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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.
reddit
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.

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Rick Perry speaks outside the Travis County courthouse Thursday, August 19, 2014.

Rick Perry’s one of the best politicians around when he can play to a friendly crowd, but lately we haven’t gotten to see much of that. He’s a lame duck, after all. He doesn’t speak much in public in Texas anymore; he’s spending a lot of time in Iowa and South Carolina. So it’s been easy to forget that this is a guy whose tenure as governor is entering its teenage years for good reason—in the right setting, he is excellent at rousing a crowd.

The “right setting” apparently includes the courthouse where he’s being indicted for twin felonies. The drama that started last Friday will go on, presumably, for a long time. But make no bones about it—Perry’s winning the first act. Today, Perry got booked at the Travis County Justice Complex. He got fingerprinted, and got his mugshot taken. And he embarked on one of the most audacious adventures in modern American politics—can Rick Perry use twin felony indictments as a springboard into the White House?

Maybe that’s a stretch, but things are going very well for him so far. Of course, there’s the small caveat that the indictment just came down.

But in a defiant speech, Perry told the crowd—a mixture of the Texas press corps, a variety of left and right political types, and a handful of supporters, some of whom were beckoned here by Sid Miller (and who could ask for a better character witness than Sid Miller?)—that he would do it all again.

Perry spoke before and after he entered the courthouse. He was “standing for the rule of law” when he pressured Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign. The indictments were an “attack on our system of government,” and his legal team would “prevail.” He thanked the crew at the courthouse who booked him for their “great professionalism.” It was slightly less fiery than his press conference Saturday, when he seemed to threaten special prosecutor Michael McCrum with consequences for his grave overreach—but only slightly.

rickperrybooking3

There’s no Perry like Perry on attack. Could he come out of this better than he went in to it? Maybe. A few high-ranking Texas Democrats, who hope otherwise, were in attendance today. Will Hailer, the Democratic Party’s executive director, spoke to the media afterwards. Soon, Texas school kids would be heading back to class, Hailer said, and in civics classes across the state, they’d learn that their governor had been indicted.

Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, was also in attendance. He was less mournful. “The governor’s favorability is going up, not down,” he said. “This is absolutely going to help him.”

Munisteri added: “If he can resolve these charges before the Iowa caucuses, I think he’s gonna be a folk hero.” Could he still be president? “I think Gov. Perry’s going to run for president and I think he’s going to be a very strong contender.”

Those are strong words. The future leader of the free world celebrated his good day, as we all would, with ice cream.

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels

Judging from the reaction of national pundits and journalists, the verdict in the case of State of Texas vs. James Richard “Rick” Perry is already in: Rick Perry is not just innocent, he’s being railroaded by liberal Democrats in a vindictive, politically motivated prosecution. The rush to judgment happened almost immediately after the indictments came down on Friday, even as our friends in New York and Washington confessed that they knew little of Rick Perry’s legal troubles and in some cases hadn’t even read the two-page indictment, much less bothered to understand the issue in the larger political context. Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine called the indictment “unbelievably ridiculous” and fulminated that Perry “is exactly as guilty as” a “ham sandwich,” referring to the old saw that a good prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich.

On Twitter, top-shelf pundits were even more dismissive:

Obama adviser David Axelrod, who knows a thing about expansive executive authority, weighed in:

Axelrod’s tweets led to headlines such as “Rick Perry: Even David Axelrod Thinks Indictment Is ‘Sketchy.’

The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson wrote that she “felt sorry” for Rick Perry and compared the case against the governor to the congressional Republicans’ lawsuit against Barack Obama.

Even legal analysts seemed strangely lazy about the whole thing. UC-Irvine law professor and blogger Rick Hasen admitted he hadn’t “studied Texas law or the indictment closely enough” but nonetheless went on to make the sweeping claim that the indictment represents the “criminalization of politics.”

Among elite commentators, this seems to be the emerging consensus—that the pursuit of Perry somehow was a fundamental departure from legal norms and represents an attack on the very practice of politics. Incidentally, this is precisely the line that Rick Perry is taking. On Saturday, he called  the prosecution a “farce” and lamented that “some would use partisan political theatrics to rip away at the very fabric of our state’s constitution.”

Since uninformed speculation is apparently the coin of the realm, allow me to opine on what I think is going on. In the last few months, political reporters have begun writing the Rick Perry 2.0 Comeback story. National Journal had a particularly credulous piece—titled “The New Rick Perry”—that spent more than a thousand words allowing Perry to explain his decision to adopt those MSNBC glasses. More significantly, the piece basically chucked out almost everything we’ve learned about Rick Perry over his decades in politics to posit that he’s suddenly, mutatis mutandis, some sort of serious “bipartisan uniter” who’s shucked off the focus groups and polling and is finally just being his charming, fun-loving awesome self. It’s at best meta-level campaign bullshit, but this is how political journalism is practiced. The indictment—and the possibility that Perry could be knocked out of the running and even facing prison time because he’s a corrupt bully—blows a giant hole in the script.

There’s also a tendency on the part of political journalists to criticize anything that sanitizes the bloodsport of partisan politics. Like those football fans who belly-ache about new safety-conscious rules that “sissify” the game, political junkies are wedded to the idea that all’s fair in politics. That’s one reason, I think, why the press outside of Texas has been so incapable of seeing this through anything other than a partisan lens. The zealousness with which that line has been pursued—and reinforced by Perry’s allies—has led to some serious factual blunders and misconceptions. In the interest of trying to bring this episode back to reality, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Partisan Democrats Are Not Leading the Perry Prosecution

The criminal complaint against Perry was filed in June 2013 by the liberal Texans for Public Justice but it was assigned to a Republican judge in Bexar County who appointed Michael McCrum—a former police officer and prosecutor in the George H.W. Bush administration—as special prosecutor. McCrum was previously tapped by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (both conservative Republicans) to be the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas. There is no evidence that McCrum has a partisan axe to grind—quite the contrary.

The Travis County DA’s office, including Rosemary Lehmberg, had nothing to do with the indictment.

It’s Not About Rosemary Lehmberg’s Disgraceful Behavior… Or Even Perry’s Veto

As much as Perry and some in the media would like to make this about Lehmberg’s outrageous drunk driving—Perry’s legal team played a tape of her buffoon-ish behavior at the jail—the legal case against Perry is not about that.

I was someone who thought Lehmberg should have resigned for the simple reason that it is unseemly for a prosecutor guilty of drunk driving to send people to jail for the same crime. However, the process for removing Lehmberg is a local one. The local system opted not to remove her and Lehmberg pleaded guilty and went to jail. She plans to step down at the end of her term.

The Travis County DA is no different, in almost every respect, than the more than 300 local elected prosecutors in Texas. She is locally elected and is a servant of the jurisdiction she represents. The only thing unique about the Travis County DA’s office is that it contains the Public Integrity Unit, which polices corruption in state government. Practically speaking, this anti-corruption unit is one of the few checks on the power and influence Perry has accumulated over 14 years in office.

The Public Integrity Unit is largely funded by the Texas Legislature. That money isn’t earmarked for Rosemary Lehmberg; it’s earmarked for the oversight function of the Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit. It is that money that Perry threatened to line-item veto if Lehmberg did not resign. When she did not, and Travis County opted not to remove her, Perry then yanked the funding. Afterwards, he continued to make offers to restore the funding in exchange for Lehmberg’s resignation, according to media reports. One account says he signaled that he would find Lehmberg another well-paying job within the DA’s office. Had she resigned, Perry would have appointed her successor.

The criminal case against Perry centers on his “coercion” of a local elected official using threats and promises. It is not premised—as has been repeatedly misreported—on the veto itself. Craig McDonald, the head of Texans for Public Justice and the original complainant, has said as much. As McDonald told CNN:

“The governor is doing a pretty good job to try to make this about [Lehmberg] and her DWI conviction. But this has never been about his veto of her budget and about her. This is about his abuse of power and his coercion trying to get another public citizen to give up their job.”

There is a Lot We Don’t Know…Yet

It is quite possible that the case against Rick Perry will fizzle. Perhaps it is “flimsy” and “thin” and all the rest. Credible legal experts have said they think the prosecution will have a difficult time securing a conviction. However, none of us is privy to the evidence and testimony presented to the grand jury. According to Peggy Fikac of the San Antonio Express-News, McCrum said he “interviewed more than 40 people, reviewed hundreds of documents and read many dozens of cases.” Fikac and other reporters who staked out the courthouse long before the national press spent five minutes reading the indictment watched “current and former Perry staffers, Travis County employees and state lawmakers” entering the grand jury room over the summer.

It is possible that McCrum has gathered more information on Perry’s motives that will come to light later. Although the indictment doesn’t mention it, the Public Integrity Unit is investigating a scandal involving the $3 billion Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, a fund close to the governor’s office that suffered from cronyism and lax oversight. The Public Integrity Unit indicted one CPRIT official in December for deceiving his colleagues and awarding an $11 million grant to a Dallas biotech firm without a proper vetting.

What else, if anything, did McCrum turn up in his interviews and document search? At this point, we just don’t know.

This doesn’t make for explosive headlines but the fact is, we’re just going to have to wait and see how the case unfolds.

Lets-Be-Cops-poster

Let’s be cops!

Let’s just run with the premise of this weekend’s biggest box-office laugher. Let’s find a buddy and go on a little pro bono neighborhood patrol. Let’s assert a little authority around here!

We wouldn’t be the first to try it lately.

Let’s parade through Houston’s black communities in a crowd of white guys with guns!

“We think that an armed society is a polite society,” said Open Carry’s C.J. Grisham. “We want to encourage citizens in the Fifth Ward to take back their community from the criminal element.”

Let’s use philosophy!

“If people tell you not to exercise a right, do you not exercise that right,” asked Grisham.

Let’s explain why someone else’s neighborhood is better off with our assault weapons!

“I told him that emotions would run very high on the outset and that there were better ways to come into our community,” Quanell X says.

“I would never tell a black man or anyone that he is not welcome in any part of this country, but that’s what they did to us,” Grisham says.

“He needs to do some history homework. He will learn and see why black people don’t like white men coming to the Fifth Ward,” said Quanell X on Thursday. He points to a history of racial unrest in the area dating back decades, of night riders and blacks being told to get inside before sundown.

Well hey, let’s just hold off for now. Maybe let things cool down a little.

mclennan-county-sheriff-posse

Or let’s join a posse!

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara says he has been overwhelmed with community support after posting to social media his idea to form a “posse.”

“I’m very excited about it,” he said. “I’m overwhelmed by the response. I really am.”

mclennan-county-posse-facebook

Deputy Danie Huffman, the Parker County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said she can’t say enough good things about the Parker County Sheriff’s Posse, which was formed in 1947.

“Posses these days are really not the same as posses years ago,” she said.

Let’s maybe consider this plan in light of the Texas Monthly 1998 story on McNamara’s previous posse, “The Last Posse“:

We don’t hang horse thieves anymore, which is lucky for the men who took Marisa McNamara’s sorrel mare. But as the band of old-time Texas lawmen who hunted them down will proudly tell you, frontier justice is alive and well.

I know, let’s join a militia! Let’s secure the border and give those drug lords what-for!

“What I was told is (the militia groups) are on private property, helping ranchers and owners to keep illegals coming onto or through their property … and there haven’t been any problems,” [State Rep. Doug] Miller told the Express-News. “When (the groups) are coming into an area, they’ve been very forthright, letting (law enforcement) know they were there so there wouldn’t be some type of negative interaction.”

 

So many places to protect! Where to go first? Let’s just vent our impotent rage for a bit!

east-texas-militia-facebook

 

Oh, holy crap. If this is a game warden, let’s be game wardens!

Let’s be politicians! Let’s loosen up our flag-print ties, throw on some tactical gear and take a gunboat cruise along the Rio Grande!

State Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels), right.
Doug Miller/Facebook
State Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels), right.

Let’s be governor! No. Commander-in-chief!

“You now are the tip of the spear in protecting Americans from these cartels and gangs,” Perry said in a visit to Camp Swift near Bastrop, where the Guard is training. “As they are able to get past you, they could be headed to any city, any neighborhood in this country, and they’re spreading their tentacles of crime and fear.”

Let’s better watch out for those other folks spreading fear!

Or let’s start our own country and just defend it ourselves!

A 60-year-old Corinth man who shot at officers and firefighters Monday in Far North Dallas espoused anti-government views and claimed to be starting his own nation called “Dougie-stan,” police said Tuesday.

Police say they had found no link between Douglas Lee LeGuin, a Corinth homeowner with no criminal past, and any specific anti-government groups or movements. There was also no clear link between LeGuin and the Far North Dallas house where police said he planned to “occupy” the new nation.

[...]

He also said he was upset with Dallas police for “shooting the mentally handicapped.”

 

Not that it’s done anything to dampen the political bluster, the border vigilanteism or the enthusiastic firepower parade here in Texas, but this really isn’t the week to play cops.

 

Troopers lead a woman out the Capitol's east doors Friday evening.
Patrick Michels
Troopers lead a woman out the Capitol's east doors during a contentious debate on House Bill 2.

House Bill 2, the sweeping anti-abortion bill shuttering clinics around the state, emerged last summer from a paroxysm of legislative and popular uproar—some of the most unusual events the Capitol had ever seen. But now that the bill’s snaking its way through the courts, spontaneity has given over to a grim legal march that’s likely to hold few surprises until it—or a measure like it—goes before the Supreme Court, too late to stop the cull of abortion providers in the state. Even if the bill’s supporters ultimately lose their legal defense of the measure, they’ve won.

On Wednesday, the two sides made closing arguments in the second of two legal efforts to reverse parts of HB 2. The first, which took place last year, challenged provisions in the bill that toughened restrictions around medication abortions, and required doctors to get admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel sided partially with abortion providers, but his ruling was quickly overturned by the conservative Fifth Circuit.

This time, a legal team representing a group of abortion providers challenged different provisions of the law in the same court, arguing that the admitting privileges requirement and a separate stipulation that abortion facilities be built to the standards of a surgical center would eliminate access to abortion in wide swathes of the state. Clinics in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso have been or will be shuttered, leaving Texans seeking abortion with the prospect of overnight trips to other parts of the state, or travel across state or national borders. The diminished access, the plaintiffs argued, would impose an unconstitutional “undue burden” on women seeking access to an abortion.

Yeakel seemed receptive to that argument—at times, he pushed the abortion providers’ attorney, Stephanie Toti, to go further. If it would be an undue burden for a poor woman seeking an abortion to travel 550 miles to abortion clinic, wouldn’t it also be an undue burden to travel 150 miles? Wouldn’t it be an undue burden even for a “wealthy woman in a Mercedes Benz who drives fast” if that woman had to take a day off work to get a medical procedure she could have received in her home town?

“I have a problem with believing that it’s reasonable to ask anyone to travel 150 miles to get medical care they could get closer to them,” Yeakel said. He pressed Toti: Was there any other medical procedure the state had limited access to so severely? Would it be acceptable to force someone to travel 150 miles to get treatment for a sprained ankle?

The state’s closing argument boiled down to a simple message to Yeakel: Your hands are tied. The Fifth Circuit ruling that overturned Yeakel’s decision, along with other Supreme Court rulings on abortion restrictions, left the judge with little discretion, argued Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell.

Mitchell seemed relaxed and comfortable as he made his closing argument: He was bowling with the bumpers on. Ignore the Fifth Circuit’s recent ruling, Mitchell argued, and the court would “issue a decision that will be overturned.” Yeakel can rule how he wants, but we know where the Fifth Circuit, overseen by hyper-conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, stands. Only the Supreme Court itself could sort out these concerns, and that will be some time away.

So unless the Fifth Circuit surprises just about everyone, the raft of abortion clinic regulations will go into effect on September 1, a little more than two weeks from now. Toti told the court that “less than seven” abortion clinics are fully in compliance with all parts of the new law: Ultimately, seven may be operating, all in major cities in the San Antonio-Houston-Dallas/Fort Worth triangle. Yeakel told the court that his opinion would be issued as soon as possible—but his ruling, if he chose to issue an injunction against parts of the law, could be itself overturned with equal speed.

Even if the matter is taken up by the Supreme Court and parts of the law are ultimately ruled unconstitutional, the bill will have done what supporters, like Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, promised it would: Gut access to legal abortion in Texas. A network of clinics and providers had been built up over time, and action by the Supreme Court, when and if it ultimately comes, can’t restore that. The legal challenges will continue to provide drama, but for pro-choicers, it’s a lose-lose.

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