AUSTIN (KXAN) – A high-ranking Texas Education Agency official apologized after a phone call in which he advocated for the governor’s effort to bring a school voucher system to Texas was leaked to YouTube.
The audio was recorded in February, during a call between a parent and the Deputy Commissioner of Governance Steve Lecholop. It was published on YouTube by education commentator Lynn Davenport Saturday. The audio of the call was provided to KXAN.
During the call, Lecholop asked the parent — who was discussing an issue they had with Joshua Independent School District — if he could pass her name to a speechwriter for Abbott, who was looking for stories of parents who left public schools for charter or private schools.
“The governor’s office asked me because they are prioritizing parental rights and school choice this legislative session. And he asked me if there are — there’s a speech writer who called, and a speech writer asked me if I have any really good school choice stories,” Lecholop said on the call recording.
“In my mind, what a good way for you to stick it to Joshua ISD because like, there is no more powerful mouth in the state of Texas than the governor. And if this is a story that he’s telling about Joshua ISD. Oh, goodness, can you imagine?” Lecholop said on the call recording.
In the statement responding to a parent’s frustration, Lecholop said he “made comments about a particular school system that were emotionally charged and unbecoming of someone serving in my position. For that, I am truly sorry.”
In an interview with KXAN, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath addressed the agency’s relationship with school districts following the release of the audio of Deputy Commissioner Lecholop.
“We have got to address the needs of our students by supporting our school districts. That is, that is what we do,” Morath said about the audio.
“We need to ensure that it’s fair and balanced that we have an appropriately objective lens to it. It is our objective to make sure that we have a completely objective support system for schools throughout the state.”
When KXAN asked whether the deputy commissioners’ comments were acceptable, Morath pointed to the statement TEA provided from Lecholop.
“My comments neither convey my feelings toward this school system and its leadership nor do they reflect the fair and impartial governance support our office strives to provide on a daily basis,” Lecholop wrote.
Joshua Independent School District, located near Fort Worth, said in a statement to KXAN on Feb. 16 “The educators, students, and parents of Joshua ISD are disheartened by the actions of a Deputy Commissioner with the Texas Education Agency – the state agency tasked with supporting all public school districts. At this time, we have reached out to the commissioner’s office to have a dialogue to resolve this issue.”
On the call, Lecholop — who is responsible for improving the governance and overall system performance of local education agencies — said public school districts would likely lose money if a state voucher program were to exist in Texas.
“Traditional public school districts are getting less money, but there are no, like, detrimental impacts on actual, like, student learning that is associated with that,” Lecholop said. “School districts, what they have to do is just, like, be smart about, like, if they lose students — be smart about how they allocate the resources and like, right — like, maybe that’s one less fourth grade teacher.”
In a statement, TEA officials said, “the deputy commissioner was referring to schools staffing strategically while preserving good student-teacher ratios, not staff layoffs. For instance, if there are less students in a particular grade level, school systems might reassign a teacher to address needs in a different grade level. Ultimately, any decisions related to the broader topic in question will be made by the legislature.”The agency did not answer questions about whether Lecholop would be reprimanded for his comments on the phone call, or if it was standard for TEA officials to advocate for legislation during the session.
“We continue to hear from pro-voucher advocates that voucher systems aren’t going to hurt the public school system and yet you heard this TEA official trying to groom and recruit someone to speak on their behalf, candidly admitting that in fact, a voucher program is going to likely defund public schools — and that’s just a thing public school will have to deal with,” Association of Texas Professional Educators Governmental Relations Director Monty Exter said. ATPE is a nonprofit that advocates for teachers in the state.
The leaked audio comes as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has set both school vouchers and teacher retention as top legislative priorities for lawmakers this session. In recent school years, TEA data shows a record number of teachers left the profession, citing low pay, lack of resources, and burdensome legislative mandates.
“You cannot sustainably give across-the-board raises that our school employees need and deserve, and that requires extra funding from the state, in a state that is in 39th in the nation for per-student funding of public schools. You can’t accomplish all of that while simultaneously passing any kind of voucher program when we know the average estimate for how much a school would lose with a single student leaving is $10,000. This is not a sustainable solution,” American Federation of Teachers Communication Director Nicole Hill said. AFT is a union with 66,000 members in Texas.