Baptist Preacher’s Crusade Against ‘Sinful’ School Vouchers Steps on Texas GOP Leaders’ Toes

By Robert T. Garrett January 12,2018 – DALLAS NEWS

Rev. Charles Foster Johnson – Executive Director of PTC

Rev. Charles Foster Johnson – Executive Director of PTC

Quoting Bible verses and calling the school vouchers propos​al ​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 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 Senate-passed “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 theirs and other selected seats 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, eight-year 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-the-vote 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 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 225-vote 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’ll try to rally pastors, their parishioners 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 some superintendents are misusing district resources.

In an interview, Sullivan said 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 like-minded 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 district board president Beau Ross of Austin, who died last year, and 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 vouchers, 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 6,000-member Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio and 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 the Southern Baptist Convention, as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination was swayed in recent decades by pastors and churches who 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 run-ins at the Texas Capitol with top vouchers 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 this 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 week, Patrick spokesmen declined to discuss Johnson. As Patrick and Johnson concluded their exchange in 2013, Patrick said many Baptists agree 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.”