Pas­tor’s mes­sage: Vouch­ers are evil

Some law­mak­ers la­bel him fraud in his group’s fight for pub­lic schools

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By ROBERT T. GAR­RETT Austin Bureau rt­gar­rett@dal­las­

AUSTIN — Quot­ing Bi­ble verses and call­ing the school vouch­ers pro­posal by Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick and other law­mak­ers “sin­ful,” Fort Worth min­is­ter Char­lie John­son has been driv­ing fever­ishly around the state be­fore the March 6 pri­mary.

At ral­lies and im­promptu meet­ings ar­ranged by friendly school su­per­in­ten­dents with lo­cal min­is­ters, the long­time South­ern Bap­tist preacher de­liv­ers a fiery mes­sage on be­half of pub­lic schools. His get-out-the-vote cru­sade has ir­ri­tated GOP state lead­ers and staunchly con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists who fa­vor us­ing tax dol­lars to help par­ents of chil­dren en­rolled in pub­lic schools pay for them to at­tend pri­vate schools.

John­son, pas­tor of the small, in­ter­ra­cial Bread Fel­low­ship in Fort Worth, does not mince words. Chris­tians have an obli­ga­tion to em­brace pub­lic schools as a so­cial good, es­pe­cially for poor chil­dren, he says.

As he said in a sharp ex­change with a lead­ing House voucher pro­po­nent at a leg­isla­tive hear­ing just over a year ago, “You have the right to home-school your chil­dren. You have the right to ‘pri­vate school’ your chil­dren. You don’t have the right to ask the peo­ple of Texas to pay for it.”

While crit­ics have ac­cused John­son of de­fend­ing tone-deaf school district ad­min­is­tra­tors and teacher unions, which they say are in­dif­fer­ent about low-per­form­ing schools, his group Pas­tors for Texas Chil­dren of­fers an al­ter­na­tive. Be­gin­ning in in­ner-city Dal­las schools, the group has be­gun match­ing churches with trou­bled cam­puses. Church mem­bers will try to help each “adopted” school’s

lead­ers make im­prove­ments, through vol­un­teer tu­tor­ing and other sup­port.

Just as ur­gently, John­son is ral­ly­ing Texas teach­ers and other school em­ploy­ees who haven’t been vot­ing. He wants them to turn out in March and de­fend House Repub­li­cans who’ve squelched Se­natepassed “school choice” bills.

Speaker Joe Straus and a top lieu­tenant, Cor­si­cana Repub­li­can Rep. By­ron Cook, have stoutly de­fended pub­lic schools’ in­ter­ests but are re­tir­ing. In GOP pri­mary con­tests for their seats and other se­lected ones in the Leg­is­la­ture, John­son is urg­ing ed­u­ca­tors, church mem­bers and other vot­ers to back can­di­dates who sup­port tra­di­tional pub­lic schools and op­pose vouch­ers.

In the pro­tracted, eightyear bat­tle over the Texas House, John­son and his group are a new and largely untested force. They’re clearly — and un­abashedly — on the side of Straus’ lead­er­ship team. At stake in the fight is con­trol of the House, the last bas­tion of mod­er­a­tion in state pol­i­tics.

Al­though it’s un­clear how much in­flu­ence John­son and his group will wield, Rice Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Mark Jones said their get-out-thevote push is des­per­ately needed if mod­er­ate-con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans are to sur­vive in Texas.

“It’s def­i­nitely the type of thing that the cen­trist-con­ser­va­tive wing needs, be­cause one thing that they’ve been lack­ing over the past few cy­cles is en­thu­si­asm and mo­bi­liza­tion ef­forts by their sup­port­ers,” he said. “We’ve seen a rise of the move­ment con­ser­va­tives, based in part on this en­thu­si­asm gap.” Greater fer­vor among their back­ers has helped tea party ad­her­ents over­come a fi­nan­cial dis­ad­van­tage, Jones noted.

In March 2016, ac­cord­ing to some po­lit­i­cal ex­perts, John­son and Pas­tors for Texas Chil­dren were piv­otal in help­ing to res­cue a key Straus ally from de­feat. By help­ing ramp up teacher turnout in Pales­tine, they as­sisted Cook, who heads the pow­er­ful State Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, in his 225vote squeaker over a can­di­date backed by anti-Straus forces leader Michael Quinn Sul­li­van.

Ral­ly­ing vot­ers

John­son, an Alabama na­tive who for 37 years has led South­ern Bap­tist churches in Ken­tucky and Texas, is ex­pand­ing his ef­forts this cy­cle.

Though he de­clined to dis­cuss specifics, he said in an in­ter­view that he would try to rally pas­tors, their church mem­bers and ed­u­ca­tors in about “a half-dozen” House GOP pri­maries and per­haps in three Repub­li­can nom­i­nat­ing bat­tles for Se­nate seats.

He’s at­tract­ing at­ten­tion — not all of it wel­come.

The Texas Free­dom Cau­cus, a dozen Straus-bash­ing, Pa­trick-ad­mir­ing House con­ser­va­tives, has mocked and sharply crit­i­cized John­son in so­cial me­dia. In email blasts and through his co­terie of move­ment con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists, so has Sul­li­van, head of Em­power Tex­ans, a group largely funded by Mid­land oil­man Tim Dunn.

De­ter­mined to not have another speaker in the Straus mold, they and key Pa­trick al­lies in the Se­nate have protested elec­tion-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties in re­cent weeks by sev­eral groups re­sist­ing vouch­ers, not just John­son’s. The con­ser­va­tive law­mak­ers and Em­power Tex­ans have sug­gested that some su­per­in­ten­dents are mis­us­ing district re­sources.

In an in­ter­view, Sul­li­van said that some of the groups, such as John­son’s, may be mis­us­ing their abil­ity to gen­er­ate tax-de­ductible do­na­tions with im­per­mis­si­ble po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity.

John­son, though, said, “We’re well within the bound­aries of our non­profit sta­tus.”

In Oc­to­ber, Em­power Tex­ans did a 13-minute video “ex­posé” about two pub­lic meet­ings John­son con­ducted in Gran­bury. Since then, it’s been deer sea­son — and he, the tar­geted buck.

Pas­tors for Texas Chil­dren “is a pro-abor­tion heretic and a fraud,” tweeted Deer Park GOP Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Free­dom Cau­cus mem­ber. On Face­book, Sul­li­van called John­son “Pas­tor Creepo.”

In two more re­cent email blasts, he said John­son “was kicked out of his de­nom­i­na­tion for his lib­eral views” and runs a “fake ‘pas­tor’ group” that’s a “rad­i­cal left­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.” Bed­ford Repub­li­can Rep. Jonathan Stick­land, another Free­dom Cau­cus mem­ber, replied to John­son on Twit­ter, “You don’t care one bit about chil­dren. You care only about $$$ and per­pet­u­at­ing a bro­ken sys­tem. Fraud.”

John­son said his group takes no po­si­tion on abor­tion. Be­cause Bap­tist con­gre­ga­tions are au­tonomous, Sul­li­van’s as­ser­tion that he was “kicked out” of the de­nom­i­na­tion “is not the­o­log­i­cally pos­si­ble,” he said.

“Th­ese [Em­power Tex­ans] folks … have moved so far to the ex­treme right that all the rest of the tra­di­tional Texas church folk ap­pear ‘lib­eral’ to them,” he said. “They throw this word around in­dis­crim­i­nately be­cause it fires up the sliver of the cit­i­zenry that com­prises their sup­port.”

John­son said he and like­minded clergy mem­bers will keep point­ing out that the Leg­is­la­ture is fi­nan­cially starv­ing the schools. It’s con­tin­u­ally low­er­ing the state’s share of the tab for the broad dis­sem­i­na­tion of knowl­edge to the masses of cit­i­zens that the state Con­sti­tu­tion re­quires, he said.

Fund­ing sources

A few years ago, John­son re­ceived $25,000 in startup fund­ing for his group from an adamant op­po­nent of school vouch­ers, Charles Butt of the San An­to­nio-based H-E-B gro­cery em­pire.

Since then, John­son said, Pas­tors for Texas Chil­dren has grown into a self-sup­port­ing move­ment of con­cerned cit­i­zens and clergy who are ea­ger to ar­gue for the em­bat­tled school district em­ploy­ees whom Sul­li­van and Free­dom Cau­cus mem­bers have dis­missed as “edu­crats.”

“What that class­room teacher is do­ing is in­her­ently spir­i­tual,” he said. “In ac­cept­ing a child un­con­di­tion­ally [and] go­ing the ex­tra mile in ped­a­gogy, they are per­form­ing a spir­i­tual act.”

Ac­cord­ing to John­son and state­ments filed with the IRS, Pas­tors for Texas Chil­dren has an an­nual bud­get of about $300,000. John­son took a $61,000 salary in 2014 but none the fol­low­ing year. The group re­ceived a fil­ing ex­ten­sion for 2016.

Ma­jor con­trib­u­tors in­clude the Mead­ows Foun­da­tion of Dal­las, $60,000; Fort Worth school ar­chi­tect Christo­pher Huck­abee, $50,000; former Eanes school board Pres­i­dent Beau Ross of Austin, who died last year, and his wife, Kathryn, $40,000; Butt’s pol­icy group Raise Your Hand Texas, $35,000; and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foun­da­tion of San An­to­nio, $30,000.

Late last year, Mead­ows awarded the group $70,000 to con­nect 100 Dal­las churches to 20 of the Dal­las school district’s high­est-needs cam­puses.

First United Methodist Church Dal­las is a lead­ing par­tic­i­pant in the “One+One” project.

“Char­lie is a men­tor of mine and a cheer­leader,” said se­nior pas­tor Andy Stoker. While Stoker’s Methodist con­gre­ga­tion al­ready had adopted the J.J. Rhoads Learn­ing Cen­ter, John­son’s ap­pear­ance at a sum­mer speaker se­ries at the

church last sum­mer helped gal­va­nize mem­bers, Stoker re­counted.

“It was kind of a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for our lay peo­ple to say, ‘Oh, my gosh, we are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence,’” he said.

Though it’s un­usual for a Texas South­ern Bap­tist leader to jump into con­tro­ver­sies such as the voucher de­bate, John­son does it with rel­ish. While some crit­ics im­ply he’s a failed preacher, he in­sisted he’s just go­ing deeper into the so­cially provoca­tive teach­ings of Je­sus.

John­son’s back­ground

Though John­son ear­lier was pas­tor of the 6,000-mem­ber Trin­ity Bap­tist Church

in San An­to­nio and the 2,000-mem­ber Sec­ond Bap­tist Church in Lubbock, the Bread Fel­low­ship he launched in 2010 is dif­fer­ent. Start­ing with six peo­ple in a Bi­ble study, it has grown to 100 “part­ners.” Mod­el­ing it­self af­ter the early Chris­tian church de­scribed in the New Tes­ta­ment, it doesn’t own prop­erty. In three sep­a­rate groups, it meets in small, bor­rowed spa­ces in var­i­ous Fort Worth neigh­bor­hoods.

Bread Fel­low­ship has ties to more the­o­log­i­cally mod­er­ate groups that were spun off from the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion, as the na­tion’s largest Protes­tant de­nom­i­na­tion was swayed in re­cent decades by pas­tors and churches that ar­gued that the Bi­ble is “in­errant” — that is, lit­er­ally true. John­son’s flock has formed part­ner­ships with the Fort Worth school district’s De Zavala Ele­men­tary and Metro Op­por­tu­nity High.

John­son, 60, con­sid­ers his in­duc­tion a decade ago into the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preach­ers at At­lanta’s Morehouse Col­lege the high point of his ca­reer. He said his pas­toral men­tor was the late John Clay­pool, who served at Fort Worth’s Broad­way Bap­tist in the 1970s.

John­son, who en­joys hunt­ing on his East­land County ranch, isn’t shy about talk­ing of sin and per­sonal sal­va­tion, as well as so­cial bet­ter­ment.

That may help ex­plain why in the past five years, his runins at the Texas Capi­tol with top voucher pro­po­nents have be­come the stuff of leg­end. Both in­volved fel­low Bap­tists — Lt. Gov. Pa­trick, then a Hous­ton se­na­tor, and Hous­ton GOP Rep. Dwayne Bo­hac. Both boosted John­son’s vis­i­bil­ity, ac­cord­ing to long­time ed­u­ca­tion lob­by­ists.

At a 2016 leg­isla­tive hear­ing, John­son lit into a voucher-type, tax credit schol­ar­ship pro­posal. Bo­hac struck back. He ridiculed John­son’s ten­dency to pause dra­mat­i­cally as he speaks in a deep bass. Bo­hac com­plained that John­son ig­nored his frus­tra­tion as a fa­ther of chil­dren who, if he lacked money, would be trapped in “a fail­ing pub­lic school.” John­son urged him to have his church help turn that school around. Bo­hac de­clined to com­ment last week about John­son.

At a sim­i­lar hear­ing three years ear­lier, Pa­trick re­buked John­son for call­ing the en­vi­sioned pri­vate-school schol­ar­ships “a tax loop­hole.” They were to be do­nated by busi­nesses in re­turn for a write-off on state taxes. The bill didn’t pass — and re­mains blocked by Straus’ House.

This past week, Pa­trick spokes­men de­clined to dis­cuss John­son. As Pa­trick and John­son con­cluded their ex­change in 2013, Pa­trick said many Bap­tists agreed with him about the pri­vate-school sub­si­dies.

“I think God would con­sider it tithing, which we’re re­quired to do,” he said.

John­son shot back, “I’m not try­ing to speak on be­half of God, just the Bap­tists.”

This story is part of an oc­ca­sional se­ries, “Bat­tle for the Texas House.”

Pho­tos by Nathan Hun­singer/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Pat Clen­denin-McPeek, a First United Methodist Church Dal­las vol­un­teer, helps a stu­dent learn to read at J.J. Rhoads Learn­ing Cen­ter. The church par­tic­i­pates in Pas­tors for Texas Chil­dren’s “One+One” project, which con­nects 100 churches to 20 of the Dal­las school district’s high­est-needs cam­puses.

The Rev. Holly Ban­del of First United Methodist Dal­las works with a stu­dent at J.J. Rhoads. Se­nior pas­tor Andy Stoker says Fort Worth min­is­ter Char­lie John­son’s ap­pear­ance dur­ing a speaker se­ries at the church last sum­mer helped gal­va­nize mem­bers to vol­un­teer.

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