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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?”

Lt. Gov. Dewhurst tours the Rio Grande on a well-armed DPS boat
Office of the Lt. Governor
Lt. Gov. Dewhurst tours the Rio Grande on a well-armed DPS boat

In October 2012, game wardens with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department gave chase to a red pickup truck near La Joya in the Rio Grande Valley, believing the truck was carrying a load of drugs beneath a tarp over the bed. The game wardens called DPS for backup, and soon a DPS helicopter joined the high-speed chase. As the truck sped along near the U.S.-Mexico border, DPS trooper Miguel Avila opened fire on the truck, killing two young Guatemalan men and injuring a third huddling underneath the tarp with six other undocumented immigrants. None of the men were armed and no drugs were found in the truck. The incident provoked international outrage and led DPS to revise its shoot-from-a-helicopter policy.

Now, Texas is “surging” National Guard soldiers and DPS troopers to the Texas-Mexico border in response to an influx of unaccompanied children and families fleeing violence and mayhem in Central America. The “surge” has raised concerns that the border region is being militarized, and many residents—some of whom are undocumented or have family members who are—say they feel less safe, not more.

The delicate situation begs for caution and restraint, especially from elected officials. But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has approached Texas’ border operations with all the subtlety of a coal-rolling F-350 diesel dually.

Dewhurst is a frequent guest on Waco Tea Party Radio, a two-hour local radio and web program run by two tea party activists. It was on that program that Dewhurst said last summer that he saw “bags of feces” at the Capitol during the abortion protests. And three weeks ago, he was on the show again to talk about Texas’ border security operations. Dewhurst made all sorts of blustering comments on the show, and added a new spin to the wildly inaccurate figure—first generated by DPS and later repeated by Gov. Perry—that undocumented immigrants have committed 3,000 homicides in Texas since 2007. (Dewhurst’s twist was to say that there were 3,500 “capital murders.”) But, there were several comments that struck me as particularly incendiary. Asked by co-host and Waco Tea Party President Toby Marie Walker about what the Texas Rangers are doing on the border, Dewhurst said:

“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.”

Now, I doubt there are any, say, unaccompanied children from Central America listening to an obscure tea party podcast in English while trying to stay one step ahead of death on their journey to the U.S. And the kids and families are turning themselves in anyway. But of course the menacing bravado here is not meant for immigrants; it’s meant for those who fear and loathe undocumented immigrants—the audience that Dewhurst has been unsuccessfully pandering to for at least two years.

Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, called Dewhurst’s remarks “absurd.”

“The greatest threat down here is the Border Patrol and DPS. Immigrants, there is no evidence that these folks crossing are committing violent acts. … What this region doesn’t need is any more boots on the ground. We need judges. We need immigration officials to process all these folks.”

On the tea party show, the lt. governor went on to get more specific about what sort of rules of engagement to expect from DPS. But first, he took a shot at Border Patrol.

“[Border Patrol agents] are outgunned. Most of them are carrying a 9mm. They’re outgunned; they’re outmanned. And their rules of engagement is [sic] that if they’re fired on, they’re required to back off. And quite frankly if you fire on our DPS they’re going to try to locate you and apply suppressing fire and somebody’s going to get hurt.”

Border Patrol has hardly been reticent about using deadly force. Quite the opposite in fact. According to Texas Monthly, Border Patrol has killed at least 42 people since 2005—and many of those incidents have been shrouded in secrecy and a virtually non-existent system of accountability. (Read Nate Blakeslee’s account in Texas Monthly of how a father on a picnic with his wife and two young daughters in Nuevo Laredo was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent—an incident that federal officials have said virtually nothing about.) A recently released report commissioned by Border Patrol found that Border Patrol agents have stepped in front of cars in order to justify shooting at the drivers and opened fire on rock-throwers when they could’ve simply moved away.

The report recommended tightening Border Patrol’s use-of-force policies—advice that the federal agency has taken and applied to a set of new rules. But DPS troopers have strictures that Border Patrol agents apparently do not.

It is reasonable that DPS troopers could use force, including deadly force, if fired on. DPS’ Use of Force policy stipulates that an officer may discharge his or her firearm if the “use of deadly force is justified” and “the discharge does not present an unreasonable risk of injury to third parties.” The circumstances where deadly force is allowed include when “the officer reasonably believes that deadly force is immediately necessary to defend the officer or another person from a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury.”

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger refused to say whether DPS’ use of force policy extends to gunfire emanating from Mexico. The policy is silent on that question but one can imagine how “suppressing fire” into Mexico from, say, DPS’ six armor-plated, 900-horsepower gunboats—each equipped with “four .30 machine guns capable of shooting 1,100 to 1,200 rounds per minute … enough to cut grass,” according to Dewhurst—could spark an international incident. It’s all fun and games, and good politics, until someone gets hurt.

On a less bloody level, DPS has to be careful not to be seen as doing immigrant enforcement.

Of late, DPS has had a rocky relationship with border residents, who’ve bristled at the state law enforcement agency’s deployments to the Rio Grande Valley. Last year, DPS spearheaded a “multi-agency law enforcement initiative” called Operation Strong Safety, which featured roadside checkpoints, ostensibly to enforce traffic laws. Valley residents complained that DPS was unfairly picking on them and worried that state troopers were taking on immigration enforcement, a charge that the agency disputed. A Facebook page devoted to tracking the shifting roadblocks attracted more than 50,000 people.

So, it’s understandable that many folks in the Valley look on the latest “surge” of National Guard troops and state law enforcement personnel—also dubbed Operation Strong Safety—with trepidation. DPS Director Steve McCraw has pledged to use the “boots on the ground” to focus on law enforcement and drug interdiction. The agency has acknowledged that only federal authorities can enforce immigration laws, but state cops can still play a role. If a state trooper encounters someone suspected to be in the U.S. illegally, “that individual is immediately referred to the appropriate federal authorities,” a DPS spokesman told the media in June.

Last week, an undocumented woman, Isabel Barbosa, who’d lived in La Joya for 17 years and has five U.S. citizen children, was pulled over by a DPS trooper for swerving. Instead of writing the woman a ticket, the trooper “flagged down” a “passing Border Patrol agent” according to a summary of the incident provided to the Observer by DPS. “DPS subsequently released the driver to the Border Patrol.”  

Some Texas Republicans are now floating an idea that Texas can constitutionally take over the federal government’s role in policing the border. On that same Waco Tea Party show, Sid Miller, the GOP nominee for agriculture commissioner, argued that the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on states’  engaging in war provides an exception in the case of an invasion.

“And I would suggest that this would classify under the definition of an invasion, when you have hundreds of thousands of people pouring through your border,” Miller said. “It’s never been done before, but if Texas would invoke Article 1, Section 10 we’d have all the same powers as the federal government to arrest illegals coming across, process them under Texas law and to return them to their country of origin.”

When I spoke with Terri Burke of the ACLU this week, she was in the Valley and had recently visited with a group of colonia residents in San Benito she said were terrified to leave their homes because of the presence of DPS and Border Patrol in their neighborhood.

“They have no authority to immigration enforcement, so this business of ‘we’re just calling in the Border Patrol’ is a specious argument when you see the DPS and Border Patrol cars sitting side by side,” she said. “What they’re really doing is harassment. They’re disrupting the lives of people who live in this region whether they are documented or undocumented.”

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Rick Perry speaks outside the Travis County Courthouse, Tuesday, August 19, 2014.

When most people get indicted on felony charges, it’s a bad time. Things start bad, and they stay bad. When Gov. Rick Perry got indicted on two felony counts, it kicked off a pretty great week for him. It started with a loud and premature verdict of innocence by the national media, continued through a trip to get ice cream, and ended in Washington, D.C. with a number of meetings with East Asian ambassadors. It was quite a show.

But unless Perry’s lawyers quickly quash the indictments, the rest of this process probably won’t go as smoothly. Perry needs to keep his core narrative about the indictments intact until the charges resolve themselves, and that’s going to be difficult to do as the case rumbles on. We’re likely to face a trickle—possibly a torrent—of new information, not only about Perry’s actions around the veto, but also his tenure as governor in general.

Separately, the story of the indictments is set to give new life to old stories about Perry’s improprieties, in much the same way Chris Christie’s bridge-related indiscretions gave rise to a narrative about his temper and vindictiveness toward political opponents. And Perry’s personality—best suited to offense—was well tailored to the first stage of this ordeal, but may trip him up going forward.

Here’s Perry’s story about the indictments, as outlined in a video released by his political action committee, PerryPAC: He saw a damaged public official, a woman who shouldn’t possibly hold office or any kind of responsibility, and took firm, narrowly targeted action to try to remove her. Now he’s facing political retribution from Democrats.

Parts of that narrative fall apart as soon as you look at them closely—particularly the notion that special prosecutor Michael McCrum, appointed to the case by a Republican judge in San Antonio, is an agent of Battleground Texas. But much of the rest of it could fall apart over the course of a trial, too.

Perry says his veto was about unseating Lehmberg, but it had significant consequences. As the Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg wrote on Thursday, Perry’s veto of the funding for the Public Integrity Unit “derailed more than 400 felony level tax and insurance fraud investigations allegedly committed against the State of Texas.”

In other words, Perry’s action didn’t just punish Lehmberg for her refusal to step down—it punished the state as a whole and Texas citizens generally. Think about that: Perry zeroed out the funding for more than 400 felony investigations because a local official wouldn’t step down when he wanted. Kronberg:

The Travis County Public Integrity Unit is the most under-appreciated law enforcement apparatus in the state. Fully 95% of what it does is pursue white collar crime in Texas and on behalf of the State of Texas – motor fuels tax fraud, insurance fraud and legal support for the smaller of Texas 254 counties that do not have the funding or expertise to pursue white collar crimes in their jurisdictions.

When Perry derailed the unit, the Travis County Commissioners Court stepped in and restored a portion of the funding—but the PIU had to slash staff and caseload. The state’s side in serious criminal cases that had nothing to do with Lehmberg’s troubles—or even, politics generally—suffered needlessly.

But the PIU investigates political corruption too. Kronberg dismisses the relevance of the investigation into the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas as a factor in Perry’s motivation for wanting a friend in control of the DA’s office, but points to other possibilities.

“It is far more interesting to look at the Public Integrity Unit investigation of Republican AG candidate Ken Paxton and Perry Regent appointment Wallace Hall,” Kronberg writes. “Had Lehmberg resigned, it is doubtful Perry’s appointed replacement would be very interested in either criminal referral.” There’s no shortage of possible motives for Perry’s intervention in the PIU, even if those motives don’t necessarily matter to the legal case against him.

If the trial gets going, there’s really no telling what’s going to get dredged up in the discovery process. What internal communications, what private conversations will we become privy to? This trial might be the most penetrating look at Perry’s workshop in the 14 years since he took office. There’s no politician that comes away from that level of scrutiny looking good.

If Perry still intends to run for president—it will be significantly more difficult to do while facing a marathon legal battle, since he needs to be up and running at full strength in just a couple of months—here’s another consideration. The question of ethics, which now dangles from his candidacy, invites follow-up questions about Perry’s past scruples.

There are the top-level ones—like the use of the Texas Enterprise Fund and CPRIT—and potential improprieties which have faded a bit in most people’s memories, like Perry’s history of inordinately profitable real estate deals conducted with dubious figures like Austin developer Gary Bradley. The criminal case, combined with a presidential campaign, gives national media—the only media Perry cares about—a reason to start looking into these stories again. They never got far last time he ran, but the framing will be different now.

Here’s another question: Does Perry have the right temperament to ride this out? His blustering offense works great in certain cases. But there will be other situations that call for subtlety and tact. Take his statement last Saturday, just after the indictments came down, when Perry predicted “that this farce of a prosecution will be revealed for what it is, and that those responsible will be held to account.” A Travis County judge subsequently warned that it could constitute a second-degree felony. What you’re seeing is a man who hasn’t been accountable to nearly anybody in a long, long time.

Temperament is one thing, ability is another. Before the indictments, the question about Perry was: Is he more prepared this time to face primary voters? In New Hampshire last Friday, we got some more data points on this question. In a room full of Granite State businessmen, Perry seemed oddly unfamiliar with the felonies he had just been charged with, telling the crowd he had been charged with bribery (he hadn’t.) “I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t really understand the details here,” he told the crowd, who were doubtless reassured.

That night, according to the Texas Tribune’s Jim Malewitz, he told a house party that the states were “lavatories of democracy.” Somewhere out there, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are dreaming of the Ames Straw Poll and smiling.

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish, and the tyranny of evil men.
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The path of the righteous governor is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish, and the tyranny of evil men.

Rick Perry is in trouble.

1) You know what I’m talking about. That thing on the border, with the OTM UACs? The thing that made everyone love him again, and made him look serious? The thing that some in his camp might have hoped would propel him to presidential frontrunner status? It’s been receding as an issue, before the state’s National Guard contingent is even fully deployed.

That’s a bit awkward, since Perry was scheduled to deliver a speech on border stuff at the Heritage Foundation, that great Beltway intellectual powerhouse, on Thursday. With fewer kids coming across the border, and the nation’s attention focused on a number of catastrophes elsewhere, how could the governor best grab headlines and slam President Obama? He’d need to go big: Way big.

Hey, there’s a hot new jihadi group in town that everyone is big on. Maybe Perry could sprinkle a reference to it in his speech in a slightly surreal way, as if he was giving them a guest lyric on his R&B record. “Stump Speech (ft. the Islamic State),” from 2014’s Never Gonna Be President tour.

Mr. Perry said there is “no clear evidence” that terrorists have entered the United States illegally across the southern border.

OK then that’s out. Maybe he could…

“I think there is the obvious, great concern that — because of the condition of the border from the standpoint of it not being secure and us not knowing who is penetrating across — that individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be [crossing the border.]”

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence—if you think about it, it’s more like the opposite. If you have no proof of something, isn’t that kind of suspicious? It’s like someone has hidden the proof from you, on purpose. Think of all of the things that we could have proof of. Hmmm….

It’s a fun gloss on an old tale about our porous border: Terrorists could use it, or sometimes, in the telling of it, Chinese spies, etc. The 9/11 hijackers came legally, of course, and the main reason people are freaked out about ISIS is that many of the group’s foreign fighters already have American and European passports. Apart from all that there’s scant evidence for any of the attendant claims: Once upon a time, the conservative content aggregator Breitbart.com famously misidentified a ripped-up Adidas soccer jersey as a “Muslim prayer rug,” but that’s another story.

The ISIS talk—apart from giving the impression that Perry is cynically honing in on the horrible headlines of the present moment to get a few himself—is proof positive that a lot of Republican border talk is not offered in good faith. It’s about freaking people out, and keeping them freaked out. As a palate cleanser, take this video of Texas conservative ringleader Steve Hotze selling the generalized concept of fear like he’s hawking shake weights on the Home Shopping Network:

2) Of course, the (comparatively) stabilizing Texas border isn’t the only reason the good guv is in trouble: There are also the felony indictments.

Because we as a people take good government seriously in 2014, Perry’s booking this week was a solemn occasion. No one likes to see our elected leaders face jail time.

Will Hailer, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, was outside the courthouse when Perry was booked. In mournful tones, he told reporters: Kids across the state would soon return to school, where’d they’d carefully place apples on the desks of their teachers, and look up with doe-eyed innocence while their teachers explained to them that the governor, the state’s paterfamilias, had broken the public’s trust.

Perry, to his credit, felt the gravity of the situation. He said the charges were bunk, of course, but he’d work hard to regain our faith. A veteran statesman, he knows that the public’s trust in the institutions of government is as fragile as a paper lantern—and just as beautiful—and he’d make sure they remained intact.

Perry never struck me as a stress eater. This week has been full of surprises.

3) Perry caught two felony indictments, and missed out on others. It seemed incomplete. It was only a matter of time, really, that he caught the third:

The judge said that Perry might have made a veiled threat when he said: “I am confident we will ultimately prevail, that this farce of a prosecution will be revealed for what it is, and that those responsible will be held to account.”

[...]

The Texas Penal Code that outlaws obstruction and retaliation says that anyone who “intentionally or knowingly harms or threatens to harm” a grand juror faces a second degree felony, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

(Editor’s note: This will be the Observer’s last “three things” joke. We apologize unreservedly to our readers and the public at large, and the author will be disciplined accordingly.)

4) There’s part of me that’s going to miss outgoing state Rep. Steve Toth, who combined all of Jonathan Stickland’s bomb-throwing qualities and nose for policy with the diplomatic skills of an old Eddie Haskell. I’m not just going to miss him for stuff like this:

The best thing has been watching him interact with other legislators. Take this delicate three-act ballet, in which Mr. Toth, who starts by incorrectly asserting that Rosemary Lehmberg indicted Perry, slams a number of his fellow Republicans.

Into the breach steps the conservative but thoughtful state Rep. David Simpson, who explained his vote at length. Instantly, immediately, the fire goes out of Toth’s eyes.

The camaraderie of the Texas House: There’s nothing like it.

5) College is a time for experimentation and exploration. I’m not going to tell anyone that they’re doing it wrong: We all had to find our own way.

But can we all get together and buy these guys a keg or a cheap plastic bong or something? I mean, come on.

Gun Silouhette
courtesy Lisa Roe/flickr creative commons

School districts across Texas have had a rough go of things in the last couple years, starting with the Legislature’s $5.4 billion cut to public education funding in 2011. A lot of the state’s schools went on a starvation diet. Chronic underfunding of public education seems to be the state’s new norm. Which has left a lot of schools in Texas scrambling to find ways to pay for the bare necessities themselves. Take tiny Childress and Shamrock ISDs, two districts in the Panhandle that shelled out quite a bit of money—on guns. Childress ISD spent $150,000.

The money’s for more than just guns, of course—it’s for guns, and a support system for the guns, reports the Amarillo Globe-News.  The nearby town of Shamrock, with a population of 2,000 and a school district enrollment of about 430, paved the way for regional innovation with the installation of gun safes in classrooms, which would let staff members access heat in a hurry. Childress, with a population of a little over 6,100 and a school district enrollment of about 1,100, knew they were on to something good.

Childress ISD’s board approved a similar measure last year that allows certain school employees to access firearms kept in safes, [Superintendent Rick] Teran said. The school district devoted $150,000 to the purchase of firearms, safes, practice ammunition, a panic system and training, he said.

“With all the issues in the nation now, with gunmen coming into our schools and attacking our children, we felt it was our next step for our community,” Teran said.

It’s one of a number of precautions the rural schools are taking.

Childress and Shamrock’s programs include several training seminars, including a three-day session that included a simulated active-shooter situation, Teran said.
Childress police also have participated in active-shooter training in the elementary school, he said.
Childress ISD has completed other safety efforts, including hiring a liaison officer and installing a panic system that gives teachers access to hidden buttons in classrooms to alert law enforcement of a security issue, Teran said. The school district is also adding $150,000 in surveillance cameras, he said.

Teran showed the Globe-News he possessed a keen understanding of public education’s purpose. “We’re not here to take a life,” he said. “We’re here to protect children. Whether we’re safer or not, that’s up to each individual. But I think we’re a little more prepared.”

(Calls to Childress ISD were not returned.)

Questions abound: How long would it take a determined student to find a way into one of those safes? What happens if an adult in the school snaps? How much training is enough to effectively respond to a threat? If they’re going to be armed, are they armed enough? Could they defeat an intruder with body armor and an assault rifle?

It would be easy to poke fun at Childress ISD’s plan. But it’s part of a broader trend, and it’s not completely irrational. School shootings have become part and parcel of American life. Any individual school is very unlikely to be affected by one, but the horror when one is is enough to push schools to take extraordinary precautions. Although little Childress is an unlikely target, no one can really say what the likely targets are.

The parents and administrators of Childress ISD are trying, as best as they can figure how, to safeguard and bolster their children’s future. This is an wholly imperfect way to do that, but the sad thing is that we as a society haven’t given better options to the district’s frightened parents.

Childress has lagged behind academically: In recent years, they’ve fallen behind state average test scores. The $300,000 the school district spent on guns, panic buttons, and security cameras is the going rate of ten new teachers, according to salary information obtained by the Texas Tribune—or could pay for five for two years, two new teachers for five years, etc.

Or it could pay an additional college counselor’s salary for five years, with enough money to keep the debate and math clubs waist deep in the finest pizza Childress has to offer.

But instead, the “arm the teachers” plan is spreading—the Globe-News reports that Bushland ISD, near Amarillo, may take up a similar measure. A number of other schools around Texas already allow some personnel to carry concealed weapons on school premises. Tiny Leverett’s Chapel ISD, in East Texas, made that legal last year, with the charmingly evocative condition that “only ammunition designed to have reduced ricochet hazard will be permitted.” But Childress’ decision to purchase guns directly makes its situation somewhat unusual.

So Childress kids, and kids elsewhere, will have to wait on the next session of the Legislature for those extra college counselors—though they shouldn’t hold their breath.

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