TX Lawmaker Worked for Anti-School Choice Lobbying Firm

Gary VanDeaver
Rep Gary VanDeaver | Image by Gary VanDeaver/Facebook

A Texas lawmaker’s personal financial statement reveals paid consultancy work for a public school lobbyist, raising ethical concerns.

While in office and serving on education committees, Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) was a paid consultant for a lobbyist group representing public schools. He later voted against school choice legislation that would have allowed families to use taxpayer money to defray the costs of private school or homeschooling.

VanDeaver, a member of the House Educational Opportunity and Enrichment Committee, listed the Powell Law Group on his personal financial statement under the “sources of occupational income” and “interest in business in common with lobbyist” sections for 2020, 2021, and 2022. The Powell Law Group aims to offer “public policy and governmental affairs programs for school district leaders and businesses in the education space who want to influence local and state legislative and regulatory matters.”

The Texas House failed to pass school choice last year due to a lack of support from Democrats and rural Republicans who argue it would harm public school funding. The program would have allocated $10,500 of state taxpayer money per student each year to support their education whether at a private school or a public institution.

VanDeaver, the former superintendent of New Boston ISD, became a leading advocate against school choice, telling The Texas Tribune, “I’m just philosophically not in favor of vouchers primarily because of the district I represent.”

Powell Law Group promotes several groups that openly advocated against the proposed school choice program: Texas Association of Rural Schools, Friends of Texas Public Schools, Texas Rural Education Association, and Texas Parent PAC.

The Texas Rural Education Association paid the Powell Law Group $18,359.99 to lobby for them. The Texas Association of Rural Schools paid the group $41,739.98.

VanDeaver, who took office in 2015 and worked on the House Committee on Public Education, said he stopped working for the Powell Law Group “about two years” ago.

“I provided mentorship and training to school superintendents and school boards to help them do their jobs better,” he told The Dallas Express. “As a retired teacher, principal, and school superintendent in rural districts, I feel it’s important to pass along the knowledge I’ve acquired in my career to help those in the same positions better serve their communities and the students and parents who rely upon them.”

“The Powell Law Group is not a lobby firm,” he claimed in the statement, contradicting the group’s lobbying records. “It is a law firm that focuses on education. There was nothing illegal or unethical about my past association with them, and any suggestion to the contrary is false.”

Rob Eissler, a lobbyist and former member of the Texas House, said he has “never seen” a lawmaker work for a lobbyist group. He said the practice was “not all that bad as long as it’s disclosed” but expressed ethical concerns.

“What struck me about the legality is that when I was a member of the legislature, I was allowed to be on that House floor and in the lounge and in the back hall. But I can’t now that I’m a lobbyist,” Eissler told The Dallas Express. “Lobbyists are not allowed on the House floor because they think there will be influence.”

VanDeaver faces a runoff primary election after failing to gain a majority vote in March.

Rep. Steve Toth (R-Montgomery) said it is unfortunately common for members of the Texas legislature to work for lobbyist groups. He described the practice as unethical and said it should be made illegal.

“It’s incredibly dishonest,” he told The Dallas Express. “For many members of the Texas House, we serve with a stipend of $600 per month. But unfortunately, there are all too many people like Gary VanDeaver that have found a way to monetize their service and walk away with untold wealth.”

“It’s sad, really,” he continued. “VanDeaver’s actions have clearly demonstrated he’s serving these entities with no interest in improving student outcomes.”

The Powell Law Group openly touted its employment of VanDeaver in past years.

“The #PLGteam is attending today’s House Public Ed. Comm. meeting to hear them discuss a list of public ed. bills. Heather Sheffield, our Dir. of Outreach, Advocacy, and Client Relations is attending in the audience and our consultant, Rep. Gary VanDeaver serves on the committee,” the group tweeted in 2021.

“Representative Gary VanDeaver, PLG Consultant is giving the Legislative Update to board members and superintendents this morning at the Texas Rural Education Association summer conference,” the group posted on Facebook that same year.

Tom Jones, who runs the American Accountability Foundation, said VanDeaver’s association with the Powell Law Group raises ethical questions.

“Representatives should have one client in the Capitol — their constituents,” he told The Dallas Express.

“The breadth and depth of conflicts that can develop from being a lobbyist and a lawmaker are too numerous to count. There are deals cut behind closed doors every day that the public never sees and having a lawmaker have a special interest have access to those deals is a type of influence peddling that any regular lobbyist would die for,” he said.

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