This Land Press

Let’s face facts: Magazines can be difficult to read while you’re out and about. Flipping pages on a crowded bus? Forget it. Reading cover to cover on your bike commute? An impossibility. Luckily, there’s a way to get your Observer fix hands-free.

We’ve partnered with This Land Radio (a production of This Land Press) to bring you classic Observer stories repackaged in a pleasant audio format. The first to roll out is “Walmart, I Can’t Quit You” by Joe R. Lansdale and originally published in 2010.

When This Land Radio produces more audio Observer stories, we’ll link to them here. In the meantime, check out This Land Press on SoundCloud for more audio goodness.

Eugenio del Bosque

While fears of immigrant children carrying disease persist, public health experts on the front lines offer reasons for calm.

The Dallas Morning News reported over the weekend that “the likelihood of [these kids] spreading disease is low.” The story cited health officials who have documented just three cases of flu, three cases of tuberculosis, and 23 cases of chickenpox among the 57,000 children detained in Texas.

This report comes while Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins—acting on his idea that “in Texas, we don’t turn our back on children”—prepares his county to receive 2,000 unaccompanied migrant kids.

The physicians and state health officials interviewed by the Morning News emphasized the same message that the Observer reported last week: The Central American kids streaming across the border pose very little threat to the health of Texans. They do need medical care—mostly for the fatigue, dehydration and twisted ankles that have resulted from their journey.

As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has repeatedly emphasized, each child receives a screening for infectious disease.

Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Morning News that health risks in the detention facilities spring mostly from “the lack of hand-washing facilities.” The occasional cases of lice and scabies, which have excited the ire of a Border Patrol union, do not seem to impress the medical professionals much.

Astute readers will have noted that chickenpox (also known as varicella) is in fact a vaccine-preventable disease. In 1995, the U.S. became the first country to recommend universal vaccination against chickenpox, which is typically a mild disease. (I had it. You probably had it. Serious complications are rare enough that many American physicians questioned whether vaccinating against varicella was worth the trouble.)

Since the mid-’90s, only a handful of nations have adopted universal varicella vaccination. In developing countries that face more pressing health issues, it wouldn’t be cost-effective. Agencies like the World Health Organization and UNICEF don’t include rates of varicella vaccination in their worldwide reports, because it’s not a global health priority.

In tropical regions such as Central America, chickenpox tends to occur more in teenagers and adults, rather than exclusively in young kids. That’s another factor in these few cases at the border: Kids from a temperate region might’ve already had chickenpox; many kids from Central America are still “immunologically naive”—that is, they haven’t been exposed to the virus.

But please don’t flip out, Internet. Most Americans are immune to this pox, thanks to vaccination or prior infection. Here in Texas, 90 percent of kids are vaccinated against varicella by age 3, according to the Department of State Health Services.

Like lice and scabies, chickenpox spreads more quickly in crowded and unsanitary conditions. The refugee kids who get chickenpox are likely to be itchy and miserable—and quarantined—for a couple of weeks, until the virus subsides.

If we want to spare them that ordeal, adequate hand-washing facilities in the detention centers might be a good place to start. We could also offer the children prompt varicella vaccination, as a recently published article in the journal International Health recommends. We should also move kids quickly from detention centers into the safety of families.

I’ll be the first to admit that the Texas medical system has its problems. But if the biggest “health threats” these kids from Central America bring are head lice, some twisted ankles and 23 cases of chickenpox, well, Texas can handle that.

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Predatory student loan services are on notice this week after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed lawsuits against two “scam operations that prey on student loan borrowers.” It’s the first lawsuit of its kind, and one of Madigan’s targets is Carrollton-based Broadsword Student Advantage.

Broadsword uses radio ads and other marketing tools to lure potential customers to its loan repayment services, capitalizing on a growing demand—the nation’s climbing student loan debt has tripled in a decade, and surpassed the $1 trillion mark two years ago. Broadsword is part of a new world of debt settlement firms, which promise to lower monthly payments in exchange for up-front fees, getting into the student loan business.

Some loan repayment services are already available for free through the U.S. Department of Education, but Broadsword claims that people are “turned off by its complexities and paperwork.” Instead, Broadsword and other loan repayment businesses charge high upfront charges and monthly fees to process loan repayments.

According to the lawsuit, Broadsword ads target specific professionals with claims that their loans can be forgiven:

“Attention teachers, nurses, social workers, government employees, police officers, and firefighters if you’re still paying on student loans get ready for a special announcement. Your entire student loan can be forgiven. You heard correctly. Broadsword Student Advantage has free information on how you could potentially have the remaining balance on your student loan debt forgiven.”

Madigan’s suit says that these ads, along with Broadsword’s domain, are a violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.

The domain appears to be a “source for consumers to obtain student loan debt forgiveness,” according to the lawsuit. In fact, student loan forgiveness is a federal program through the Department of Education with specific requirements. Broadsword doesn’t inform its consumers of these requirements, either, the suit claims.

In one instance described in the complaint, a public school teacher in Illinois called Broadsword after hearing a radio ad. She was pressured into giving her bank account number so the company could debit $499 for services (though the company’s ads claims it offers free information). After being told she qualified for loan forgiveness, the teacher found out several months (and $898.60 later) that her job as a teacher made her ineligible for loan forgiveness.

The lawsuit also alleges that Broadsword and its affiliates try to get power of attorney from their customers so the company can file documents, get information and even intercept communication from the loan servicer to the borrower.

When customers are charged for Broadsword’s services, they are billed by a separate financial planning firm called Affordable Life Plans. This company shares an address and phone number with Broadsword, and its About Us page includes the Bible verse “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

The lawsuit included complaints from people who hadn’t signed up with Affordable Life Plans, or gotten any financial advice beyond the loan service, yet were billed by Affordable Life Plans—possibly to minimize Broadsword’s risk. “Defendants are directing fees to Affordable Life Plans as a subterfuge in an attempt to escape liability for offering student loan debt relief services in violation of the Illinois Debt Settlement Act,” the lawsuit states.

Broadsword Student Advantage, LLC, was organized in August 2012 by its president, Kenneth L. Talbert, the man behind other financial firms like EFA Processing (a debt settlement company), DebtXS, Eckity Capital Markets, Safeguard Capital and CocoaLife of Texas, to name a few. Talbert’s interconnected business entities have been scrutinized before, and he’s been compared to Bernie Madoff by a former employee for his debt settlement business.

If the court finds Broadsword intended to defraud its customers, the firm could be charged a civil penalty up to $50,000 per violation. Broadsword didn’t return the Observer’s requests for comment.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Michael L. Williams speaks at the Texas Charter Schools Association annual conference in Austin, Tex.

When the State Board of Education reconvenes in Austin this week, a few members will have some choice words for Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, who surprised many by approving a charter school over the board’s veto—something board members weren’t aware he could do.

Last December, the SBOE voted 9-6 to veto a bid by the Arizona-based charter school chain Great Hearts Academies to open four campuses in North Texas. Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight had pointed out that the chain’s campuses in the Phoenix area have much whiter, more affluent student bodies than nearby public schools. State Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) had also complained that Great Hearts hadn’t told school districts in North Texas of its plans, as Texas requires applicants to do.

It was the first test for a system the Legislature created last year, which put charter approvals in the hands of the education commissioner and left the SBOE with only the power to veto his picks. Great Hearts was the only school the board voted to block.

But as the Texas Tribune‘s Morgan Smith reported early this month, Williams found a way around the board’s veto anyway, by waiving a handful of rules and letting Great Hearts grow from one San Antonio campus—which hasn’t yet opened—to add new campuses in North Texas without SBOE approval. Knight complained she was blindsided by Williams’ decision. Thomas Ratliff, a Republican board member from Mount Pleasant, said Williams’ move “flies in the face of legislative intent.”

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s editorial board was also critical of Williams’ method:

In granting Great Hearts a waiver, Williams may have been acting within the recently expanded bounds of his authority.

But that doesn’t instill confidence in the approval process, nor do any favors for the charter school movement.

The more general concern here is about whether charter schools are being held accountable for the public money they receive. Senate Bill 2 last year—the bill that reshaped the approval process—was meant to tighten accountability by making it easier to close lousy charter schools. But in approving Great Hearts’ expansion, Williams waived rules requiring schools to perform well before the state lets them expand. Board members who voted against Great Hearts last year wonder why the school is getting such special treatment.

Great Hearts was one of a handful of charter networks wooed to San Antonio from outside Texas in 2012, under an initiative called Choose to Succeed funded by local civic boosters. Great Hearts will open its first San Antonio campus this fall, and its website advertises nine potential campuses in North Texas, plus more in Austin and Houston to open as soon as 2017. Great Hearts advertises a “traditional liberal arts education” and high scores on college entrance exams and Arizona state tests. But those scores are significantly higher at Great Hearts’ suburban Phoenix campuses where students are more affluent and mostly white.

Knight tells the Observer there’s no way to know how well Great Hearts will perform with a more diverse group of students in Texas. And she’s worried that Texas is privileging slickly marketed, out-of-state charters over local, community-grown schools. “I just think we have opened the flood gates for out-of-state charters with this decision,” she says. “I don’t see an even opportunity for our locally grown charter schools, versus these out-of-state charters who seem to have all of their needs accommodated.” Though Knight can’t be sure what’s behind Williams’ decision, she has some ideas.

In early June—weeks before Williams reversed the board’s veto—Great Hearts hired Rick Perry’s former chief of staff Ray Sullivan to lobby for them in Texas. And late last year, according to the Tribune, board member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) said he’d been surprised to to get a call from the governor’s office wondering how he planned to vote on Great Hearts. In its expansion bids, the chain seems capable of calling in quite a bit of political firepower. Texas is no exception.

In 2012, Republican leaders in Tennessee engaged in a nasty, drawn-out fight with Nashville’s school board. Although  state leaders insisted the school be approved, the local board rejected Great Hearts’ bid to expand into the city, sticking to that decision even after the state withheld $3.4 million in transportation and utilities funding. In Nashville, as in Texas, critics had worried Great Hearts would locate in wealthy neighborhoods far from the city’s worst-off schools.

And in Arizona, where the school began in 2004, Great Hearts expanded quickly under a board led by Jay Heiler, a well-connected operative in state politics and media who’s defended Senate Bill 1070—Arizona’s infamous immigration crackdown law—supported private school vouchers and agitated against proposals to boost public school funding. Heiler also did a stint on the board of the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix think tank similar to the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Goldwater advances conservative political causes at the state level and is backed by well-known corporations and the Koch brothers.

“I think that this situation leads to a very uncomfortable precedent,” says SBOE member Marisa Perez (D-San Antonio). “The voice of the communities, by way of state board members elected by the communities, is basically meaningless.” Perez says Williams and the Texas Education Agency need to be clearer about their rules—a point she plans to make at this week’s board’s meetings, which begin Tuesday.

Knight, too, hopes TEA can clarify just how the decision to override the board’s veto can be justified. She hopes TEA’s general counsel David Anderson can help answer how much power the board really has to block charters.

“In the absence of any detailed conversation with the commissioner about why [Williams] made his decision,” Knight says, “it appears to me that Great Hearts is very powerfully politically connected. I have said to them that they need to stand on their own skill sets as opposed to their political connections.”

The Trouble with TribTalk

Trib Talk logo

The tens of Texans who’ve been waiting with bated breath to read Republican Congressman Steve “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted” Stockman’s ever-developing thoughts on the virtual currency Bitcoin finally exhaled in May, when Stockman took to the pixeled pages of The Texas Tribune’s new op-ed offshoot, TribTalk, to chastise the federal government for its “costly, job-killing” approach to taxing the modern libertarian’s favorite legal-ish tender.

TribTalk bills itself as “an op-ed page for the 21st century” and purports to provide “pointed, provocative perspectives” on a wide range of issues affecting Texans.

The site has so far featured columns from Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, Republican lieutenant governor candidate Dan Patrick and sitting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst alongside a host of lesser-known strategists, lobbyists and campaign veterans. Columnists aren’t compensated by the Tribune, though some must certainly be recruited in pursuit of a predictable pairing of counter-perspectives on almost every issue—whether those perspectives are warranted by good sense, good science, or even good conscience.

TribTalk also invites reader submissions and offers “paid placement,” $2,500-a-pop sponsored content marked on the site by a differentiated background color. Plain old ads start at $12,500.

This latest Tribune venture may be a 21st-century op-ed page, but it’s hardly an innovation. It perpetuates a top-down model of discourse that privileges the privileged and lends credibility to the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz, who’s already used TribTalk to decry the influence of “big donors” on energy policy.

In a post-Citizens United America, where the political conversation is increasingly dominated by voices best able to buy the highest-ranking ears, and struggling publications lean on hyped-up headlines and thinly veiled advertorials, TribTalk so far looks like a Huffington Post-wannabe more concerned with clicks than content.

Smart reporting from the Tribune’s hyper-focused beat journalists keeps our state’s storied dailies on their toes, but TribTalk merely engenders horse-race political writing. A verifiable crackpot like LaRouche Democrat Kesha Rogers can enjoy a byline alongside outgoing University of Texas Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis.

The obvious rejoinder is that hey, it’s just an op-ed page. The Tribune isn’t endorsing John Cornyn’s laughable support for a racist voter ID law that a federal court declared was expressly intended to disenfranchise minority voters, and TribTalk certainly does publish a bipartisan array of views. And yes, it clearly labels its “paid placement” content.

But the Tribune can’t have it both ways. Either politicos and institutional gatekeepers want to be published in TribTalk because it is valuable media real estate under the imprint of a rising name in Texas journalism, or it’s a free-for-all (er, free-for-some) blog with no editorial oversight and no meaningful connection between its brand and its bylines.

I suspect that the Tribune would like to see TribTalk as the former. Indeed, in its own “paid placement” guidelines, the Tribune reserves the right to “refuse publication of any content that undermines the integrity of its brand.”

TribTalk simultaneously asks too much and expects too little of a readership that appreciates the Tribune’s ostensible non-partisanship. TribTalk lets its deeply biased writers float untethered from political reality in what feels like a bizarre attempt to act as a somehow objective clearinghouse for unbridled partisan posturing. Republican campaign veteran Ray Sullivan is billed as a “political consultant.” Liberal gadfly Harold Cook is identified as a “public affairs consultant.” A couple of clicks will take readers into more detail—Cook is a Democratic commentator and Sullivan worked as a spokesman for Bush-Cheney and later Rick Perry—but there’s no reason not to be more initially forthcoming, particularly on a web platform without the printed page’s space limitations.

If TribTalk wants to be taken seriously, it might start by applying its “paid placement” guidelines to its unpaid content, vetting its submissions more thoughtfully, increasing transparency and soliciting opinions with real teeth, rather than simply curating a click-bait puppet show.

Unless, that is, TribTalk wants to be known as the kind of place readers turn to for Steve Stockman’s thoughts about Bitcoin.    

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Andrea Grimes
Jen Reel
Andrea Grimes

When we began reinventing the then-biweekly newsprint Texas Observer in 2010 as a glossy-paged monthly magazine, a passel of new columnists was core to the redesign. The first on board was Bill Minutaglio.

Bill was a relative newcomer to the Observer’s pages, but by the time of his inaugural column, in the Jan. 22, 2010 issue, he was already an oddly youthful èminence grise in Texas journalism circles, having worked at dailies in Abilene, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, not to mention staff and stringer stints at top-shelf national outlets too numerous to mention. Nobody knew the ins and outs of the business more intimately, few practiced it more conscientiously, and from his perch as a journalism professor at the University of Texas, few were better positioned to watch the trade’s future scrolling across the transom. The fruits of his experience and insight have graced Bill’s State of the Media column since 2010. 

Until now. Bill has decided to turn his attention to scripts, screenplays and other projects piled up in his perpetually overstuffed pipeline, and if we can’t say we’re surprised, we’re certainly sorry to see him go. We’ve frankly never understood how Bill found the time to teach, write books, serve as a go-to bullshit detector for the national press corps on all topics Texas, and write a monthly column for this magazine, all the while sending us a steady stream of well-trained interns and acting as an on-call reference desk whenever some Observer reporter or frazzled editor needed a pointer to a source or a refresher on how—and why—to do what we do. 

So it’s with great gratitude that we want to acknowledge Bill’s departure from the State of the Media desk after the better part of five years.

“It was an honor to launch this column,” Bill writes. “The media needs watching, and thank goodness the Observer will continue to watch it.”

Indeed we will. Even as we bid Bill a fond adios—(fond and partial, since we fully expect to continue benefitting from his reporting and writing in other contexts)—we say hello to Andrea Grimes, a young Austin writer who’s been making her name not in the state’s legacy daily newspapers but online. Andrea is a former editor of Eater Austin, a former staff writer at the Dallas Observer, an occasional stand-up comedian, a senior political reporter with, and the whip-smart human behind the indispensable Twitter handle @andreagrimes. We’re excited to invite you to follow along as she guides the State of the Media column down its next new path.  

Stare into the Oops, and the Oops stares also into you.
Twitter — @kat_deville
Stare into the Oops, and the Oops stares also into you.

Our great state’s recent surge of OTM UACs—that’s Other Than Mexican Unaccompanied Alien Children, in the lovely, humanizing vernacular of our Border Patrol—has thrown our great state into disarray. We face a moral crisis, and the future of millions is at stake. Trapped by circumstances that cannot be controlled, thrown into the lion’s den of public attention, the subject of this crisis desperately tries to be recognized as human while navigating a system seemingly beyond his understanding. I’m talking, of course, about Rick Perry.

1) Rick Perry would like to be president. Did you know this? For much of the last week, he’s been determined to show how very serious he is about cracking down on the flood of refugee children, and by showing how very, very serious he is, so serious that he will very often be frowning in the relevant pictures, he will show how unserious people from Washington, D.C. are. In 2014, this is as good a way as any to win the Republican nomination for president.

As a way of showing how serious he is, Perry spent much of the last two weeks arguing with Obama about how and when he would meet with POTUS to have his picture taken, where he would be sure to look very serious and grave. After a lengthy bout of sparring over the photo op, during which Perry accused Obama many times of not taking the crisis seriously, at least, not seriously enough to do a photo op with Perry on his terms, Obama consented to meet briefly with Perry and a number of local elected officials, in what appears to be the fallout bunker of an airport-adjacent Radisson. During the meeting Perry frowned, and the rest is history.

Perhaps unhappy to have been taken un-seriously when he had hoped to be taken seriously, Perry donned Terminator sunglasses and body armor and went on a pleasure cruise with Sean Hannity along the Rio Grande. Surely he would be taken seriously here. This was, after all, a boat with machine guns, which are very cool, very serious and very masculine. Here was the solution to the crisis: These rad machine guns could make short work of the teen refugees.

Unfortunately, in much of the reporting, Perry was upstaged by the boat.

“The Texas boats looked badass,” one law enforcement officer told The Blaze.

Despite his social media travails, Perry won the crisis. In fact, you could say that nothing has been better for his presidential hopes than the sudden arrival of tens of thousands of afraid, abused, and disoriented Central American teenagers. We know this because of the verdict rendered by BuzzFeed. Their writeup of the last few days was called “Republicans Are Super Excited Rick Perry Is Back,” and its subhed was: “The border crisis is giving the Texas governor the chance to look serious.”

The thousands of undocumented immigrants crossing into the United States in recent months, and Perry’s perch as the top executive in Texas, have given him the opportunity to be out in front on an issue he knows well: the border.

Several people close to Perry insist his response to the border crisis involves no political calculation at all, and that he would be doing the exact same things were he not seriously toying with a 2016 run.


Ok man!

2) In the race to replace Rick, it was the best of times and the worst of times. Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott stumbled into an actual issue to fight about for the first time in a while—whether or not the placement of dangerous chemical stockpiles should be on the public record. As an issue, it’s not, you know, health care or immigration or education, but after the ammonium nitrate explosion in West leveled half a town, that seems important.

As attorney general, Abbott acted to hide that information from the public, then issues a series of increasingly hilarious proclamations about why it wasn’t a big deal. Flustered, he finally came up with a reason:

Yes, terrorism. He’s the only one fighting it, while Davis stands aside, ladylike. Does Davis support terrorism? We can’t be sure. You may object that there has been a relative paucity of terrorist attacks in Texas lately, and a number of actual chemical disasters, but the absence of evidence, of course, is not evidence of absence. If the al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām start throwing around pipe bombs near the Houston Ship Channel, you’ll sorely regret your cynicism on this point.

Abbott ends his editorial in the San Antonio Express-News by urging Texans to do “all we can to protect the memories of the men and women who died in West.” A noble sentiment! Abbott, in his own unique way, is fulfilling that civic responsibility by making sure the victims of the next chemical disaster are less aware of the thing that will kill them. Thanks, Greg!

Of course, in the interest of fair reporting, I feel I must disclose that this is not the first time that Davis has been accused of palling around with terrorists.

3) Abbott wasn’t the only gubernatorial candidate campaigning gubernatorially this week: Davis also did that. Are you on the Davis campaign’s mailing list? You have never received email until you’ve received email from the Davis campaign. Like arrows from an infinite army of political communications majors, so numerous are they that they block out the sun, forcing reporters to write in the shade.

With so many of them, it’s understandable that a few of them fall short of hard-hitting indictments of the status quo. This week, the Davis campaign hit Abbott over the failure of Texas to win … the 2016 Republican National Convention, which had named Dallas as a finalist.

Fort Worth- Today, Davis campaign spokesman Zac Petkanas issued the following statement:

“A major role of the governor is to attract conventions, tourism and business to the state of Texas in order to create good paying jobs and boost the economy. Despite his begging, Greg Abbott was unable to deliver the Republican National Convention to Dallas. It’s unfortunate because this is one of Greg Abbott’s insider backroom deals Texas families could have really used.”

Set aside the fact that this is a weird thing to pin on Abbott, and the idea that the Davis campaign is sanctifying Perry’s approach to the governorship as Texas’ concierge, and the idea that Abbott is bad because he’s not enough of an insider.

It’s certainly true that a major convention would have boosted Dallas’ economy, but I find myself wondering about these “Texas families” who were pining away for the national GOP convention. Are they traveling political button-sellers? Do they enjoy terrible traffic? Is proximity to national politicians the unstable emotional foundation of their family units? I feel like they have deeper problems—problems that the convention alone can’t fix. Spare a moment in your thoughts for the Metroplex sons and daughters whose parents were hoping to keep it together long enough to see Marco Rubio do a meet-and-greet in Deep Ellum.

BASIS San Antonio's campus

Since the Arizona-based charter network BASIS Schools opened its first school in 1998, the chain has built a reputation as one of the nation’s strongest charter organizations.

Two of the chain’s original schools, in Scottsdale and Tucson, ranked in the top five of U.S. News & World Report‘s latest high school rankings. In 2012, both schools boasted that 100 percent of their students graduated and went on to college. At BASIS Scottsdale, students earned an average of 4.1 out of a possible 5 points on AP tests.

But at the chain’s new Texas outpost, one parent says BASIS has failed to address her child’s special needs, in violation of federal law. Her claim has reignited an old charge against charters that outperform traditional school districts—that they keep scores high by gradually pushing out students who can’t keep up.

In June, BASIS San Antonio parent Sharon Bonilla accused the school of failing to accommodate her child’s ADHD and using bully tactics to push him out of the classroom. She leveled the accusation in a letter published on Cloaking Inequity, a blog written by University of Texas researcher Julian Vasquez Heilig.

As a parent, I was “wooed” by Basis. We were sure that Basis was the “one” for us – the school that would accept all children regardless of color, creed, or impairment. Who wouldn’t fall in love with this charter school initially? Who would have thought our year would end with a hearing, and a desperate search for legal counsel?


Much to my surprise, drawing up a 504 Accommodation Plan was the extent of the service we got from Basis. There were no plans implemented or followed up on throughout the fall months. The spring was no different. The evidence first came when I saw my child’s failing grades. Basis ignored my steady emails day after day, and week after week. With every failing quiz, test, and progress report, I sent my concerns to the Special Education Director, Head of School, and teachers, which were met with no reply, dismissive attitude, or disciplinary action against my child. It was clear that the honeymoon was over.

Bonilla also happens to be a social worker at San Antonio ISD. She told the Observer that after five months of trying to contact BASIS staff about her child’s special accommodations—under federal law, schools must create what’s known as a “504 plan” to meet the needs of students with disabilities—Bonilla learned that the plan had never been implemented and that her child would be held back a grade.

“It feels like an injustice,” she said. “I did everything I could to get in touch with BASIS staff.”

After she was excluded from decisions about her child’s accommodations, Bonilla said, BASIS’s head of schools tried to counsel her out of sending her child to the school next year.

“She said, ‘Your [child] isn’t doing well here. Why do you want him here anyway?” Bonilla said.

At a formal hearing next Tuesday, Bonilla will plead in front of an arbitrator, hired by BASIS, to move her child to the next grade and restore her rights as decision maker in her child’s education. With help from lieutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte, Bonilla wrote, she also filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency. In the letter posted at Cloaking Inequity, Bonilla summed up her frustration:

Are the events of this year tactics Basis San Antonio practices to scare away children who do not meet their academic standards? Other Basis parents who did not feel supported transferred out earlier this year, should we have moved too? My child was emotionally tormented and struggled entire school year trying to maneuver through the Basis curriculum without his 504 accommodations. … How can a “world class” publically [sic] funded, educational institution be permitted to ignore the needs of their disabled students and their parent’s constant cries for help?

BASIS Communications Director Phil Handler declined to speak specifically about Bonilla’s case, but denied that the school pushes out students with disabilities or lacks the resources to serve them. “We’re a public charter. Anyone who wants to come to our school is welcome,” Handler said.

All schools that receive public funding are required by federal law to offer services for students with special needs. But accusations that BASIS and other charter schools try to wiggle out of offering these services are hardly new.

Educating students with disabilities takes time, money and specially-trained staff—and since the state grades schools by their students’ standardized tests, critics say charters have an incentive to spend more on the students most likely to score high. Traditional public schools still have to educate the rest.

That logic might explain the findings from a 2012 Government Accountability Office report on enrollment in charter schools. The report found that disabled students represented only 8.2 per cent of students enrolled at charters across the 2009-2010 school year, compared to 11.2 percent in traditional public schools. The number suggests a systemic trend that runs deeper than BASIS.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened a federal investigation into a parent’s complaint that BASIS D.C. discriminated against students with disabilities after the school had been open for just one year. The D.C. Public Charter School Board also conducted a two-day review of the school’s special education program, which found that the school’s services were insufficient. The local board required BASIS to make improvements the following year—but only after 44 of its 443 students, half of them with disabilities, had already dropped out.

Amy Silverman, a parent of a child with Down syndrome, called this trend a new kind of segregation in a Phoenix New Times story earlier this year. Silverman described her desperate search to find a charter middle school for her daughter in Arizona, a state with over 500 charter schools. In a number of conversations with special education teachers at charter schools, Silverman says she was told she’d be better off enrolling her daughter in a traditional school. Silverman claims in the article that even Great Hearts Academies founder Jay Heiler, who she describes as the “godfather of the school choice movement,” dissuaded her from trying to enroll her daughter at a charter. (Great Hearts, like BASIS, is another ambitious charter chain expanding into Texas.) By refusing to address their own lack of special education resources and pushing away students with special needs, Silverman argues, charters are becoming increasingly exclusive.

Heather Cole, a graduate student in special education at the University of Texas and a former education advocate at Disability Rights Texas, said charters make less of an effort to tailor their programs to special education students than traditional schools. Cole told the Observer that funding for special education is an issue both in public schools and charters, but that charter school teachers frequently lack the instructional training to accommodate students with special education needs.

“It’s almost a given that [students with special needs] might be excluded,” Cole said. The danger, she suggests, is that parents seeking schools for their children will eventually get the idea that charters just aren’t an option, without any school ever telling them directly.

Denise Pierce, an attorney at the Texas Charter Schools Association said that all charters should strive to provide the same quality of special education as traditional schools. “Charter schools, just like districts, are required to provide a free and appropriate education to students with special needs,” she said. “Charter schools and school districts alike are always challenged to bring to the appropriate needs to every child, because every child is an individual.”

Pierce said that charters with tight finances could try sharing special education teachers with other schools. But pushing students with disabilities out of school is never the answer.

Still, a case like Bonilla’s—where even a social worker familiar with the education system finds her child cut off from those services—suggests charter schools still have a long way to go.

“Charters are supposed to be the solution to this big system that didn’t work. ‘We’re smaller. We’re tighter. We’ll be responsive to your needs,’” Cole said. “That is not the case. We’re seeing greater exclusion. We’re seeing more of the tracking of kids into alternative educations and juvenile justice programs. They are not the panacea that people hoped.”

Obama in Austin: Yes We Can…Finish Out a Second Term

In Austin today, President Barack Obama seemed to be straining from the weight of a system that's not working as well as it used to.
President Obama speaks at the Paramount Theater in Austin, July 10, 2014.
President Obama speaks at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, July 10, 2014.

There were two Barack Obamas that showed up to the Paramount Theatre in Austin today for a domestic policy speech, one of the last legs of a cross-country tour. There was Barry, the friendly fellow with a personal life and two kids who is grappling with the intense, soul-sucking drain of what must be one of the world’s worst jobs, and there was President Obama, the leader of the States of America, ostensibly United but in reality, an increasingly fractious place. He has two-and-a-half more years to preside over a policy-making process in which it seems more and more clear that very little productive—and I mean very, very little—can actually get done.

Both Obamas hate Washington, but for different reasons. Barry’s complaint is easy to understand: The Oval Office is a punishing, dehumanizing workplace, and that must be an infinitely harder burden to bear when the system is frozen around you and you can’t seem to gain any headway.

Before he came to Texas, Obama was in Denver, where he had a few beers and played a little pool with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. It was the most normal night he would have had in some time, but for pundits, his “boozy” night out was an outrage and a scandal. How could the president have fun when many of his fellow Americans, in point of fact, were not having fun?

At the Paramount, Obama was energetic and present, but at times it seemed to be the kind of unregulated energy that masks a deeper fatigue. Obama’s always seemed to have a certain connection to Austin, and he started out by telling the enthusiastic crowd one reason why.

“The last time I walked a real walk, where I was kind of left alone, was in Austin.” Before one of the debates in the 2008 Democratic primary, he left his hotel and walked around Town Lake. “I was walking along the river, and no one noticed me. And it felt great.” Then on the way back, someone recognized him. His aides descended. And the rest was history.

“I’ve enjoyed the last few days, getting out of Washington,” he said. “At each step I’ve been able to meet people.” In Austin, that number included the late-morning crowd at Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Boulevard. He met some students about to travel to Peru, and the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” he says he told them. When he was invited to tag along, he replied: “I’d love to, but there’s some things I gotta do.” The wanderlust of an American president.

Among the everyday folk that Obama met in Texas was one well-coiffed fellow who doesn’t hold much truck with the president: the governor of our great state, Rick Perry. Perry, too, is biding his time before his term ends. Perry desperately wants to have that last “real walk” someday, and so he spent much of the last week trying to outmaneuver Obama and win the best photo op.

The president finally consented to meet him—in an airport meeting room in Dallas with a number of other officeholders where huge Texas and U.S. flags were displayed side-by-side as if it were a meeting of two sovereign nations. Perry won a few free cable news interviews, where he turned around and trashed the man he’d had a cordial meeting with hours before. But in terms of disrupting the visit, he was effectively neutralized.

Back at the Paramount, Obama talked up the economic recovery, and presented a wish list of “common sense” items that he’d like to see Congress take up before his time in office ends.

America, since the crash, had “recovered faster than just about any nation,” he said. “There’s no doubt that we’re making headway. By almost every measure we’re better off than when we took office.” The unemployment rate was low again. The nation is increasingly energy independent, even while its carbon footprint is shrinking. More people have healthcare, more people have jobs.

But there are deeper, fundamental problems with the American system going forward that needed to be addressed, he said. For one, the average American’s income has stagnated, a problem that long predates Obama’s presidency. “This country is not going to succeed unless everyone has a shot,” he said, and to improve individual opportunity and the stability of the nation’s economic model generally, there were things that Congress had to do—things that shouldn’t, by rights, be controversial.

The nation’s infrastructure—roads, ports, rail networks and airports—have been in relative decline for years, but there’s no appetite among congressional Republicans to fund improvements. The government could facilitate job training programs to help the long-term unemployed find work, but the situation in Congress is the same there. Government-funded research programs of the kind that helped secure American scientific dominance after World War II have been pushed to the back of the line.

These weren’t ideological projects—the great Republican presidents of the past had a hand in all of them, Obama said. Many of his proposed domestic programs are not dissimilar from the ones proposed by Eisenhower. But they have no chance of passage: “Republicans in Congress have voted down every smart proposal that could have helped the middle class.”

“The best thing you can say about congressional Republicans is that so far this year they haven’t shut down the government,” he said. “But of course it’s only July.”

But congressional Republicans haven’t done nothing this year. For one thing, they’re suing Obama for his use of executive orders to change policies of government agencies, in a gimmicky midterm-election-year effort that even conservative commentator Erick Erickson called “nothing more than political theater.”

Obama, loose throughout the speech, got even more animated on this point. “I’m issuing executive orders at the lowest rate in a hundred years,” he said.

“I hear some of them out there say, ‘impeach him,’” he said. “Really? You’re going to sue me for doing my job? You’re going to sue me for doing my job while you don’t do your job?”

He added: “There’s a great movie called The Departed.” In one scene, Mark Wahlberg’s character yells at another cop after a failed stake-out. “Wahlberg looks up and says, ‘I’m the guy doing my job. You must be the other guy.’”

At times, his frustration seemed to boil over. On congressional Republicans’ decade-long failure to reconcile themselves with the prospect of immigration reform, he seemed particularly pointed. “They don’t even have enough energy or enough organization to vote ‘no’ on the bill.” They wouldn’t even let it come to the floor. “Ronald Reagan passed immigration reform and you love Ronald Reagan,” he said. “What changed?”

He ended by beseeching the crowd not to give into cynicism, and to choose hope. He would continue to fight for “the American Dream,” and “I am going to need you to be right there with me.”

But the Obamas are on their way back to Washington, where hope seems an insufficient corrective to the stagnation that’s come to afflict the halls of American power.

Outside, a few tea party protesters stood around a Gadsden flag, holding signs that called for border security (and Obama’s impeachment.) Obama’s contention was that Americans could come together around issues like our infrastructure needs, so I asked them about the issue without mentioning Obama’s name.

“We need a really frugal body to study whether that’s really necessary at this time,” said one woman. Maybe it was, but she doubted it. The roads she’d seen around the country seemed fine. A friend came over and challenged the premise. “How much money are we investing in roads right now?” When I told her it was in long-term decline, she went silent for a moment, then returned to getting her picture taken.