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Former Far-Right Hard-Liner Says Pro-Voucher Billionaires Are Using School Board Races To Sow Distrust In Public education

When Courtney Gore ran for a seat on her local school board in 2021, she warned about a movement to indoctrinate children with “leftist” ideology. After 2 1/2 years on the board, Gore said she believes a much different scheme is unfolding: an effort by wealthy conservative donors to undermine public education in Texas and install a voucher system in which public money flows to private and religious schools.

Gore points to West Texas billionaires Tim Dunn and brothers Farris and Dan Wilks, who have contributed to various political action committees that have poured millions into legislative candidates who have promoted vouchers. The men also fund or serve on the boards of a host of public policy and advocacy organizations that have led the fight for vouchers in Texas.

In recent years, the largesse from Dunn and the Wilks brothers has reached local communities across Texas, including Granbury, near Fort Worth, where fights over library books, curriculum and vouchers have dominated the community conversation.

Gore said that she believes school board candidates are being recruited, at times without their full knowledge, in an effort “to cause as much disruption and chaos as possible” and weaken community faith in local school districts.

In 2021, two local men — former state representative Mike Lang and political consultant Nate Criswell — asked Gore to run for school board. At the time, the three were co-hosts of a web-based talk show that targeted local officials they believed were insufficiently conservative and were straying from GOP platform positions. They took frequent aim at the Granbury school district, which they alleged was allowing explicit sexual content into school libraries and teaching divisive ideas about race.

[A GOP Texas school board member campaigned against schools indoctrinating kids. Then she read the curriculum.]

Gore broke from the group shortly after taking office in January 2022, when she concluded that the materials she had warned about on the campaign trail were not present in Granbury schools. She claims the men and other leaders of the far-right faction in Hood County, home to Granbury, dismissed her findings. They continued to pummel the district over books and curriculum, supported school board candidates who sought to remove a growing number of titles from library shelves, and worked to derail three bond elections that would have funded new and renovated buildings for the overcrowded district.

That’s when Gore said she began to piece together connections that hadn’t been previously apparent to her.

Lang, a Republican who represented Hood County in the state Legislature for four years, received more than $600,000 in campaign contributions — more than half his total — from direct donations from or PACs funded by the Wilks brothers and Dunn. On the campaign trail, Lang supported providing public money for private schools and, in 2017, voted against a House measure that prohibited funding for school vouchers. He did not respond to requests for comment.

In addition, in January 2022, Criswell’s political consulting company received $3,000 from Defend Texas Liberty, one of the PACs funded by the Wilks family and Dunn. The PAC donated another $3,000 to Criswell this year when he unsuccessfully ran for Hood County commissioner.

Criswell declined to answer specific questions but said he has closed his consulting firm, Criswell Strategies, and has “stepped away from the local political scene, aside from occasionally sharing posts on social media.”

According to her campaign finance reports, Gore did not receive any money from the men. But another school board candidate, her then-ally Melanie Graft, received a $100 in-kind contribution from Defend Texas Liberty for advertising expenses. Graft did not respond to written questions or requests for comment.

“I was knee-deep in it,” Gore said about the local connections to the billionaires. “I guess I was just too naive. I should have known better.”

Neither Dunn nor a representative of the Wilks family responded to questions. Dunn recently penned an opinion piece in the Midland Reporter-Telegram arguing that he was not the leader of the statewide push for vouchers and has never made public statements on the topic.

Nearly two decades ago, however, Dunn argued in favor of a voucher-like program, saying that the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank on whose board he has served for more than 20 years, supported such an idea “as long-time advocates of eliminating the government monopoly in public education.” In March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who is among the state’s fiercest advocates for directing public education funds to private schools, credited the organization’s longtime advocacy with bringing the state to the “threshold” of a voucher-like program.

Dunn is also the founder of Midland Classical Academy, a private school that offers its approximately 600 K-12 students a “Classical Education from a Biblical Worldview,” according to its website. The school believes in interpreting the Bible in its literal sense, which it takes to mean that marriage can only be between a man and a woman and that there are only two genders.

Zachary Maxwell, Lang’s former chief of staff who later worked for Empower Texans, a pro-voucher public policy organization whose associated PAC was largely funded by Dunn and the Wilks brothers, would not speak about his time there, citing a nondisclosure agreement he signed when he left the organization.

Maxwell, however, said he has become disenchanted by Dunn and the Wilks family’s efforts to exert control over the state’s politics. He said Hood County hard-liners, some of whom have close ties to PACs funded by Dunn and the Wilks brothers, were trying to use Gore and Graft to drive a wedge between rural residents and their school district in an effort to build support for vouchers. The women’s presence on the school board enhanced the legitimacy of the group’s claims about pornography in libraries and Marxist indoctrination, Maxwell said.

“It’s all about destroying the trust with the citizens to the point where they would tolerate something like doing away with public schools,” he said in an interview.

Over the past two years, Abbott has teamed up with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, embarking on a tour of Texas towns to promote vouchers. Following the narrow defeat of voucher legislation in November in the Texas House of Representatives, the Republican governor campaigned to unseat lawmakers in his party who opposed such legislation. He successfully ousted five of them.

One of the Republicans who lost in the primary was Glenn Rogers, whose rural district sits just north of Hood County and whom Abbott endorsed in 2020. This time around, Abbott gave $200,000 in campaign support to Rogers’ pro-voucher opponent. Dunn and the WiIlks brothers donated another $100,000.

Rogers, who represented Hood County until 2021, when lawmakers changed the boundaries of his district, said he believes privatizing public education is at the core of Dunn and the Wilks brothers’ political efforts in Hood County and across the state.

“Whether it’s at the school board level or it’s what’s happening in the Texas Legislature right now, that’s their end goal,” he said.

[Help ProPublica and The Texas Tribune report on your community’s school board and bond elections]


Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Jeremy Schwartz, The Texas Tribune
Jeremy Schwartz, The Texas Tribune
Jeremy Schwartz is a reporter for Propublica and investigator for The Texas Tribune.

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