in scandal. This may have been because, as one school historian noted, “the State Board of Education granted charters to just about everyone who applied.” The objections to charter schools are akin to those regarding vouchers: when students leave public schools, the money goes with them, often to institutions of debatable quality. As critics of both vouchers and charters have asserted, this setup often proves more lucrative for the companies that run them than beneficial to the students who enroll.

The setbacks to privatization did not deter Leininger and his allies, however. During the 2005 legislative session, a voucher bill was pushed by House Speaker Tom Craddick and Governor Rick Perry, both of whom had ties to TPPF. (Perry was simpatico with Leininger, once commenting that “this separation of church and state is just false on its face.”) Even with that backing, rural legislators, the bulk of them Republican, quashed the effort. Leininger then spent $5 million on an effort to unseat those who had opposed his voucher dreams. 

In 2006 Leininger found powerful new allies when Dunn, with a major financial assist from the Wilks brothers, formed Empower Texans. Public education became one of its primary targets, in part because the property taxes that funded schools ran counter to their interests as billionaires and in part because they wanted more Texas children exposed to their version of Christian values.

Coincidence or not, the Legislature in 2011 famously slashed $5.4 billion from the public-school budget, citing a projected revenue shortfall. Some of those funds were restored in 2013—the shortfall turned out to be smaller than lawmakers had insisted—but the battles over school finance became as routine at the Capitol as bourbon and branch water. 

What voucher proponents needed most was a powerful champion who was also a gifted salesman. Former sportscaster and right-wing talk-radio host Dan Patrick happily stepped into the role. Elected to the state Senate from Houston’s prosperous, white, northwestern suburbs in 2006, the perpetually youthful but often choleric Patrick was lieutenant governor by 2015. Patrick found school choice and its kissing cousin, property tax reduction, to be winning issues among his right-wing base and his growing cadre of big-money donors, who, along with the backers of TPPF and Empower Texans, also included the billionaire deans of dark money, the Kansas-based brothers Charles and David Koch. 

The American Legislative Exchange Council, commonly known as ALEC, is a powerful Koch-supported organization that has devoted much time and money to privatizing public schools nationally. According to a study by the watchdog group Common Cause, Texas has one of the highest concentrations of state lawmakers connected to the organization, at around 32 percent. One of the first bills Patrick introduced in the 2011 legislative session called for eliminating the ceiling on the number of charter schools allowed in the state. It failed, but the relentless Patrick rammed it through two years later. Echoing Republican U.S. senator Ted Cruz, Patrick would also proclaim vouchers to be “the civil rights issue of our time.” 

Despite his rising influence, Patrick tried but again failed, in 2013, to goad the Legislature into setting up what he called the Texas Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program (a.k.a. vouchers). Even so, ALEC-backed members supported the bill, setting the stage for future fights.

Over the next few years, as the Legislature swung further right, it also became more beholden to TPPF, Empower Texans, and, evidently, ALEC. One reason was Empower Texans’ creation, in 2015, of the Texas Scorecard, an online publication that keeps a watchful eye on how closely elected officials hew to its priorities. (No one is safe. A recent headline on the site asked, “Should John Cornyn Resign?”)

“Every member was held in sway by the Texas Scorecard,” said Republican former state senator Kel Seliger. “They were afraid of retribution from TPPF and the lieutenant governor. They buy the seats, and now they have them in hand.” Seliger, who retired in January, was muscled out as chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee in large part because of his opposition to vouchers.

The state’s leadership has found other ways to undermine public schools. Texas, according to the latest data, ranks fortieth when it comes to school spending—$10,300 per pupil annually, compared with the national average of $13,500. According to a survey conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charitable organization devoted to child welfare, Texas gets what it pays for, ranking thirty-third in the U.S. in the quality of its K–12 education. 

Then there is the state’s ongoing loyalty to the STAAR test, the results of which are used to evaluate teacher and school quality. Its efficacy has been widely challenged by educators, parents’ groups, and academic researchers, who have found that the test’s demands are often well above grade level. And because the test is used as a yardstick to grade (and potentially close) schools, test prep has taken over actual teaching in many classrooms.

Abbott, Patrick, and other critics of Texas’s public schools blame their poor STAAR performance on many things: teachers unions, the lack of competition, and poor leadership at the district and board level. To be sure, many schools have been dysfunctional for decades. Houston ISD, which the state is currently trying to take over, has suffered from chronic corruption and mismanagement. But even critics of that district say they fail to see how the situation would be improved if the state got involved.

Of course, for those who have long sought to undermine public schools, the biggest gift arrived in March 2020. 

From the vantage point of three years, it can be hard to conjure those disorienting early days of the pandemic, the terrifying period when schools and businesses shut down seemingly overnight—when there were no vaccines, when the death tolls were skyrocketing, when no one, including the best doctors in the world, knew what to do. 

Even so, parents, teachers, and administrators initially banded together for what was seen as a higher purpose: to do right by schoolchildren while keeping them safe from the virus. During that period, educators were briefly hailed as heroes doing their best in a nearly impossible situation. But as the months of Zoom classes wore on, something changed. Children fell behind in their studies. Many parents grew frustrated, while others, observing their children’s lessons more closely than before, became concerned about what was being taught. For some politicians on the right, the time was ripe to exploit those concerns.

One of the first and most prominent was Glenn Youngkin, who won election as governor of Virginia in 2021 largely by championing “parental rights” over what and how children are taught. His success inspired imitators, including Florida governor Ron DeSantis and, in turn, Abbott. Suddenly public schools were being characterized as repositories for all sorts of predators, groomers, pornographers, inappropriate-restroom users, critical race theory proponents, and other generally unsavory types—including LGBTQ children. That this moral panic was ginned up in large part by frequent-flier far-right activists such as Christopher Rufo was not widely understood. 

At around this time, handbooks proliferated that spelled out how-tos for disrupting school districts and taking over school boards. At least two pamphlets were produced by an organization called Tea Party Patriots Action, which has links to the January 6 insurrection. (An early funder of the group was San Antonio’s picante-sauce king Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury.) 

One version of the booklet has clearly been modified for Texans, given its references to the battle for the soul of the Southlake school district, northeast of Fort Worth, and the document’s attack on the Texas Association of School Boards, which has long been opposed to vouchers and other attempts at privatization. “Whether you want to influence policy on masks, in-person school, Critical Race Theory or anything else, this mostly requires talking to other parents/community members who agree with you, and then go from there—build a team and decide what your goals are before you launch your plan,” the pamphlet urges. “Be brave! You can do this!” 

It also suggests turning to help from organizations such as Parents Defending Education, a Koch-connected group that claims to be a grassroots nonprofit. Yes, it would be beneficial to tackle issues on the national and state level, the pamphlet continues, “but it will likely be easier to take them on and dismantle them if we address it at the local level first. You’ll see that the first set of associations highlighted are those for local school boards.” 

Maybe, being experienced political operatives, the McConahays didn’t need such advice. But those tactics were reflected in their Dripping Springs campaign. After their efforts to tank the 2018 bond failed, CEEDS became even more strident on social media in its war against the school board. Facebook posts were often accompanied by memes of burning cash, rotten apples, or a woman looking appalled. A series of posts crowed about the growing number of likes the page received. (“What’s the significance of 890 Likes? It means we now have over FOUR (4) TIMES as many Likes as the current Dripping Springs ISD School Board Members’ Average Number of Likes, which is only 222.43!”)

After their efforts to tank the 2018 bond failed, CEEDS became even more strident on social media in its war against the school board.

As the pandemic wore on and schools remained closed under orders from the state government, board meetings, held virtually, became increasingly combative across Texas. Dripping Springs was not immune. The fury boiled over once in-person meetings resumed in early 2021. As was happening elsewhere across the state and the country, the debate over masking became a stand-in for all the pent-up fear, anger, and frustration caused not just by the pandemic but by the divisive politics that preceded it and exacerbated it. 

Once the schools reopened, opposing groups squared off against one another, placards brandished, in front of the auditorium, where the board meetings were moved to accommodate the teeming crowds. Inside, the gatherings, which had previously been mundane affairs, dragged on for hours, with person after person tongue-lashing the board with epithets that included but were not limited to “useless,” “power hungry,” and “corrupt.” Those at a loss for words could find talking points on the CEEDS Facebook page.

The attacks were dizzying. “We are told we are abusing children if we require masks, and we are murdering them if we do not,” Day realized at one point. There was no middle ground, no room for compromise. Nor at that point was there much reliable information from epidemiologists or much guidance from the state. “Eric and I began to get more nervous when we saw how angry and irrational people were, on all sides,” she told me. “That’s when we decided to put up cameras [at our home], and I started carrying Mace.”

It seemed impossible that the situation could deteriorate further, but in fact it got worse as the year went on. There was another school board election in May, with three seats open. Locals on the far right heeded the call of former Trump administration provocateur Steve Bannon and, with CEEDS’s fervid support, ran multiple candidates for the seats. “The ratio of extreme social conservatives outnumbered more traditional board candidates six to three,” said Kent Willis. “Typically, the normal to right-wing-nut ratio has been even or better, going back to 2016. For every kook, there was a sane candidate.” The glut of candidates ended up splitting the vote. Among those on the far right, the only winner was Stefani Reinold, a local psychiatrist who had been a vocal anti-masker. 

After that election, Del Bigtree covered school board meetings on his talk show, The HighWire, calling on Reinold to provide color commentary and raising the temperature even higher. While the meetings degenerated, local law enforcement was loath to interfere, although constables, when pressed, did escort board members to their cars after the assemblies. There were near-fistfights and lots of name calling; one of Day’s supporters was called a whore in front of the school. “I remember being shocked because some of these were people I knew,” said Day supporter Bryant. “I saw sides of them I didn’t know existed.” Attendees once stormed the desks where board members sat, grabbing their papers and tearing them up. 

Meetings weren’t limited to parents who had kids in local schools or even to residents of Dripping Springs. People from all over the county started showing up. That included members of the Hays County Freedom Network, mostly from nearby Buda and Kyle, whose logo includes a burning cross over an American flag in the shape of Texas. They created a sort of umbrella group for anti-maskers in the area, who showed up at the meetings without face coverings and ripped up the yellow tape designed to keep attendees six feet apart. 

Things were so bad by August that a parent named James Akers made an appeal for consensus on mask wearing by stripping down to a tiny bathing suit while providing a semicomedic monologue about what happens when rules created for the greater good aren’t followed. “On the way over here, I ran three stop signs and four red lights,” he said. “I almost killed somebody out there but by God, it’s my road too, so I have every right to drive as fast as I want to and make the turns that I want to.” The bit went viral but didn’t change anything. “It was all about ‘my child’ and stopped being about our children,” said Suzy Robbins, who worked on Day’s campaign. 

Disheartened, Day was in a quandary as 2021 came to an end. Her term was up in May 2022, and there was still so much she wanted to do. She had willingly worked for free—Texas school board members are unpaid—and had sacrificed countless hours with her own kids. Still, she said, “I like public service, being part of a team that’s moving things forward in a productive way.” 

She felt as though she had done that, getting the board to focus on improving student achievement and to evaluate the state’s standardized STAAR test results in the most accurate way possible and helping the board more clearly understand internal audits. She knew that to be an effective school board member she had to keep an eye on finances, but she also knew that wasn’t the most important part of the job. “Ultimately, you are entrusted with the assets of the community for the benefit of the students. If you want to be good at what you are doing, you have to keep your eye on that. Your decisions can’t be grounded on how people vote.”

Weighing her decision, Day worried about the stress, pressure, and increasing toxicity. Close relatives and closer friends told her she’d done enough for the schoolkids and her community. Her own children, who had witnessed her struggles, begged her to let go. But she couldn’t.

plot to sabatoge public schools
A campaign sign from Day’s 2022 school board run.Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Day sensed early on that this race would be different. She regrouped in January with many who had worked on her first campaign, drawing up strategy and putting together a list of donors. In 2019 she’d spent around $5,000, average for a school board race in Texas. This time, team Day knew they would need more. She recycled her campaign slogan, which was, like Day herself, straightforward and unpretentious: “I believe in the power and the promise of public education.”

Two board positions were open, and another moderate—a wry engineer by the name of Thaddeus Fortenberry—had signed on to run. Others had considered it but were unwilling to subject themselves and their families to the kind of abuse that had characterized the previous year. Meanwhile, those on the right had learned from their mistakes. Instead of running the six candidates who split the vote in the 2019 election, they ran only two: a project manager for T-Mobile and mother of five, Tricia Quintero, and a local realtor and single mom, Olivia Barnard. If they both won, they would join far-right member Reinold, who had recently commented on social media that “liberalism is a mental illness.”  

Before moving to Dripping Springs, Quintero had been a disruptive force down the road in the Hays Consolidated ISD, where she’d battled unsuccessfully against the passage of a school bond. She had a well-meaning mien, describing herself as a “God Fearing woman” in campaign literature, and her straight brown hair fell below her shoulders. She favored casual tunics, tees, and jeans, the uniform of the harried mom. Her campaign slogan was “Put the Trust Back in TRUSTee.” Her husband happened to be James Quintero, policy director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The concern, as Kent Willis put it, was that “Tricia was just a stalking horse for her husband.”

Barnard could have been mistaken for Quintero’s opposite. The former looked like the successful real estate agent she is. If she wore jeans, they were stylishly ripped and accessorized with a tasteful hacking jacket. Her sable-hued hair shimmered. Her teeth and nails gleamed. But Barnard was Quintero’s equal in her support of the Republican party’s far-right flank. On social media, Barnard posted photos of herself with Donald Trump Jr. at Mar-a-Lago, as well as candid shots with Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, and failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. Barnard had captured a video of an altercation at a Dripping Springs school board meeting that then appeared on the website of Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA, a controversial nonprofit that has propagated disinformation about electoral fraud and vaccines. 

With masking controversies receding in the rearview mirror, political operatives needed new material with which to fester discontent. Next up were library books. Quintero came out early with a stand on what she asserted were “school libraries all across the state” filled with “inappropriate reading material, including books with pornographic images,” though she never cited any specifics. She called for the Dripping Springs school board to do its own investigation of such books and promised, if elected, to “fight every day to protect our kids from the filth that seems to be infecting so many other school districts.” (After a review of library materials, the district opted not to remove anything.) This all came in the months after TPPF launched its “Set the Captives Free” fund-raising initiative, raising the straw man of critical race theory.

Day had sailed through her first campaign; now personal attacks appeared almost daily, some on CEEDS’s various Facebook pages and some on her own. Some commenters were volunteers for Barnard and Quintero, but others were just angry Dripping Springs residents, including some Day had seen at her kids’ schools, at the grocery store, or while filling up her minivan with gas. “I didn’t have to get offline in 2019,” Day told me. “I didn’t have to have someone manage my social media.” 

That changed in 2022. Stefani Reinold’s husband, Travis, who self-
produced a podcast on “Christianity and Mental Health,” suggested obliquely on his show that pro-mask school board members should have “a heavy millstone around their neck and be thrown into the depth of the sea.” The opposition also attacked Day for covering her face long after Abbott rescinded the mask mandate. (Because her father was dying in a nursing home, Day continued to mask.) One critic, a parent of one of her kid’s classmates, inexplicably attacked her for helping out at an elementary school book fair. The vitriol left her shaken, and she was not the only one. Friends who had supported Day in the past were frightened too, suddenly reluctant to put campaign signs in their yards. Meanwhile, signs and billboards trumpeting Barnard and Quintero started sprouting all over town, like bluebonnets after an April rain. “At that point I saw that they had more community support than I had hoped,” Day said. 

Most threatening to Day’s success, though, was her loyalty to the tradition of nonpartisanship in school board races. “It was like blood in the water for the crazies,” said political adviser Willis. Those who supported Quintero and Barnard tagged Day early as a liberal, after their opposition research turned up her old Democratic-primary voting record. There was no undoing that tag, even as she stressed her refusal, since becoming a trustee and campaigning for reelection, to attend forums sponsored by any political party. Day did not fill out the CEEDS candidate questionnaire for the same reason, which opened her up to still more criticism. 

She stayed resolute, and even today her voice hardens when she explains herself. “I don’t think, when you are talking about education, partisanship really has any role,” Day said. “To me, I represented the kids. All the kids, whether their parents agreed with my viewpoints or not. Our schools have to serve everyone in the community. They have to serve the kids whose parents voted for Biden. The kids whose parents didn’t vote. And the kids whose parents voted for Trump.”

Barnard, in contrast, seemed to have no interest in avoiding party politics. Many of her largest campaign contributions came from wealthy Republicans who did not live in Texas. Of the $14,000 she raised, $2,500 came from Jim Lamon, who recently ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for U.S. senator in Arizona and has been implicated in a “false elector” scheme to overthrow the 2020 presidential election. (Lamon, along with ten other members of the Arizona GOP, filed paperwork after the election asserting that he was a duly elected “qualified elector” when he wasn’t. Lamon later told the Arizona Republic, “This is a heck of a lot to-do, from the left, about moving off of the real issues of this country.”) Barnard also collected $1,500 from Priscilla O’Shaughnessy, a board member of the Kansas Policy Institute, which is active in ALEC and has taken contributions directly from the Koch brothers.

“What should have been a sleepy school board race essentially turned into a Texas House campaign,” noted Bryant, who had become Day’s campaign manager. “We were not thinking about text banking and phone banking. We didn’t think we needed that. Then it became, could we get enough money for a third mailer?” 

The team believed that Day’s sincerity and expertise would win the day. To combat the false claims of reckless spending by the district, she made videos with her kids, pouring water into various buckets to explain school finance. They may have been charming, but the point wasn’t taken. “People didn’t want to watch four and a half minutes of videos to understand school finance,” Day told me. 

She didn’t seek any political endorsements and declined those that were offered, even as the district’s congressman, Chip Roy, publicly supported Day’s opponents. In a press release, Roy began by identifying himself as “a parent of school-age children,” without revealing that his own kids attended private school. “I recognize how important it is for our school board to fully reflect the values of our community, promote financial and curriculum transparency, and—most importantly—empower parents and protect students instead of radical special interests, corrupt unions, and rogue bureaucrats.” (He had earlier tweeted his preference for private school by claiming that he kept getting his “values blown to heck . . . in schools where bathrooms become social engineering experiments.”)

Undaunted, Day pushed harder. She and her team identified two thousand voters who had never participated in school board elections and sent them handwritten notes asking for support. She knocked on 1,500 doors, sometimes in neighborhoods that had never seen or heard from anyone running for office, where dogs constantly nipped at her heels. “My dad died while I was campaigning,” Day said. “I told my mom we couldn’t have the memorial service until the campaign was over. I was really all in it.”

She remained optimistic despite some dark portents, including on a warm spring evening in April, just a few weeks before the election. The Founders Day parade is a Dripping Springs tradition, a return to and reminder of its small-town roots. The parade travels the few blocks that make up the main street; grown-ups and kids ride with their friends on homemade floats touting local businesses and schools. Pep-squad members toss plastic “tiger beads” to the crowd. Local bands march and local musicians play. Townspeople line the streets and cheer on just about everyone. In 2022 the theme was Dripping Springs Through the Decades. Quintero and Barnard shared a campaign float, dressed in fifties-style poodle skirts. 

Before the event, Day considered dropping out. “People were telling me they didn’t think it was safe for me to do it,” she said. By then it didn’t matter whether threats were real or imagined; fear thrived regardless. Day decorated her float with bright yellow suns and her campaign slogan, the one about believing in the power and promise of public schools. Riding along on her float, smiling gamely and waving to the crowd, Day was either too anxious or too hopeful to notice that some of the spectators who saw her turned their backs, one by one. 

The election arrived on May 7. Day and her team gathered with friends and donors for an evening watch party at the home of one of Day’s volunteers. Kent Willis kept hitting the refresh button on his laptop to get the latest numbers. The more time passed, the more somber he became. “She’s going to lose this,” he said at one point under his breath. 

In the end, for the two seats available, Barnard clocked in with 2,994 votes and Quintero at 2,993. Day received 2,931. “Conservatives Who Promise to Stop Leftist Racism Win Texas School Board Seats,” declared a missive from the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

That night, Day took down her Facebook page and website because, even in defeat, she was still being trolled. Something else was being trolled with her: the community that had once put aside all its differences to protect an eight-year-old child. As Bryant put it, “The idea that public schools are supposed to be for all students and not just some students, and that schools should be a safe place for all kids—it seems our community no longer cared about that.”

plot to sabatoge public schools
An aerial view of Headwaters, a new housing development less than three miles from downtown.Photograph by Jeff Wilson

In November, Dripping Springs voted down three proposed bonds for the school district. Those who had supported the bonds were, naturally, crestfallen. They worried that there would not be enough classroom seats—literally—to accommodate new students. Enrollment in the previous ten years had nearly doubled, from 4,500 to 8,500 students. That attendance has grown much larger than Dripping Springs’ relatively small population might suggest is due to the many developments that have sprouted just outside city limits, and all projections showed the enrollment would double again in the next ten years, to 16,000. 

In victory, there was much meme joy on the CEEDS Facebook page. The authors thanked, among others, Congressman Roy, the newly elected state representative Carrie Isaac, and Rick Green of the Dripping Springs–based Patriot Academy, a national political network whose mission is “to equip and educate a generation of citizen leaders to champion the cause of freedom and truth in every sector of society, as we help restore our Constitutional Republic and the Biblical principles that cause a Nation to thrive.” That group is “partnered” with Patriot Mobile, the right-wing phone company based in North Texas. 

Not to be outshone was the Texas Scorecard, which tipped its hat to “local activists”—CEEDS—for convincing the majority of voters that “the school board could not be trusted with responsible management of taxpayers’ money.” Tricia Quintero’s husband James chimed in on Twitter: “Last night, voters soundly rejected the idea that we should keep kids trapped in failing public schools.” 

One likely reason for the bond’s failure was a small addition to the ballot that privatization advocates had won during the legislative session back in 2019. By law, all school district bond-referendum ballots now had to contain the words “This is a property tax increase.” 

That’s narrowly true but highly misleading. Had the bond passed, the interest and principal on it would have been repaid over time by the school district, through increased tax revenue. But that revenue need not necessarily come from a tax increase. It could also come, especially in a fast-growing town such as Dripping Springs, from higher property values and from new residents paying taxes.

Early this year, as the current legislative session got underway, legislators backed by Dunn and the Wilks brothers were primed for the long-anticipated now-or-never shot at vouchers. The governor has clearly joined them. Abbott used his inauguration speech in January to continue attacking public schools, declaring that parents “deserve the freedom to choose the education that’s best for their child.” He added that “our schools are for education, not indoctrination,” a buzz phrase also used by Florida governor DeSantis in a campaign to reject high school classes in African American studies.

At his swearing-in ceremony that same morning, Dan Patrick was resolute, saying that “the governor and I are all in on school choice.” He nodded to the widespread resistance in rural communities. “To the naysayers that say school choice hurts rural Texas, the governor and I will have a plan to protect those schools financially and to make sure those parents have choice also where they are in a failing school.” Thus far, they’ve offered no details, and Michael Lee, executive director of the nonpartisan Texas Association of Rural Schools, told me that he had not been apprised of any plans. “We would hope that rural legislators would vote against any scheme that would divert public funds away from public education,” he added.

Abbott used his inauguration speech in January to continue attacking public schools, declaring that parents “deserve the freedom to choose the education that’s best for their child.”

Even if voucher efforts don’t prevail in this legislative session, significant damage has already been done to the state’s education system, especially as more teachers, weary of being scapegoated, leave the profession. The fake crisis manufactured by activists has turned into an actual crisis for those on the front lines.

Texas employed about 376,000 teachers during the 2021–2022 school year, during which 12 percent, about 45,000 teachers, left the job. About 8,500 teachers retired that same year, about 1,000 more than the number who left the previous year. Once the shortage started making news, the governor directed the Texas Education Agency to create a Teacher Vacancy Task Force to investigate the problem—which he had helped create. That move did little to reassure demoralized educators: a survey conducted by the Texas State Teachers Association revealed that 70 percent of respondents were on the verge of quitting because of the pandemic and political attacks. Eighty-five percent of those surveyed said they “didn’t believe state leaders and legislators had a positive opinion of teachers,” a number that grew during the pandemic.

Ovidia Molina, the TSTA president, was near tears as she described the ways opponents of public education have driven a wedge between schools and families. “We have the support of people who know us,” Molina said, sounding as if she were trying to buck herself up.

In Dripping Springs, many of the teachers are cowed. “I second-guess myself,” one told me, confessing that she dropped from her reading list a story about a Black brother and sister who were split up in the foster-care system and ended up in vastly different living situations. “I was too afraid of all the backlash.”

Almost a year after the school board election, Day was still processing her loss. She worries about the future of the district. Who from the more moderate side of the political spectrum would step in to run for school board in the upcoming 2023 election, given the behavior on display the last few years? If a far-right majority came to dominate the board—now they are just two seats short—one of their duties will be to choose the next superintendent, a job that has become increasingly fraught. “As culture wars envelop schools, North Texas sees a superintendent exodus” was a recent headline from the Texas Tribune. Kroll, the former school board president, told me, “The more zany our district becomes, the harder it will be to attract candidates.” 

That raises another concern: with ongoing attacks and the impending possibility of overcrowded schools, will the district be able to maintain its A rating? And should that fall, what would happen to the community’s allure? 

Driving down a rutted road in a forgotten part of town, Day pointed out ramshackle homes where she had knocked on doors, looking for votes. Sometimes she would say “we” when talking about the school board and then catch and correct herself. She does not spend time on social media. She avoids restaurants where those who opposed her might lurk. She remains unsure about next steps, like anyone working through a painful experience.

Day’s is the grief not of a sore loser but of someone who understands the larger consequences of what can appear to be, in the greater scheme of things, an almost insignificant defeat. One loss of a school board seat in a small town doesn’t seem like much—until that scene is repeated over and over, in towns and cities all across Texas.

This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the relationship between the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council. 

This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Schools Are At a Breaking Point.” Subscribe today.