SAISD board trustee (D1) Steve Lecholop. Photo by Scott Ball.
Former SAISD board trustee Steve Lecholop took a leave of absence from his job as an attorney to accept a position as a deputy commissioner of the Texas Education Agency. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio attorney Steve Lecholop, a trustee on the San Antonio Independent School District board for eight years before losing his seat in the May 2021 election to union-backed challenger Sarah Sorenson, suddenly finds himself on the defensive in his new job as deputy commissioner of the Texas Education Agency.

Lecholop was targeted last week in a YouTube video by two Dallas-Fort Worth area right-wing podcasters who promote a conspiracy theory that Texas public schools, which they refer to as “government schools,” have been “widely infiltrated by Teach for America change agents,” a reference to the young college graduates working for the highly regarded national nonprofit Teach for America

Lecholop, a partner in the San Antonio law firm of Rosenthal Pauerstein Sandoloski Agather LLP, took a leave of absence last year to accept a paid staff position as deputy commissioner for governance at the Texas Education Agency, serving under Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. It so happens that Lecholop is also a Teach for America alumnus.

Lecholop was audiotaped recently while speaking by phone to an unidentified parent upset with the alleged bullying of her special needs child in the Joshua Independent School District, south of Fort Worth. Why the parent recorded the conversation without Lecholop’s knowledge is unknown, but in Texas, it’s legal if one party knows the conversation is being recorded.

The parent enrolled her child in a parochial school after she said district leaders ignored the bullying, according to an article published Monday in the Texas Tribune that first reported the recording and its dissemination to the podcasters.

In the recorded conversation, Lecholop appears to support a controversial proposal to pass so-called “school choice” or voucher legislation in Texas, now being aggressively pushed by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Vouchers would siphon state funds from public school districts to give families cash vouchers to send their children to faith-based and other private schools. Similar proposals have been repeatedly rejected in multiple past legislative sessions.

Vouchers are widely opposed by Democrats, as well as Republican legislators representing rural areas where public school districts are often the largest employer and there are few private schools. Critics say the voucher plan is just another step toward defunding public school districts in a state that already ranks low for per-capita student funding and public education outcomes, and that “school choice” only benefits a very small percentage of the state’s 5.5 million school-age children.

In the recorded conversation, Lecholop suggests the disgruntled parent share her story with Abbott’s communications team, which apparently is seeking individuals critical of the state’s public schools and willing to publicly support passage of voucher legislation.

Some SAISD supporters who have a high regard for Lecholop’s past board service and who supported his failed reelection bid said they were surprised by his later decision to enroll his family’s children in a Great Hearts charter school in San Antonio. Several individuals who I spoke with last week, who declined to be named, say they now assume Lecholop’s political defeat led to his support for public charters and, now, for vouchers. 

That view is hard for me to reconcile with the Lecholop I came to know over his eight years on the school board, where he was an articulate, proactive voice for improved education outcomes and the reforms needed to achieve higher-performing schools in the district. I’d be greatly disappointed if Lecholop goes to the dark side on the voucher issue.

In a statement Friday evening, Lecholop said he is “staunchly supportive of high quality Texas public schools” and apologized for remarks in the phone call about “a particular school system,” saying they were “emotionally charged and unbecoming of someone serving in my position.” Read Lecholop’s full statement here.

The recorded conversation somehow made it into the hands of Lynn Davenport, a Dallas podcaster and activist who the Tribune described as a “conservative commentator and public school parent.” I’d say fringe podcaster and conspiracy theorist would be a better description. The Lecholop recording was played in Davenport’s latest episode of the Tick-Ed podcast with Mary Lowe, founder of Families Engaged, an anti-public school advocacy group that promotes conservative Christian schools and values.

In the podcast posted Feb. 11, Davenport and Lowe are critical of Lecholop, the TEA and Teach for America.

Lecholop, who was a business major at the University of Texas and earned a graduate degree in teaching from John Hopkins University and a law degree from Southern Methodist University, received high marks from fellow trustees for his SAISD board service. He was one of the most vocal advocates for professionalizing school board governance and the key trustee pushing for the hiring of Pedro Martinez, who served as the transformative SAISD superintendent from 2016 to 2021. 

Before playing the tape of the conversation with her listeners, Davenport ominously described Lecholop as a “Teach for America change agent.” It wasn’t meant as a compliment. Lowe added her own right-wing take on the program.

“Lynn and I have had Teach for America on our radar screen for quite a while,” Lowe said in the podcast. “If you do any research on Teach for America you can see that this is clearly a change agent to infiltrate government education. … Under Commissioner Morath, the Texas Education Agency has become infiltrated with Teach for America, and they are really political and they are really not interested in doing anything to safeguard the quality of government education at a local level.”

Davenport added: “I will say, too, that … a lot of the agendas that we see from the left in public education, even though Gov. Abbott is on the right, a lot of these issues that come in at the ground level in our ISDs are Teach for America change agents.”

The words “government education” are being used with increased frequency by members of the Texas Republican Party’s extreme right wing to denounce traditional public schools in favor of public charters and private and faith-based schools — none of which are held to the accountability standards applied to traditional public schools.

If voucher legislation were to pass, it would take funds desperately needed by traditional public schools still working to recover from the two-year pandemic. And they’re already at a disadvantage since Texas funds districts based on daily attendance rather than enrollment. (All but a few states, including those with much higher education outcomes than Texas, fund schools based on enrollment.)

Lecholop seems like an unlikely target, given the TEA’s profile as an agency led by a Morath, an Abbott appointee and a politically conservative who is pro-charter. It remains unclear what motive the unnamed parent had in sharing the recording, or why the agency and its deputy education commissioner became a target of the podcasters, beyond their obsession with Teach for America.

For readers who conclude the voices opposing “government schools” are mere reformers rather than individuals bent on destroying the state’s public school system, I suggest you read The Campaign to Sabotage Texas’s Public Schools, by journalist and longtime Texas Monthly writer and editor Mimi Swartz.

The irony here is that it would be far easier for Abbott, Patrick and Republican legislators to improve the existing public school system, particularly in a legislative session where state leaders have a record $33 billion surplus they can use to address the teacher crisis, rather than persist with continuing efforts to push vouchers and other political ploys to weaken the state’s already vulnerable public schools.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.