A Texas pro-charter school political action committee has pumped more than $200,000 into the March 1 Democratic primary race for El Paso’s open State Board of Education seat.

Charter Schools Now PAC contributed $206,908 in in-kind donations to Omar Yanar’s campaign for the board’s District 1 seat, according to Yanar’s Feb. 22 campaign finance report covering the Jan. 21-Feb. 19 fundraising period. The contributions include political advertising, campaign consulting services and a town hall teleforum.

Yanar is founder and CEO of the El Paso Leadership Academy, a small public charter school serving about 300 students. He faces former middle school science teacher Melissa Ortega and former special education paraprofessional Laura Márquez in the March 1 Democratic primary.

Omar Yanar

Yanar did not return requests for comment.

Anthony Elmo, political director of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a statewide educators’ union, called the in-kind donation “a very insane, very striking and unusual thing.”

Elmo said he believes Charter Schools Now, the political arm of the Austin-based Texas Public Charter Schools Association, views the open District 1 seat “as an opportunity for them to score a victory and get a very pronounced charter supporter” to replace Georgina Pérez.

Pérez, an advocate for increased charter school accountability, did not seek reelection and will step down in December after two terms; she has endorsed Ortega. El Paso County comprises 45% of the 30-county District 1 seat, which stretches to the San Antonio suburbs.

The 15-member State Board of Education sets curriculum standards for public schools, reviews and adopts textbooks, establishes graduation requirements and oversees the Texas Permanent School Fund. Board members can veto or endorse the Texas education commissioner’s recommendation of new charter school applicants.

A Charter Schools Now board member said they are contributing to Yanar’s campaign because of his charter school background.

“No one is better qualified to fairly evaluate proposals for new charter schools than an educator who navigated the entire process and succeeded,” Starlee Coleman, Texas Public Charter Schools Association CEO, said in a statement, speaking in her role as a Charter Schools Now board member.

Coleman said Pérez has “refused to act in good faith. She voted against nearly every charter school seeking to open, regardless of its quality — including the only ‘no’ vote for a small public charter school that received incredible community support and will specialize in supporting students on the autism spectrum.” That vote, for Thrive Center for Success, took place in June 2021.

Peréz tweeted Thursday that she’s never voted to approve a new charter school applicant during her tenure on the board.

Texas PAC funded by national charter supporters

Charter Schools Now reported spending more than $1 million on various primary candidates throughout the state from Jan. 21-Feb. 19. That includes a $1,000 donation to state Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, who is unopposed in the March 1 primary, according to the PAC’s Feb. 22 filing.

The PAC gave to three Republican incumbent SBOE members’ reelection campaigns in addition to three Republican primary candidates and five Democratic primary candidates.

Charter Schools Now is heavily funded by two well-known charter advocates: Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings and Jim Walton, a member of the Walmart family.

Hastings is on the board of directors of KIPP Public Schools, a national charter school chain with campuses in Austin, San Antonio, Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He was previously on the national board of Rocketship Public Schools, which is opening its first Texas campus in August in Fort Worth.

Hastings gave $1.5 million to Virginia-based Educational Equity PAC on Feb. 15, the same day that PAC gave $570,000 to Charter Schools Now. Days earlier, Educational Equity gave Charter Schools Now $70,000.

Walton gave Charter Schools Now $450,000 in December 2021. The Walton Family Foundation has invested millions over the years to support public charter schools across the country.

Opponent calls contribution ‘pay-to-play’

Elmo, of Texas AFT, said the union views these contributions as an attempt “to buy the state board on behalf of the charter school industry.

“That’s what this is about — it’s about getting enough folks on the State Board of Education to approve any charter applications that they want and to push through as many charter schools as they’re able to get through the State Board of Education.”

Melissa Ortega

Texas AFT spent $26,833 on primary candidates during the same Jan. 21-Feb. 19 period.

Yanar’s Democratic primary challengers echoed similar sentiments.

“It is now clear to everyone that Mr. Yanar is bought and paid for by the charter school lobby,” Ortega said in a statement. “When an application comes before the SBOE to open a new charter chain that will compete with our local schools for scarce education resources, is there any doubt which side Mr. Yanar will take?”

The campaign contributions candidates choose to accept reflect their values and intentions if elected, Márquez said in an interview. She accused Yanar of going along with a “pay-to-play tactic of gaining power and influence on the State Board of Education.”

“As a community, we shouldn’t stand for that,” Márquez said. “Our students are not for sale. What we saw on display (in Yanar’s campaign finance report) is very disheartening for those of us who are true public education advocates who are seeking true justice and true equity for all of our students.”

Both Ortega and Márquez have said they will push for greater charter school accountability if elected.

Texas AFT, which endorsed Márquez for the District 1 seat, wants charter schools to follow the same regulations as the state’s traditional school districts, be subject to the same level of state oversight and have locally elected school boards. Charters are fully funded by the state, while districts draw their funding from both the state and local property taxes.

Little cash coming into candidates’ campaigns

Aside from Charter Schools Now’s in-kind contribution, few cash donations have flowed into the District 1 race, in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.

Laura Márquez

Ortega reported raising $300 on her Jan. 18 campaign finance report. Ortega has not submitted the subsequent Jan. 31 or Feb. 22 reports.

Márquez reported raising $6,550, which includes a $2,000 contribution from Texas AFT. She also received a $5,000 in-kind donation from state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, for online advertising.

Yanar has raised $5,345.

Republican primary candidate Michael Stevens, a language arts teacher in Northside Independent School District outside San Antonio, has received $909 in contributions. His Republican opponent Lani Popp reported raising $1,450.

This story was updated with Georgina Peréz’s voting record on charter school applicants.

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.