Shelby Sharpe, attorney for the plaintiffs in the 1994 Leeper v. Arlington ISD case that assured Texas parents of their right to homeschool, later warned homeschoolers about attempts to undo the court decision with legislative action.
Today, the warning serves as a reminder that homeschoolers must remain vigilant in their defense of homeschooling and parental rights. They must become citizen lawmakers.
Keeping in mind that Leeper is an example of citizens successfully fighting a local government agency, I want to make homeschoolers aware of a modern way to be local activists to protect and strengthen homeschoolers’ right to home educate their children.
As we know, Texas homeschoolers have to fight for their rights during every legislative session. Thus, there are many reasons to look beyond standard electoral politics to influence the political process. We must take steps now to expand our reach and broaden our constituency.
In this article, I draw upon my experience as a policy activist to explain how that can be done. I also recommend reading the book, “The Initiative: Citizen Lawmaking” by Joseph Zimmerman, Ph.D, who is a university scholar in the field of state and local relations, specifically direct democracy.
Citizen Lawmakers: Develop a Strategic Outline
This strategy is based on a pattern of tactical success reaching back 30-plus years. Initial steps include using the primary tool for citizen lawmaking. Namely, by working issues one at a time, we can create a record of frequent success, build political capital and even make occasional alliances with opponents when particular issues are selected.
I call this strategy micro-politics. This tactic has generally been powerful in Texas politics when actually utilized. However, despite its history of triumphs, this tactic is often overlooked.
The concept is to use local ballot initiatives to rewrite policies in home rule cities. These are cities that have adopted charters, which is allowed by Texas law in cities with population above 5,000. Cities typically exercise this option to give themselves a large measure of autonomy from state rules. Then, once a charter is adopted, citizens of such cities have the power to initiate amendments with petition drives.
Topics for charter amendments should be carefully selected to maximize the potential for success. To warm up each city, voter education should start with a petition drive. Press releases should also be sent to the local media announcing the launch.
Then, to put a proposed charter amendment on the ballot of a home rule city in Texas, you need signatures from only five percent of registered voters, or 20,000 people—whichever is less. By taking advantage of this tactic, Texas homeschoolers working with other local political groups will grow their influence.
You will also be able to capture email addresses and phone numbers. This critical information can be used for voter education when a proposition is put on the ballot. It can also be used for local Texas Senate and House elections.
As the list and your political influence continue to grow, politicians will be increasingly wary of disappointing activists who helped get them elected. They may also un-elect former colleagues who proved disloyal to their supporters.
Where Are the Texas Home Rule Cities?
In the U.S, there are more than 5,400 home rule cities. The important 30-page booklet “Local Ballot Initiatives” from the Lucy Burns Institute, which operates Ballotpedia, details the rules for initiating ballot reform in each state.
In Texas, there are more than 350 of these home rule cities. The breakdown includes:
- At least 20 small cities surrounding the major Texas cities of Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.
- The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex has more than 100 alone.
This means that there is a large population in each metro area that can be drawn upon to create multiple squads of volunteer circulators for annual petition drives. There is no reason a dozen or more drives cannot be launched in each region.
Most cities rely on the state procedure for charter amendments, which allows 180 days (six months) to complete a drive. This is good because larger cities will take more time than one month to reach enough citizens.
A team of six people working as petition circulators is sufficient to get 100 signatures per day. This is done by block-walking using lists that are prepared from a county database so that volunteers are only knocking on the doors of voters.
Over the course of a month, the squad of circulators working five hours per day on weekends in cities under 20,000 population will be able to get enough signatures to qualify a proposed amendment for the ballot.
The squad should also work with a resident who has filed Political Action Committee paperwork with the city and is prepared to be a spokesperson for the project, especially when the media is invited to city hall to witness the submission of signatures.
As time passes, the growing pool of volunteers will become more skilled in this kind of activism. City officials will also become more familiar with circulators. These two factors will make future petition drives easier for citizen lawmakers.
Does This Political Strategy Work?
Consider the following three examples of petition drives in smaller Texas cities that led to successful election outcomes.
(1) Elgin. In May 2015, this city of 8,000 people 25 miles east of Austin approved a charter amendment blocking city hall from obligating Elgin taxpayers to help fund a costly commuter rail link from Austin to Elgin that would replace a lower-cost bus service. Only 200 signatures were needed to put this proposition on the ballot.
(2) San Marcos. In November 2015, this city of 45,000 residents south of Austin approved a charter amendment that prohibits the city from adding fluoride to the city water. This law was written by the city council in response to a petition circulated by FLUORIDE-FREE SAN MARCOS for an election to ban fluoride. The city wrote its own version and voters approved it overwhelmingly.
(3) Freeport. In May 2016, the voters in this city of 12,000 population approved two charter amendments. The first was to impose term limits on council members and the second required that council members win their seats by a majority, not just a plurality. The Concerned Citizens of Freeport needed only two weekends to collect 500 signatures for each amendment and qualify their reform proposals for the ballot.
This Is the New Political Paradigm
Local ballot initiatives are direct democracy. Single issue politics offers opportunities to avoid traditional political discord that divides America. We all have reformer instincts and I believe Americans across the political spectrum can frequently find convergence through thoughtful selection of our battlegrounds.
For instance, homeschoolers and opponents in Texas politics can work together on charter amendments to achieve objectives that:
- Halt crony capitalism found in most city halls.
- Impose an ethics code on elected officials.
- Stop civil forfeiture.
- Forbid abusive use of eminent domain for private gain.
- Impose strict rules of transparency in all public business.
- Mandate feedback loops to compare promises to outcomes of costly capital projects such as thoroughfare expansions, flood control projects, rail transit and other products of long-range government planning.
- Ban installation of red light cameras.
- Prohibit a militarized police including indiscriminate use of SWAT teams.
- Adopt a meaningful oath for elected officials.
- Create protections for whistleblowers.
- Impose a cap on city revenues tied to growth in population and inflation.
- Create a sunset commission to do periodic reviews of land use codes and business regulations.
- Prohibit zoning without an election based on a published ordinance and map.
- Adopt a ban on city participation in smart growth programs or regional “sustainability” plans.
Each petition drive and election campaign to secure voter approval on propositions represents an opportunity for homeschoolers and opponents to develop respect and even affection for each other as individuals with good hearts.
Political Activism Won’t Just be in Small Cities
What does it look like to reshape the political culture in Texas? A statewide campaign to reverse governmental mission creep, rein in taxes and restore liberty in smaller cities is a good start.
As we pursue this agenda at the grassroots level, we will surely see similar petition drives launched in big cities, inspired by the success of the activists in small and mid-sized cities.
Every large city has citizens with resources sufficient to hire trained circulators and fund mailouts with petition forms. For instance, reformers in Houston, San Antonio and Austin have seen success using a mixture of petitioning tactics on a number of occasions. Eventually, the profusion of petition drives, coalitions and proposition elections will affect the policy debates for all local offices.
Tap Into Underutilized Assets in Citizen Lawmaking
Be aware that we have access to highly valuable political assets in these larger city campaigns to rein in government. One asset is information about the documented flaws in local policies and the second asset is people power in the form of thousands of young activists who can participate in petitioning squads.
In the first case, we have allies in free market think tanks such as the Heartland Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Mercatus Center and the Cato Institute. These groups research and publish on policy matters dealing with city and county issues, including public schools.
This creates a way to put that expensively-acquired information into action by crafting good policies as substitutes for bad policies and then enacting them into law with local ballot initiatives.
In the second case, there are many national groups such as Americans for Prosperity and Students for Liberty that hold hundreds of webinars, “boot camps” and conferences each year. These groups could easily include a session on local ballot initiatives.
Organizers at the events teach young, freedom-loving activists the tenets of liberty, the techniques of grassroots activism, or both. At least 15,000 young people who are looking for ways to make change attend one of these gatherings every year.
These reformers and future citizen lawmakers are ideal for petitioning work and to help campaign for propositions placed on local ballots.
For instance, in May 2017, the Harris County Republican Party adopted a resolution that embraces the tactic of local ballot initiatives and urged 16 of these groups to include such training in their programs.
Is There a Problem with This Strategy of Forming Citizen Lawmakers?
When a petition is submitted to city hall, the officials have a “ministerial duty” to validate the signatures. Then, once it is determined that a sufficient number are present, the officials will place the proposition on the ballot as soon as the law allows.
Unfortunately, some cities refuse to follow this process. Petition organizers are then forced to sue—or threaten to sue—if they have the resources. Otherwise, they must apply political pressure to officials to force them to carry out their duty. However, that strategy often fails.
This problem was brought to the attention of state legislators and reform legislation was proposed by Sen. Paul Bettencourt during the 2017 Texas Legislative session. The Texas Ballot Integrity Act did not pass the legislature, though, because of a logjam in the House. The measure will likely reappear in 2019.
Homeschool Activists: Focus on Protecting Past Gains & Advancing Liberty
As Shelby Sharpe warned, the freedom to homeschool can erode or be lost based on the mood of the legislature. Fortunately, the Texas Home School Coalition is in a position to teach and coordinate a campaign for local ballot initiatives and export the strategy of creating citizen lawmakers to other states.
Since 1973 when the Texas legislature lowered the signature threshold from 10 to 5 percent for petition drives on new charter amendments, grassroots activists have been empowered to seek change. However, we have been slow to grasp the potential of that change in Texas politics.
I am confident that following the strategy described in this article will allow us to quickly ramp up homeschool activism statewide. When that happens, members of THSC will find themselves with an abundance of political capital to win support of elected state officials, especially when raising homeschool policy concerns in Austin.
When our outlook becomes the norm in Texas, this will have a significant positive impact on the state and eventually national politics, benefiting all Americans.
©2017 Barry Klein. Barry Klein is president of the Houston Property Rights Association. He has 35 years experience as a civic activist including participation in 27 petition drives. Contact the author to receive information about state rules and guidelines for citizen-initiated charter amendments.