The proposal landed on Greg Bonewald’s desk like a pipe bomb. Bonewald, a soft-spoken career educator, had served as a teacher, coach, and principal in the fast-growing Hill Country town of Wimberley for fifteen years. In 2014, he took a bigger job as an assistant superintendent in Victoria, about two hours to the southeast. But he maintained an affection for Wimberley, and when its school board sought to bring him back as superintendent this year, he was thrilled. His honeymoon would be short.
In a document obtained by Texas Monthly, stamped “Confidential” and dated May 3—the day after Bonewald was named the sole finalist for the job—a Republican political operative and a politically connected charter-school executive laid out an explosive proposal for “Wimberly [sic] ISD.” (Out-of-towners frequently misspell “Wimberley,” much to the annoyance of locals.) Apparently, the plan had been in the works for months and had been vetted by the outgoing superintendent. But Bonewald said no one had bothered to mention it to him.
One of the authors of the plan was Aaron Harris, a Fort Worth–based GOP consultant who has made a name for himself by stoking—with scant evidence—fears of widespread voter fraud. In June, he cofounded a nonprofit called Texans for Education Rights Institute, along with Monty Bennett, a wealthy Dallas hotelier who dabbles in what he regards as education reform. The other author was Kalese Whitehurst, an executive with the charter school chain Responsive Education Solutions, based in Lewisville, a half hour north of Dallas.
Their confidential proposal went like this: Wimberley would partner with Harris and Bennett’s Texans for Education Rights Institute to create a charter school tentatively dubbed the Texas Achievement Campus. But “campus” was a misnomer, because there would be none. The school would exist only on paper. Texans for Education Rights would then work with ResponsiveEd, Whitehurst’s group, to place K–12 students from around the state into private schools of their choice at “no cost to their families.”
The scheme was complex but it pursued a simple goal: turning taxpayer dollars intended for public education into funds for private schools. The kids would be counted as Wimberley ISD students enrolled at the Achievement Campus, thus drawing significant money to the district. (In Texas, public schools receive funding based in large part on how many students attend school each day.) But the tax dollars their “attendance” brought to the district would be redirected to private institutions across the state.
The plan was backed not only by an out-of-town Republican operative and a charter-school chain with links to Governor Greg Abbott, but by a Wimberley-based right-wing provocateur who bills himself as a “systemic disruption consultant.” Texas education commissioner Mike Morath—an Abbott appointee—also seemed to support the deal.
Its proponents have called the scheme pioneering and innovative. Though the effort ultimately failed in Wimberley, one of its backers says he is shopping the plan around to other districts. Critics have raised all manner of alarms.
“I’m not accusing anyone of laundering money, by the legal definition, but there sure are a lot of hands touching a lot of money in this,” said H.D. Chambers, the superintendent of Alief ISD, a district in the Houston area that serves 47,000 students. He also pointed to another, more sweeping, concern: “It’s a Trojan horse for vouchers.”
The most transformative of a set of policies often described by proponents as “school choice,” vouchers allow students to attend private schools using taxpayer dollars. For more than sixty years, school-choice enthusiasts have tried, and failed, to create a voucher program in Texas. Texas’s first dalliance with vouchers came in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation of public schools. Following that ruling, segregationist legislators studied ways to keep Hispanic and Black kids from attending schools with non-Hispanic white students. (One unsuccessful idea was for the state to subsidize tuition at private schools for parents who didn’t want their child to attend an integrated school.)
In recent years, voucher proponents have flipped their rhetoric. School choice, they now argue, is a way to empower poor and minority families to get their kids out of underperforming public schools and into charters and private schools that are presumed to deliver better education. But their arguments and lobbying efforts have encountered deep resistance from voters. Teachers and administrators generally view vouchers as a thinly veiled privatization scheme and a threat to public education. They cite considerable evidence showing that vouchers, far from empowering poor families, drain money from struggling public schools while subsidizing wealthy parents who can already afford to pay private school tuition. Poor parents, meanwhile, still cannot send their kids to private schools because tuition often far exceeds the voucher subsidy.
As a result, vouchers have remained deeply controversial in Texas, and for decades an anti-voucher coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans—in whose districts the public schools are often the only game in town—has proved durable.
But the politics of public schools shifted sharply during the pandemic. The backlash against compulsory masking, the moral panic over textbooks and classroom teaching about issues of race and gender, and the palpable anger in some quarters toward teachers—all of that has animated the skeptics and enemies of public education. In January, Abbott announced a parental “bill of rights” at a charter school run by ResponsiveEd. The proposal was light on details and mostly seemed to be a repackaging of existing law—more of a nod to conservatives than a big policy shift. But then in May, the governor made waves by giving full-throated support for a voucher program.
Many school-choice activists now see the 2023 legislative session as their best chance yet to pass a voucher program. (The corporate-funded Texas Public Policy Foundation called it “do or die” in a fund-raising letter that also pledged to “free 5.5 million Texas public school students from being a captive audience to both Marxist and sexual indoctrination.”) But these activists still face strong headwinds. “Even though the governor and the lieutenant governor want vouchers badly, there’s a serious concern that a deal is not going to pass the Legislature,” Chambers told me. He pointed to the proposal that landed on Bonewald’s desk in Wimberley. “There are people doing things like this to try to circumvent the will of the Legislature by creating their own voucher system.”
Brian Woods, the superintendent of Northside ISD in San Antonio, agrees. “Everybody’s geared up for a voucher fight starting in January,” said Woods, who is also the president of the Texas School Alliance, an association of 45 school districts educating 41 percent of the state’s students. The plan quietly attempted in Wimberley, he said, offers “a way to create a voucher [program] without having to even get it through the legislative process.” If such a plan were implemented, he said, “People would go crazy.”
Wimberley, home of the Texans and the Lady Texans, is a bustling patch of Hill Country that serves about 2,700 students. It also happens to be where I graduated from high school (class of ’99). Even as a student, I was aware that, for decades, Wimberley—with its abundance of expensive homes and estates tucked away in the hills (Paul Simon has a place there)—had sent a significant percentage of its local property-tax revenue back to the state through the so-called Robin Hood system. (Also known as “recapture,” the property-tax-redistribution system was created in 1993 by the Legislature to reduce disparities between property-rich and property-poor school districts.) At one point, in 2008, the school board even considered halting those payments to the state—the equivalent of walking out on your restaurant bill.
Wimberley is more politically and culturally mixed than most small Texas towns. Long a hideaway for musicians and artists as well as wealthy retirees escaping the big cities, the overall makeup tilts Republican but not overwhelmingly so. Until the last couple of election cycles, the local school board generally reflected the partisan tilt of the community—a mix of liberals, centrists, and conservatives (though trustees didn’t run as Democrats or Republicans and the work of the board was the humdrum stuff of budgets, personnel, and tax rates). In high school, I knew some of the trustees—prominent businesspeople and parents of my friends—but had no idea whether they were liberal or conservative. Then came Logo-gate.
In September 2019, Wimberley held its first-ever LGBTQ pride parade. Several students and parents wore T-shirts that depicted the Wimberley Texans logo in rainbow colors. One of the trustees, Lori Olson, posted a photo of herself wearing the T-shirt with the doctored logo—and all hell broke loose. The superintendent, Dwain York, sent emails to parents and community members threatening legal action if they didn’t stop using the altered logo. The ACLU warned the district not to retaliate against Olson or the others. The controversy dragged on for nine months and ripped the community apart. It also fired up a slate of conservatives to run for school board, backed by a new local Republican club and some of the more politicized churches in town. Olson drew an opponent who posted regularly on social media, complaining that the presidential election had been stolen from Trump and accusing Olson of “spreading LGBTQ in our schools” and “partying with the LGBTQ people . . . as transvestites marched through the town.” Within a few years all seven of the trustees were Republicans. Soon after, the voucher proposal started circulating in Wimberley.
Wimberley officials, including outgoing school superintendent York, initially embraced the Achievement Campus proposal as a way to improve the district’s finances. With enough students enrolled, Wimberley could have eliminated its recapture payments, which are $8.4 million this year out of a $34.4 million annual operating budget. Just how much of that $8.4 million would stay in Wimberley was unclear. York said he planned to insist that Wimberley hold onto the lion’s share of the state funding—$6,200 or so per student annually—a potential deal-breaker for private schools. “The private schools weren’t going to entertain that because they needed money to operate.” Charters, he thinks, would have been more amenable to his proposal.
Some of the local Achievement Campus proponents, including York, also argued that the proposal was a way of helping students in underperforming districts far from Wimberley, such as Dallas ISD. But he told me his primary motivation was improving the district’s finances. “I was being selfish,” said York. “Every superintendent is selfish. You take care of your kids. You take care of your taxpayers, you take care of your parents. And as long as it’s legal, if you’re not doing something shady, you better pursue it.”
What made the scheme possible, and ostensibly legal, was a novel twist on a 2017 state law, SB 1882, which encourages partnerships between public schools and outside entities such as charters, nonprofits, and universities. In exchange for additional state funding, a public school district cedes control of its operations to its external partner. The private partner is in charge of staffing, testing, curriculum, and all the day-to-day decisions that go into running a school. Thus far, every other SB 1882 partnership has been local in nature: the partner-run campus is situated within the district’s boundaries and serves the local community. San Antonio ISD, for example, partnered with UT–San Antonio’s College of Education and Human Development to turn three dual-language campuses into a national model for research-based bilingual education. In all, San Antonio ISD has turned over the operation of 39 of its nearly 100 campuses to an array of nonprofits, charter networks, UTSA, and other entities.
In the case of Wimberley, the new charter campus existed only on paper, and the potential student body would have been dispersed throughout the state. And unlike other SB 1882 partnerships, the operating partner would not have been directly in charge of educating students; various private schools would have been. “It sounds like a bastardization of what the law is,” said state senator José Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat who coauthored SB 1882. “And like they twisted and stretched the meaning of the word ‘partnership.’”
Much of what we know about the proposal comes from text messages and emails I obtained through state open-records law. And though the exact origins of the proposal are murky, officials had been working on the plan for months by the time Bonewald arrived.
Activists then waged a covert campaign throughout May, June, and July to pressure trustees and superintendent Bonewald to fast-track the deal. Repeatedly, the activists urged board members to take all the necessary steps to ink a contract with a private partner by the fall. And they had a hand in drafting the legal documents used by the Wimberley school board to lay the groundwork for the SB 1882 partnership. (When I asked Bonewald if he had told the board he was being pressured or intimidated, he paused for almost ninety seconds before eventually saying, “I expressed that I was not comfortable moving forward at the pace that was desired.”)
Spearheading this pressure campaign was Joe Basel, the self-styled “systemic disruption” consultant. Originally from Minnesota, Basel moved to Wimberley in 2021. His background was unknown to most in Wimberley at the time, but Basel first came to national attention in early 2010 after being arrested, along with three of his associates, in a bizarre stunt at a U.S. senator’s office that involved Basel disguising himself as a telephone repairman. All four pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
The stunt’s ringleader, James O’Keefe, was already infamous by that point; the previous summer, he had released deceptively edited undercover videos that appeared to depict employees of ACORN, a community-organizing group for poor people, giving advice on how to break the law to O’Keefe—who dressed as a pimp—alongside a young woman named Hannah Giles, who impersonated a prostitute. The video went viral and led to the demise of ACORN.
Later, Basel married Giles and moved to Texas, where they became notorious for leading the now defunct American Phoenix Foundation, a James O’Keefe–style group funded by wealthy Texas conservatives, including the billionaire oilman Jeff Sandefer. Basel rattled the Capitol community in 2015 by deploying a team of videographers to covertly record lawmakers and lobbyists. The group also planted an intern in a Republican state lawmaker’s office in a fruitless attempt to document corruption. Several donors, including Sandefer, publicly disavowed the project, telling reporters that they felt burned.
Steve Bresnen, an Austin lobbyist-lawyer upset with Basel’s antics, made a three-year-long personal project out of trying to uncover what he suspected was financial chicanery on Basel’s part. He eventually got a Travis County judge to appoint a receiver to examine the group’s finances. The receiver found that at least $670,000 had been transferred over a “relative brief period of time” from APF to “multiple entities controlled by [Basel and Ben Wetmore, APF’s general counsel] and to themselves personally,” including $82,000 in “reimbursements” from the foundation to Basel’s personal account. Though Bresnen could never determine whether the funds had a legitimate use, and can cite no proof of fraud, he readily proffers his own opinion: “I actually believe, and I’ve said so numerous times, that [Basel] stole $670,000.”
In an email, Basel defended the project at the Capitol and said the transactions were legitimate. “For a time my wife and I personally floated the non-profits’ work (thus the reimbursement.) against corrupt lobbyists like Bresnen (thus his hard-on for us and the college investigative journalists we were training).”
As to the Wimberley voucher scheme, Bresnen guaranteed that “there’s a scam. And it’s the same deal he does every time. He’s not a dumb guy, but he keeps going back to doing the same s—. There’s always some kind of shortcut, some kind of lame sales job going on. And I just keep thinking, why don’t you just go get some f—ing work somewhere? I think the guy is an absolute nut.”
Basel, who homeschools his two kids, ages five and seven, told me he was using Wimberley to force the Legislature’s hand on school choice. His plan for Wimberley was to have a pilot program up and running before the Lege session to prod waffling Republican legislators into backing a voucherlike school-choice program.
Wimberley was an ideal target for the pilot—it could reduce its Robin Hood payments to the state by increasing its enrollment on paper. It also had recently elected a more conservative board, including a few trustees who were particularly fired up about fighting the culture wars in education.
Basel, of course, wasn’t acting alone. He would only vaguely describe how he connected with Aaron Harris, his silent partner on this project. Harris arrived on the Texas political scene in 2014, when he formed a for-profit consulting firm with Monty Bennett, the wealthy Dallas hotelier. (Bennett made headlines in 2020 when it was discovered that his companies had received some $77 million in federal COVID relief funds. Lawmakers and administration officials had described those funds as intended for small businesses, but the stimulus legislation passed by Congress allowed big companies like Bennett’s to receive them. After a public outcry, the U.S. Small Business Administration tightened the rules, and Bennett’s companies returned the funds they had received, while denying any wrongdoing.) Bennett and Harris promoted a slate of candidates for the Tarrant Regional Water District, hardly the sexiest political venue for a multimillionaire who deals in posh resorts and hotels. But the water district happened to be in the process of trying to build a pipeline through Bennett’s East Texas ranch. The candidates lost, and Harris claimed the election had been stolen. He launched his own investigation into mail-in “ballot harvesting,” deploying canvassers to go door-to-door to fish for potential fraud, which yielded few tangible results.
Through his Direct Action Texas, Harris would go on to “become both a legal and political weapon in [state attorney general Ken] Paxton’s war on election fraud,” as the Texas Observer put it. In 2020, the New Republic reported that Harris was involved in a secret Project Veritas operation to infiltrate groups helping to collect mail-in ballots. Harris, who had the code name “Dragon,” helped Project Veritas covertly strategize with a staffer working for Paxton’s office. Bennett declined to be interviewed and Harris did not respond to a request for an interview. Neither would answer questions about their involvement in Wimberley, including whether Bennett was funding the project. But text messages and emails reveal that Harris played a role in the voucher proposal.
On May 21, Basel texted outgoing superintendent York that “Aaron [Harris] and team think we better do a special [meeting]” to consider the Achievement Campus proposal. York replied that he would talk to board president Rob Campbell. Two days later, York excitedly explained the proposed partnership to trustees at a regular meeting. But the superintendent seemed fuzzy on the details and yielded the mic to Basel, who described Texas education commissioner Mike Morath as “a friend.” (When asked in person about the Wimberley proposal, Morath said he remembered it “a little bit” but needed to talk to his staff. Later, the Texas Education Agency sent a brief statement acknowledging that its staff had provided “feedback” to Wimberley.)
Basel told the board that Whitehurst, a former education adviser to Governor Rick Perry and former chief policy adviser at TEA, had offered to help the district in her role at ResponsiveEd. York then urged the board to schedule a special session and to adopt a legal framework for partnering with a charter operator. Four days later, on May 27, the board held a 45-minute special meeting and unanimously passed the policy.
If the board fully understood what it was getting into, it was not evident from that meeting. Asked by a trustee to describe how similar partnerships had succeeded in other states, Basel said he was most proud of his work in Douglas County, Colorado, where the school board had created a voucher program in 2011 that would have used state money to pay for as many as five hundred students to attend private schools. “I think it really brought that community together,” Basel told the Wimberley board. In fact, the Colorado voucher program was controversial, divisive, and legally untenable. After years of wrangling among lawyers, culminating in a Colorado Supreme Court ruling against using state funds for religious schools, the Douglas County school board voted unanimously in 2017 to abandon the program.
Basel wasn’t the only prominent local activist who pushed the proposal with missionary zeal. Tracey Dean, who had once served as the WISD board president, was a wealthy school booster and the founder of WAR (the Wimberley Area Republicans), which campaigned vigorously for some of the newly elected hard-right members on the board. “We’re doing what we’re doing for the good of kids, our cultures [sic] future, our grandchildren, and the future of our civilization,” wrote Dean in a July text to York, as the deal started to unravel. “I have my ear tuned to the Father and I have asked Him to control it all so that everyone wins except the evil that has so much control of our kids and our schools.”
Dean undertook his own personal campaign to persuade Wimberley officials, texting trustees during board meetings to have “courage” and meeting in person with every board member, in some cases multiple times. He asked York to help after his retirement, suggesting that the superintendent could earn fees by helping other districts with similar projects. (York told me he “never approached [the SB 1882 proposal] as an option to gain compensation,” and that his sole motive was to improve the district’s finances.) On June 12, six days after Bonewald’s official first day on the job, Dean sent Bonewald a lengthy text asking for a meeting at his house and noting his extensive political and personal ties to nearly all of the trustees. “I am no fluff head,” he said. Dean and Bonewald met two days later. Dean’s goal, according to a text to York, was to “alleviate all or some of [Bonewald’s] concerns.” Apparently he was unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, others came forward with their own reservations. Will Conley, a school board trustee and former Republican Hays County commissioner, told me that at first he didn’t take the proposal seriously, or even fully understand it. But after talking to education experts he became wary. At a board meeting on July 11, as his peers wanted to move full steam ahead, he sounded one of the first notes of skepticism. “This is a big deal. And something that needs to thoroughly be discussed,” he said. “There aren’t ten people who know about this in the community.”
Conley told me some of the board members had been “convinced that this was something good for the district solely based off the information that they’d been given by [Basel] and his team.” Trustees were also apparently encouraged by TEA’s enthusiastic response. TEA commissioner Morath—who has overseen the rapid expansion of charter schools in Texas—must sign off on any SB 1882 partnership involving a nonprofit.
The next meeting, a hastily called special session on July 18, was “weird,” Conley said. Whitehurst, Harris, and an Austin attorney—Kevin O’Hanlon, a former general counsel for TEA who Bonewald said in a text was “working behind the scenes to help facilitate” the deal—were introduced by one of the trustees as “representing our public,” though none of them had ties to Wimberley. Harris, apparently on the call, never spoke despite being asked twice to introduce himself. Whitehurst and O’Hanlon talked at length about how to structure an SB 1882 partnership, though no one seemed to acknowledge the role that ResponsiveEd or Texans for Education Rights had proposed for themselves. Nor did O’Hanlon state whether he was representing a client with a stake in the proposal. (O’Hanlon did not return my emails and phone calls. No one I interviewed could say who, if anyone, his client was.)
Both O’Hanlon and Whitehurst acknowledged that there were some risks in pursuing the SB 1882 partnership. “There will be teacher organizations against this because they don’t like charters, period,” O’Hanlon said. “They’re going to say you’re draining resources away from local campuses.” He added: “Whenever you do something off the map, some people like it and some people don’t.”
But it was precisely the reaction of the public education community, including other districts, that worried Conley. “If another ISD came into our ISD and started taking revenue from Wimberley, how would this district respond?” he asked at the meeting. After almost a three-hour meeting, the board nonetheless voted to direct Bonewald to keep working on a public invitation for an SB 1882 partner. Conley managed to wring a key concession: Bonewald would get legal advice first.
By this time, in the background, the wheels had started to come off. Perhaps sensing that Bonewald was not on board, Basel texted a trustee on July 15 to lament that the superintendent “never mentions the kids this would help.” Meanwhile, Bonewald told Campbell, the board president, that he had “some frustrations” and asked for help drafting a report to the full board that he thought would need to be “toned down a notch.” Bonewald’s unvarnished thoughts are contained in a series of memos he sent to the board, but the district declined to release them through open-records law. (A tiny unredacted portion shows that Bonewald was concerned that the proposal would be “divisive locally.”)
Around this time, Basel’s past surfaced. On July 16, York texted Dean to say he had been given “bad/false information or I was not told criminal information that [Bonewald] was given. I plan to call [Basel] today to ask several questions.” (York told me he never called Basel and doesn’t care about his past. “My opinion is that he’s all about kids and his heart is in the right place,” he said.)
Dean replied that Basel and his wife had been “battling satan’s hold on all things political for a long time and have put themselves at great risk,” and complained that “at least one person [Bonewald] talked to thought they were being recorded and that he was looking for ways to arm the torpedo.”
If a torpedo was indeed armed and aimed at the proposal, it came in the form of the legal advice the board had sought. The district declined to release a summary of the feedback, but a text from Nathan Cross, a recently elected trustee, to Bonewald gives a sense of things: “Man…you talk to the attorneys…who all think we’re out to burn down the public school system which in my opinion couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
Two weeks later, on August 3, the board voted 4–2 to scrap the proposal. At that meeting, trustee Andrea Justus, upset that a majority of the board had changed its mind, argued that “TEA is 100 percent supportive of the program.” That’s not the only evidence of high-level TEA support. In June, Bonewald met with two TEA charter specialists; afterward, he summarized his notes in a missive to his board. According to Bonewald, Morath was “aware of this potential partnership and would support TEA staff providing technical support to the District at no cost to WISD.” The notes also reference a set of “challenges” raised by TEA, including a question of how WISD would “ensure private schools serving WISD students outside the community” are following state-mandated curriculum.
When I spoke to Basel, he conceded that his reputation didn’t help his cause. But he hasn’t given up on passing the voucher program. “It’s still my goal,” he told me. “Other districts are considering it.” He declined to name which ones.
This article has been updated to clarify the nature of the relationship between James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, and to correct the name of the recipient of a text message sent by Dwain York. We have also added a comment from York about Tracey Dean’s suggestion that York could potentially earn consulting fees from other districts, and have clarified the circumstances under which Dallas hotelier Monty Bennett returned to the U.S. government $77 million in Covid-19 funds.
This story originally published online on October 18, 2022. An abbreviated version of it appeared in the December 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The School Voucher Plot.” Subscribe today.