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Floor Pass

Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) confers with Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville)
Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) confers with Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville)

On Thursday, the Senate Education Committee debated strengthening a law that makes it easier for parents to make changes at low-performing schools.

A measure, passed in 2011, lets parents petition the state to turn schools with five consecutive years of poor state ratings into charter schools, to have the staff replaced, or even to close the school—an education reform strategy known as a “parent trigger.”

Senate Bill 14 by Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) would reduce that period to two years, a kind of parental “hair trigger.”

(This session, it’s hard to escape the loaded language of gun debates.)

“This is about parent empowerment,” Taylor said. “[Five years] is too long to have young children stuck in a school and to have people defending that failing school district.”

Proponents of the law, which requires half the school’s parents to sign on, say it would help parents to take a lead role in school improvement, while critics call it a coordinated attempt to convert schools to privately run charters that lack oversight.

John Gray spoke against the bill on behalf of the Texas State Teachers Association.

“Our concern on this bill is the profit motive that could be driven by some educational management organizations,” Gray said. “You are calling it a parent empowerment law, but looking at the for-profit motive, once those parents sign the petition they are done.”

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger law in 2010, and similar laws have been adopted in at least seven states. California is the only state where the law has been used to force changes at a school.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, said he spent time in California interviewing parents and stakeholders in schools where the parent trigger had been used.

California found that paid operatives influenced the parent trigger petition process at Desert Trails Elementary School.

“Even where parent trigger created change, campaigns produced lasting divisions in the community,” Anthony said.

Last year, the Texas Education Agency rated 750 of Texas’ 8,000 schools academically unacceptable. Those school ratings rely mostly on standardized test scores that closely track family income, and low-performing schools are more likely to have high rates of poverty, racial segregation and students with limited English.

Gabe Rose is the chief strategy officer of Parent Revolution, a nonprofit group that has encouraged parent trigger laws nationwide, beginning with the California law passed in 2010.

“I agree that test scores in general correlate with student income,” Rose told the Observer. He said the bill would affect schools serving large percentages of economically disadvantaged students. “Under the proposed move in Texas it’ll only be about 300 schools—I think it’s 290 or so—that are eligible for the law,” Rose said.

Parent-trigger petitions wouldn’t necessarily request conversion to a charter school; parents could also ask to close the school or replace the staff.

Still, the groups pushing parent-trigger laws have roots in the charter community. Parent Revolution was founded by leaders from the charter school network Green Dot, and is funded largely by the Walton Family Foundation, one of the nation’s largest financial backers of charter schools.

Taylor filed a bill similar to SB 14 last session, which the Senate passed but never came up for a vote in the House Public Education Committee. This session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has named parent trigger one of his top education priorities.

Open Carry Texas rally
Kelsey Jukam
Members of Open Carry Texas rally at the Capitol.

The right to bear arms wasn’t one of the five emergency items outlined in Gov. Greg Abbott’s State of the State address in February, but you might think otherwise if you’ve been watching the Senate lately. The Second Amendment took center stage this week as the Senate OK’d bills that would allow licensed gun-owners to carry handguns concealed on college campuses and openly everywhere else in public. Similar legislation has come up in the last three sessions, without much success. But with a fresh crop of senators, and the leadership of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the political climate has become ripe for passing gun bills that were once considered outside the political mainstream of the Capitol.

On Monday, Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), the author of the Senate open carry legislation, confidently batted down Democratic opposition as they pitched questions and offered up amendments to Senate Bill 17.

Sens. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Kirk Watson (D-Austin) clearly did their homework, forcing Estes to consult with his staff numerous times to answer questions that should have been easy to answer (like whether a proposed amendment was germane to the bill—Estes said he didn’t know, but was going to move to table it anyway). But Estes and many of the Democrats acknowledged during the course of the debate that open carry wasn’t going to be stopped in the Senate.

There were numerous last-minute amendments to the bill. Three passed: one postponing implementation of the law until Jan. 1, 2016; another requiring extra training in weapon retention (how to hold onto your gun if it’s grabbed by an attacker); and one that would prohibit open carry on college campuses. The rest died quickly as votes split on party lines, 20-11.

Open carry legislation has never come this far. Last year, two open carry bills were left pending in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.

Sen. John Whitmire
Sen. John Whitmire was one of the most vocal opponents to SB11 and SB17.

C.J. Grisham, founder of Open Carry Texas, told the Observer that groups like his forced legislators to deal with gun bills this session. He says in the past, only a few lobbyists—most for the National Rifle Association and the Texas State Rifle Association—worked on these issues. But this time grassroots activists “mobilizing Texans all around the state” made the difference.

The success of open carry legislation in the Senate this year was more surprising than that of campus carry. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said during a Texas Tribune forum in January that he didn’t think there was enough support in the Legislature for open carry to pass, but the odds were much better for campus carry. Legislation to allow guns on campus has also gained more traction in past sessions than open carry. Last year, the Legislature passed a law to allow concealed handgun license-holders to store their weapons and ammunition in private vehicles on college campuses.

During the debate, Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) said he hoped that the “extended conversation” between senators on the floor would at least lead House colleagues to “taking a deep breath and not feeling the political pressure, and really deliberating” on campus carry.

Many legislators and activists are hoping that campus carry will face a greater challenge in the House this year than it has in the Senate. But in 2013, a campus carry bill passed in the House 102-41. Notably, 78 of the members who voted ‘yes’ on that bill are still in the House.

That legislation, however, included a provision allowing individual universities to decide whether to allow guns on campus. On Wednesday, Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), author of the campus carry legislation SB 11, shot down a proposed amendment to let public universities opt out, though private universities can. Birdwell argues that private property rights must be respected as much as one’s “God-given” right to bear arms.

Referencing a recent poll that found most Texans don’t support campus carry, Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) asked Sen. Birdwell, “What are we really doing here?” She echoed the sentiments of a few other senators, saying that local campuses should be allowed to decide whether to allow guns on campus or not. Birdwell said his aim is to advance to the ability of concealed handgun license holders to keep their rights, and though he values the opinions of those in charge of public universities, the “No. 1” opinion is that of “the people who sent us here.”

After four hours and 25 proposed amendments, SB 11 passed to engrossment, with all Republicans voting for it and all Democrats voting against it. The final vote on the bill will take place Thursday.

Correction: The original story stated that Sen. Craig Estes is a Republican from Granbury. In fact, he is a Republican from Wichita Falls. The Observer regrets the error.

Andy Miller (left) and Brian Stephens with their son, Clark
Andy Miller (left), shown with his partner Brian Stephens and their adopted son, Clark, was among those who testified in favor of the bill Wednesday.

A Republican committee chairman smacked down an anti-LGBT witness Wednesday during a hearing on a proposal to allow same-sex parents to have both their names on the birth certificates of adopted children.

Julie Drenner, of Texas Values, claimed the bill would lead to threesomes adopting, affect all birth certificates and require the state to revise more than 20 forms.

But Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), chairman of the House Committee on State Affairs, told Drenner he was “struggling” with those arguments, and suggested that same-sex couples have been more willing to adopt special-needs children than “the traditional community.”

“That’s a terrible indictment on one group, to be honest with you,” Cook told Drenner. “In regards to your issue that you have to change the forms, so what? I really don’t understand that argument at all. Right now in Texas, we are struggling. We do not have enough parents who are willing to adopt. Thank goodness for people that will adopt children and give them loving homes.”

In 1997, the Legislature amended the Texas Health & Safety Code to require supplemental birth certificates issued to adoptive parents to contain the name of one female, the mother, and one male, the father. Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), the author of House Bill 537, said as a result, roughly 9,000 Texas children who are being raised by adoptive same-sex parents don’t have accurate birth certificates. That leads to problems enrolling children in school, adding them to insurance policies, admitting them for medical care and obtaining passports.

“Regardless of what you think about the parents, this state should be about promoting policies that protect children and foster adoption, and that’s what this bill does,” Anchia said.

Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)
Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)

Kirsten Edwards choked back tears as she told the committee that in addition to being a legal assistant to an adoption attorney, she’s the same-sex parent of a 2-year-old boy. Edwards, whose name is on her son’s birth certificate, said while the family hasn’t encountered any bureaucratic problems yet, she dreads the day her son asks why the document doesn’t include both mothers.

“I’ve thought about it a lot, and I have no idea what I’m going to tell him,” Edwards said.

Zoe Touchet, 14, said if her biological mom, who isn’t on her birth certificate, were to pass away, she’d be forced to go to court and unseal her adoption records to obtain Social Security benefits.

“I feel like as a child of same-gender parents, I’m not getting the same rights,” Zoe said. “I feel like I’m getting punished for something people shouldn’t be punished for.”

Anchia noted that two years ago, when Texas Values alleged the bill would lead to “mother” and “father” being removed from all birth certificates, PolitiFact said the claim was “mostly false.” Likewise, the bill states that “both” parents could be listed on birth certificates, thereby precluding threesomes.

“They’ve been fact-checked, and their contentions have not held up,” Anchia said of Texas Values. “I would not submit, members, to the politics of fear.”

Cook, who has an adopted child, left the bill pending but indicated he plans to call it back up.

“We owe it to young people like Zoe to give them some peace of mind on this issue and some clarity,” Cook said.

Dennis Bonnen
Dennis Bonnen

After four hours of debate on almost 50 amendments, the House passed, on an initial vote, a comprehensive border security bill by Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton).

House Bill 11 passed on a 131-12 vote.

The far-reaching bill would expedite hiring of additional Department of Public Safety troopers to serve in the border region, create a Texas Transnational Crime Intelligence Center in the Rio Grande Valley, enact more serious penalties for human smugglers and commission a study on the creation of checkpoints on southbound roads.

According to the Legislative Budget Board, the price-tag for the bill totals $4.1 billion over the next two years.

Bonnen said that creating a permanent DPS presence on the border would eliminate the need for so-called border surges. Texas’ latest deployment of law enforcement started last summer in response to a wave of unaccompanied Central American children crossing the border. An internal DPS report found that the surge had taken away from crime-fighting elsewhere in the state.

“For the first time in the history of our nation,” Bonnen said, “we’re having a consistent plan to fill the void of the federal government’s constitutional responsibility to secure the border, which for some reason they choose not to do.”

Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) started today’s debate off on a combative note when he objected to the possible creation of southbound checkpoints.

Simpson said he spent a week at the border and never heard any calls for checkpoints going south into Mexico.

Bonnen argued that the checkpoints could be an important tool to catch transnational gangs smuggling money, guns or other weapons.

Democrats put up little resistance.

Most of the several dozen amendments were withdrawn before being voted on.

Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston) offered seven amendments to the bill, including one that would have required DPS to put contracts over $5,000 out for a competitive bid—a remedy for the no-bid contracting scandals that have rocked DPS and other agencies. All Walle’s amendments failed.

Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville) said that he supported the bill because of increased criminal threats from drug cartels on the border.

“They are very bad people, with very bad intentions,” he said.

Other border lawmakers say crime in border communities has been overstated and have questioned the need for an increased state law enforcement presence.

Walle and Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) voiced concerns over spending more than $4 billion on a border security bill without having a clear definition of what constitutes a secure border. Gonzalez pointed out that El Paso is the safest large city in the country. Both representatives voted against the bill.

More than 70 members of the House co-authored HB 11. An almost identical Senate bill by Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) had a committee hearing today.

Vincent Lopez
Kelsey Jukam
Vincent Lopez, is founder of the Patient Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics.

Timothy Dasher’s 12-year-old daughter, Felicity, has epilepsy and suffers from frequent seizures. She usually has to wear a helmet to protect her head from the sudden falls, which have bruised and broken her small body. Today she wore an enormous pink-and-white bow in her hair as she and her father stood with dozens of activists at the Capitol in support of legislation that would allow Texans to legally access medical marijuana.

Dasher and other activists are getting behind House Bill 3785, and its companion Senate Bill 1839, legislation giving patients who have a doctor’s recommendation to acquire and use marijuana. Proponents of the legislation say that medical marijuana has many of the same treatment benefits as prescription medications without as many of the harmful side-effects.

Dasher says his daughter tried 15 different pharmaceutical drugs over 10 years to try to stop the seizures. None of them worked, he said. If anything, they seemed to make the condition worse. But when the family moved to Colorado, and started using medical marijuana. “We found her miracle,” he said. He hopes that medical marijuana will be legalized this session, so they don’t have to leave their Granbury home again.

Rep. Marisa Marquez (D-El Paso), author of HB 3785, said in a press conference this afternoon that Texas needs to take a “scientific and reasoned approach” to medical marijuana, and allow patients and doctors to choose their best treatment plan.

“The support we see here today is a clear indication that the Legislature needs to take the suffering of these Texans seriously,” Marquez said.

She calls her 40-page bill “comprehensive,” and says that it includes safeguards to prevent misuse of the drug. The bill would allow the Department of State Health Services to establish a regulated system of licensed cultivators and dispensaries.

Marquez’s legislation is more detailed and ambitious in scope than other medical marijuana bills filed this session and in previous ones. In 2013, Rep. Elliott Naisthat (D-Austin) carried a bill that would have given patients using medical marijuana an affirmative defense if they were arrested on charges of possession. That bill, HB 594, was left pending in committee.

This session, three Republican legislators filed bills that would legalize access to cannabidiol (CBD), one of the 85 active ingredients in cannabis. CBD has been effective at treating some epilepsy patients, but many patients need other components of marijuana, including THC, to effectively treat their symptoms. HB 3785 and SB 1839 would allow access to whole marijuana and oils that have a more balanced ratio of CBD and THC.

Vincent Lopez, outreach director for the Patient Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, began using medical marijuana in 2009 to treat muscle spasms. For the last 25 years, Lopez has used a wheelchair, while struggling with Becker muscular dystrophy, a condition characterized by slowly worsening muscle weakness. He says marijuana acquired on the black market doesn’t have consistent results. There are multiple strains of cannabis, and some are more effective at treatment for certain medical conditions than others. With the black market product, Lopez says, you never know what strain you’re getting.

Rep. Marisa Marquez
Kelsey Jukam
Rep. Marisa Marquez discusses her bill that would legalize medical marijuana.

Under the proposed legislation, patients who have specific illnesses or disorders listed in the bill—such as cancer or epilepsy—would qualify for access. The bill also includes people who experiences chronic and severe pain, or suffer from a symptom deemed “debilitating” by the Department of State Health Services.

Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states. According to a 2013 poll by the Marijuana Policy Project, 58 percent of Texas voters believe that seriously ill patients should be allowed to use medical marijuana if they have a doctor’s recommendation to do so. A Texas Tribune poll from last year, found that 77 percent of Texans support the legalization of marijuana for at least some uses.

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference that marijuana decriminalization is not likely to happen this session. He said that Texas should divert “away from activity that involves drug use and helping people lead more productive lives.”

Many patients argue that medical marijuana is the key to living a productive, pain-free life.

Marquez said in the press conference that the biggest challenge to passing this legislation is education.

“I think many people when they hear marijuana, immediately, there’s an apprehension about what exactly we’re trying to do here,” she said.

She hopes she’ll be able to help her colleagues understand every aspect of the bill, to alleviate those types of concerns. HB 3785 and SB 1839 were both filed last week and neither has been assigned to a committee.

Cecil Bell Jr.
Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. (R-Magnolia) is the author of four anti-LGBT bills, the most of any legislator.

Texas lawmakers have filed at least 20 anti-LGBT proposals this year—likely the most in the history of any state.

It’s the type of onslaught that was widely expected among LGBT advocates, due to backlash over the spread of same-sex marriage.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said the group is “well-positioned” to defeat every piece of anti-LGBT legislation. Williams called it the worst session for LGBT rights since 2005—when the state’s marriage amendment passed and a proposal to ban gay foster parents was defeated on the House floor.

But things have changed since then, he said, pointing to the Texas Association of Business’ decision to oppose one well-publicized anti-LGBT proposal—a “religious freedom” amendment that would protect discrimination—prompting its author to back down.

“What’s different about this Legislature than 2005 is that Texas, like most of the nation, has evolved on LGBT issues, and that mainstream voice is emerging and is being heard in the Texas Legislature,” Williams said. “It damages the Texas brand, and I think that’s why you’re seeing so many business voices get involved. … We also know how this process works better than our opposition does.”

Williams wouldn’t elaborate on strategy, but out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) suggested the best one may simply be to run out the clock.

“I feel good about our chances of stopping it, because there are so many major issues out there, that these small hateful and divisive bills will get pushed to the back of the agenda,” Israel said. “We’re going to run out of time, and we will be able to make a statement that there’s no place for that kind of law in the state of Texas.”

If LGBT advocates needs signs of encouragement, they can look north. Oklahoma lawmakers introduced 16 anti-LGBT bills this year, but 15 have already died. Israel noted that many of the anti-LGBT proposals in Texas are similar to those in other states—an indication they’re being shopped by national groups.

“I’m assuming that whatever they’ve seen in Oklahoma, they’ve brought that trash to Texas, and we’re going to clean it up,” Israel said.

Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), the author of four anti-LGBT bills—the most of any legislator—said he’s “very confident” one or more will pass.

“Unfortunately, I think it gets couched as ‘anti.’ It’s not about ‘anti.’ It’s about being pro-states’ rights. It’s about being pro-traditional values,” Bell said. “We’re seeing the results of a federal court system that doesn’t seem to be respecting the rights, the sovereignty, of the states and of the people. Because of that, you see the state legislatures pushing back.”

Three of Bell’s bills directly target same-sex marriage, while the other would allow business owners to turn away customers on religious grounds. It’s one of several similar religious freedom proposals, including two constitutional amendments, that critics say would establish a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people.

Other bills would bar cities from enacting or enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and restrict access to restrooms and similar facilities for transgender people.

“This bill really is trying to establish the students’ rights to privacy,” said Rep. Gilbert Pena (R-Pasadena), who wants to make schools liable for damages if they allow transgender students to use restrooms based on how they identify. “How many girls in our high schools are going to be willing to allow some transgender male into their bathroom? Would you allow that for your daughter? I would not allow it for my daughter.”

Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the nation’s largest LGBT group, the Human Rights Campaign, said Texas has “the largest number of bills we’ve seen in a single state intended to harm the LGBT community at least in a very long time.”

Warbelow said based on what’s happened in other states, she believes bills targeting same-sex marriage have an “extraordinarily low” chance of passage.

“There is not an appetite among moderate Republicans to pass bills that are so blatantly unconstitutional,” she said.

But Warbelow said she’s concerned about proposals that would undermine local nondiscrimination ordinances.

“As we as a movement have greater success at the municipal level in states that are controlled by more conservative legislatures, it is something that we worry about,” she said.

And while some have characterized the current barrage of legislation across the U.S. as the last gasp of the anti-LGBT movement, Warbelow disagreed.

“I think this is likely to continue for some time,” she said. “I anticipate that this will not be the last year that we see a number of these bills move.”

Waco native Bryan Christopher spent 18 years trying to change his sexual orientation before coming out as gay.
Courtesy of Bryan Christopher
Waco native Bryan Christopher spent 18 years trying to change his sexual orientation before finally coming out as gay.

Bryan Christopher was born in 1970 to two Baylor University students in Waco—what he calls “the Southern Baptist epicenter of the world.”

At 13, Christopher realized his dad’s Playboy magazines didn’t appeal to him. But because he’d been taught that being gay was a sin, he’d spend the next 18 years trying to change his sexual orientation through both religious and mental health counseling.

At 25, when Christopher feared he was in love with a fraternity brother at UCLA, he felt the urge to jump off a cliff. He called a suicide hotline and spent three days in a psychiatric ward, but it wouldn’t be until six years later that he finally came out as gay.

Looking back, the now 45-year-old Christopher blames so-called “reparative therapy” for many of his struggles. He’s written a book about his experiences and speaks out in support of bills like one filed Friday at the Texas Legislature, which would ban reparative therapy for minors.

“It’s to protect the children from being forced into a therapy that just reinforces the fear and the shame that most of these kids already have, and it leads to people taking their own lives,” Christopher said. “There’s nothing good that ever comes out of it. … I think if you just were to poll all the survivors, I think they would probably echo what I’m saying, that it was a very destructive and painful chapter of their lives.”

Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin)
Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin)

The proposal introduced by out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) would prohibit mental health providers in Texas from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under 18. Those who violate the law would face disciplinary action from state licensing boards.

Israel acknowledged that House Bill 3495 has little chance of passing the Republican-dominated Legislature, and it wouldn’t apply to faith-based practitioners, but she said it’s an important response to the Texas GOP’s 2014 platform plank endorsing reparative therapy.

“I don’t think that they recognize how hurtful these kinds of things can be,” Israel told the Observer. “To suggest that some young kid that happens to be gay is less than normal is very hurtful and harmful and dangerous, and I think I put myself back in those years when I was first discovering who I was. … I felt strongly about introducing a bill that was a counter to that, to say, ‘We don’t need fixing. We just need your love.'”

Virtually all of the major medical and mental health organizations have come out against reparative therapy, from the American Psychological Association to the American Medical Association and the American Counseling Association.

David Pickup
David Pickup

But David Pickup, a licensed counselor who practices reparative therapy in Dallas and Los Angeles, suggested those groups have a political agenda and haven’t done adequate research. Pickup said bans like the one proposed in Texas violate the free speech rights of counselors, as well as the rights of parents and children.

“It results in further abuse of children because it doesn’t let them become who they actually are,” Pickup said. “It also takes away any possibility at all of children who are sexually abused by same-sex pedophiles from getting any help whatsoever to reduce or eliminate homosexual feelings that are caused by that.”

Pickup, one of the authors of the Texas GOP plank endorsing reparative therapy, was also a plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging a similar law in California. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether to hear a challenge to New Jersey’s reparative therapy ban. The only other jurisdiction to outlaw reparative therapy for minors is Washington, D.C., but several other states are considering it.

Pickup, who describes himself as “ex-homosexual,” said his methods are nothing like horror stories in the media about electroshock and aversion therapy. Rather, he employs “time-tested psycho-dymanic and cognitive behavioral therapies” to address common issues such as “gender-identity inferiority” and “severely unmet male emotional needs.”

“If the gay agenda really cared about children, they wouldn’t create a law that would put children right back in the hands of some of the religious people who supposedly do all this harm that’s being done,” Pickup said.

Larry Taylor
Larry Taylor

Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) wants to change the way Texas grades its public schools, and during a hearing today he laid out his plan: grading schools like students, on an “A” to “F” scale.

Senate Bill 6 provides Texas parents with a more transparent way to determine the quality of their local schools in order to make the best decision for their child,” Taylor said.

Texas’ current rating system includes two categories—“met standard” and “needs improvement.” The ratings are based largely on standardized test scores.

Dozens of people testified against Taylor’s bill, including several school district superintendents. They argued that letter grades would do nothing to improve schools, would punish schools that serve large numbers of economically disadvantaged students and would sidestep the main problem struggling schools face: lack of adequate funding. Democrats on the committee seemed to agree.

“[Poor performance] is more because of lack of resources than anything else,” said Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) said. “I would really caution us from getting into any scheme that redlines school districts.”

Most of the Republicans on the committee supported the idea that an A-F system would better inform parents how public schools are performing, spur parent engagement, and lead to school improvement.

John Bailey of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education reform think tank established by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, testified that the A-F rating system led to dramatic school improvement in Florida. In the program’s first six years, the number of “F”-rated schools fell and the number of “A” schools rose—but much of that change was the result of changing criteria for the letter grades.

Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) pressed Bailey to name specific schools that have improved because of the A-F rating system. Bailey couldn’t name any, but said he would get back to West.

An A-F rating system was adopted in Florida in the late 1990s when Bush was the state’s governor. The Florida Association for District School Superintendents opposed the A-F rating system, saying that it may not be an accurate measure of school performance.

Sixteen other states have since adopted the so-called Florida formula. Researchers have shown that Maine’s A-F rating system tends to track the percentage of poor students in a school. Indeed, research has shown that there is a very tight link between socioeconomic status and academic achievement.

Some say the system can be easily gamed for political purposes. In 2013, former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett scandalously manipulated his state’s A-F system to benefit a major campaign donor.

At today’s hearing, Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) said one of his main concerns was the way an “F” rating would stigmatize schools, making it harder for low-rated schools to retain teachers, staff and students. “In assigning ‘F’ grades to some of these campuses,” Rodriguez wondered, “are we not really consigning them to failure permanently?”


Erick Muñoz, husband of Marlise Muñoz, addresses reporters at the Texas Capitol in March.
Alexa Garcia-Ditta
Erick Muñoz, husband of Marlise Muñoz, addresses reporters at the Texas Capitol.

For nearly two months, Lynne and Ernest Machado’s pregnant, brain-dead daughter was kept alive against the family’s wishes. After collapsing in her home and suffering a pulmonary embolism in November 2013, Marlise Muñoz was declared brain-dead by a hospital in Fort Worth and put on life support. She was 14 weeks pregnant with her second child.

Despite her family saying that Muñoz had communicated that she wanted to be immediately taken off life support should something catastrophic occur, the hospital refused, citing a provision of Texas’ advance directive law that states doctors “may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment … from a pregnant patient.” Muñoz’s husband, Erick, and her parents sued the hospital, ultimately winning their case and the right to bury Marlise.

Today, Lynne said her family was put through a “torturous hell” while fighting the hospital.

“It was horrible, it was traumatic, what they did to her body,” she told the Observer. “We knew she had died, we knew she was gone. What we didn’t plan on was that a pregnant woman in Texas forfeits her rights the minute she becomes pregnant.”

Now, more than a year later, Marlise’s family is working to make sure that no Texas family has to go through what they did. Today, they stood alongside state Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) as he announced a bill called “Marlise’s Law,” which would remove the so-called pregnancy exclusion in Texas’ advance directive law.

“Doctors and hospitals should not be compelled by the law to impose medical interventions over the objections of a dying patient and her family,” Naishtat said at a press conference Thursday at the Capitol. “These changes will permit the pregnant patient to control her care, her treatment, by giving instructions to health care providers to administer, withhold, or withdraw life-sustaining treatment.”

Currently, more than 30 states have similar pregnancy exclusion provisions in their end-of-life laws. In Texas, the advance directive document includes this provision: “I understand that under Texas law this directive has no effect if I have been diagnosed as pregnant.”

Rebecca Robertson, a lawyer with the ACLU of Texas, pointed out that the law blatantly discriminates against pregnant patients.

“It makes pregnant women second-class citizens because they no longer have the right to decide for themselves,” she said.

Marlise and her family had decided long ago that should a catastrophe occur, none of them would want to be kept alive by machines. Still, they were forced to endure a weeks-long court battle because Marlise was pregnant. Erick told reporters that his wife was family-oriented, a good mother and confident in her decision to forego end-of-life medical treatment.

“It’s a family matter,” he said Thursday at the Capitol. “It should be handled as such.”

While Naishtat’s bill would remove the pregnancy exclusion provision, a bill by state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) would tighten it. Filed at the end of February, Krause’s House Bill 1901 would require a hospital to keep a pregnant woman on life-support “regardless of whether there is irreversible cessation of all spontaneous brain function of the pregnant patient … and if the life-sustaining treatment is enabling the unborn child to mature.” Dubbed the “Unborn Child Due Process Act,” Krause’s bill would also require the Texas attorney general to appoint a lawyer for the unborn fetus from a “registry” that the attorney general’s office would create.

“It’s my position that if a baby is still continuing to grow and develop, then that means the mother cannot be brain dead, there has to be something that’s allowing that baby to grow and develop,” he told the Observer. The lawyer “would just give a voice to that unborn child during court proceedings.”

Robertson called Krause’s idea “unprecedented.”

“The government’s going to get involved on behalf of the fetus, as if the grandparents, husband, were somehow not looking out for the interest of the fetus,” she said. “You can see where that might be applied in much broader circumstances, this idea that when you become pregnant you lose your autonomy.”

Krause’s bill was been referred to the House State Affairs committee.

Gov. Rick Perry attends the ribbon cutting ceremony for a new crisis pregnancy center in Houston in 2012.
Emily Deprang
Gov. Rick Perry attends the ribbon cutting ceremony for a new crisis pregnancy center in Houston in 2012.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a budget rider Thursday that would add an additional $4 million per year to the Alternatives to Abortion program, which largely funds crisis pregnancy centers.

The House base budget, originally introduced in mid-January, includes about $5.1 million per year, a $1 million increase from the previous budget cycle, to the program. The rider, by state Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), increases state funding to more than $9 million per year.

The nonprofit Texas Pregnancy Care Network contracts with the state to distribute funding through the Alternatives to Abortion program to 61 subcontractors, including crisis pregnancy resource centers, maternity homes and adoption agencies. The network purports to “help women in crisis pregnancies via free and compassionate, practical and life-affirming services,” but many facilities do not provide medical care, are virtually unregulated by the state and have been found by various investigations to offer inaccurate information designed to dissuade women from having an abortion.

Bonnen’s rider is described as “increasing funds to pregnancy centers and early childhood care.”

Bonnen says his chief focus is early childhood care.

“One of the main focuses of this is really parenting services,” he said before the hearing. “So, moms that have a newborn that would like to have some guidance in terms of how to care for this child, and how to care for themselves as they’re caring for this child.”

During the Thursday hearing, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) and state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) raised concerns about the sizable funding increase, questioning whether there is enough oversight of the Texas Pregnancy Care Network. Right now, the network reports “deliverables and milestones” to the Health and Human Services Commission on a monthly basis, but beyond that, it’s hard to know how much of the state funds go toward services compared to administrative costs.

“I still have concerns about bang for the buck, so to speak,” Howard said.

State Rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo) said that 41 percent of the Alternatives to Abortion funds go to crisis pregnancy centers, 35 percent to maternity homes and 25 percent to adoption agencies. He also said that increased funding will lead to an increase in subcontractors with the Texas Pregnancy Care Network. Most of the crisis pregnancy centers and other facilities are located in Central and  North Texas, he said.

Originally, Bonnen’s rider called for an additional $9.7 million over two years, but was later reduced to $8 million. Another proposed rider, by state Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), would have increased the funding by nearly $15 million over the next two years, but it was not approved by a budget subcommittee.

While legislators have cut funding for family planning and cancer screenings over the last few sessions, they’ve also pumped more money into crisis pregnancy centers.

From its inception in 2005 to 2012, the Alternatives to Abortion program received more than $26 million in state funding. A 2012 Texas Observer investigation found that crisis pregnancy centers deliver fewer services to women, while spending more per client than family planning providers.

State. Rep. Greg Bonnen
via Facebook
State. Rep. Greg Bonnen

Investigations by NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and multiple media outlets have raised questions about the Texas Pregnancy Care Network’s contract with the state and have found that crisis pregnancy centers use scientifically inaccurate information when talking to women, including telling clients that abortion is linked to breast cancer.

State Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston) is member of the subcommittee that oversees the health and human services portion of the budget. He takes issue with Bonnen’s rider, raising concerns this week about the lax accountability standards set up for crisis pregnancy centers.

“I don’t think it’s a wise use of our resources,” he said. “With some of these centers there’s no accountability. Are only they gearing these young ladies to not have an abortion? Do they account for a young lady who might’ve been raped? Or a victim of incest? That’s where I come down on it.”

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