Veterans of lawsuit reform turn to education

Austin American-Statesman
February 18, 2013

By Kate Alexander

Texans for Education Reform advocating for the charters and ‘choice’ but not private school vouchers.

Some of the power players who built Texans for Lawsuit Reform into a political juggernaut at the state Capitol are throwing their weight behind new efforts to shake up public education.

Texans for Education Reform, one of two recently launched education groups with ties to TLR veterans, enters the fray with deep-pocketed supporters and longstanding political ties to influential lawmakers.

Former Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro is board president of Texans for Education Reform, an advocacy group that has embraced the policy work of a separate nonprofit research coalition called Texans Deserve Great Schools.

The business leaders behind Texans for Education Reform want to promote proven approaches that will make public education work better, Shapiro said, such as expanding high-quality charter schools and online learning.

The group will not be touching some other hot-button education issues, including standardized testing, school finance or private school vouchers, Shapiro said. But it could end up instigating fights with teacher groups over ideas like tying teacher evaluations to student test scores and other proposals.

“I think it’s going to be big,” said Shapiro, adding that the campaign will be a full-blown lobbying and grassroots effort.

The campaign has not filed as political action committee and does not have to disclose its donors to the state.

In the mid-1990s, business leaders formed Texans for Lawsuit Reform to combat what they saw as abuse of the legal system by trial lawyers. Their crowning achievement was passage of a constitutional amendment in 2003 that capped medical malpractice damages for pain and suffering at $250,000.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform has fundamentally reshaped the political and legal landscapes in the state. Its political action committee has spent heaps of money demonizing trial lawyers and their legislative allies over the years, bankrolled heavily by business titans such as homebuilder Bob Perry and billionaire Harold Simmons, whose company operates a nuclear waste dump in West Texas.

Shapiro, who did not seek re-election last year after two decades in the Texas Senate, said TLR as an organization does not have a role in the education campaign. Several key people in the organization’s history, however, are on board.

Mike Toomey, a former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry and a longtime TLR lobbyist, has signed on as a lobbyist for Texans for Education Reform, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings. Toomey is not being compensated but several other registered TLR lobbyists are getting paid to push the education group’s agenda, the filings show.

Richard Trabulsi, a founder and president of TLR, made the rounds with Capitol leadership in recent days on behalf of Texans for Education Reform. Shapiro said Trabulsi is consulting with the group pro bono. Trabulsi referred questions to Shapiro.

And Richard Weekley, also a TLR founder, sits on the group’s board along with former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, El Paso businessman Woody Hunt and Salem Abraham, a hedge fund trader who serves on a school board in the Panhandle. Weekley and Hunt approached Shapiro to spearhead the effort, she said.

Some of the board members have been major contributors to political campaigns over the years and TLR has become legendary for pouring money into campaigns to defeat its foes. But that is not the objective of this group, Shapiro said.

“This has nothing to do with elections,” Shapiro said. “Nothing.”

Texans Deserve Great Schools, the non-profit working on parallel policies, is receiving significant financial backing from the John and Laura Arnold Foundation in Houston as well as other foundations.

Denis Calabrese, a former TLR strategist, has been president of the Arnold Foundation since 2010. Calabrese could not be reached for comment Monday.

The Houston-based foundation, created by a former Enron trader and hedge fund billionaire, has given tens of millions to charter school efforts in Louisiana and Houston. It also donated $25 million to Teach for America, a teaching corps that sends recent college graduates to work in public schools.

At a recent Capitol news conference for Texans Deserve Great Schools, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said the coalition represented “the greatest minds in the country who study best practices school district by school district, state by state to find out what really works in America to create the best schools.” Patrick took the helm of the Senate Education Committee after Shapiro.

Caprice Young, vice president of education for the Arnold Foundation, said at the news conference that the group’s aim is to cherry-pick the best programs in the country and plant them in Texas.

“Let’s do more of what works, less of what doesn’t and move Texas forward,” Young said.

Public school advocates are taking a wait-and-see approach to the new kids on the block. They welcomed the engagement of the business leaders and major foundations in Texas schools but needed to get more policy details before rendering a judgment.

“Some of the things they are advocating we certainly agree with. Some we don’t,” said David Anthony, chief executive officer of Raise Your Hand Texas, a public education advocacy group primarily funded by Charles Butt, president and CEO of H.E. Butt Grocery Co.