A new report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that last year the incarcerated U.S. population grew for the first time since 2009. Texas had plenty to do with that.
It wasn’t a huge increase—about .3 percent or just 4,300 more prisoners out of the national total of almost 1.58 million. Nor did it erase all of the previous three years’ progress. The prison population peaked in 2009 with almost 41,000 more prisoners than were reported at the end of 2013. But it’s still a disappointing reversal, especially since this should have been a banner year for de-incarceration. The report showed that, for the first time since 1980, the federal population dropped. But that achievement was cancelled out by growth in the number of state prisoners.
As usual, Texas did more than its share. It continues to have more prisoners than any other state, and not by a smidgen, either. At the end of 2013, Texas had about 24 percent more prisoners than California, the No. 2 state. Besides an overall growth in prisoner population, Texas also saw a modest growth in prison admissions—1.5 percent—but a striking, almost 10 percent drop in prisoner releases. In other words, authorities are locking up somewhat more people but releasing far fewer.
Texas also incarcerates more non-citizens than any other state—more than 8,800—and, like many states, is sending more women to prison than ever before. The study doesn’t break down prisoner populations by race per state, but does confirm that nationally, almost 3 percent of black male U.S. residents are incarcerated, which is six times the rate of white men. And while the number of black women in prison decreased slightly from 2012 to 2013, the rate at which black women are incarcerated was still double that of white women.
There is one spot of good news for reformers, though. Texas still puts more citizens in private prisons than any other state—about 14,500, or 23 percent more than Florida, the next highest—but private prison use here seems to be waning. The private prison population in Texas dropped by more than a fifth in just the last year.
The Pew Charitable Trusts also released its look at the correlation between prison populations and crime just last week. While they characterized the relationship as “a complex link,” the data seems to indicate non-linkage. Between 1994 and 2012, the five states with the largest decreases in imprisonment rates saw, on average, a 45 percent drop in crime. (Texas was ranked sixth, with a 6 percent decrease in its incarceration rate and a 36 percent decrease in crime. Not too shabby.) But the five states with the biggest increases in incarceration—nearly or more than doubling it—saw much smaller drops in crime, or, in the case of West Virginia, an increase in the crime rate.
That ranking may seem simplistic, but it confirms what much more exhaustive studies have found: Long prison sentences have minimal impact on crime prevention and powerful negative social and financial consequences. That was the conclusion of the National Research Council in its massive report on the growth of incarceration released in May.
“We are concerned that the United States is past the point where the number of people in prison can be justified by social benefits,” said Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, in a statement about the National Research Council report. “We need to embark on a national conversation to rethink the role of prison in society.”
When Charles Bowden, the prolific investigative journalist and writer, died in his sleep on Saturday, Aug. 30, at the age of 69, it was an uncannily quiet end for a man who’d spent his life recording turmoil and violence along the Mexican-American border in prose that cut through the fog of political rhetoric to reach the harsh realities of the desert Southwest. Bowden forged his career primarily in Arizona. He died in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in recent years.
To mark Bowden’s passing, the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University has opened an archive of Bowden’s papers and published work for research. The collection stretches to 50 linear feet of boxes stuffed with correspondence, research materials, photographs and manuscripts that span Bowden’s career up to 2007.
Bowden’s life was dominated by the border. Over the course of more than 100 articles and 25 books, he dug deeply into topics as diverse as ecology, crime, drugs and social policy. His attention fell equally on people and the environment in which they live, and most of the books he published with University of Texas Press explored the interwoven fate of landscapes and their inhabitants. His first book with UT Press, Killing the Hidden Waters, focused on the dwindling water resources of the western states. Another, Inferno, explored the Sonoran Desert with photographs by Michael P. Berman. Exodus, a collaboration with photographer Julian Cardona, examined both migrants and the people who prey on them. In 2010 UT Press published The Charles Bowden Reader, a collection of essays and excerpts from his major books.
Bowden’s former editor at Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery, described him in a remembrance as a mix between Humphrey Bogart, Sam Elliott and True Detective’s Matthew McConaughey. Conversations with Bowden, she recalled, were like reading his writing: a steady stream of subjects, references and ideas. “That he died in his sleep,” she wrote in an obituary, “and not at the hands of the cartels, or the coyotes, or dirty cops on either side of the border, is something.”
The violence that Bowden witnessed as a reporter infected his work, and he spent a lot of time dissecting his own reactions to violence. In “The War Next Door” he described receiving a call from a friend in Juarez. “He says a man just put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him,” Bowden wrote. “He wants me to call his wife if he turns up dead and explain what happened. I hang up and go back to reading a book. That is what the numbness feels like.”
The situations Bowden documented were stark and often murderous, and he had no patience for people who proposed easy solutions to complex problems. He wrote to expose the truth as he saw it, however cruel or uncomfortable. “The world is rushing in,” he wrote in the same article, in reference to climate change. “We can hardly alter that fact if we continue to believe in fantasies.”
A culinary arts class at Texas State Technical College West Texas
If you’ve spent any time watching daytime TV, you know the pitch: Industries are critically short on skilled workers, and with the right training, an exciting career with great pay could be waiting for you! Enroll now!
Among technical colleges, the competition for students is fierce, and many make big promises to lure recruits (and the federal loan money they often bring). Texas has been cracking down on for-profit chains, even revoking the license of Dallas-based ATI Career Training Centers. As former Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken explained in 2011, “Schools that misreport employment information about their programs potentially exploit vulnerable individuals with false hopes.”
Today, the commission ensures that for-profit trade schools are up-front with recruits about placement rates—and specifically whether graduates are working in a field related to what they studied. For trade schools, more than any other sort of higher education, it’s a critical measure of success. To stay open, such colleges need to keep their program-related employment rates above 60 percent.
But those regulations don’t extend to public trade schools. Each year, almost 30,000 students attend one of 11 campuses in the state-funded Texas State Technical College System (TSTC). To compete against for-profits and their enormous ad budgets, public trade schools have relied mostly on good public relations; local papers near TSTC campuses often run glowing stories about high placement rates and soaring industry demand.
In 2012, the Marshall News-Messenger cited “a job placement rate at nearly 90 percent” for TSTC’s Marshall campus. In a Valley Morning Star story this March, the chair of TSTC’s surgical technology program flatly declares that “all graduates are placed in jobs.” TSTC makes similar claims online about its Waco campus: “on average, industry has more job openings than TSTC has graduates. TSTC boasts placement rates of more than 90 percent.”
George Reamy remembers how impressed he was the first time he heard numbers like those, back when he taught English at TSTC Waco. “I remember talking to people about that,” he said, “and they kind of whispered to me, ‘hey man, that’s not quite what’s goin’ on.’”
In fact, the “success” rate for graduates includes students employed in any field or enrolled in further education. Say you’ve got a job at Taco Bell, graduate from a biomedical technology program, and then keep on working at Taco Bell. TSTC counts that a “success.” “You’ll never see phrases like ‘program-related’ or ‘in their field of study’ or even ‘technical’ next to the word ‘job,’” Reamy says.
TSTC campuses in Marshall and Sweetwater recently begin posting data on training-related employment. At the West Texas campus in Sweetwater, which advertised a 90 percent placement rate for 2013, the degree-related job placement was just 65 percent. In the News-Messenger last December, TSTC Marshall Director of Career Services Benji Cantu announced a “substantial” placement rate of 81 percent—but didn’t mention the school’s program-relatedplacement rate for 2013 was a less-substantial 40 percent.
Generally, Reamy says, the future for tech school grads is more complicated than these statistics let on. He points to a 2012 survey in which TSTC Waco graduates say they wish the school had been more up-front about their job prospects; the mixed reviews include some very positive comments, and more than a few from graduates who discovered their education was of little help in the job real world. Four call their degrees “a waste.”
For the same reason Texas doesn’t let for-profits make inflated claims about their programs, Reamy says, public schools ought to be transparent with recruits. “People make life-changing decisions based on stories like these,” he says. At his blog, “Watching Texas Technical Colleges,” he keeps up a drumbeat of criticisms against TSTC’s placement claims.
TSTC System Vice Chancellor Eliska Smith is familiar with these sorts of charges. But the truth, she says, is that there’s no systemic way to know which jobs are truly training-related. Unemployment insurance data doesn’t track graduates who leave Texas is prone to broad generalities that could accidentally list a graduate as working outside their field of training.
As an example Smith points to an automotive technology graduate who gets work as a mechanic at a Wal-Mart auto shop. State employment data wouldn’t count that Wal-Mart job as field-related. If a nursing graduate hires on at a school district and not a hospital, the state’s best data would consider that an unrelated field.
“There’s some fallacies in using ‘in-field,'” Smith says. “What matters to us, and what we think matters to our students is that our students are getting jobs.”
For the same reasons, even the Texas Workforce Commission—which has been requiring for-profits to maintain a 60 percent field-related employment rate—is moving away from its current measure, according to Richard Froeschle, the commission’s director of labor market and career information. Froeschle, one of the state’s experts on measuring career school outcomes, says the workforce commission relies today on self-reported numbers from schools, but is working on an objective measure more like what TSTC uses. “A level playing field, if you will,” Froeschle says.
Michael Bettersworth, an associate vice chancellor and data guru at TSTC, is well acquainted with the limitations of the data on training-related employment. For now, at least—until there’s better data on graduates’ jobs—he says it’s the wrong way to measure a school’s success. “I have gone down the rabbit hole of these data elements and philosophical debates,” Bettersworth says. “There are major structural limitations on the available data that limit the assumptions you can make.”
For now at least, Bettersworth says the best measures of TSTC’s success are how many graduates find jobs and how much its graduates earn after leaving. He says it’s a natural fit for TSTC, where the institutional mission is to grow Texas’ economy through workforce training.
Pressure to keep those numbers up has only increased now that the Legislature has tied TSTC’s state funding to its graduates’ earnings. The state’s calculations don’t include whether that job relates to what a graduate studied—they rely instead on a measure of graduates’ wages—a figure Bettersworth happily notes has risen in the first years of the new funding scheme (see the chart to the right).
For its willingness to stake its funding on graduates’ performance, TSTC has become a darling of the results-based higher ed movement that both Gov. Rick Perry and gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott have embraced. In his campaign, Abbott’s plan for higher ed includes funding all sorts of institutions—not just trade schools, but community colleges and four-year universities as well—based on some measure of their performance.
The trade schools offer a good example of how complicated school performance metrics can get, even for a relatively straight-forward question like whether graduates got jobs related to their studies. Performance metrics for, say, a university philosophy department wouldn’t be so straightforward.
And while folks like Froeschle and Bettersworth are fine-tuning measures for the state—probing data sets for weaknesses and being careful not to assume too much—what prospective students see in their local newspapers more often are local trade school officials’ certain claims that “all graduates are placed in jobs.”
Reamy says that’s where his frustration still lies: in the local recruitment pitches, where the nuance is often stripped from the numbers. “If there’s no good data on where people end up after graduation, officials need to quit talking about their employment rate without explanation or caveat,” Reamy says. “Anything less leads to false expectations and disappointment on the part of students and their families. … It boils down to integrity.”
North Austin's Athlos Leadership Academy under construction in August.
In the far reaches of North Austin, with Williamson County looming just across the street, the capital city’s newest charter school was still a construction site in late August. Scaffolding wrapped the large building as dozens of construction workers clambered up and down. More workers paced the rooftop, hurrying to finish the job and get students inside the new Athlos Leadership Academy for the new school year.
Like other Athlos campuses across the country, the school has big white pillars, a stately cupola and Monticello-esque wings suggesting a classical place of learning. Athlos notes in promotional materials that the Georgian architecture is designed to “evoke a patriotic feel.” In the weight room and on its basketball court and indoor turf field, students will be trained in Athlos’ signature physical fitness and character development program. For school-shopping parents, the school compares impressively to, say, the Austin Independent School District’s boxy, brick Wells Branch Elementary a few blocks away.
Thanks to the quirky way charter schools are regulated, this was a peculiar summer for Idaho-based Athlos. For even as it opened its seventh charter school in Texas, with thousands of students in its programs, state regulators also denied an Athlos Academy charter application—for the second time in three years.
If you’re, say, a parent or a student trying to choose between public schools, that might sound confusing. But it makes perfect sense if you work within the charter system, where you know a school’s name only says so much about who runs it.
News of the state’s rejection was a frustration, but not a deal-killer, for Athlos Academies because its schools also piggyback onto preexisting charters. A state charter for Athlos would’ve let the organization grow even faster in Texas, and perhaps most importantly, given it more of the all-important cachet it takes to succeed in the charter world.
Combined with a partner called The Charter School Fund, Athlos represents something new in the school reform movement: a developer that lets existing charter schools grow beyond their wildest dreams, then absorbs them into its family of campuses with a unique brand built on leadership and fitness.
Athlos schools have earned high marks in other states, and Texas lawmakers have made it clear that they want more high-performing charters to move in from out-of-state—so in many ways, this looked like it could have been Athlos’ year to get a charter of its own.
In Athlos Academy’s pitch before state regulators in July, its would-be board of directors made their case with a sense of urgency. The school’s Dallas-based board enthusiastically told Texas Education Agency officials how the Athlos model—”Athlos” is Greek for “feat” or “contest”—would turn out healthy, self-confident students more likely to succeed in the classroom.
Board member Todd Whitthorne was an especially fiery evangelist. “What I have seen in my lifetime, in the past 50 years, our public health numbers are frightening,” said Whitthorne, a motivational speaker and health consultant who promotes “happy pills” for workplace productivity. “They’re absolutely frightening, and I don’t believe that the way we’re operating right now in an obesogenic environment is sustainable.”
The board’s plan was ambitious: 15 campuses around Dallas-Fort Worth with a student body that would grow from 2,600 to 15,000 students within five years. (Charter school enrollment in Texas is just over 200,000 today.) The board chairman, Eddie Conger, runs another North Texas charter school, Independent Leadership Texas, that has grown fast in its first few years after partnering with Athlos. Conger spoke passionately about the transformative power of Athlos, and how many more children they’d reach with a separate charter: “If you were driving down the road and you saw a car accident, would you stop and intervene?”
But regulators seemed perplexed by connections between The Charter School Fund (the likely new landlord for the schools), Athlos Academies and a nonprofit called Complete Kids Inc., which would be allowed to nominate some replacements to the Athlos Texas board. All three shared the same downtown Boise address, along with the Hawkins Companies, a major real estate developer.
“Not only does it concern me when an out-of-state is going to be nominating your board,” TEA legal counsel Karen Johnson told the applicants, “but we have a new state law that says that a majority of all board members need to be qualified voters, which the [attorney general] says means Texas residents.” Johnson’s concerns touched on a delicate balance built into last year’s overhaul of Texas’ charter school law: while lawmakers wanted to attract out-of-state charters to Texas, they were also wary of handing control of public money to interests outside the state.
And the new Athlos school already planned to send a lot of money to Idaho: an estimated $442,395 in the school’s first year—2 percent of its state funding—to license the Athlos curriculum (with 15,000 students, the total could rise to $2.5 million a year) and $52 million over the first five years—about 18 percent of its funding—to rent from The Charter School Fund. (Charter schools’ facility costs vary widely, but, according to Texas Charter Schools Association spokeswoman Tracy Young, consultants often advise charters to keep lease costs under 20 percent.)
Mavis Knight, a Dallas Democrat on the State Board of Education, tells the Observer the arrangement just seemed odd to her, especially the board nominating process. “My mind can’t wrap around why it is necessary for two separate entities to nominate board members of another entity,” she says. (Along with Complete Kids, the nonprofit behind Independent Leadership of Texas would also nominate new Athlos Texas board members.) “Sometimes you just have to listen to your inner self, and my inner self was still not satisfied.”
TEA denied the Athlos application for “multiple reasons,” according to spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe, including an insufficient budget for “required activities”—board members had promised their fundraising skills would help make up the difference—and too many other issues the school would have to work out before opening.
Joseph Hoffer, a San Antonio attorney who represented the Athlos Texas board, tells the Observer the decision was disappointing, and a little mysterious. “The states’s talking about scaling [out-of-state charters], yet they’re worried about corporate operators coming in that they can’t control,” Hoffer says. “They say that’s what they want, and then they don’t approve it. … The commissioner was told by the Legislature that he could grant up to 10 charters, and he’s not doing that.”
Politically, the mood does seem right in Texas for an out-of-state operation with a good reputation. Earlier this year, Education Commissioner Michael Williams went to great lengths to let Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies expand into Dallas despite a veto from the State Board of Education. And according to emails obtained through state open records laws, Gov. Rick Perry has been especially interested in out-of-state charter applicants. “What is the big hold up for recruiting out of state charters form y’all perspective,” Perry’s education policy adviser Whitney Broughton asked TEA in March.
Part of Athlos’ trouble may be that, unlike Great Hearts or Arizona-based BASIS Charter Schools, it can’t claim an academic track record of its own. Though it may be hard to tell from the outside, each Athlos school—like North Austin’s Athlos Leadership Academy—is actually an independent charter that licenses the Athlos curriculum.
“It’s like they’re the hand and then Athlos becomes the glove,” Hoffer explains.
But University of California at Berkeley professor Janelle Scott—whose research covers the growing charter school market—says Athlos’ promotional material doesn’t make the distinction clear. “It’s at least misleading. As I was reading the Athlos website, it does appear to me that those were schools under their management,” Scott says. “They don’t say they’re not the holders of the charter. The charter holder is the one that has fiduciary and pedagogical responsibility for the school.”
Licensing the Athlos curriculum tends to entail a total rebranding: new school name, new marketing style, and a place on Athlos’ list of schools, all of which can make it hard to tell, from the outside, whose charter school it is. Hoffer compares it to franchising with McDonald’s. A similar arrangement lets the online chain K12, Inc., operate in Texas. As a for-profit firm, K12 could never get a charter of its own here, but it can simply contract with a local charter-holder instead. Watch one of their ads on TV, and you’d never know the difference. Should K12’s school perform poorly on state tests—as K12’s Texas campus did for years—it can simply take its business to another charter-holder and start over with a clean slate. That’s exactly what it did in 2011 when it jumped from Southwest Schools to Lewisville-based Responsive Education Solutions.
Athlos and The Charter School Fund don’t dictate an academic curriculum but they provide something more concrete—literally—than K12: an impressive school facility to complement whatever a charter does in its classrooms. Along the way, Athlos extends its message, grows its brand and pads its bottom line. As the nationwide charter school market grows, so does the market for creative arrangements like this. Charter-specific firms occupy a small but growing niche in the real estate world, alongside the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund—as in Andre Agassi—and EPR Properties, which also owns movie theaters and water parks.
Athlos began in 2006, according to its site, when an Idaho dentist named Ryan Van Alfen sold his practice and teamed with a real estate developer named Jason Kotter. They set up Athlos Academies—a nonprofit—and teamed with Hawkins Companies, a developer of ubiquitous retail spots like Walgreens stores and strip malls, to create The Charter School Fund.
Like Hawkins, the fund is a for-profit corporation. But Hoffer—to whom Van Alfen referred our interview request—makes a distinction here: “They’re not a nonprofit, they’re a social venture. They’re not a developer either,” Hoffer says.
In Texas, charter schools don’t get public funding to lease buildings or build new ones; finding and paying for facilities can be one of the biggest stresses in running a charter school. Hoffer says The Charter School Fund helps alleviate that stress. “What they bring is unique in that they’ve designed the facilities around the educational model, and they’ve also brought in the investors—they’ve leveraged their resources to bring in the investors so a charter school can also have a facility.”
Scott, the Berkeley researcher, says it’s common for players in the charter school market to work through a nonprofit arm. “People are still skeptical of having for-profits in education,” she says, so there’s a P.R. benefit to appearing charitable. Scott says The Charter School Fund’s marriage of real estate and physical education seems unique. “But what is common is this idea of a hybridized organization—an arm that’s nonprofit, an arm that’s for-profit, and those arms kind of taking care of teach other.”
On its website, The Charter School Fund claims a record of “$324 million invested in market driven education.” And Kotter and Van Alfen sound like true believers in the power of the private sector to improve public schools. Van Alfen explains in a 2013 Idaho Business Review article:
“We have a solution to the largest obstacle in bringing market-driven education to scale, which we feel strongly is the only way to transform education. We like to challenge the status quo; it drives me crazy to see how this education topic has been demagogued to death. No, it’s not about the kids. It’s about unions protecting union members.
“Jason helped pioneer a financial model that worked. We develop a structure, lease it to the 501(c)(3) charter school until they stabilize with their enrollment financially, and then they buy it from us. Then we just roll that forward in not-for-profit fashion, into the next project. We bring the equity; we personally guarantee the debt. Nobody is taking more risk on a project’s success than we are.”
As stewards of public money, charters must typically submit their construction projects for competitive bidding. (Another charter school chain, Harmony Public Schools, has drawn fire for using the same few Turkish-owned contractors outside the usual bidding process.) But by leasing a finished product from The Charter School Fund, schools come in too late to worry about who did the work. These projects tend to come with a consistent cast of supporting players, including Idaho-based Pacific Properties and Engineered Structures, Inc. The campus plans often come from Boise-based BRS Architects.
All schools—charter or not—send lots of public money into the private sector. But thanks to their small enrollments and freedom to experiment, charters have become a gateway to the education market for all sorts of new players with unorthodox arrangements.
Van Alfen has explained the Athlos character curriculum was developed with California-based Velocity Sports Performance, a nationwide chain of personal training franchises that maintains a connection to new Athlos schools, and helps to recruit and screen coaches for Athlos schools. Coaches may also use the school gym after-hours for private, fee-based training sessions, according to news stories from Brownsville, Texas, and Arizona. Velcocity and its corporate partners get a privileged position within the schools: Velocity’s website even advertises its gym locations at charter school addresses. The walls of some Athlos school gyms bear a big Velocity Sports Performance logo and according to one handbook, the only corporate logos staff can wear are those of Velocity or its partners like Under Armour. (Athlos Apparel, which Kotter and Van Alfen also own, sells the student uniforms.)
It’s been eight years since Van Alfen sold his dental practice, and despite the recent rejection in Texas, his gamble may finally be paying off. Athlos’ school network spans three states and promises more growth soon. In fall 2011, the Legacy Traditional Schools network in suburban Phoenix opened the Athlos Leadership Academy, the first of at least five campuses they’ve now built with The Charter School Fund. Last fall, New Visions Academy—one of Minnesota’s oldest charter schools—moved into a grand new building on a grassy hill built by The Charter School Fund, then reopened as Athlos Leadership Academy. A group led by a dentist and a former dental assistant school owner has applied to open a new Athlos charter in Nampa, Idaho, in fall 2015.
Like most charter schools, Jubilee Academic Center started small. Its first campus opened in 2000, with 60 students inside a San Antonio church. Each time the school added a campus it could fit another 200 or 300 students, but growing Jubilee was always a delicate balancing act. Charter schools in Texas don’t get public money for rent or construction. Many rely on grants to cover the cost of new facilities, but Jubilee director Tom Koger was wary of the influence outside foundations might expect in exchange for their money.
Instead, when Koger and the Jubilee board wanted to go big, they enlisted The Charter School Fund, which agreed to build three new school buildings, each far bigger than Jubilee could build on its own—including Jubilee’s Athlos Leadership Academy in North Austin. Jubilee would lease the new buildings, and hopefully buy them someday. The fund, in turn, would use money from the sale to build more schools, which Jubilee could rent to accommodate even more students.
On the same day Jubilee’s board approved the deal in January 2014, it voted to boost its enrollment from 5,550 to 17,276.
Gymnasiums, tracks and fields are luxuries many charter schools can’t afford, but at these new schools they’re integral to the Athlos program, which Jubilee also decided to license. At Jubilee, according to Koger, the connection between The Charter School Fund and Athlos is incidental—both programs fit alongside what his school was already doing. “Jubilee’s always had an emphasis on character … so we feel like it’s win-win for us,” Koger says. Plus, the real estate terms were more favorable than what Jubilee could get anywhere else, which Koger chalks up to a sense of mission among the folks in Boise.
“The thing with these guys from The Charter School Fund,” Koger says, “once you get to know them, they truly are on a crusade to stamp out diabetes and obesity.”
Hoffer says he’s looking forward to next year’s charter school class, when Athlos can once again apply for its own charter from Texas. But until then, Athlos already has more schools in Texas than any other state, with three new Jubilee Academy campuses under the Athlos banner this year, and ILTexas campuses “powered by Athlos” in North Texas. Thousands of Texas students will learn the Athlos model this year, from the Rio Grande Valley to the Dallas suburbs, in big new schools built by The Charter School Fund. With or without the state’s help, the Athlos crusade marches on.
These are dark times in Austin. Deranged, ethereal powers lurk in the shadows, and not just in the Cloak Room, where that’s normal. They’re plotting against us: But what kind of plots? And who are they? Will they come for us soon? What’s he building in there? How long do we have?
People are acting crazy this week: Like, more so than usual, even this close to an election. But maybe… they’re right? Just because this state is getting increasingly paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us. I mean, look: Not even the governor is safe from the designs of the shadowy cabal.
1) Rick Perry, the state’s kind-hearted paterfamilias, is in a spot of trouble—a testament to the cruel powers of our police-/nanny-state. Here’s what he did, in case you hadn’t heard: A communist, drug-addicted district attorney named Rosemary Lehmberg kidnapped and held to ransom close to three hundred children, and Perry politely suggested she step down until the matter was resolved. For this, Texas Democrats threw him in a dungeon, forcing him to fight for his political life in a series of gladiatorial matches which will culminate at the Ames Straw Poll. It’s terribly unfair, really.
Anyway, Perry’s been having an identity crisis. There’s the glasses: But he’s also flirted with non-traditional identities for a Texas governor, like being Californian, and Jewish. In the course of filing a motion to quash Perry’s indictments, Perry’s lawyers are helping him figure out what he’s not.
“A Texas Governor is not Augustus traversing his realm with a portable mint and an imperial treasure in tow,” the motion argues. “No governor can say of his or her state what the Sun King said of France: “L’état, c’est moi.”
No, Perry’s not Louis XIV. But Perry wouldn’t be so out of place in a toga. Perhaps it’s something he should explore more fully. Remember Caesar’s last words to Brutus: “Adios, mofo.” And of course there’s his famous declaration upon crossing the Rubicon: “Why don’t you just let us get on down the road?”
Think about this, Governor. This could be a fun roleplay for the state after what’s been a sometimes grim 14 years. We’ll call you “First Citizen of the State,” and your Texas Enterprise Fund the “Imperial Treasure.” You can send your legions to foreign borders while aides feed you grapes on a daybed. It’s everything you ever wanted, and there are no debates. Call us.
2) The governor’s legal team might be seized by visions of grandeur, but the thoughts of our other statewide officials are on pettier schemes. Take Todd Staples, the state’s agriculture commissioner. Staples, as he wrote in an op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman this week, is “very concerned.”
Recently, I learned some Texas school districts, such as Dripping Springs ISD, have adopted a policy deemed “Meatless Mondays” for some of their campuses.
Restricting children’s meal choice to not include meat is irresponsible and has no place in our schools. This activist movement called “Meatless Mondays” is a carefully-orchestrated campaign that seeks to eliminate meat from Americans’ diets seven days a week — starting with Mondays.
Yes, Texans, the vegetarians are here, and they’re coming for your patties. If nObama had his way, we’d all be eating kale, all the time.
Texas is a meat-based culture—meat before all, really—and it seems somewhat unlikely that this “carefully-orchestrated campaign” Staples sees in the shadows will be seizing bratwursts and sirloin anytime soon. But the horror conjured by the idea that Texas kids might have cheese pizza instead of sausage* pizza one day of the week says something about Staples’ commitment to his job, I guess.
The funniest thing might be this attempt at inclusion, though: “While we have plenty of room in the Lone Star State for vegetarians,” Staples writes, “we have no room for activists who seek to mandate their lifestyles on others.”
That’s kind of nice, except “we have plenty of room” sounds like the kind of thing that holds true until there’s not enough room anymore. When Staples is king, and we run out of water, beware: We’re eating the vegetarians first.
*May contain no actual USDA-recognized meat products
3) Two of the three members of the state’s Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas exploration, are now convinced Vladimir Putin is behind efforts to slow fracking in Texas.
4) Remember that Dewhurst guy? The lieutenant governor, David. He suffered through a pretty stupid primary recently, which he lost to Dan Patrick. He’s a lame duck now and is probably leaving professional politics for good in a couple months, so he might as well drop his tea party pretenses, right? There’s no reason to put on a show anymore.
This week, the Mexican government issued a statement protesting Texas’ national guard deployment to the border:
Mexico asserts that it is irresponsible to manipulate the current state of border security for political purposes. It reiterates that immigration must be addressed from a comprehensive and regional perspective, with a mid-term vision and with shared responsibility, to ensure peace, inclusion and prosperity in the region.
The measure taken unilaterally by the Texas government is clearly erroneous and does not contribute to the efforts being made by our countries to create a secure border and a solution to the issue of immigration.
Governor Perry’s office shrugged. But Dewhurst, in his infinite wisdom and infinitely questionable political skills, saw… a plot. TO DISHONOR THE MEMORY OF THE FALLEN.
“I find it puzzling and frankly offensive that the government of Mexico chose the 13th anniversary of the most tragic attack on our homeland to call on Texas to throw open our international border to illegal immigration, trafficking in drugs and human lives, and potentially even terrorists who wish to harm America,” Dewhurst said in a statement.
Setting aside the issue of the Dewhurst team’s questionable reading comprehension, consider the idea that it’s offensive for foreign governments to say anything to the United States on September 11. For the rest of this century, perhaps, we should set aside the second week of the ninth month as the “No Saying Mean Things to America Zone.”
Tony Tinderholt, GOP nominee in House District 94, poses with Mike Vickers, head of the Texas Border Volunteers
Plucked from relative obscurity, Tony Tinderholt was one of the Empower Texans-backed challengers that popped up in GOP primaries this year. In Arlington’s House District 94, he beat four-term incumbent Diane Patrick, who’d earned ire from conservative groups for moderate stands. In November, he’s facing a local Democratic businessman named Cole Ballweg, but it’s a heavily Republican district and Tinderholt is favored to win. Last week, Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick helped him block-walk the district.
Tinderholt is a veteran, and an excitable guy. He believes in gun rights and hates Obamacare, which is pretty standard. But he also thinks that border-crossing migrants who are coming here to take our “free stuff” won’t stop coming until we take up arms and put a stop to it ourselves, just like the Spartans did in the movie 300. “People are going to die,” says the likely legislator, and that’s the only thing that’s going to stop migrants from “taking the lifeblood of our country.”
This summer, Tinderholt took a trip to the Rio Grande Valley with the Texas Border Volunteers, one of the major militia groups. They don camo and ride around on ATVs. When he got back, he wanted to share details of his trip. So in July, Tinderholt gave a talk to a Ft. Worth-area 9/12 group. It was the high point of the flood of Central American children and teenagers that consumed the nation’s attention.
At the meeting, Tinderholt stood in front of an American flag, clutching a podium bearing the words “God Bless America.” To the side, a screen showed a picture of Tinderholt in Iraq, titled “Briefing: My Experience on the Texas Border.”
Tinderholt’s speech to the group was recorded and uploaded by his own campaign, which subsequently took it down. But others saved the video, which was provided to the Observer. The whole thing is worth watching, because it helps give a fuller impression of the man and his attitude toward the world. But here are some excerpts. (Emphasis added throughout.)
Tinderholt opens the talk by telling the crowd he’s going to be a little looser than normal. “I’m going to change this up a little bit,” Tinderholt says. “Sometimes God talks to you in different ways, and I feel like he’s talking to me right now. I want to talk about my trip down to Mexico.”
He tells the crowd not to be discouraged by how rotten things are right now—there had been several speakers that night. Conservatives shouldn’t be discouraged, he says. “There’s a whole lot of people like myself and you that are true conservatives. The Bill Zedlers, the Dan Patricks, the Konni Burtons, the Jonathan Sticklands. Myself.”
Then he gets to the subject of his speech. “I want people to quit coming into this country and taking free stuff from us.”
He expounds: “If someone came into my house and started stealing my food, wearing my clothes, and taking my checkbook and using it, I’d be a little bit frustrated. And that’s what’s happening right now,” Tinderholt says. It’s true that there’s a humanitarian side to this. It’s true that the kids who were coming across the border this summer were coming across “for hopes of a better life. But that better life for them is free stuff. We have to stop them.”
Liberty is under attack, he tells the group. Drastic measures are needed. “Have any of you ever seen the movie 300? It’s pretty graphic, right?” In the movie, an intensely homoerotic army of Spartans give their lives at a strategic choke-point to hold off the Persians. “We have to stand in that gap and stop this stuff from happening. We need to stand in the gap and not be scared.”
Having established the theme of military violence, he tells the crowd about his background. He worked with Air Force intelligence in anti-trafficking operations in the 1990s, and he took part in “combat operations” on the Mexican side of the border, he says. “I also did interrogations.”
So he knows about the border, he tells the crowd. He’s speaking from personal experience. It’s a terrible place. Take the “mothers and fathers who are sending these 8- and 10- and 12-year-old children with these coyotes to bring them across—if you got a cute child, do you think they’re going to make it to the U.S.?” Tinderholt answers: “I think they’ll probably make it here. But they’re going to make somebody money. And they’re going to make it in a very illegal disgusting and gross way. Immoral.”
After this tasteful evocation of sex trafficking, Tinderholt raises another “staggering and disgusting” concern: The border-crossers include people from Iran, Pakistan, Somalia and China. “They’re not friends of ours. They’re not coming here to live a great life. There’s probably a small percentage of them that might be harmless—but what are they bringing with them? Is it in their mind?” he asks, pointing to his noggin. “Are they coming up with plans to do horrible, disgusting things to American citizens? In a year? In 18 months? In 36 months? Are they regrouping? What are they doing?”
Now, Tinderholt gets real. “When I come here and speak to these events, my wife says, ‘Okay, hold your tongue,’” Tinderholt says. He’s a “passionate” guy. “What comes out of my mouth just kinda comes out sometimes.” But he’s going to speak the truth anyway.
Tell us, Tony. “It’s very hard for me sometimes to talk about this kind of stuff, because…they’re stealing from us. We’re being thieved. They’re taking from you and I and the American people and they’re taking from the lifeblood of our country.”
What should be done about this, Tony?
Tinderholt recalls the metaphor of the house that’s been broken in to. “At some point, you’re going to lock your doors. You’re going to put up video cameras. You’re gonna do surveillance on your house. You’re gonna call the police to come over and do security around your house every once in a while. If it keeps getting broken into, you’re going to get a gun. You’re going to protect your family and your house.”
He continues: “Well, with 21 years in the military, I’m not proud to say,” he continued, “I saw and did a lot of things that many people would think were very horrific. And they were.”
He had seen the dark side, the scum, for what they were. And he knows exactly what needs to be done about it. “It’s really sad to say that at some point, what’s going to happen on that border is going to be bad. And people are going to die. And it’s a sad, sad thing to say. But it’s the only thing that’s going to stop this infiltration of our country.”
He returns to his “horrific” past. “War is not pretty. Being in the military is not a glorious heroic cool job like everybody thinks it is. It’s dirty. It’s disgusting sometimes. I’m just telling you the facts, and I’m sorry if you don’t like them. But we have to stop this influx at the border.”
One way to stop it would be to send troops into Mexico, to kick some ass. But that’s in the longer term. “I think we should go across the border and stop it. I think we should shut money off across the border. But I’ll tell you in the short term, we gotta put our military at the border and stop this crap from happening now.” The room applauds. “But we can’t have our military men and women standing at the border with their weapons hugging drug cartels coming across because they don’t like hugs. They use chainsaws. We use rifles.”
Perry’s National Guard deployment is a joke, Tinderholt says. “Our border is not even close to secure. Our border is not gonna to be secure with 1,000 National Guardsmen. Our border will be secure when we arm it and stop the people from coming across.” How the rifled men would stop people from coming across, Tinderholt doesn’t say. He doesn’t need to say it. We’re in Dirty Harry territory.
If that seems extreme, Tinderholt would like you to know that you have more to lose by not shooting at migrants than by shooting at migrants. “Your faith. Your family. Your inalienable rights granted to you by God. Your rights granted to you by the Constitution of the United States. All those things are really important to you, and they’re important to me,” says Tinderholt. “And if we don’t secure that border right now and take charge of it, we’re going to lose everything we have.” Everything.
He’s coming to Austin, he tells the crowd, and he’ll use his seat in the hallowed chamber of the Texas House to beat back against the scum and the RINOs and the traitors. “I don’t care who watches this video and I don’t care who’s watching me and listening,” he says. “I’ll tell you this: If you get in my way of trying to stop people from trying to come across the border, I’m rolling over the top of you, period.”
If you have time, and you’d like to know Tony Tinderholt, watch the video. The remarkable thing about his delivery is how neatly he slips in between comparatively reasonable statements—the messaging that conservatives need to talk to moderates—and grandiose threats of violence and profoundly delusional statements. It’s really something. He’s a few shades away from Travis Bickle territory. Some day a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the border: Tony Tinderholt 2014.
How the hell did this guy get so close to the statehouse? On the one hand, the message of “people are going to die” is not too far from the talk of ostensibly more responsible figures, like Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, who told Waco Tea Party Radio in August that state troopers would target threats with “suppressing fire, and somebody’s going to get hurt.” But at least in Dewhurst’s fantasies, the violence was a two-way street.
Like with many of our other biggest legislative lumps, you can in part thank Michael Quinn Sullivan for Tinderholt. To knock off Republican incumbents, his groups will back just about anybody. In fact, if the challenger is a nobody, that’s better: They’re easier to control. There’s no vetting process. They really don’t care. When another one of the anti-Straus coalition’s challengers, Phillip Eby, told a room full of folks that Sun Tzu was the guiding light for his primary campaign in March—two months before one of his supporters allegedly assaulted his opponent’s campaign manager—it was par for the course. But this is an entirely different order of magnitude.
For the record, here’s how Empower Texans described Tinderholt in the primary:
Some dedicate their lives to serving others. Others use public office to serve themselves. Tony Tinderholt is one of those who has dedicated his life to serving others, even putting his life on the line on behalf of his country.
Voters in Arlington need to ask themselves who they would like representing them, a liberal like Rep. Diane Patrick who uses her office to benefit herself and her husband, or a fiscally responsible conservative like Tony Tinderholt who has a lifelong record of service.
Here at TFR we think the choice is obvious. We have endorsed Tinderholt for State Representative.
A lifelong record of service. Let’s allow the man himself to close this out: What kind of state representative will you be, Mr. Tinderholt?
“I’m not going down to Austin to make friends,” he tells the 9/12-ers as he closed his talk. “I’m probably not the greatest speaker in the world, but I tell you what: When I get down to Austin and [others] can come back and tell you how much I fought ‘em at that back mic and pissed a whole bunch of RINOs and Democrats off, you’ll love it.”
Ours was a summer punctuated by upheaval. On Aug. 9, gunshots were heard in Ferguson, Missouri, when a white police officer fired multiple times at Michael Brown, a young, unarmed black man. The second horror immediately followed, quietly, when his corpse was left on the street, untouched and largely exposed to the heat for four-and-a-half hours, sending a wordless, but potent message to the community about the power the police and government exert over their lives, bodies and final dignity.
President Obama, along with other lawmakers and commentators who gauge the state of the nation, began calling for peace. The press carefully documented the nights of “peace” in Ferguson as if it were a barometer of the nation’s—or at least the town’s—progress.
But what powerful people are actually calling for is quiet. Peace and quiet, as anyone who has ever demanded it at home or the workplace knows, are not synonymous. Peace, with its potentially long-lasting effects, requires investment. Peace takes listening and reflection. Quiet can be achieved through suppression or closing our eyes and ears to the clear signals that all is not right with our communities and nation. In some instances, as in the act of displaying Brown’s corpse, violence expresses itself quietly.
Since Brown’s killing a month ago, I have turned over the distinction between peace and quiet in my mind, my thoughts returning to moments this summer that had upset my sense of peace. Quietly, I walked into any number of restaurants and businesses in Austin to find that the entire “front of house” consisted of white waiters, white clerks, while black and Latinos were relegated to the “back of the house.”
I wondered if some elaborate game of chance might explain a workforce consisting of young, white people in what is often described as Texas’ most liberal city. There is nothing peaceful in repeatedly witnessing—much less experiencing—no fewer than four patrol cars surround black motorists on the east side, the once redlined district where working-class blacks and Latinos were shunted in an urban planning design built on segregation. On each occasion handcuffs were in use. In one instance, I spotted, a few blocks away, a young male hipster comfortably laying down on the sidewalk chatting with an officer, as if they were friends, and equals.
Each incident contributes to a singular message about where the community and business leaders believe people of color belong. Such attitudes are made plain in real estate ads that describe a neighborhood “transitioning” or, more crudely, when I hear locals blithely describe an area becoming increasingly upscale and white as “getting cleaned up.”
Austin City Council candidate Ora Houston recently described the African-American experience in Austin bluntly. “The city of Austin is very racist,” she said at a candidate forum for District 1, the African-American “opportunity” district. Black people in Austin, she said, “don’t have a sense of place.”
In November, Austin voters will elect a new City Council, based on single-member districts, after decades of at-large representation. While local representation based, roughly, on communities of interest presents opportunities for historically marginalized groups, some worry that the new system will cost the city its international stature and downscale ambitions. Evidently, democracy and political empowerment are fine ideals, as a brand.
But the portrait of Texas was drawn primarily from people 45 and older (57 percent of those surveyed), and from people with no children living at home (63 percent). According to the U.S. Census, the median age in Texas is 34 and we rank among the states with the most children at home. The sampling reflected the state’s black population but weighted toward whites by under-sampling Latinos by 10 percent. We are left to conclude that despite the state’s demographics, the poll reflects the opinions of older whites.
Each of these acts undermines the peacefulness of a community, a state and our nation. This isn’t simply my conclusion. In the summer of 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson formed what became known as the Kerner Commission to investigate the factors that had precipitated the eruption of riots across the nation.
The commission found that the police are not merely a “spark” factor. “To some Negroes,” according to the report, “police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.”
Behind the confrontations with police, the commission discovered grievances with a systemic culture of racism manifested by: unemployment and underemployment, disrespectful white attitudes, inadequacy of municipal services, ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms. The commission concluded that whites were oblivious to the lived reality of segregation and poverty.
One recent Saturday afternoon, as I drove past Lady Bird Lake on the east side, I noticed four patrol cars in the park. Two officers were escorting a Latino man away, in handcuffs. Police turned up on the scene after receiving an urgent call from a resident of the nearby new condo development who claimed the homeless man had beaten a dog to death with his bare hands. But when the officers arrived, they found a very alive pit bull. The man had simply swatted the dog’s behind for misbehaving and, according to the police report, the caller later admitted to exaggerating the situation.
The show of force—four officers sticking around once it was clear the man wasn’t dangerous, but was wanted on an outstanding alcohol-related warrant—represents a common pattern of policing. Overlooked in the calls for calm and peace is that the police ultimately reflect and enforce the values and attitudes of the community they serve, the people eyeing cheap property in neighborhoods that need “cleaning up.” Such are the ongoing attacks on peace, ones replicated in many cities across Texas.
Gov. Rick Perry and GOP House candidate Charles Perry pose for photos in 2010.
Have you ever heard that story—probably apocryphal—about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington discussing the proper functioning of our bicameral Congress? The idea, Washington says, is that the House, with intense passions, short terms, and many desks, is like a cup of hot tea. The Senate, which moves glacially, is like the saucer that cools the tea and keeps your hand from being burned.
Here’s the way to think about how the Texas Legislature is going to work next year: The hot tea of the House is still there, but the Senate’s saucer is being replaced by a Bunsen burner.
Special elections for the Texas Senate aren’t exactly the sexiest items on the political calendar, but they’re hugely important. The upper chamber isn’t like the House, which depends on parliamentary-style coalitions. The Senate is the sum of its personalities—every new member counts. And the next Senate’s roster is slowly clicking into place. Last night saw the election of state Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) to replace former Sen. Robert Duncan in Senate District 28, a huge district that spans the lower reaches of the Panhandle down through San Angelo and I-10.
Perry beat a six-person field and avoided a runoff—a pretty remarkable feat. He snagged 54 percent of the vote, with Jodey Arrington, a former Texas Tech vice chancellor, pulling only 30. In most recent Senate elections, the guy who has the backing of Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman who finances a number of conservative causes around the state, wins. Perry had it in spades, and has throughout his short political career. So his victory wasn’t necessarily a surprise—but the margin was.
West Texas has had a reputation for more pragmatic-oriented conservative politics, perhaps mostly because of Duncan and the Panhandle/West Texas’ other senator, Amarillo’s Kel Seliger. Arrington ran on water and good government, and seemed to want to mold himself in Duncan’s image. He even openly criticized Dunn’s groups, which didn’t exactly endear him to Dunn’s lieutenant, Michael Quinn Sullivan.
Duncan, a moderate, was one of the Senate’s top dealmakers. Perry seems unlikely to fill those shoes, but neither does he seem likely to be one of the Senate’s biggest bomb throwers next session. He’s a pretty right-wing guy, but he also plays ball. He’s not, in other words, a Steve Toth or a Jonathan Stickland: He was one of the tea party wave that came to Austin in 2010 with the desire to keep moving up, as you could already tell in Abby Rapoport’s piece for the Observer that year.
Still, on the whole, his election is probably not great for the chamber’s comity. There are two big question marks still remaining as to the Senate’s composition. One is in Senate District 10, the only seat with a competition in the general election, where a remarkably far-right tea party leader named Konni Burton may beat Democrat Libby Willis to take over for Wendy Davis. There’s also Glenn Hegar’s soon-to-be-former seat: Hegar is likely to be the next comptroller, and conservative state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst has lined up to replace him, with the possibility of more moderate challengers.
Still, assume for a minute that a Republican sweep happens this November. In that case, napkin math says the Senate next session will have 11 or 12 senators who could be described as tea party members or aligned with Tim Dunn’s faction—with Dan Patrick in the driver’s seat. Democrats in total will only have 11 seats. More moderate and old-school GOPers make up the rest—they’ll be severely squeezed. These days, Austin politicos are wandering around, muttering to each other and themselves, sometimes in the shower: “What a session this is going to be,” they say, before they remember the prospect of a summer-long series of special sessions on school finance and break down weeping.
There’s one other small thing to keep in mind about Perry’s victory: the future of state Sen. Kel Seliger, Amarillo’s man in the chamber. His district and Perry’s new district hug. Seliger, who possesses a healthy independent streak, is one of Dunn & Sullivan’s nemeses in the Senate. Last session, he authored a bill that would have required disclosure of “dark money” expenditures from political groups like Sullivan’s.
He may not be up for another primary challenge until 2018, but this election is another warning of sorts. The biggest shot across the bow came in the primary, when a former Midland mayor came within five points of beating Seliger, after a low-profile race that few in the state had paid much attention to.
Perry’s win in the first round, in a district similar to Seliger’s, is another reminder that his next go-round could be a lot more difficult. Seliger, whatever you may think of him, is ripe for a primary challenge. Picture mailers about his million-dollar Pebble Beach vacation home blanketing Amarillo. Will it change his attitude for the next couple years? Will this continuing groundswell in the chamber change other Republicans’ attitudes as well?
Is the state agency charged with guarding Texas’ abused kids trying to privatize services needlessly?
The Department of Family and Protective Services continues to push forward on a plan to bring on more private companies—despite evidence that its effort to overhaul the state’s foster care system is faltering. Many advocates think recent turmoil with Providence Services Corporation, the first contractor tapped by the state to oversee a portion of the foster care system, suggests the experiment is already a failure. The next stage in “foster care redesign,” as the state calls it, is set to take effect this month when another private company takes over a seven-county North Texas region including Fort Worth. Instead, critics argue the Legislature should invest more money in a state-run system and work out the issues without the involvement of private companies.
The need for reform in foster care is not in question. In the fiscal year spanning September 2012 to September 2013, 10 children died from abuse or neglect while under state care. In fiscal year 2014, three children died, including 6-year-old Jenetta Smith and her brother, 4-year-old Riley. Both children drowned in Lake Georgetown in July, under the care of a foster family monitored by Providence. Until August, when Providence abruptly pulled out of its five-year contract, the company was in charge of a rural 60-county region in West Texas that the state now must again oversee.
Foster care redesign was meant to eliminate the rise in child deaths and streamline foster care services provided by a multitude of sub-contractors. In 2011, the Texas Legislature passed a bill allowing DFPS to shift the administration of its more than 300 privately owned child placement agencies—responsible for recruiting and monitoring foster placements—to lead companies, like Providence. Each “lead” company manages a certain region of the state. The goal is to keep children closer to their siblings and home communities, and avoid bouncing them from one home to the next.
In June, the Texas Sunset Commission, which looks into the efficacy of state agencies, released an excoriating report on DFPS. The report noted that foster care redesign is a “risky endeavor” that has no long-term comprehensive plan. Redesign “presents inherent challenges and risks to DFPS and to the state,” the report warned. “If a contractor fails or pulls out of the contract, DFPS is then faced with the difficult task of assuming the contractor’s responsibilities temporarily while the agency procures a new contract.”
That’s exactly what happened with Providence. In August, the company ended its contract with the state, citing a lack of services in its assigned region, such as residential treatment centers and adequate transportation for children. Providence also had IT system issues and was $2 million over budget.
The state has reclaimed responsibility for keeping track of the 1,100 foster children already in the system as well as any incoming children removed from homes due to abuse and neglect. The department intends to continue providing some of the services Providence was implementing in its redesign effort, but has no plans yet to tap another contractor to take over the region. But if the state can handle what it hired a private agency to do in the first place, what’s the point of moving forward with privatization?
Ashley Harris from child welfare non-profit Texans Care for Children says the state may be able to continue running Providence’s programs effectively.
“If the Legislature gives DFPS the funding it needs, I think the agency can meet those goals without spending extra money to go through the middleman contractor,” Harris said. “Certainly it would have been easier if they had done it in the first place rather than coming in to pick up the pieces after Providence pulled out. If they are successful, it would be another reason not to go back to the redesign approach.”
But Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia continues to push privatization as the only solution to fixing the system.
In a recent video to DFPS employees following Providence’s contract termination, Specia struck a reassuring tone:
“We’re going to continue because foster care redesign is an essential process for this department. We must improve the way we deliver foster care services and we’re doing that through rolling out foster care redesign,” he said. “We’re going to have steps and missteps but we’re going to keep going forward to improve the system for our children and families.”
The second company to take up foster care reform, the non-profit Our Community Our Kids, began accepting new children who need placement into homes on Sept. 1.
Wayne Carson, CEO of the Our Community Our Kids parent organization ACH Child and Family Services, said his team has learned from Providence’s mistakes. One of the most important lessons, Carson said, was the power of a good IT infrastructure, which helps keep track of key information on foster children in the region. Providence had issues with IT system accessibility early on and had to manually enter each child’s information as it obtained it from each child-placing agency.
“You need good information to make good decisions about children, to be able to follow children to make sure they’re getting the kind of care they deserve and to know where your foster homes are so you can place children in their neighborhoods,” Carson said.
One issue, which Providence also faced, continues: the state’s refusal to spend more money for more services. Carson said Our Community Our Kids knew it would have to invest extra money from the beginning. The 2011 legislation mandated that lead agencies work with the same level of funding that the state had used to run the old system in each region, despite the mandate for more services. The state budgeted a one-time amount of $208,000 for startup costs, but Our community Our Kids had to front between $800,000 and $1 million more.
But Carson is confident Our Community Our Kids has enough experience and rapport with the community to make privatization work.
“Foster care redesign is a way to help coordinate the system of care,” Carson said. “We’ve been able to create better access to services that already existed for children that, because the system was so fragmented and there was no cohesion among providers, it was difficult to make that happen.”
Diana Martinez with TexProtects, another non-profit geared toward helping Texas children, said meeting the goals set forward by redesign is a necessary part to keeping children safe, no matter who’s in charge of it.
“Something definitely needs to change,” Martinez said. “If it’s through private providers that’s great, if it’s the state being able to put more money into foster care so that we can build up those types of resources that we need, that’s great too.”