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Outgoing San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro convinced voters to pass a tax increase in 2012 to help fund full-day pre-K.

Rick Perry is fond of saying that the 50 states are “laboratories of innovation” where the real work of democracy occurs.

Quick—name one innovation the Texas Legislature has produced in the last, say, three sessions. Name one big idea of Rick Perry’s during his 14 years in office. And no, colossal failures like the Trans-Texas Corridor and HPV vaccinations for teen girls don’t count.

But Perry does have a point: The descent of the Congress into a depressing burlesque of corruption and gridlock has made state government more important than ever. But in Texas, state government is increasingly suffering from the same malaise we see in Washington, D.C.: small-mindedness, ideological extremism on the right and a toxic anti-government strain that ricochets between a steadfast unwillingness to use the public sector to solve problems and an active campaign to dismantle successful programs. The list of things the Texas Legislature ought to address, but doesn’t, could occupy many column inches. If anything, it’s going to get worse before it gets better (if it gets better), due to the tea party takeover of the Texas GOP.

Perry wants to wage a war of state vs. state and state vs. fed, but in Texas it is our cities—especially the big six of Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio—that are left to seriously grapple with citizens’ most urgent needs. While Texas cities are by and large run by Democrats, their leadership tends to be—by necessity and by tradition—progressive but pragmatic. Think Julian Castro of San Antonio or Annise Parker of Houston.

In city government, the corrupting influence of corporate dollars doesn’t have the same reach, and citizens are simply more engaged. You go to a city council hearing and it’s packed with ordinary folks; you go to a legislative hearing and often you can’t find a seat not taken by a lobbyist.

And city government is about more than potholes and trash service. Cities are increasingly taking on the tasks that state and federal government won’t. A few examples:

The Texas Legislature is so overrun by money from predatory payday lenders that it refuses to impose even the most cursory of regulations to deal with runaway interest rates and a vicious cycle of debt. So this arcane area of consumer finance has fallen to the cities to deal with. At least 18 Texas cities have passed payday loan ordinances over the past three years, including conservative strongholds such as Midland. Unlike at the Legislature, the lenders’ arguments about tampering with the free market were unpersuasive compared to the outcry of faith groups, community activists and borrowers.

Also, the Lege has taken a completely laissez-faire attitude toward fracking, ignoring the complaints of residents around the state that drilling in sensitive and populated areas may have downsides that need to be addressed. Cities have tried to step up. In Denton, city leaders and a bunch of pissed-off citizens are considering desperate measures—including a total ban—to deal with the glut of fracking activity in the area. The City Council, which is mixed on the ban, has nonetheless imposed a moratorium on new drilling until September.

In San Antonio, Mayor Julian Castro, who is stepping down to become President Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary, convinced voters to pass a bona fide tax increase in 2012 to help fund full-day pre-K—a response, in part, to cuts the Legislature made to its pre-K funding.

And in Austin, city and county officials are dealing with the thorny issue of how to finance the infrastructure needs of a boomtown without pricing working people out of the city. Property values are soaring, but wages aren’t keeping up. The lack of a state income tax and the stinginess of state budget writers means local governments must rely overwhelmingly on property taxes to pay for services, infrastructure and public schools. It’s never been a particularly equitable system, but cities like Austin, which are transforming from regional hubs to major-city status, are groaning under the burden. State lawmakers have designed a system that allows commercial property owners to wriggle out of paying their fair share, pushing more and more of the load onto homeowners.

Texas’ other big cities face similar problems with the state’s dysfunctional tax system. This is one that local government can’t solve without help from the Legislature.

“Local control”—a long-standing Texas tradition—shouldn’t mean “you’re on your own.”  

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Mighty Jim Hogan and the Art of the Anti-Campaign

Jim Hogan won the Democratic nomination for agriculture commissioner having spent no time and no money in pursuit of it. Now, he's going for the big prize.
Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner Jim Hogan at the Cleburne Public Library, his de facto campaign headquarters.
Christopher Hooks
Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner Jim Hogan at the Cleburne Public Library, his de facto campaign headquarters.

Just down the road from the Johnson County Courthouse in Cleburne, Texas, past the theater where a local company is staging a version of “Steel Magnolias,” sits the Cleburne Public Library. In the back, a few rows down from the display with the Louis L’Amour short story collection, Jim Hogan, Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner, shows off his seat of power. It’s late June, the day before the Democratic Party’s state convention kicks off in Dallas. Hogan could be there, celebrating his unlikely victory. But he doesn’t want to be anywhere near it. Instead, he’s giving a tour of his unofficial campaign headquarters.

From a line of pressed-wood desk cubbies with internet-equipped Dell computers, Hogan, a former dairy farmer with a small cattle operation, ran what must be the most unlikely primary campaign of any Texas Democrat in the modern era. Earlier this year, Hogan found himself in a three-way standoff in the Democratic primary race for agriculture commissioner. His opponents: the party establishment’s favorite candidate, Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III, and a pot-loving troubadour with populist appeal, Kinky Friedman. Hogan bested both. When the unlucky Friedman found himself in a runoff, Hogan smashed him by more than 7 points.

Yet Hogan raised and expended zero dollars in the course of the campaign, and spent the entire race at home, or on the computers at the library, where he monitored the results that appeared when he Googled his name, and researched the job. If you include the $3,750 filing fee he was required to pay to get on the ballot, he spent 1.2 cents a vote. In terms of money and time, he ran an election effort of record-setting efficiency.

While Wendy Davis’ resource-intensive war machine, virtually unopposed and with millions of dollars in hand, lost much of the Rio Grande Valley to an unknown opponent, Hogan cruised to victory with the steady hand of a zen master. On runoff night, reporters found him at a neighbors’ house, cooking “country boy stew,” which features hamburger meat, carrots, tomatoes and green beans.

Like a warrior-monk who has taken a vow of poverty, he not only let his own campaign lie fallow, he refused campaigning from others. When political consultants from Austin came to a summit with Hogan at Cleburne’s Blue Star Grill and offered their services pro bono, Hogan refused. When a neighbor offered to make a pro-Hogan sign and put it in his yard, he declined.

“Take that money and give it your grandkids,” he says he told the neighbors. “What is that sign gonna do? Nothing. People are gonna vote for me cause a sign said ‘Jim Hogan’? I don’t want people to be that shallow.”

Candidates running for statewide office are normally quite appreciative of shallow voters, so this is an unusual declaration. We’re more than halfway through an election season that, even if no more shallow than the last, will be the most expensive in the state’s history. Unimaginable sums of money are being raised and spent. Pricey out-of-state consultants and nomadic campaign hands with big paychecks abound. We’ve moved from a Republican primary for lt. governor, where one of the critical issues was David Dewhurst’s dinner at an Austin steakhouse, to a general election where earnest discussion of the state’s pressing issues is infrequent at best.

Sid Miller, Republican nominee for agriculture commissioner, at his party's state convention.
Timothy Faust
Sid Miller, Republican nominee for agriculture commissioner, at his party’s state convention.

Elsewhere this cycle, races have been mostly fluff. The worst case might be the Republican primary race for agriculture commissioner. J. Allen Carnes, the mayor of Uvalde—serious, thoughtful and earnest—garnered endorsements from agricultural trade organizations, talked about the needs of farmer… and placed fifth in a five-way race. The winner, Sid Miller, counts Ted Nugent as his campaign treasurer and looks and acts like a French cartoonist’s caricature of a Texan. He ran on gun rights and his opposition to abortion, and when asked about agriculture issues, seemed ill-prepared. He opened his speech at the Republican convention with a slightly bawdy story about his wife on election night.

Hogan has been an object of fascination for political junkies and media types. He may have won purely by chance, but his inexplicable success offers some relief from the absurdity and occasional cruelty of Texas political life. A Tumblr set up by admirers records his exploits. A Texas Monthly piece highlighted Hogan’s runoff win as one of the few bright spots of a generally disheartening night. A column Hogan wrote for the op-ed website TribTalk may go down in the record books as the most memorable piece of political rhetoric from the 2014 election:

It has been reported that I am unknown and do not campaign. If you will pause for a moment and Google “Jim Hogan Texas Agriculture Commissioner,” I believe you will be amazed at the amount of information available about me. I think you will agree that those reports can be put to rest.

Why is he doing this? Does he think he can win? Is he a playful imp, or Chauncey Gardiner? After meeting Hogan, it remains difficult to say. This much is certain: Hogan’s not a fool. He knows Miller will be the likely victor. But, he says, he wasn’t supposed to win the last two times. So who knows? He’s got a healthy belly laugh.

Jim Hogan by Buffalo Creek, which runs through Cleburne.
Christopher Hooks
Jim Hogan by Buffalo Creek, which runs through Cleburne.

His main contention is: Why not me? Ask Hogan a question, and his tendency is to flip it back on you, like a teacher facing a slow-witted student. Over a burger in the Blue Star Grill, where Hogan conducts his meetings, I ask him: what has Todd Staples, the current agriculture commissioner, been doing wrong?

“I don’t know what Todd Staples has been doing,” he says, “other than buying $300,000 worth of cameras.” Staples, intent to run someday for higher office, spent much of his last term talking about border security. His office spent $345,000 on funding security cameras on the border. “Most of what he does has nothing to do with agriculture,” Hogan says.

What would Hogan do as agriculture commissioner? In point of fact, Hogan says, virtually no one, including many farmers, know who the agriculture commissioner is or what it does, because the office has never done a damn thing for a lot of people it’s supposed to help. He grabs a waitress at the Blue Star Grill and asks her if she knows the agriculture commissioner: She doesn’t. “It’s going to be you, though,” she says as she walks away.

“Grab people up in Dallas and ask them what the ag commissioner does, and they won’t know,” he says. “Nobody knows!”

Has Hogan had experiences with the Department of Agriculture that made him want to run? “I’ve never had anything to do with them,” he laughs. Few have. “If you can get somebody on the phone, you’re lucky.” The office, by rights, should be apolitical. “It should be providing services to farmers and ranchers,” he says. “But most people running for agriculture commissioner have no ties to it, and have probably never studied it.”

I ask Hogan what he’d do if he got the post—the latest of several times I’d tried to broach the question. Would there be some big policy initiative? New programs? He explains it to me, again, a bit slower, to help me understand. On the first day, “I’m going to walk in and do this very methodically,” he says. He’d talk to the department’s officers, and he’d get a good sense of the inefficiencies there. He’d travel around the state and talk to farmers and ranchers. He’d get out there in the field. And then he’d figure out how the department could help.

“I’m going to gather the facts and make logical decisions,” he said. “I don’t want to make a complication when you ought to have simplicity.” Basically, his campaign promise is to work hard and do a good job.

“People like J. Allen Carnes,” he says. “Those people at least have an inkling. But these people that have been in the Legislature all their life, they really don’t get it.” Count his opponent among those who don’t get it. “I know Sid Miller. If you want to drink beer and rope calves, Sid’s your man,” Hogan says. “But all you gotta do is study what he’s done.” That includes a whole lot of lobbying, and a whole lot of politicking.

Hogan’s Democratic opponent didn’t take the job too seriously, either. “Kinky didn’t say anything about agriculture.” Over the course of his political career, Kinky, supposedly the outsider, had showed a particularly cynical brand of politics. For one thing, his campaign staff tried to buy off Hogan with the promise of meeting Willie Nelson. Kinky “did every bad thing in the world but he said what he said in a funny way that made people laugh. I didn’t laugh at all,” he said. “I didn’t think it was funny because I didn’t think that was kosher.”

He’s not laughing because the Texas farmer and the rancher face real problems. “The price of land’s too high. Cities are moving out. There’s more people and less land to grow on it. Nobody wants GMOs or pesticides on their stuff. Well, here comes Mexico, bringing food over,” says Hogan. “We’re hitting the wall. Things are getting worse. The water situation—it’s going to rain sometime. But the next time we have a drought there’s gonna be a lot more people.”

And farmers and ranchers needed to bring younger people into the field. “Today, we’re overlooking daughters. It’s a woman’s world if you hadn’t noticed out there.” Hogan has two himself, which he raised as a single father after his wife passed away in 2000. “In other words, I’m in tune with the world. Top to bottom. And for simple reasons, I want to be agriculture commissioner. You couldn’t give me governor or anything else, it’s got too much baggage. It ain’t worth it. And I only want it for one term. And during that term, I’d hope to find somebody who’d do something similar to what I did.”

Hogan’s running as a Democrat, but only because he thought he had better odds of winning the nomination. If he wins, he’s going to hire Republicans alongside Democrats. He has no particular affection for either party, but he wishes the system worked better, and that people voted more. Texas’ unbalanced party system, he thinks, has screwed up the state. “I thought we had a two party system in America,” he says.

“Don’t vote Republican or Democrat, look at the person. I don’t even know what a party is, other than the people that run it,” he says. “If you’re a Republican and you got a bad person, and the Democrats have a good person, you’re going to vote the bad person just because he’s a Republican?”

On all matters, Hogan preaches moderation. “I like all people, that’s my philosophy,” he said. Around Cleburne, plenty of people have gotten heated about increasing numbers of immigrants—some won’t go to the H-E-B anymore because there’s too many unfamiliar faces. But Hogan is calm. Migrants “come here to work hard and send money home to their family.” He thinks open carry protesters are silly. “Just cause you can don’t mean you have to,” he says. “That’s the thing with politics everywhere. There’s extremes, and there’s people with logic.”

Hogan may claim the mantle of logic, but in Texas, logic is not enough. Barring the discovery of Miller in bed with, in the immortal words of Edwin Edwards, a dead girl or a live boy, his party affiliation will trump Hogan’s and Miller will spend a number of years doing whatever it is he wants to do in statewide office, before presumably trying to make the jump to another one.

In theory, Americans like people like Hogan—genuine outsiders, rough-hewn pragmatists, underdogs. There used to be more people like Hogan in public office. In practice, today’s strivers come from a very different mold.

Officeholders are as different from us as an alien race. In national races, we’ve come to expect our campaigns, and our campaigners, to function with the mechanical precision and sleek design of a Swiss watch. A wrong word or a step out of place can doom a person’s political fortunes, and so actual fortunes are spent on ensuring that doesn’t happen. Candidates never have a chance to show their real selves, and they become alienated from us. And we become alienated from the political process.

In Texas, at the state and local level, the political process has become perverted in a very different way. A vanishingly small number of voters have a say in the way the state is run, thanks to the total dominance of the Republican Party and its primary elections. Statewide candidates like Miller face little accountability from voters once they get past their primary runoff. Party affiliation is the golden god of Texas politics, and the state is left with demagogues of all stripes running virtually unopposed. Apathy grows, and many voters tune out.

Hogan wants no part of any of that. “I realized that when I signed up to run, I became a product,” he says. “I don’t want to be anything that I’m not.”

Hogan won’t change all that, but he’s having fun trying. “There’s a lot of people around town laughing and having a ball about this, because they know who I am,” Hogan laughs. “A lot of my neighbors wanted clips for their scrapbooks. They never thought Jim Hogan, who mows his lawn with a push mower, would get here.”

Correction: The article formerly identified Jim Hogan as a dairy farmer. Hogan is a former dairy farmer who currently has a small cow-calf business.

Beto O'Rourke
Beto O'Rourke

A lot of Texas politicians are having a political pachanga with the influx of child refugees fleeing Central America.

Rick Perry has practically lived in front of a TV camera over the last month, talking tough about a border crackdown, bashing Obama for not visiting the Rio Grande Valley, and posing with Sean Hannity on a DPS gunboat. On Monday, the governor—joined by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott—announced that he was dispatching 1,000 National Guard troops to the border, part of a Texas-led border surge costing $12 million a month. Ted Cruz is floating a proposal to roll back modest protections afforded by President Obama to DREAMers. Wendy Davis keeps calling on Perry to declare a state of emergency and hold a special session on immigration at the Texas Legislature—for reasons even her most ardent supporters have struggled to articulate.

Sen. John Cornyn and Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, are sponsoring the hopefully named HUMANE Act, which would undo rewrite a 2008 anti-trafficking law that allowed children from countries other than Mexico and Canada to be released to family members in the U.S. while their cases are processed. Under the proposed legislation, Central American kids—six, seven, eight years old—would have to convince a Border Patrol agent that they should be allowed to stay in the U.S. long enough to plead their case, and then would have just seven days, probably unassisted by an attorney, to make a case for asylum, or other protections, in front of an immigration judge. The effect—and one assumes, the intent—would most likely be to greatly diminish the number of children and families receiving asylum and refugee protections.

The most powerful politicos in the state pretty much agree: the border is in crisis, the Central American children are a sad case but, alas, must be deported and the federal government is all to blame. Unspoken: The border crisis makes for great election-year politics.

For Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso), it’s all sickeningly out of touch with reality. There is no border crisis, he told me in an interview on Tuesday. Apprehensions are at historic lows. El Paso, and other border cities, are among the safest in the nation. In any case, the U.S. bears much responsibility for the conditions in Central America driving the exodus. And we should be expanding protections for refugees, not gutting them. The HUMANE Act—or as he calls it, “the quote-unquote HUMANE Act”—is a “very short-sighted, inhumane, irrational response” to a flood of refugees that deserve compassion, not neglect or opprobrium, O’Rourke said.

It’s not exactly the message you’re hearing from Texas elected officials. But O’Rourke, who grew up in El Paso and speaks fluent Spanish, brings a border sensibility to the issue, tempered by a wide-angle internationalism that’s a rarity among Texas pols. He’s more Open Veins of Latin America than Fox News.

O’Rourke is but a freshman congressman in a Republican-controlled House, so his ability to craft policy in Washington is admittedly limited. But he’s pledging to work within the Democratic caucus to torpedo the HUMANE Act, especially if it’s tied to the president’s $3.7 billion request for funding to pay for handling the surge of child refugees.

Beyond the legislation, O’Rourke offers a remarkably different perspective on border and immigration realities than the hysteria that’s taken hold in some quarters. Here are some highlights of our interview:

 

On the HUMANE Act:

“I’m trying to find polite words, quotable comments. It’s terrible legislation, I find nothing redeeming in it. It will rush these kids back to the communities from which they fled, which in many cases will almost certainly mean death, will mean suffering, and adding to the workforce of these criminal syndicates that are pressing them into service in cities like San Pedro Sula in Honduras.”

“One of the terrible bargains that whoever was here in 2008 made was in order to treat child refugees or child asylum-seekers from other countries humanely we will not treat asylum seekers from Mexico humanely, so we’ll reduce the level of due process that they get. So what Cornyn, Cuellar and [Rep. Ron Barber (D-AZ)] want to do is take that reduced level and apply it to everyone else, and obviously that means the kids from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

“The HUMANE Act changes the [asylum] framework and accelerates it so that within seven days—and I’ve got three little kids and I can only imagine them having to struggle with this—within a week they have to prove to a judge in a language that’s not their own, without the assistance of an attorney, that they should qualify for an asylum process, a trafficking visa or some other legitimate reason to stay. If they can’t, they are deported—that’s so wrong on so many levels. And we can see the evidence from how we’ve treated children from Mexico: This almost certainly guarantees that the vast majority—I think in the case of Mexican children it’s been well over 90 percent—will be returned to their country of origin. And we know what’s going to happen to those kids.

“I’m confident, absolutely confident that once my colleagues have the facts and realize what this will do to kids they will also vote against it.”

 

On why Cuellar would sponsor the HUMANE Act:

“That is what has been so hard to understand for me… You’re asking a really good question. Why these kind of—I don’t know what the right word for them is—these proposals that just really don’t make any sense and aren’t responsive to what we’re seeing and what we know about the border. That I don’t know.

“It is not helpful when you have Democrats who traditionally have been the party that would want to see due process, especially for kids fleeing violence, who I feel like have upheld some of the best humanitarian traditions of this country, it makes it tough when you have Democrats sponsoring bills like the the HUMANE Act, which for all the talk and attention could become part of this deal, then it becomes much harder to say any one party is responding appropriately.”

 

On the notion of a border “crisis”:

“We really don’t have a crisis. You look at total apprehensions this year, last year, the year before, the year before that, we’re at an all-time historical low. If you compare the data as of June this year and compare it to 1999, you’re down about 68 percent in terms of apprehensions at the southern border. It’s not a law enforcement problem. Cities like El Paso are safer than any other city in the country. The U.S. side of the U.S.—Mexico border is safer than the average American city.”

 

On the root causes of the exodus from Central America:

“You look at these three countries and the enormous stresses that are placed on them right now, whether it’s the volume of drugs being trafficked through them, whether it’s our drug interdiction efforts that are further destabilizing civil society there.

“A much more difficult, but probably much more fundamental issue, is just the very long history of U.S. involvement in Central America to the detriment of the people who live there going back to Jacobo Arbenz to the military strongmen who succeeded him to the tens of thousands who were killed to our involvement in the civil wars in the 1980s to the kids—and you’ve probably seen this in the [Observer] archives—you look at the reporting in the mid-’80s, kids are fleeing Central America for the United States, many of them because we had no process then to accept them.

“There was no trafficking victims law, so they weren’t sent over to [U.S. Health and Human Services]. Many of them ended up in jails and became hardened criminals, got involved in gangs and then upon release from jail are deported back to the countries where they haven’t spent the majority of their lives in, and end up organizing gang cells, essentially, in those countries and helping to contribute to the problem we see today.

“We’ve tried our best to ignore Central America, prioritizing Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Israel—all for good reasons, it seemed at the time, but we neglected [Central America] and the consequence is that there are now literally tens of thousands of kids literally knocking on our door, saying ‘Hey, what about us?’ And we’ve got to do something about it. And I think the very short-sighted, inhumane, irrational response is embodied in the HUMANE Act. You can deport those kids back and some of them are going to be killed, many of them are going to be hurt and live worse lives for being deported, but those problems aren’t going away.”

 

On what should be done:

“No. 1, let’s get these kids attorneys. Anyone who has children can put themselves in the place of the parents of the children who are now in this process. When you can do that, when you can empathize, you immediately understand that those kids need an attorney. These are really complex laws, these are frightening situations and to put a child before an immigration judge at age 7, 8, 10, 11, 12 without an attorney is just wrong and on the flip side to give that child counsel allows them to tell their story, to make a legitimate application for asylum. And we will find in some cases that there is not a legitimate case, that they have not passed the credible fear bar and they should be sent back to their country of origin. That’s a very difficult thing to say but that’s going to have to happen in some cases. But I think we will find in quite a number of these cases, and I would argue in the great majority of them, that we have legitimate asylum requests and they should be honored. That’s just the right thing to do…

“The most important, most difficult and long term answer, is to help get these countries back on the right track. We know that kids and families leaving these three countries are not just going to the U.S. Asylum applications in neighboring countries are up 700 percent over the last five years. So let’s work with Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and join them with these three countries—Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala—and come up with a truly regional response. Part of which is just gonna be let’s acknowledge that we need to take some of these children and families. They are legitimately refugees.

“And then we need to address the civil society, rule of law, governance, corruption issues in these three countries that have made life so unbearable and so unsafe. And that’s why I say it’s so difficult. That’s a many years process. There are sovereignty issues, there’s a lot of history with the U.S. in these countries that’s not necessarily positive. So it’s going to take a lot of doing. But if we are so bold to think we can solve the impasse between Israel and Palestine, if we think we can build nations in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of which may or may not be the right thing for us to be involved in, certainly these countries in our own hemisphere whose citizens are literally knocking on our door right now, that deserves our attention. I think it’s going to be very difficult to do, but very doable once we decide we want to do it.”

Correction: The original version of this story stated that the HUMANE Act would “undo” the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act. It is more accurately described as rewriting that 2008 law. The story has been corrected.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks at a Texas Charter Schools Association conference.

For folks hoping to open a charter school in Texas, this time of year is a little like spring training: full of possibility for the bright future ahead, lots of idealism mixed with meticulous planning.

And every year in mid-July, during intense, hours-long interviews in Austin, state regulators take their turns dumping buckets of cold water on the would-be school operators. Having picked over the schools’ epic applications—this year’s longest is 648 pages—Texas Education Agency staff and State Board of Education members probe the applicants for weakness, grill them on financing, on their grasp of federal law, on their typos, offering at least a taste of the greatest challenge of all: keeping the school running once it opens.

Ten applicants were invited to in-person interviews this week, which wrapped up Wednesday. The meetings were long and intense, with tears, applause, and more than a few awkward pauses to explain, for example, what looked like plagiarism in one application.

Though lawmakers want to grow Texas’ charter school offerings, it’s one of the smallest applicant pools ever, with none of the out-of-state networks state leaders are so enthusiastic about. California-based Rocketship Education—the most high-profile applicant this year—pulled its application this month.

To judge by last year’s class, only a few of the remaining 10 will get the green light from Education Commissioner Michael Williams (and the SBOE has the chance to veto any of his picks after that). With no big charter-school brand names in the mix, the remaining 10 proposals offer a fascinating look at locally raised ideas for giving students programs they need. Some are small, some are really big; four (by my estimation) have vaguely religious roots; some come from well-established local nonprofits; one is from a team of Texas’ best-connected education researchers.

So if you’re scoring at home, here are the latest applications, along with my notes. These applications are long and detailed—often padded with generalities and jargon that’s hard to pin down (hello, “brain-based learning“)—and the state has the benefit of reviewers with actual qualifications. Texas even contracted with a national charter school group to provide training on the interview process.

Below, I’ve included a few things I found most interesting about each school. If anything else catches your eye about an application, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Click on the school’s name and you can read the full application—the state has them online as PDFs, but the files are big and unsearchable. Our links go to searchable versions on DocumentCloud that you can read without downloading.

 

Athlos Academy
Where: 15 campuses in Dallas and Tarrant counties, likely beginning in East Dallas
Grades: K-8, expanding to K-12

Who’s behind it: Edward Conger, Martha Rocha, Paul Reyes, Erin Ragsdale. Conger is superintendent at another charter school, International Leadership of Texas. Rocha is a director at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, and Ragsdale is an executive at Dallas political communications firm Allyn Media.

Their proposal:
A school built on Athlos’ “three pillars of excellence: Prepared Mind, Healthy Body, and Strong Character.” The application focuses on the achievement gap in state test scores, but also on students’ health and well-being and sports, with a P.E. program developed by California-based Velocity Sports. The school would have after-school sports, but not contact football. “We view athletics as a tool that when utilized to its full extent, has the ability to improve the mind, body and character.” Students can get instruction in English, Spanish and Chinese, and Dual Language Immersion for English. A charter school with a similar approach, Athlos Leadership Academy, is opening in San Antonio this fall (under a pre-existing charter for the Jubilee Academic Center). Athlos is Greek for “feat” or “achievement.”

 

Beta Academy
Where: 3 campuses in Houston/Harris County
Grades: K-6, expanding to K-12

Who’s behind it:
Latisha Andrews, Martha Smith, Philip Smith, Reba Blakey, Teresa Sones. Andrews is director of Responsive Education Solutions’ Vista Academy charter school, and a former principal at Life Christian Academy, both in Houston. Sones chairs the sponsoring Beta Foundation. Philip Smith is a program manager at Raytheon.

Their proposal:
This is Andrews’ third time pitching the state on a charter—last year the Texas Tribune featured Andrews and Beta in a piece about charter schools in churches:

Andrews started Beta Academy after her own church, which is across the street from Christian Temple and where her husband is a pastor, closed its private school because of declining enrollment.

Beta promises “a world-class school” with “a culture of ‘joyful rigor.’” Supplemental programs would include aviationScrabble, and fundraising for the Invisible Children campaign.

 

Brentwood Stair Preparatory School
Where: 1 campus in Fort Worth
Grades: Pre-K to 8

Who’s behind it:
Julia Michelle Nusrallah, Nabil Bawa, Walid Joulani, Alex Farr, Nizam Peerwani, much of the leadership from the sponsoring nonprofit, the private Al-Hedayah Academy. Peerwani is Tarrant County’s chief medical examiner and sits on the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

Their proposal:
The school would also locate at Al-Hedayah’s campus near I-30 in west Fort Worth. “The Al-Hedayah Academy wants to ensure that families who have previously expressed a desire to attend but may not have been able to afford the tuition are given a chance to enroll.” Brentwood Stair’s team promises a “non-parochial school” with a “richly diverse faculty and staff.” Students can learn Spanish or Arabic, and teachers will encourage students’ self-discovery and differentiated learning.

Excel Center
Where: 1 campus in Austin
Grades: 9-12

Who’s behind it:
Traci Berry, Dodie Brown, Roberta Schwartz and other leadership generally come from Goodwill Industries of Central Texas.

Their proposal:
Excel Center applied last year, too, promising a dropout recovery school for “older youth and young adults up to age 25,” with a twin focus on diplomas and career skills. A similar school run by Goodwill has opened in Indianapolis, which was featured on PBS NewsHour in January. The Austin location would be at the Goodwill location at Anderson Lane and I-35.

 

Foundations Charter School
Where: 50 (!) campuses of 50-100 students each surrounding Dallas and Houston
Grades: Pre-K to 2, expanding to pre-K to 5

Who’s behind it:
Steve Edwards, David Greak, Michael Owens, Don Hooper, Susan Landry, Lonnie Hutson. Edwards’ Ignitus Worldwide is the charter sponsor. Owens and Greak are associated with Texas Successful Charter Schools, a charter school support company that would also partner with this school. Landry leads the Children’s Learning Institute at the UT Health Science Center, which has (somewhat controversially) become a powerhouse in Texas’ pre-K world. Hutson runs a series of pre-K centers around Houston. Schools would locate at pre-existing child care and early ed facilities. Former state Rep. Rob Eissler (R-The Woodlands) is also on the school board.

Their proposal:
An innovative, research-based focus on early education to keep students from falling behind before the “learning gap” develops, promising what Landry calls “a seamless link” into later grades. Instruction—offered year-round or on a traditional schedule—would be “presented in the context of a relevant or coherent ‘whole.’” The school would partner with the UT Health Science Center’s Children’s Learning Institute—which developed a number of programs the school would use—and specifically mentions an agreement with the online Western Governor’s University to provide a pipeline of new teachers. The TEKS Resource System (neé CSCOPE) would help map the curriculum.

 

High Point Academy
Where: 3 campuses in Fort Worth, first in west Fort Worth
Grades: K-8, expanding to K-12

Who’s behind it:
Katie Stellar, Lori Manning and Dana Yates. Stellar is, according to her LinkedIn profile, executive director of Faith In Action Fort Worth—the nonprofit sponsoring High Point Academy’s charter—a former art teacher, owner of a custom T-shirt firm and an ordained Methodist minister. Manning is a former principal at Fort Worth’s Pinnacle Academy of the Arts, one of seven campuses under the umbrella of Honors Academy—which Texas Education Commissioner has moved to revoke after three years of subpar test scores. The group is opening its first charter school this fall in Manning’s hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. The group applied in Texas last year too, but Stellar pulled its application after learning parts of it had been plagiarized.

Their proposal:
High Point promises a focus on STEAM instruction—that’s science, technology, engineering and math, plus art—and will use the Texas Resource Management System (neé CSCOPE) and E.D. Hirsch‘s “Core Knowledge” program. They’ll offer before- and after-school programs including Zumba and Krav Maga, and tablets and laptops for textbooks.

 

Ki Charter Academy
Where: 1 campus in San Marcos
Grades: 1-12

Who’s behind it:
Lura Davidson, Ruben Garza, Trinidad San Miguel. Davidson is an adjunct professor at Concordia University. Garza and San Miguel are instructors at Texas State University.

Their proposal:
A school for students in state residential facilities (RFs), with plans to partner with the largest RF in the state, the San Marcos Treatment Center. School would top out at 220 students, and focus on an “underrepresented and high-needs population” with a curriculum including Scholastic’s boxed Read 180 and Math 180 programs, and the “Pitsco STEM/CTE Modular laboratory,” a short-term program with a 2-to-1 student-teacher ratio.

 

Royal Ambassador Academy
Where: 1 campus in Beaumont
Grades: Pre-K to 4, expanding to pre-K to 8

Who’s behind it:
Johnny Brown, Rev. John Adolph, Felicia Young. Adolph is pastor of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Brown is CEO of the J&C Brown Institute for Learning, and a former superintendent at ISDs including Wilmer-Hutchins and Port Arthur. Young and other leaders come from the sponsoring nonprofit, the Jehovah Jireh Village Community Development Center.

Their proposal:
A Montessori program with a STEAM—science, technology, engineering and math, plus art—focus, plus character (social, emotional and moral) education and strong parent involvement. The school would be located at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.

 

SA Youth Youthbuild Academy
Where: 1 campus in Central San Antonio
Grades: 9-12

Who’s behind it:
Cynthia Le Monds, and other SA Youth leadership. “SA Youth is one of the largest and most respected youth serving organizations in San Antonio,” according to the application, a 30-year-old nonprofit focused on “high-risk urban youth.”

Their proposal:
Built on the Youthbuild model developed decades ago in Harlem, a year-round high school for students, most ages 16 to 24, who’ve dropped out of traditional schools—basically the students SA Youth already serves. They’ll prevent kids from dropping out again by building tight-knit, family-style cohorts for both classroom and career education. Instruction will be self-paced, including online coursework, a web-based curriculum like Plato Courseworks, and direct instruction from teachers who’ll be “on call” in the evenings.

 

Trinity Environmental Academy
Where: 1 campus in South Dallas, “near Great Trinity Forest”
Grades: K-1 and 6, expanding to Pre-K to 12

Who’s behind it:
Jennifer Hoag, Lisa Tatum, Dhriti Pandya, Michael Hooten. Hooten comes from the well-established North Texas charter chain Uplift Education. Sustainable Education Solutions is the nonprofit behind the application.

Their proposal:
A school in a high-need South Dallas location taking advantage of its proximity to the Great Trinity Forest, “the largest urban hardwood bottomland forest in North America.” Students would conduct “local environmental field investigation,” with classroom programs built on environmental education, health, sustainability, STEM, civic skills, and “green career pathways.” The Trinity River Audubon Center and Paul Quinn College’s football-field/garden would offer more connections between the school, the community and the environment.

fletc
Courtesy of Artesia Chamber of Commerce
The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia that houses the temporary detention facility

An immigration attorney, working with Central American asylum seekers, in a newly opened detention facility says it’s becoming clear that the U.S. government is doing whatever it can to deport families as quickly as possible and only going through the motions when it comes to the asylum seekers.

Immigration attorney Shelley Wittevrongel, a former nun, was one of the first to volunteer to help Central American women and children pro bono at a newly opened detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico. The isolated detention center is located at a U.S. Border Patrol training facility about 200 miles from the Mexican border. It currently houses about 400 Central American women and children, according to media reports.

In Artesia, Wittevrongel has 10 clients and a list of 20 other women who have asked for legal representation. From the beginning, Wittevrongel says she has struggled to represent her clients in an isolated facility with no access to photocopiers, scanners or a place to file documents. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who have been deployed from across the country to staff the detention facility have been courteous and helpful to attorneys but they’ve made it known that their goal is to deport the families as quickly as possible. “The officer in charge told me, ‘I want you to know that all of these people are going to be deported,’” says Wittevrongel. “He said, ‘Our job is to get them deported and there’s maybe one in 1,000 entitled to stay in the United States, and the rest are going to go,’” she says.

Wittevrongel was startled by the admission. “I told him, ‘I appreciate you giving me such a clear statement about it because the whole place feels that way.’”

All 10 of Wittvrongel’s clients had signed a form while in Border Patrol custody, agreeing to expedited removal, a fast-track process to deportation. “They are kept two or three days in custody at the border and processed under difficult, cramped conditions,” she says. “A client told me she was held for several hours in a room with several other women and children. They called her in at 3:00 a.m. and told her to sign the papers. She told me she was so tired and confused she had no idea what she was signing.”

Once someone has agreed to expedited removal it’s extremely difficult to avoid deportation, says Dan Kowalski, an Austin-based immigration attorney. “Statistically it’s hard to overturn,” he says.

Another step in the process that has been cut short, Wittevrongel says, is the credible fear interview, in which an U.S. asylum officer determines whether the immigrant has a “well-founded fear of persecution.” The interview is one of the most important steps in the asylum process. If a person doesn’t pass a credible fear interview he or she will not be able to present their asylum case before a judge. There is a chance for appeal but it’s rarely granted. Many of the women are fleeing extreme violence and persecution and have been traumatized in their home countries and on the journey to the United States. The law requires that the fear of persecution be “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

But the type of violence afflicting Central America and Mexico doesn’t often fit neatly within these categories. Honduras, currently the lead country in the number of refugees arriving, has the highest murder rate in the world. But the violence is caused by a nexus of organized crime, street gangs and corrupt politicians. It takes time for Central Americans to relate their stories of persecution and explain the links between government and crime in their communities. “You’re interviewing traumatized people,” Wittevrongel says. “Typically, these type of credible fear interviews take several hours.”

Women are also forced to meet with the asylum officers accompanied by their children. This makes it difficult for them to focus on the interview and difficult to emphasize to the asylum officer the danger in their home countries. “They’re trying to protect their children,” Wittevrongel says. “They don’t want to say in front of them that they might be killed if they’re sent back, and it’s already likely they’re going to be deported.”

Some of her clients are deported before she can even meet with them for the first time, she says. “Yesterday I asked to see a client but she had already been sent back.” Another client told her that last week 80 women and children were woken up at 1:00 a.m., placed on a bus to the airport and flown back to Central America on a chartered plane. One woman, however, was allowed to stay at the last moment in the United States. She hadn’t passed her credible fear finding, but a judge disagreed with the asylum officer’s ruling and allowed her to continue her asylum case. “One out of 80,” Wittevrongel says. “That gives you an idea of the odds of staying.”

The 72-year-old immigration attorney says she left her home in Boulder, Colorado, to volunteer in Artesia so that the families can have “full access to what the law provides.” The families deserve a chance before they are sent back to the violence and persecution that forced them to flee their home countries. But unfortunately, the process at Artesia seems more like window dressing than what the law requires. “It’s more hurry up and deport than giving them their full due process,” she says.

Wendy Davis
Patrick Michels

As we enter the last couple of months before the November general election, Democrats here, as they have nationally, have been apprehensive about a cluster of laws and rule changes that they claim represents a modern-day form of voter suppression. On Wednesday, the Texas Democratic coalition launched what they’re calling a “voter protection program”—a joint effort of the Texas Democratic Party and Battleground Texas, which is closely aligned with the Wendy Davis campaign.

The groups will be getting support and advice from a relatively new Democratic National Committee effort called the Voter Expansion Project, supported by Bill and Hillary Clinton, which has been active in a number of states. On a conference call Wednesday morning, Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa explained that the voter protection program seeks to provide additional education and support to voters who may not yet be aware or well-acquainted with voter ID requirements, while training additional poll-watchers to ensure the November election holds to the letter of the law.

Davis, also on the call, touted the importance of the effort for the November election, and her own “strong record of fighting for voter protection” in the Texas Senate. “By contrast, Greg Abbott has fought the Voting Rights Act in court. He’s used his office to try to remove protections against voter discrimination and actively sought to weaken the voting power of some Texans,” Davis said. “He’s using our tax dollars fight against our own rights.”

Added Davis: “We want more Texans to participate in this election, not less.”

Over the years, Abbott’s office has aggressively prosecuted predominantly older, minority voters for small violations of election law, while ignoring potential violations from likely Republican voters. Abbott’s office sent state police officers to spy on older, minority voters to determine whether they were eligible to vote by mail. From a 2008 Observer story:

Fort Worth’s Gloria Meeks, 69, was a church-going community activist who proudly ran a phone bank and helped homebound elderly people like Parthenia McDonald, 79, vote by mail. McDonald, whose mailbox was two blocks away from her home (she recently died), called Meeks “an angel” for helping her, a friend of both women said.

[...]

The lawsuit describes various investigative tactics used by Abbott’s special unit, including an incident in which two state police officers were seen by Meeks “peeping at her through her bathroom window” while she was taking a bath on August 10, 2006. “She later learned that these two persons were investigators with the office of the defendant Attorney General Abbott,” the suit said.

But Abbott’s office never showed much interest in white voters:

A PowerPoint presentation used by Abbott’s office to train Texas officials was rife with racial stereotypes associating voter fraud with people of color-communities that in recent history have supported Democrats.

As an introduction to a section of the PowerPoint involving ‘Poll Place Violations,’ a slide depicts a photograph of African-American voters apparently standing in line to vote,” the lawsuit’s complaint said. “Notably, the 71-slide presentation contains no similar photographs of white or Anglo voters casting ballots.”

In recent years, state Republican parties in many parts of the country have favored laws that make it more difficult for poor, elderly and minority voters to exercise their franchise. These include voter ID laws, but encompass many different kinds of efforts. Before the 2012 presidential election, Republicans in Ohio, a critical battleground state, attempted to cut early voting periods, restrict absentee voting and reduce polling place availability in major cities, moves that disproportionately affected Democratic-leaning populations.

Democrats have been suitably freaked out about these developments. In Texas, where Democratic groups have been trying to turn hundreds of thousands of people who don’t normally vote into regular voters, it’s seen as especially important to counter restrictive voting laws.

Here, much of the discussion has been about voter ID laws. On the conference call, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), a Democratic heavyweight and leader of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said the motivation for new voter ID laws was transparently political.

“Of 13 million votes cast across the state in the 2008 and 2010 elections, there were four investigations into improper voter impersonations and one conviction for a young man who voted on behalf of his brother,” Martinez Fischer said. “To go after one person, we threw 795,000 registered voters under the bus because they lacked the proper ID.”

The state offers free “Election Identification Certificates” to those who lack acceptable forms of voter ID, but Martinez Fischer notes that “one-third of Texas counties don’t have a DPS facility where people can go get a free election certificate.” And to get ID, you must obtain other forms of identification first—and because that can cost money, opponents of the ID law have argued it’s a form of the constitutionally prohibited poll tax.

Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks put the effort against voter suppression in the context of long-standing civil rights struggles. “For several decades, my mother served as a precinct election judge in Tarrant County. In the early years of her life, she was told to pay to vote. She wasn’t allowed to vote in the primary, and she was made to enter a test before she could enter a polling booth,” Brook said. “Through her election work, my mother saw firsthand the trajectory of history that always points towards progress.”

Brooks added: “She knew, and I know, that progress isn’t won permanently. It’s renewed every election. Every time we cast our votes, we strike another blow for progress. That’s why I raised my children to know that voting goes beyond a simple right. It’s a sacred duty. But today, too many politicians are trying to roll back the right to the vote.”

TomlinsonHillUnless you’ve been living under a rock—and perhaps even if you have—you’ve probabably heard the news that former Texas Observer managing editor Chris Tomlinson (now a columnist with the Houston Chronicle) has a new book, which officially published yesterday.

Tomlinson Hill: The Remarkable Story of Two Families Who Share the Tomlinson Name—One White, One Black (St. Martin’s Press) has been getting warm notices from Texas Monthly to NPR, and while the Observer‘s own review won’t be available for another week or so (check the forthcoming August issue), we wanted to jump the gun and let Observer friends and family know that Chris has some statewide book-launch events coming up.

On Wednesday, July 23, he’ll introduce the book at BookPeople in Austin. On Thursday, July 24, he’ll be signing books at The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio; on Tuesday, July 29, he’ll sign books at the Lincoln Park Barnes & Noble in Dallas; and on Friday, July 30, he’ll be signing at Brazos Bookstore in Houston.

If you’re not able to make any of those (or even if you are), you can check out the book’s trailer here:

Lacy M. Johnson
Lacy M. Johnson

Lacy M. Johnson reads at Brazos Bookstore in Houston on Thursday, July 22, at 7 p.m.; at The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio on Sunday, July 27, at 3 p.m.; and at BookPeople in Austin on Tuesday, July 29, at 7 p.m.

How does one tell an unspeakable story? This question hovers like fog over Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side, a memoir about the author’s imprisonment and rape, in 2000, at the hands of a man she had once dated. Since then, Johnson has found happiness both professionally (she received her Ph.D. from the University of Houston and now works as director of academic initiatives at UH’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts) and personally (as a wife and mother), yet the crime—whose perpetrator escaped the American justice system by moving to Venezuela—has continued to haunt her. The Other Side is a book about an abusive relationship leading to a violent crime, yes, but more than that it’s about the difficulty and necessity of telling such a story instead of allowing others to tell it for you.

The Other Side
Tin House Books
The Other Side
By Lacy M. Johnson
Tin House Books
232 pages; $15.95

Johnson shows less interest in the awful facts at her memoir’s center than in the way she experienced those facts. She rarely addresses the rape directly, circling it at a distance, oftentimes even standing outside of her story to focus on objective-seeming materials—police reports, photographs, newspaper articles—only to then question their objectivity by delving into her own memories. (“It’s possible I’m not remembering right,” Johnson tells her therapist, who responds: “Is there any other way of remembering?”) This tension between fact and perception forms the book’s intellectual backbone, and though The Other Side begins as a true-crime story, it flowers into an investigation of memory.

Despite the subject matter, Johnson never wallows in bleakness. Her writing style is engaging and redemptive, a trick accomplished partly by virtue of Johnson’s voice—clear and direct, but with a breezy archness that belies her story’s dark core. Upon seeing her possessions in a Ziploc bag marked EVIDENCE, Johnson writes: “Nice to meet you, Evidence.” Elsewhere she exhibits both the touch of a poet (blood in her mouth becomes “the taste of a penny stolen from the kitchen jar”) and a novelist’s eye for character-fleshing detail (her mother addresses crises with Cool Ranch Doritos). As for the crime itself, Johnson breaks it up over a couple of different chapters, never asking the reader to experience the horror in a sustained way. The Other Side moves lithely from scene to scene, shuffling the chronology so readers remain aware that no matter how terrible events may seem, a happier life for Johnson lies ahead.

All of this adds up to a great book, one that isn’t ultimately about violence, but about a woman taking control of her own story after years of looking at it as if it were a reflection, something familiar yet distant, something she never quite accepted as her own.

“How is it possible,” Johnson asks, “to reclaim the body when it’s visible only in a mirror?” The Other Side is Johnson’s attempt to shatter that mirror—to reclaim a seemingly unspeakable story and, in so doing, to bring it to an end.

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Governor Rick Perry speaks at a press conference announcing the deployment of the National Guard to the Rio Grande Valley.
Christopher Hooks
Governor Rick Perry speaks at a press conference announcing the deployment of the National Guard to the Rio Grande Valley.

Does the deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border make any sense? Politically, it makes a great deal of sense to the three state officials who attended the high-profile launch of the effort at a press conference in Austin on Monday. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott are taking charge of the situation and sending the boys in brown-green digicam down to the border, and they’re going to make sure the national media knows it.

At the press conference, Abbott and Dewhurst got to play a fun supporting role—if Obama doesn’t pay for the Guard deployment, we’ll sue him, they said—but this was by and large Perry’s show. He’s been benefiting greatly from this border episode among political observers in Washington, D.C., who value strong action and skillful media positioning. A lot of Republicans (and journalists eager to amplify the 2016 horserace) have been eager to let Perry redeem himself, so he’s won many unearned plaudits lately. What’s more presidential, after all, than the assertive application of military power?

From many in Perry’s conservative base, he’s been getting the opposite. They want “border security,” and they can’t understand why it wasn’t happened in the decade and a half that Perry’s served as governor. Many don’t trust him on this issue. Deploying the National Guard will assuage some members of this crew, at least for a bit.

But does the deployment of the National Guard make sense practically? Monday’s event shined little light on this question. Adjutant General John F. Nichols, head of the Texas Military Forces, gave sober and somewhat glum remarks that cut a stark contrast to the energized politicians around him. The National Guard would be a “force multiplier,” he said. The military will contribute air assets and night-vision equipment. The National Guard would draw on experience carrying out operations on the border in the past, Nichols said.

The National Guard is joining an ongoing Texas offensive called “Operation Strong Safety.” In football, a strong safety is a defensive player who lines up against the strong side of the play and is tasked with either stopping the run or dropping back for pass coverage. But once the troops get to the border, their hands will be essentially tied—they’ll be in the field but it’s hard to see what sort of “tackling” they’ll be doing.

The National Guard won’t actually take part in the enforcement activities of the Border Patrol—for that matter, neither can the DPS. “If we were asked to, we could detain people,” said Nichols. “But we’re not planning on that. We’re planning on referring and deterring.”

The best they can do is make a call to another agency, in the same way a bystander could. Even if they could, minors from Central America—the primary subject of the current crisis—are generally surrendering themselves to the Border Patrol the moment they get here.

It’s also the case that much of the current strain in our immigration system has to do specifically with the handling and processing of migrants after they’re taken into custody. The National Guard isn’t going to build better detention facilities, one presumes.

The Guard might contribute equipment to anti-trafficking and smuggling operations, but law enforcement officials along the border say they haven’t seen an increase in crime. Even if they did, the Border Patrol, the Texas Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement agencies, are already armed to the teeth, with helicopters, a small army of vehicles, unmanned drones and countless other pieces of military hardware. They’ve got a fleet of gunboats that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Mekong River Delta in the bad old days. Even the state’s game wardens have taken to approximating a military unit.

Last week, Gov. Perry conceded that the National Guard couldn’t do much to increase operational control of the border: The military’s presence, he told Fox News in a sometimes-tough interview with Brit Hume, would be primarily important as a “show of force,” to send “a strong message” and create unwelcoming “visuals.”

Even that’s an odd claim, though. It’s up for debate exactly how frightening lightly-armed part-time soldiers will be to migrants who grew up in some of the world’s most violent societies, then made a 2,000-mile trek past nations bristling with military, cops, border checkpoints and criminal gangs. One of the last times armed military units were deployed along the border, one Marine shot an 18-year-old in Big Bend.

And regardless, the National Guard won’t be fully deployed for a month, possibly late August, even though there’s some evidence the surge in border crossings was already in decline last week. Then there’s the cost—the deployment of the National Guard along with the ongoing “surge” of DPS troopers will bring the bill for the taxpayers of Texas to some $5 million a week. An intergovernmental memo obtained by The Monitor, a newspaper in the Rio Grande Valley, reports that “Perry’s office has said the money will come from ‘non critical’ areas, such as health care or transportation.”

At the conference, one reporter pointed out that border law enforcement reported no increase in crime. So why deploy troops now?

“I think an anecdotal questioning of one or two people may not give the full vision of what’s going on along the border,” said Perry, before relating an anecdote of his own about a criminal immigrant.

“The idea that the border is without crime is a very false statement,” Perry said, though no one had suggested that. “What we’re talking about here is clear data.” He pointed to a giant pie-chart that showed the kinds of crimes that undocumented immigrants have been arrested for in the course of the last six years. Nothing about the chart would indicate the changing levels of crime over time.

“This idea that somehow or other there’s a militarization going on is frankly a little offensive to the National Guard,” Perry said. The Guard had been down there before, and Guard members sometimes do charity medical work in the Rio Grande Valley. So it couldn’t be a militarization, could it? Maybe it’s the re-militarization.

As for the conservatives Perry might have hoped to win over with today’s press conference? Some seemed underwhelmed. “Apparently guardsmen are only going to the Rio Grand [sic] Valley sector—same place the [DPS surge] is focused,” wrote Julie McCarty of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party. “That is not where they are needed. Nothing changes. Nearly 400 miles are still uncovered.”

Republicans have built a kind of trap for themselves—the border can’t really be “secured” in the way that many say when they’re on the campaign trail. But now they have to keep feeding that ill-founded belief. It’s like Slim Charles said: “That’s what war is. Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then you fight on that lie.” Or, you know, you send the National Guard to Pharr on that lie.

Correction: The article incorrectly stated that National Guard patrols would not be armed. A Guard spokesman clarified that troops “will be armed for self-defense purposes only.”

Anti-immigration protestors at a demonstration at the Mexican consulate in Austin, July 18.
Sarah Mortimer
Anti-immigration protestors at a demonstration at the Mexican consulate in Austin.

Texas and federal officials have been preoccupied this summer by the immediate needs of the 50,000-plus children who’ve arrived in South Texas since last fall, fleeing violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The kids are entitled, by federal law and international agreement, to food, shelter, medical care and legal attention in the U.S.—even if they’re destined to be returned to their home countries eventually—all of which has the government scrambling to meet the most basic needs.

A few of Texas’ bold political thinkers, though, have taken the long view and urged their neighbors to consider—as conservative activist Alice Linahan put it recently—“What is going to happen in September?” Well, late August, really. That’s when public schools in Texas welcome kids back and—according to the horrific scenario some tea party groups envision— tens of thousands of little Central Americans will slide right into school desks alongside your sons and daughters, hands out and palms open, demanding a free education.

“We must begin the crisis planning immediately to address the catastrophic wave of minor school-age children that could be enrolled in Texas schools this coming September,” the Clear Lake Tea Party announced in late June, on the way to asking Gov. Rick Perry to convene the Legislature for a special session to “deal with all of the peripheral issues” related to illegal immigration. The tea party group’s announcement was posted by Mary Huls, a former Texas House candidate, and coupled familiar notes of xenophobia—painting the refugees as dangerous or diseased—with worries over Texas kids. “Do your schools have the capability of managing youths that are members of or affiliated with criminal gangs?” the group wonders. “Are health protocols in place to protect our children from common diseases endemic to the Third World?”

On Alice Linahan’s online Women on the Wall radio show, Kaufman County Tea Party Chairman Ray Myers said he’s spreading the message that the crisis on Texas’ border is about to become a crisis in Texas’ schools. “We’re trying to raise the awareness of those soccer moms and dads,” Myers said. “We’re trying to raise the awareness that this is coming and it’s coming to your school, and they’re gonna take your kid’s desk. … There is not a public school in the state of Texas that has a budget prepared for this particular pitfall this September,” Myers said. “They didn’t budget for it.”

At a press conference last week, state Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) jumped on board too, telling Breitbart Texas he’s worried about “the detrimental effects on the public school system, that the new arrivals would ‘overwhelm’ the public schools and should be returned to their home countries quicker than current immigration policies were allowing.

So… sound the alarms? Well, not exactly.

“We don’t anticipate that this is going to be a problem,” Edinburg CISD Superintendent Rene Gutierrez tells the Observer. “We have the resources and the staff to accommodate those kids if they stay in our schools.” But kids who enter the immigration system in South Texas won’t stay there for long—they’ll move on to federal shelters within a few days, and then to family or foster homes across the country. Gutierrez says that Hidalgo County officials have said most kids will leave Texas for New York, Chicago or Pennsylvania—but even if many return to his district in the Rio Grande Valley, Gutierrez says, “we have the space.”

School districts in Houston and Dallas have so much space, in fact, that they may even turn vacant school buildings into temporary federal shelters for the kids. Grand Prairie ISD is also considering letting the feds use one of its vacant schools as a shelter, prompting debate at a packed board meeting last week.

It’s too soon to know how many Central American refugees will be enrolling in the state’s biggest districts this fall, but officials from both say their districts are prepared. Houston ISD spokeswoman Sheleah Reed says her district already has programs for students who speak little or no English, and says they’re ready to expand those in southwest Houston. That’s where refugee students would likely be concentrated, Reed says, which they know because Houston ISD got 900 new students from Central America last year—all without a budget crisis or a disease outbreak.

“It doesn’t matter where a student comes from,” Reed says. “Before they go to school, they would have to have the appropriate immunizations and health support. Wherever they come from, we would work to make sure they have those.”

But Ray Myers and his suburban Dallas tea party group won’t just wait and see if this year is different. Myers said he’s coordinating with activists in Arizona, Oklahoma and Louisiana to spread the word about the looming school invasion—and best of all, he said, “We’ve got Ted Cruz on board.”

“We’re talking about thousands of kids and they don’t care a thing about George Washington,” Myers said. “They’re here to overload the system. This is part of Obama’s plan and this is part of the Democrats’ plan.”

That plan, Myers explained, even has a name: the Cloward-Piven strategy—a 40-year-old theory that overwhelming America’s systems of social welfare, healthcare and schools, might undo the country’s capitalist foundation. The notion that President Obama is now orchestrating just such a gambit has been spread by luminaries like Texas Congressman Steve Stockman and former Georgia Congressman John Linder, and even Rick Perry. “I mean I hate to be conspiratorial,” Perry told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in June, “but I mean how do you move that many people from Central America across Mexico and then into the United States without there being a fairly coordinated effort?”