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Save Texas Schools rally at the Texas Capitol, Saturday, February 25.
Patrick Michels
A contingent from San Antonio's Edgewood ISD at the Save Texas Schools rally in 2013.

A state district judge’s long-awaited ruling on Texas’ school finance case—siding with the more than two thirds of Texas school districts that sued the state claiming that our school funding system is unconstitutional—won’t be the final word on the matter. The Texas Supreme Court will ultimately decide the case, and if history is any guide, there’ll be another lawsuit like it within a decade.

But state District Judge John Dietz’s 383-page opinion in the case is important not only because it could be a step toward a better school system, but also because it covers so much ground. Backed by dozens of expert opinions, the ruling touches on the makeup of the student body to where Texas gets its teachers, from full-day bilingual learning to standardized test scores. Dietz’s ruling is an authoritative, exhaustive discourse on the state of Texas’ schools today.

There is one big point running through the sprawling opinion: When lawmakers have even attempted a close look at the real costs of education, they’ve ignored the results. Nor has the Legislature  reviewed the impact of the cuts it made in 2011. That ignorance alone, Dietz says, violates the Texas Constitution.

The Legislature has been raising the standards for Texas students and requiring schools to provide more elaborate programs—talking big in the Capitol about the state’s high expectations—all while refusing to give schools the resources needed to meet those standards. It’s time, Dietz writes, that the state put its money where its mouth is.

 

Not enough money?! Come on, I heard that Texas’ school spending has never been higher.

That’s what a state witness said, too, showing that total spending—including construction—is way up since 2000. Dietz disagreed, saying it’s better to focus on “operations” spending, which has a greater impact on the classroom.

In constant 2004 dollars, Texas spent $7,128 per student a decade ago, peaked at $7,415 in 2009 (thanks to federal stimulus money), and bottomed out in 2013. Contrary to what you might have heard, Texas spends $300 less per student than it did a decade ago.

 

But just a few years ago, the Texas Supreme Court said we were spending enough.

A lot has changed since then. In 2005, the court ruled that the funding was barely adequate, but today a greater share of Texas students are economically disadvantaged or have limited English—both groups that cost much more to educate. Of Texas’ five million public school students, more than three million are economically disadvantaged. Dietz notes often that schools do have good options for helping these students (like smaller classes or full-day pre-K), but that these programs aren’t free—and the state’s not paying for them. While Texas’ bilingual population grows, it’s spending less on bilingual education.

All the new students we’ve added need new school buildings too, but Dietz said districts can’t raise enough for new construction. To pay for the growth, they’ve had to dip into money they should be spending in the classroom.

 

They can deal with it! It’s not like school’s getting any harder.

Oh, but it is. Since the last school finance ruling in 2005, the Legislature has added an expectation that schools prepare students for college, and begun using a harder new test, STAAR, that’s designed to assess a higher level of learning than the old test, TAKS. Both sides in the case agreed this was a “dramatic increase” in what students are expected to do.

Even last year’s House Bill 5, which cut the number of tests and added “career-ready” alternatives to the college-ready standard, doesn’t change that. In fact, Dietz says, no state witness could point to any cost savings from the new law.

 

I dunno, you look around, seems like schools are doing just fine.

Dietz disagrees. Considering the low pass rates on STAAR, and the fact they haven’t risen much in the test’s first years, he sounds worried. “The failure rates on STAAR constitute a current crisis in the education system,” he writes. Dietz also draws a connection between the flat scores on STAAR, and the lack of new funding for schools. Earlier this week, Education Commissioner Michael Williams said scores hadn’t grown because “we haven’t jumped high enough in the classroom”; Dietz suggests classrooms haven’t been given the resources to allow for that jump.

Even the state’s school ratings set the bar too low to guarantee the “general diffusion of knowledge” required by the constitution. Dietz says a district can have “incredibly poor performance results” on STAAR and still win the state’s “met standard” rating. According to other measures, Texas is losing ground to other states—a new development since the Supreme Court last heard a school finance case. One of the state’s own witnesses called Texas’ graduation rate “a disaster.”

 

OK, but I already got my diploma and I don’t have kids. Who cares?! Ron Paul 2016!

For one thing, this is bad news for students who won’t graduate because they’re not passing tests—disproportionately poor students and students with limited English. Dietz writes: “Waiting for school districts to make slow progress on improving the passing rate is not an option for the hundreds of thousands of ninth and tenth graders who are no longer on track to graduate because of their performance on [end of course] exams.”

You may not see much need for an properly funded public education system, but the constitution disagrees—and for good reason, Dietz says: “Texas’s future depends heavily on whether it meets the constitutional obligation to provide a general diffusion of knowledge such that all students have a meaningful opportunity to graduate college and career ready.”

 

So what, we just spend money forever?

Dietz acknowledges it’s tough to pin down a precise dollar amount for the proper cost of Texas’ education, but he disagrees with the state’s argument that it’s impossible to determine.

For argument’s sake, Dietz defines adequate somewhere in a range of $6,500 to $7,000 per student. By the lowest reasonable estimate he heard, Dietz says Texas needs to be pay at least $6,404 per student—around $800 more than it does today. Of Texas’ 1,020 school districts, only the 259 richest ones can cover the cost of an adequate education within legal tax rates.

 

But I heard the Lege replaced the 2011 education cuts last year.

The trial began as school districts were coming to grips with the $5.4 billion school budget cuts the Legislature passed in 2011; after the Lege replaced $3.5 billion of that in 2013, Dietz reopened the case to get updated testimony. But in his ruling he said the Legislature’s extra spending was “modest indeed—and plainly insufficient to satisfy constitutional standards.” Four hundred-eighty-eight school districts—almost half the districts in the state—are still worse off than they were before the 2011 cuts.

And the underlying problems with the funding formula remain.

 

But didn’t the Lege fix school finance in 2006?

Weeeellll… Not so much. In fact, Dietz says lawmakers only exacerbated problems in the system. Back then when the Supreme Court told the Legislature to fix school finance, Rick Perry took the opportunity to cut local property taxes and replace them with a new business tax that some warned would never make up the difference in the budget. Guess what happened? It didn’t cover the difference! Hence the multi-billion-dollar deficit the Legislature faces with every new session.

Lawmakers set up a delicate house of cards in 2006 that’s since gone all to hell, and the problems have even affected Texas’ wealthiest schools. Dietz notes that the current system makes it hard for so-called property-rich districts to raise more money, thanks to idiosyncrasies like target revenue.

 

More like off-target revenue, am I right?? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Dietz’s opinion deals necessarily with some pretty obscure issues in the school budget, “target revenue” among them. Target revenue, or “ASATR” (which is seriously pronounced “ass-a-tar”), is a good example of how the Lege backtracked in a subtle way the last time it tried to fix the system. As Abby Rapoport explained in a 2011 Observer piece on school finance, target revenue was meant as a stopgap measure to ensure districts didn’t lose money too quickly as the state transitioned to its new funding system.

Instead of reducing the target revenue rate last session, the lege raised it from 92.35 to 92.63 to help ease the pain of those 2011 budget cuts. Under today’s system, target revenue would end in TK, creating a steep cliff for some school budgets. Dietz does not have a high opinion of how Target Revenue—and other neat legislative tricks from 2006, like “golden” and “copper pennies” for tax rates—have played out.

 

Yikes. Well maybe they’ll do the right thing next time!

It’s unlikely, but the Legislature could even take quick action next year to fix the system without a directive from the Supreme Court. The Houston Chronicle detailed a few possible outcomes over the weekend.

But hardly any red-blooded Republican lawmakers want to be seen growing the budget, so it’ll most likely take a firm Supreme Court ruling to force them to do so. Making the system more equitable for all districts, and fixing the local tax rates, will be an incredibly complex proposition that’s bound to hurt some folks and help others. It’s a little hard to imagine this Legislature—full of so many new members—coming to terms on a deal this contentious.

The courts do have a way to make lawmakers come to terms, and they’ve done it before, by threatening to cut off the school system if lawmakers can’t fund it correctly.

 

But won’t schools do better if we just fire all the bad teachers?

No. Or at least, according to Dietz, there’s no evidence that doing so would improve schools as much as giving them the proper resources. Plus, how do you decide which teachers are bad? After hearing from one of the nation’s leading proponents of this strategy, Stanford University researcher Eric Hanushek, Dietz wasn’t sold on its potential to turn the whole school system around.

 

So did Dietz buy every argument the plaintiffs threw at him?

No. One new wrinkle in this suit was a “taxpayer equity” claim from the Equity Center—essentially that, as a taxpayer, your return on your property taxes varies depending on where you live. Dietz didn’t go for this one, though he didn’t explain much about why.

Dietz also shot down arguments from both of the new plaintiffs’ groups in this trial. One, a charter school group, argued that the school finance system is unfair because it allows traditional districts to raise money just for facilities, but charters don’t get any money for buildings. (But because the funding for charter schools is based on an average of the state’s funding for ISDs, he ruled that charter funding is inadequate too.)

Another group, led by former state Rep. Kent Grusendorf and the Texas Association of Business, argued that the system should include a guarantee that districts spend money efficiently. Dietz was unswayed by arguments that schools are, broadly speaking, spending wastefully. Had Dietz ruled differently on their claims, he could have opened the door to an unlimited number of charters, or even school vouchers.

 

This sounds like it was a lot of work! Are the lawyers going to get paid?

Um, yes.

One of this case’s many exciting twists is that school boards had to devote scarce public resources to teams of lawyers to argue on the schools’ behalf. If Dietz’s ruling holds, the state will have to directly pay the school district lawyers’ costs. The charter schools and Grusendorf’s “efficiency intervenors” had no such luck. Here’s how the costs broke down:

  • TTSFC (Equity Center) attorney fees: $1,888,705.91 plus $325,000 on appeal to the Supreme Court
  • Calhoun County (Haynes & Boone) attorney fees: $2,609,642.57 plus $500,000 on appeal to the Supreme Court
  • Fort Bend ISD (Thompson & Horton) attorney fees: $1,733,676.75 plus $400,000 on appeal to the Supreme Court
  • Edgewood ISD (MALDEF) attorney fees: $2,194,027.92 plus $325,000 on appeal to the Supreme Court

The school districts may or may not end up with enough money, but one thing we’re sure of is that the lawyers will get paid.

 

 

rickperrybooking3
Forrest Wilder
At his booking, Rick Perry laughs at his own joke. He forgot the punch line.

Somewhere out there Molly Ivins is having one hell of a laugh. Gov. GoodHair provided an unintentionally awesome twist to her old line that the Texas Legislature is “the national laboratory for bad government.”

As part of his post-felony indictment victory tour (never dreamed I’d be typing that line), Perry spoke at an event hosted by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity group in Manchester, New Hampshire, last Friday, during which he called the states “lavatories of democracy.” Yep, and he’s the man on the throne.

Down here in the toilet bowl of gubmint, we’ve come to expect a few clogs in the ol’ plumbing. Like that time that Rick Perry responded to a massive humanitarian crisis of children and families fleeing Central America for the calmer climes of Texas by deploying troops to the border, only he forgot to pay said troops on time—resulting in the little snafu that some of the guardsmen had to pay a visit to a Rio Grande Valley food bank for their MREs. Wasn’t Sun Tzu’s No. 1 rule that you can’t fight narcos on an empty stomach? I guess you go to war with the army you have, right?

State officials have repeatedly said, though, that the border “surge” isn’t a militarization of the Rio Grande Valley… Except, perhaps, when they think no one is listening to their conversations with their pals in the tea party. As David Dewhurst told Waco Tea Party Radio recently:

“I don’t want to see any loss of life, but if anyone is listening from south of the border I’d recommend them that if they are approached by the DPS put your hands in the air and don’t fight, otherwise it’s not going to be pretty.”

“Hands up, don’t shoot” worked out pretty well for Michael Brown. No reason to think it wouldn’t for undocumented immigrants.

Meanwhile, in the race to the Governor’s Mansion—the veritable toilet seat of our Lavatory—democracy is on the march. Today Greg Abbott announced that he was backing out of the only statewide televised gubernatorial debate. “Due to our inability to agree on specific details of the format, Attorney General Greg Abbott will regretfully not be participating in the WFAA debate,” said Robert Black, senior campaign adviser.

And what might those details be? Did Abbott’s team not like the chyron that WFAA was planning? Did they not approve of the lighting or the color of the walls? Did they want to dictate what color blouse Davis might wear. We don’t know. What we do know is that Abbott and Davis have nailed down just one debate—in McAllen, with no live audience (per Abbott’s request) and no statewide TV coverage. On a Friday at 6 p.m. You know when governments and corporations release stuff they want to bury in a news cycle? Late on a Friday.

Since 2002, there have been a total of just three (3!) gubernatorial debates. (No, I am not counting 2010’s match-up of Democrat Bill White and Libertarian Kathie Glass. That wasn’t a debate; it was a hater’s ball.)

In 2002, Democrat Tony Sanchez and Rick Perry had two debates. In 2006, there was one four-way debate among Perry, Democrat Chris Bell, and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman. Perry refused to debate Bill White in 2010.

(Compare that to the umpteen debates among the four GOP candidates for lieutenant governor.)

Down here in the lavatory of democracy, it seems we’ve washed our hands of democracy.

Rick Perry at a press conference in Weslaco.
Office of the Governor
Rick Perry at a press conference in Weslaco.

They came to the forbidding landscape of the Rio Grande Valley from miles away, for reasons beyond their control. Their fates were written in the stars. Strangers to the region, faced with a new and imposing culture, they tried to make the best of it. Hungry, thirsty and lacking the means to make it to their intended destination after they were dumped by the border, they fell on the region’s inhabitants for Christian charity and goodwill. Yes, the National Guard are having a rough go of it in the Rio Grande Sector:

They came here to help protect the border but now the first wave of Texas National Guard troops deployed after Governor Rick Perry made the call are needing assistance to pay for food and gas.

“We were contacted that 50 troops that are in the Valley don’t have any money for food and gas and they need our assistance,” said Food Bank [Rio Grande Valley] Executive Director Terri Drefke.

The Texas Military Forces may have a king’s ransom of gunboats and choppers and night vision goggles and what have you, but none of that’s much good if, as the RGV’s Action 4 News reports, you “won’t get paid until September 5th and have been in the Valley since August 11th.”

These are the guys that were supposed to be so threatening that fearful drug cartels would be forced to conduct their business a hundred miles up the river. Or—well, nobody’s really been able to say what they’re doing, or why. At least they’re not shooting anybody.

Seriously, let’s hope the good folks of the Texas National Guard get through this with a minimum of discomfort and without any serious mishaps. But at the same time, keep this in mind the next time Gov. Perry starts bragging about flexing the state’s military might on Fox News Sunday.

Wendy Davis speaks to the press at an election rally, April 14, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Wendy Davis speaks to the press at an election rally, April 14, 2014.

There’s something weird about the Wendy Davis campaign’s recent ads. Have you seen them? If not, you probably will soon.

We’re at the stage of the campaign where candidates start to open their coffers. This is the most expensive race in Texas history, and at the top of the ticket, Davis has amassed a small fortune, which is absolutely dwarfed by the Abbott’s much larger fortune. These campaigns are set to run a formidable air war against each other come the fall, and it’s starting. But Abbott’s cash advantage—he had $35.6 million to Davis’ $11.1 million mid-summer—means he can run pretty much whatever he wants, when he wants. Abbott has ads running in movie theaters, for Christ’s sake.

Davis needs to be more selective. What the campaign can’t do in quantity, it needs to achieve with quality. So her first ads are an interesting reflection of the campaign’s priorities and direction as we close in on the election.

Her first ad, which dropped earlier this month, is called “A Texas Story.” That sounds promising, right? Davis has an incredible personal story: Remarkable individual achievement and perseverance, coming from a highly disadvantaged background. Her story, you could say, is the state’s story writ small. There’s so much most voters still don’t know about who she is. This could make a great ad.

Of course, “A Texas Story” wasn’t about Davis: It was about a “young mother” getting “brutally raped” while “her children slept in the very next room.” Those quotes are from the Davis campaign’s own copy. It’s one of the most disturbing campaign ads you’ll ever see: It makes the Willie Horton ad look like a documentary about a cupcake factory (albeit, a racist one.) It’s the only campaign ad I’ve ever seen that needs a trigger warning.

It’s an extremely slick and exploitative video. It feels like it was pulled from one of the more sordid true crime shows that populate basic cable. A carefully placed upturned tricycle, near the end, signals the lost innocence of the “brutally raped” woman’s children.

About 45 seconds into the ad, we get to the point: The rapist was a door-to-door salesman for a vacuum cleaner company, and the woman sued that company. When Abbott was a Texas Supreme Court Justice, he heard the case and opined that the company didn’t owe damages. He was in the minority.

There’s a lot of weird things about the ad, like the fact that Abbott doesn’t appear until the end. The worst thing might be that the Davis campaign, when asked the obvious question, didn’t seem to know whether they had told the “brutally raped” “young mother” that her story would be on TV, inviting a flood of scrutiny. Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson, who’s the closest thing we have to a referee on these sorts of things, told the Houston Chronicle that if the campaign hadn’t informed the woman, they were at “moral and political fault.”

But that’s not the weird thing I was thinking of at the top of this piece. The rape-y ad was from earlier this month—here’s a more recent one:

In it, Manuel Alvarado, a cancer survivor from Fort Worth, bemoans the failure of CPRIT and ties its failures to Greg Abbott. It’s a much more conventional political attack ad.

Here’s the thing: Where’s Wendy? Does this look to anyone like the kind of campaign people thought Davis was going to be running when she jumped in the race last year?

A caveat: I don’t know how to run campaigns. Bill White ran a bunch of positive ads in 2010 and lost. Maybe these are really, really smart ads. Maybe they’re effective on apathetic, low-information voters, and maybe they’ve tested alternatives and come to the conclusion that this is the best option.

But think about what Democrats were most excited about after Davis filibustered, and declared her candidacy. They were excited to have a Candidate. Bill White and Chris Bell were nice fellows who were OK candidates and probably would have been good governors, but they weren’t Candidates. Davis was a Candidate.

She had massive star power among the Democratic base, and she had a unbelievably impressive biography. She could draw big money from out-of-state liberals. She represented a seemingly center-right district and held it as a Democrat in two rough cycles. Suburban Republican women loved her. Through the strength of her personality and sheer force of will, she would make this a fight. Whatever it was, she had it.

So where is it?

A recent Rasmussen poll had Abbott’s favorability numbers dipping, so maybe the attack lines are working. But Davis’ favorability numbers have been a problem the whole campaign—one PPP poll from April had her unfavorability rating at 47 percent. (Abbott’s was 27 percent.) A lot of voters don’t seem to know much about her, and she has trouble with the ones that do.

There’s a little over two months left, which, in politics, is both an eon and not very much time at all. Can the Davis that Democrats were excited about last year break through the smooth machining of a consultant-driven, attack ad-heavy campaign?

As a coda, consider two other videos. Leticia Van de Putte’s campaign hasn’t had enough money to participate in the ad war yet, but it will at some point. But here’s a video her campaign put together to use as an intro at the Democratic convention in June. It’s a bit corny at points, but it’s humanizing and warm and funny, and it’s hard not to come away from it liking Van de Putte more. It’s the polar opposite of “A Texas Story.”

And here’s one of the zillions of web ads that Greg Abbott has produced—here’s, effectively, what “A Texas Story” stands in opposition to. Consider that Abbott, frankly speaking, is not a charismatic guy, or a particularly talented politician. Watch how effectively the ad masks that:

Look at that smiling, happy man. Look at the pretty boats and sky and fish, and how hard those guys are working. Listen to how he’ll fight for you. Don’t you want him to be your governor?

Travis County District Judge John Dietz
Patrick Michels
Juge John Dietz

Fifteen legislatures and a million years ago (give or take), school districts, parents and their lawyers—oh, the lawyers!—embarked upon an epic quest to wring more money for public education from state lawmakers: to devise an equitable formula for funding Texas’ schools and to provide sustainable support for students in our fast-growing state.

Today, state District Judge John Dietz ruled on Texas’ most recent school finance case—the seventh in 30 years—finding, once again, that our funding system runs afoul of the Texas Constitution.

In the grand scheme of this Texas epic, today’s ruling is a small victory for school districts—the equivalent of the end of a minor battle somewhere in the middle of one of the Lord of the Rings sequels.

It can be hard to cut through all the noise and political spin around school finance. The suit was a complicated one from the start, with a huge cast of players and competing interests. And it’s far from over. From here, the case goes to the Texas Supreme Court—barring a possible stop at an appeals court—but probably not until early next year. If the high court agrees the system needs a fix, it’ll be the Texas Legislature’s job to draft a plan that satisfies the courts.

The stakes are high. Reworking the entire funding system will have a major impact on Texas’ five million students. Since the first Edgewood ISD case in the ’80s, the Legislature has been happy to let the courts force its hand on school finance, so for anyone hoping schools get more resources or smarter funding for the future, this lawsuit is the only hope.

In his initial ruling in February 2013—which he delivered in brief remarks from the bench after months of testimony and detailed statistics—Dietz offered a poetic consideration of the “miracle of education,” and the “civic, altruistic and economic” rationale behind offering every child a free public education.

Lawyers for more than two-thirds of Texas’ school districts argued that the state had cut funding in recent years, even as it required more from them and as enrollment ballooned. Poorer districts, they said, have been forced to max out their local property taxes, and even then couldn’t keep up with property-rich districts.

Of all the testimony he heard, Dietz said, one chart conveyed the problem best: a graph that showed Texas’ spending (adjusted for inflation) remained basically flat while its enrollment grew by 1 million students:

LBB chart

The schools’ lawyers noted that the state’s estimates of what a good education costs—or how to adjust those costs for different students’ needs or different parts of the state—are decades old. As the situation grows more dire, Dietz said in his ruling today, “the state has buried its head in the sand.” It’s time, he said, for elected leaders to decide what kind of education we want and are willing to pay for.

Dietz reopened the case after lawmakers put $3.4 billion back into public education last year (only partially undoing a $5.4 billion cut in 2011), but his decision today is the same as his ruling last year.

Though today’s ruling is just a step in the case’s long journey, it’s been enough to warrant a new round of political posturing. Attorney General Greg Abbott already tried to get Dietz tossed from the case by claiming he’d shown favor to the schools during the trial. Abbott was unsuccessful, but the ordeal supported an impression that Dietz was an activist who’d rule against the state no matter what. Today, his office said it would appeal, while his campaign avoided commenting directly on the case. “Our obligation is to improve education for our children rather than just doubling down on an outdated education system constructed decades ago,” Abbott said in a statement.

Abbott’s rival in the governor’s race, Wendy Davis, called the ruling “a victory for our schools, for the future of our state and for the promise of opportunity that’s at the core of who we are as Texans.” She repeated her long-standing call for Abbott to drop the state’s defense and get busy fixing the system.

The issue isn’t strictly partisan. State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) recently complained to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that while the rural districts in his districts get less than $5,000 per student, “You’ve got schools all over the state that are getting in excess of $10,000. It is not right.”

When lawmakers return to the Capitol next year, they’ll be in basically the same position they were in last session: forced to draft another two-year budget knowing there’s a lower court ruling against them, but with no guidance from the Supreme Court.

You can read Dietz’s final judgment here, and his (much longer) fact-finding conclusions here. I’ll update our coverage soon with more detail from Dietz’s ruling.

southamerica horizontal
New South Books

 

Lawd aw’mighty, it’s a relief to read a recently written novel set in New Orleans before Katrina. Not that there was ever anything innocent about the Big Easy, but something irreplaceable was lost when people died on the runway because the Secret Service grounded medevac flights for hours on end so President Bush could have the skies over the Crescent City to himself for a long-overdue P.R. flyover. So it is with fond nostalgia that we set the Wayback Machine to the year 2000 and visit the Faubourg Marigny with author Rod Davis’ protagonist Jack Prine, who makes his debut here in what appears to be the first book of a new and welcome detective series.

Prine is an interesting piece of work, even in the context of New Orleans, “where the nation’s leftovers tend to form up like lines of seaweed on the sand.” A veteran of the secret and often violent world of Army Intelligence in Cold War-era Korea, Prine finds himself making ends meet as an unofficial private investigator and freelance writer after a career in mainstream broadcast journalism ended with an episode of Felony Assault on an Editor—which, of course, is every reporter’s fantasy. Prine is not quite as hard-boiled as, say, Mike Hammer, but he’s definitely been on the griddle a few minutes past over-medium.

South, America
By Rod Davis
NewSouth Books
260 pages; $24.95

During an early morning stroll through the streets downriver of the French Quarter, Prine realizes that what at first appears to be a sleeping drunk on the sidewalk is, instead, the corpse of a young African-American homosexual whose skull has been caved in by blunt trauma. It’s the sort of thing that can complicate a morning walk, and to complicate things further, the corpse—one Young Henry, known more formally as Terrell Henry Meridian—has a sister named Elle, who herself adds a new definition to the word “complicated.” Also smart, lovely and troubled—but definitely more complicated than your average distressed damsel with unfinished business in the Delta. This is obviously an occasion requiring a knight in tarnished armor. Enter former Lieutenant Prine.

Thus begins a picaresque romp from New Orleans across the Delta and back again, through poverty and wealth and race and greed and betrayal and loyalty, echoing with Southern heritage and literature. Elle’s description of the Natchez Trace’s Witch Dance campground (“It isn’t even history. It’s barely even hearsay.”) is a far better Faulkner joke than I could come up with. But then I would rather read Joyce than Faulkner, and I’d prefer a recreational organ transplant to either. Still, the nod is one of the novel’s frequent subtle reminders that South, America is a bit more ambitious than your average detective thriller. I’m fairly sure there’s a reference to Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on page 85.

To fulfill the genre requirements, there is also a valuable stolen painting, a secret 8-figure inheritance from the white side of Elle and Young Henry’s family, an assortment of villians comprising blood relatives and mafiosos representing both Dixie and Jersey varieties, and a respectable level of violence and mayhem. No detective thriller is complete without the hero taking an ass-whuppin’ that leaves him pissing blood and vowing bloody retribution to follow. South, America is complete.

There is much here that brings to mind the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke, and Burke’s norteamericano version of magical realism. South, America‘s version involves Elle’s aunt in the Delta, who is schooled in the vodou tradition. Davis handles this sensitive (especially in the hands of a Caucasian scribe) subject respectfully and well, without attempting to plumb the topic’s depths as found in J.J. Phillips’ Mojo Hand and A.R. Flowers’ De Mojo Blues. This isn’t anthropology, after all, and when the forces of evil are arrayed against you, a little bit of chanting and the blood of a freshly killed pigeon is like chicken soup for a cold—it cain’t hoit.

Rod Davis

If there’s a gripe, it regards a trend in thriller writing that amplifies locale verisimilitude with regional food writing. Houston native John Lescroart excels at this, and no Burke book set in Louisiana is complete without a mouthwatering descriptions of etouffee and dirty rice. Davis, during long career in magazine journalism (including a spell as editor of The Texas Observer) once edited something called Cooking Light Magazine, and that experience seems to have seeped into his descriptions of cuisine in the land of the deliciously greasy spoon. One roadside stop includes a repast of Delta tamales, whose mysterious origins are a source of debate, but for the most part Prine and Elle pursue their mission with arterial plaque as a hazard avoided. I, personally, would rip my tongue out with rusty serving tongs before I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich at a ramshackle burger-and-blues joint in the Delta, but then this is only the start of what promises to be a fresh new series of thrillers. Perhaps a sequel will find Prine, .45 tucked beneath his shirt, at a café somewhere near Itta Bena savoring the legendary Floating Cheeseburger.

For readers’ sakes, if not for Prine’s, I sincerely hope those sequels are on the way.

HPD Badges

One of the many disturbing facts that have come to light in the weeks since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer is that for all the crime data tracked by the government, there is no central record kept of law enforcement use of deadly force. Individuals and groups have been making their own databases, but a citizen would need to file open records requests to learn about his or her community. 

You may have asked yourself, “Was Michael Brown’s killing lawful? And could an unlawful shooting happen in my hometown?”

Well, good news, if you live in Houston. The Texas Observer has looked at the numbers and the answer is, no. Your police force cannot wrongly shoot you.

It just doesn’t happen. Well, deadly police shootings do happen in Houston at an average of one every three weeks. But none of them is inappropriate. Every shooting by a Houston Police Department officer is investigated by HPD’s Internal Affairs and Homicide divisions. Between 2007 and 2012, according to HPD records, officers killed citizens in 109 shootings. Every killing was ruled justified.

The 112 instances of an officer shooting and injuring a person were justified, too.

So were the 104 times an officer wounded an animal, and the 225 times an officer killed an animal.

There were 16 shootings found “not justified,” but they were all ruled accidental.

In more than one in five cases in which officers fired on citizens, the citizen was unarmed.

Skeptics might say those numbers show police bias in holding their own accountable. I would direct these skeptics to the grand jury system.

Harris County grand juries have cleared HPD officers for on-duty shootings almost 300 times in a row. No Houston officer has been indicted for a shooting in a decade.

Don’t you feel better?

Now, the Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Falkenberg recently reported on a Houston cop who bullied and threatened a witness while serving as foreman for a grand jury investigating the killing of a Houston cop. And this man had served on at least nine other grand juries. But that’s probably an isolated case.

Besides the grand jury system, there are other safeguards against misuse of police power in Houston. There’s the Independent Police Oversight Board, which consists of four panels of citizens that divvy up and review HPD’s Internal Affairs investigations. The panels don’t have subpoena power; they can’t do their own investigations; they can’t interview witnesses; they can’t force anything to happen. But they can suggest that Internal Affairs do a more thorough investigation or reconsider its findings. Internal Affairs doesn’t have to do anything they say, but it’s nice that the people have a voice.

Last week, Houston City Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former HPD chief wrote an editorial in the Chronicle saying Michael Brown’s killing was “a wake-up call for Houston” and noted that the Independent Police Oversight Board was “without substantive authority.” Yet his solution was to let stakeholder groups like the NAACP appoint their own representatives to the authority-less board.

That’s different from the idea stakeholders themselves have, which is to replace the IPOB with a citizen oversight board with subpoena power—that is, the ability to do their own investigations into shootings or alleged misconduct.

One of those stakeholders is a Houston police officer I met for coffee this week. He had read the two features I wrote on HPD shootings, beatings, and lax accountability for the Observer last year and just wanted to talk. A 20-year veteran of the department, he plans to leave the force soon. There are too many problems, and the department is so sealed, so shielded from scrutiny, he said that “It’s like a Communist country. A lot of us wish we could talk but they’re nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs…. Boy, I hope they get that citizen oversight board soon.”

But if we did, all that good news might go away.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples
Patrick Michels
Todd Staples at the 2012 Texas GOP convention.

“What is really happening on the Texas border?” Good question—the one posed in a Texas Public Policy Foundation-hosted panel discussion today at the Capitol. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, though hardly a household name, is an influential free-market think tank funded by a variety of corporate interests. The $7.6 million-a-year organization has been variably described by conservatives as a “thought leader” of the Texas right, an “intellectual powerhouse” and, in the memorable words of Rick Perry, “a big ol’ Abrams rolling across the desert, picking out commonly-held misconceptions, and blowing them away with sound research and clear thought.”

What is really happening on the Texas border? I guess it depends on who you ask. To answer the question, TPPF called on a) Mike Vickers, a rancher and veterinarian in Brooks County who runs the controversial Texas Border Volunteers, of “Hunting Humans” fame; b) Todd Staples, the Texas ag commissioner who thinks porous borders threaten America’s food supply and wrote a book to prove it; c) Brandon Darby, the former FBI informant who now runs the border snuff-site Breitbart Texas; and d) Shawn Moran, the vice-president of the Border Patrol union.

Given TPPF’s purported free-market pedigree, I thought the line-up was curiously slanted toward seal-the-border types. Where was the business case for immigration? Where was the conservative realist who gets that immigration is largely driven by the push and pull of national economies and labor market factors? That person wasn’t present so we—and by “we” I mean an overwhelmingly white crowd—instead spent an hour and a half pondering, for example, Urdu dictionaries found in the desert. “No question it belonged to the coyote,” Vickers said. “It’s got phrases in there that say you must pay a dollar, do you speak English, do you speak Spanish?”

We heard about the Ebola threat from immigrants. “There’s huge concern for Ebola,” Vickers said, pointing to apprehensions of people from Nigeria, Kenya and Eritrea. “Africa is here. They’re coming from all over the world.”

We heard about the terrifying supposed correlation between a crackdown by the Chinese government on ethnic Uighur militants and an increase in Chinese apprehended at the Southwest border.

“Now here’s the deal,” Darby said. “If you look at when China started cracking down on Islamic militants and putting them in prison and chopping heads off—and I’m not saying I’m in favor of chopping people’s heads off—if you look at their crackdown and you look at our numbers of when people from China started increasing, they’ve gone up substantially. That’s a concern to me.”

We heard about how Vickers’ group has videotaped mountain lions tracking groups of migrants on the verge of death. And we heard many other tales of a dangerously porous and unsecured border.

What we didn’t hear much about was how much achieving an acceptable level of border security (as Darby put it, “I want to see that border locked down”) would cost—at least not

until an audience member posed the question. What’s the price-tag for 100 percent security? And what would that look like?

Shawn Moran, the Border Patrol rep, came the closest, offering the figure of $120 million (a year?) to “fully staff” the agency. Of course, hiring enough agents to meet congressionally set hiring goals is a tiny step. It excludes all the other things on the wish list: the costs of detention facilities, prisons for all the immigrants prosecuted for illegal crossings, judges to process immigration cases, new fences, cameras, drones, gunboats, National Guard deployments, ICE agents, etc.

To solve the crisis, Moran said, “I don’t know what it would cost in terms of dollars. I do know it would cost a lot in political will.”

Darby didn’t get any closer to answering the question: “What are the metrics for a secure border? I always tell people I don’t know the exact cost, but I can tell you that it’s much more than just Border Patrol and just the fence and just sensors.”

What does it cost to “lock down” the border, to achieve 100 percent security? The National Guard deployment ordered by Gov. Perry runs around $12 million a month. But the governor has called it a “stopgap measure” and state officials confess that the “surge” only covers one small part of a 1,200-mile border.

Ultimately it is not a question that can be answered with a dollar figure. How much would it cost to end terrorism or to win the war on drugs? More than all the money in the world.

Leticia Van De Putte speaks at the Texas' capitol's outdoor rotunda at a press conference on the state's women's health programs, February 20, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Leticia Van de Putte

Since Texas embarked on its journey of high-stakes testing decades ago, we’ve relied on an imperfect vehicle to get us down the road. Everyone agrees the test is broken—academics measure it, lawmakers complain about the noises it makes, and everyone tries to jiggle the ignition or bang on the hood till something gets better. Every decade or so, we trade in the old test for another and start all over again.

A few days ago, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced he would have to delay a plan to raise the passing score on the state’s standardized tests—the latest layer of duct tape on the bumper.

Texas’ test numbers are always based on a little mathematic sleight-of-hand because every year, a team of state regulators decides how many correct answers on a given test are enough for a passing grade. By setting the bar higher or lower, you can affect the number of students who pass the test. There is a science to this process, and sometimes the science gets thrown out the window.

When the new STAAR test was first unveiled, the plan was that to keep the passing level—or cut score—low at first, then raise it slowly over a number of years. To pass Algebra I, for instance, students had to answer just 37 percent of the questions correctly. But scores on the new STAAR test haven’t risen as fast as the state expected, so according to Williams’ new plan the cut scores will stay put for another year. After that, they’ll rise more slowly than originally planned.

A few days after that announcement, Williams sat before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, trying to explain why the pass rate didn’t rise fast enough. What followed was a good reminder of why legislating around test scores is such a bad idea, and why we’re probably doomed to repeat it again next year.

Williams offered a few explanations for the stagnating scores. (Over three years, the passing rates on some tests have risen slightly, while others have fallen.) For one thing, he said, STAAR is harder than TAKS, the test it replaced. Texas also has more students with limited English and more students in poverty. And in a set of remarks that will probably dog him for a while, Williams even blamed the teachers: “We haven’t raised the level of instruction significantly enough to meet and match the level of rigor that is required in order to satisfy the passing rate,” he said. “I’m just simply saying that we haven’t jumped high enough in the classroom.”

But Friendswood Republican Sen. Larry Taylor wondered if the students weren’t just being asked to jump too high: “My concern is that the STAAR test is too rigorous compared to what our students’ capabilities are.” Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger wondered if scores were flat because the tests don’t cover the right material.

Leticia Van de Putte took the idea further: “Are we actually measuring what’s relevant? How do parents know … our accountability system is valid?” she wondered. This test, she said, “destroys their creativity, [it] does not allow them to show their whole potential … and it’s not working ’cause you haven’t been able to raise those cut scores.”

But Williams said the quality of the test wasn’t an issue, citing “70 separate validity studies” on STAAR.

After everyone else took a turn grilling Williams on why the pass rate was so low, committee Chair Dan Patrick turned the question completely around. He wanted to know why the passing cutoff for Algebra I is still just 37 percent—well below what’s normally considered good enough for a “C” in class. “Why is the score for the test half of what we expect in the classroom?” he asked.

To recap: This test is too easy to pass, and not enough students are passing it, maybe because the test is too hard.

Presented with little improvement in tests scores, the lawmakers triangulated their way to a different explanation, everyone claimed to have the inside scoop on what’s really happening in classrooms, and once again we seem headed for a legislative session in which lawmakers can’t resist the urge to fix public education by just sort of poking at schools with a stick.

One year after the Legislature cut the number of high school exit tests from 15 to five, a few senators seemed to have an appetite for more changes next year. The contract for STAAR—famously awarded to Pearson for $468 million—is up again for bidding next year, and senators sounded very interested in changing the terms of the deal.

There are so many variables that could explain what’s behind student test scores, it’s very hard to know what they really mean. Williams hinted yesterday at those challenges, but ultimately seemed to settle on the idea that students simply aren’t learning enough. Senators seemed sure the problem was with the test or with Williams.

Van de Putte offered one way out. Sitting just a few seats from Patrick, her rival in the lite guv race, she repeated an idea she recently unveiled in her campaign: to uncouple the test from students’ graduation requirements and rate schools on just a sample of student tests. She wants, according to her own graphic imagery, to “remove the high stakes from the backs of our children.”

Faced with another year of dissatisfaction over test scores, and thousands of students who may not graduate because their test score didn’t rise to meet the state’s bar, and widespread mistrust of a system that always seems to be raising and lowering that bar, she suggested it’s time for a more fundamental change.

“Why,” she asked, “are we still embedded in something that is giving our parents and our students and our educators real pause about trusting this accountability system?”

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