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Ratliff’s SBOE squatter status, CSCOPE advocacy: serving Texans’ interests or lobbying clients?

While CSCOPE,  the controversial curriculum management system developed at taxpayer expense by Texas Regional Education Service Centers (ESCs) and used by approximately 875 public, private and charter schools, was the subject of a Sunday Austin American-Statesman op-ed debate between Texas director of Americans for Prosperity Peggy Venable and registered lobbyist/State Board of Education (SBOE) member Thomas Ratliff, it also highlighted the more interesting question regarding the interests Ratliff truly is seeking to serve.

Calling CSCOPE a “classic lesson in secrecy,” Venable outlined the CSCOPE issues raising statewide concerns including:

  • CSCOPE’s questionable lesson plan content
  • “little bit better than adequate” curriculum
  • allegations of plagiarism
  • correlation to the Texas-rejected Common Core standards
  • initial (and illegal) inaccessibility to anyone but subscribing educators
  • creation of a nonprofit shell organization that claimed exemption from public records, open meetings laws
  • initial mandate of teachers to sign confidentiality agreements to not share, publicly criticize program content
  • taxpayer-funded ESC budgets not specifically identifying or tracking use of revenue collected from program end-users (taxpayer-funded school districts)

She further discussed the ESCs’ “veil of secrecy” as a “betrayal of public trust” and noted how CSCOPE now being in the public domain may prompt its continued use by school districts despite many citizens remaining committed to keeping CSCOPE out of public schools.

Venable’s conclusion: “Texas children deserve better than CSCOPE, and Texas taxpayers deserve to know the whole story behind this controversy.”

In writing CSCOPE a target for extremists, Ratliff likely sees Venable as exactly that and doesn’t seem a fan of transparency calls.

Interestingly, the CSCOPE story Venable says Texas taxpayers deserve to know elicits major irony with Ratliff, one of the system’s staunchest defenders, meriting his own chapter.

Two points worth noting in light of Ratliff’s occupation: his registered lobbyist status makes him ineligible to even serve on the State Board of Education and Microsoft, not surprisingly Texas’ largest public education system software vendor, is a long-time Ratliff client.

Education activist Donna Garner writes of Ratliff’s election to the SBOE:

The people of Texas knew what they were doing many years ago when they set up the Texas Education Code to keep the SBOE fiercely independent of lobbyists and outside vested interests.  SBOE members receive no remuneration of any kind, have no paid staffs, and have no paid office equipment or cell phones.

This fierce independence from lobbyists and outside interests was maintained by the SBOE until Thomas Ratliff came along as a candidate in 2010.

Ratliff ignored the Texas Education Code, blatantly raised money for his campaign from other wealthy lobbyists and special interest groups, and beat out conservative Don McLeroy for the position.

Texas Education Code, Subchapter A, Section 7.103, states:

A person who required to register as a lobbyist…..by virtue of the person’s activities for compensation in or on behalf of a profession, business, or association related to the operation of the board, may not serve as a member of the board or act as the general counsel to the board.

In 2011, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott was asked to look into Ratliff’s SBOE eligibility and issued this summary of findings:

Summary: Subsection 7.103(c), Texas Education Code, precludes certain registered lobbyists from serving on the State Board of Education (“Board”). A person who has been retained to communicate directly with the legislative or executive branch to influence legislation or administrative action in or on behalf of a profession, business, or association on a matter that pertains to or is associated or connected with any of the statutorily enumerated powers or duties of the Board is not eligible to serve on the Board. Thus, a registered lobbyist who has been paid to lobby the legislative or executive branch on a matter relating to Board business is ineligible to serve on the Board. The question of whether any person engaged in lobbying activity is ineligible under subsection 7.103(c) is a fact question that is inappropriate to an attorney general opinion.

Absent a mechanism to cure a violation in subsection 7.103(c), we cannot advise that a member of the Board may cure his or her ineligibility under the subsection.

In noting the inability to “cure” conflicts by recusing oneself from votes involving clients, Abbott concluded a registered lobbyist is not eligible to serve on the SBOE.

Ratliff’s service to Microsoft was the focus of a 2011 Texas Eagle Forum news release:

Thomas Ratliff has been registered as a lobbyist with the Texas Ethics Commission since 1998.  Microsoft is one of his most lucrative clients earning him between $25,000 – $50,000 each year.  This one client has the potential of having the most glaring conflict of interest between the SBOE and Mr. Ratliff, because Microsoft is one of the top five publicly traded companies of the Permanent School Fund (PSF).  The SBOE is the caretaker of the PSF. Microsoft stock was worth $157.16 million as of September 2010.

The Microsoft connection should also cause additional concern because Bill and Melinda Gates have been behind the Obama Administration’s Common Core Standards/Race to the Top agenda.  Governor Rick Perry and Commissioner of Education Robert Scott have rejected these standards on behalf of Texans.

Ratliff’s full listing of clients since taking office:  2010201120122013

The Gates’ support of Common Core is well-known as evidenced from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation web site and more recently when The Washington Post reported this: “For an initiative billed as being publicly driven, the Common Core States Initiative has benefited enormously from the generosity of the private philanthropy of Bill and Melinda Gates. How much? About $150 million worth.”

In recent years, Ratliff and his family have refined operating in the intersection of legislators, lobbyists, other political, family and education industry interests.

Ratliff’s SBOE squatter status and CSCOPE advocacy appear active efforts on that front.

Lou Ann Anderson

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist. As a contributor at Raging Elephants Radio and Examiner Austin, she writes and speaks on a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the creator and online producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses probate abuse via wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney as well as other taxpayer advocacy issues.

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