In October, I wrote about a wild, under-the-radar scheme in the Hill Country town of Wimberley to route taxpayer money to private schools around the state. Unbeknownst to almost anyone in the community, all-Republican members of the Wimberley ISD school board had spent much of last spring and summer laying the groundwork for a plan to create Texas’s first school-voucher program, using a loophole in state law.
The plot had been cooked up by a consortium of right-wing activists and donors, a politically connected charter-school executive, and Texans for Education Rights, a new nonprofit founded by Monty Bennett, a wealthy Dallas hotelier, and Aaron Harris, a GOP consultant from North Texas. Under a novel proposal floated by Texans for Education Rights, students would enroll in Wimberley ISD but attend private schools of their choice across Texas “at no cost to their families.”
Public education advocates called the plan a “Trojan horse for vouchers” and “a money grab.” The plan’s main local ringleader, an activist named Joe Basel, described it as the opening salvo in a battle to get the Texas Legislature to bless school choice. Other proponents promoted it as a way to “save kids” in struggling schools. (When the proposal ultimately failed in Wimberley, Basel pledged to shop it around to other districts.) The saga also showed the lengths to which proponents of school vouchers would go to circumvent the Legislature, which has repeatedly declined to establish a system that allows public dollars to be spent in private schools. If this all sounds kinda out there, you’re not mistaken. For the full tick-tock, read my investigation.
After the local school board abruptly pulled the plug in early August, Wimberley officials would only offer vague explanations on the record for why they did so, and some of the documents provided to Texas Monthly through the state’s open records law were heavily redacted. But now, newly obtained documents shed light on internal deliberations. They show that the school district’s principals and administrators, only recently debriefed on the proposal, were alarmed and upset by a concept that they and their peers would see as anathema to public education. Their staffs had no idea it was being considered. As the Legislature considers various school-choice proposals in its current session, the strange saga in Wimberley may offer a preview of what’s to come. It also suggests that some degree of support for school choice may come from school boards that have tilted far to the right.
In a mid-July memo to the Wimberley school board, superintendent Greg Bonewald, who had been on the job for just six weeks, seemed to unburden himself. He complained that he was being intimidated into rushing through a poorly thought-out proposal with virtually no input from educators or the community. He argued that the district would see no significant financial benefits from the scheme and seemed at pains to explain to his bosses on the board how unpopular vouchers were in public education circles. Many educators view vouchers as a mortal threat to public schools, a mechanism for subsidizing the education of the children of affluent families while depleting the resources of schools used by the kids of working-class families.
Here’s what Bonewald’s memo reveals:
—The middlemen and private schools would reap almost all the financial benefits. The Wimberley school board had embraced the proposal as a way to lighten the district’s financial burden in two ways. One, WISD could possibly tap into a rich vein of per-student funding offered to students enrolled in the voucher program. Each student would yield almost $6,900, about $700 more than the state’s basic per-pupil allotment of $6,160. Two, the district could reduce its so-called “Robin Hood” payments to the state—local tax revenue returned to the state by some property-rich districts—by adding new students to its rolls.
But Bonewald told his bosses in the memo that he had learned from the Texas Education Agency that Wimberley couldn’t expect any “significant financial benefit” from the enhanced per-student funding. Instead, almost all of those dollars would flow to the proposed “partner organization,” presumably the Dallas nonprofit founded by Bennett and Harris, along with the private schools. “There is nothing to indicate that this program is a short or long-term answer to budget challenges,” Bonewald wrote. At the same time, Wimberley would be ultimately responsible for the students’ safety, feeding, state accountability testing, and special-ed services.
—Bonewald had been subject to a campaign of intimidation. “I have experienced overt and covert efforts to intimidate me as the new leader,” he wrote the board, “to push forward with a process that I, our team, and potentially our Trustees do not fully grasp.” The superintendent doesn’t name the source of intimidation, and didn’t respond to a request for an interview, but elsewhere in the memo he refers to “multiple conversations” with Joe Basel and Tracey Dean. Basel is a self-described “systemic disruption consultant” best known for leading an effort to secretly videotape lawmakers, lobbyists, and others at the state capitol in 2015. Dean is the founder of Wimberley Area Republicans (WAR), a far-right GOP club that helped elect several of the conservative WISD board members.
As I wrote in the October story, Basel and Deal were ringleaders in a campaign to pressure the board and Bonewald. Andrea Justus, a new trustee who was the most outspoken in supporting the proposal, told me she had “no idea” who Bonewald felt was pressuring him and that he did not “discuss [the issue] with the board as a whole.”
—The process was rushed and poorly planned. Bonewald told the board that the Wimberley ISD staff, busy with the end of the school year, had no idea that the trustees had been begun meeting in May to consider a voucher plan. His administrators and principals, who had been briefed only on the proposal’s broad strokes, said they felt “left in the dark” but had “significant concern” based on what they knew. “Why is this process being ‘rushed’ without thorough opportunity for broad-based staff and community input?” Bonewald asked in his memo. He also cautioned the board against “rushing into this with a poorly planned process.” If the planning was hasty, that had much to do with outside pressure. Text messages and emails show that in the months leading up to Bonewald’s memo, Dean and Basel and others had been leaning on the district to hurry things along. For example, in a mid-June email to the trustees, Dean proposed that the board put out a call for applications, review the submissions, and select a partner to run the program within a month. He had “taken the liberty” of drafting the legal document they would need to get rolling. Text messages suggest he had help from Harris and a former TEA attorney.
—Some feared Wimberley ISD would be seen as an enemy of public education. During public meetings, school officials and the trustees rarely, if ever, discussed the proposal as essentially a form of private-school vouchers. But in his memo, Bonewald not only used the “v” word multiple times, he also warned the board members that moving forward with their plan would make Wimberley into a pariah in public education circles. “It is reasonable to believe Wimberley ISD will be pulled into the state-wide spotlight as being anti-public education, as there is not one public education association I am aware of that supports vouchers.” He added: “[E]ntities who support public education will likely not sit silently in acceptance,” and the result in Wimberley could be damage to the “attraction and retention of high-caliber staff.”
Bonewald’s memo prompted a pointed response from at least one trustee. Justus, who had recently defeated a liberal incumbent after accusing her of “spreading LGBTQ in our schools,” shot back the next morning in an email. “I’m disappointed in the tone of your email and the accusations buried within it,” she wrote. Justus argued that “the matter of community engagement . . . should happen after” the district had received proposals for how to operate the voucher program, so “we are talking about real things, not a list of unknowns.”
She also scolded Bonewald for not mentioning “the most important, and perhaps only reason to move forward, to save kids’ lives”—echoing nearly identical rhetoric used by the activists working behind the scenes. Justus added: “Wimberley is in an excellent position as an exemplary district to not knock down or bad-mouth public education, but rather help hold other districts accountable to providing quality education to those children the district serve [sic].”
Countering Bonewald’s claims that the voucher scheme would be perceived as anti–public education, Justus wrote that TEA commissioner Mike Morath, a Governor Greg Abbott appointee, had offered “100 percent support” for WISD. “Do you really think he would be encouraging this if he thought it would ruin public education?” In an interview with Texas Monthly, Justus said that some of the individuals spearheading the effort—Basel and Kalese Whitehurst, a charter school executive—have “relationships with [Morath] and they let us know that he was in support of it.” In a brief statement to Texas Monthly last fall, TEA said its staff had provided “feedback” to Wimberley without addressing whether Morath personally backed the Wimberley proposal. If Morath did support it, that might be of interest to legislators skeptical of the privatization of public education.
But Justus turned out to be in the minority. A week later, on July 21, Bonewald circulated legal advice to the trustees. Though the advice is redacted, Bonewald’s assessment is not: “These responses give me grave concern about potential negative impacts to the District should the board continue to move forward.” Apparently, most of the trustees agreed. On August 3, the board voted 4–2 to suspend its plan to jumpstart Texas’s first-ever voucher program.