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The Trouble with TribTalk

Trib Talk logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andrea Grimes
Jen Reel
Andrea Grimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ok man!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BASIS San Antonio's campus

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tragedy has again struck Texas’s most vulnerable charges—its foster children. A 4-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister both drowned while visiting Lake Georgetown with their foster parents on Sunday. Such horrors typically prompt calls for reform, but these particular deaths have the potential to disrupt controversial changes to the foster care system that are already underway. That’s because the agency that placed the children in their foster home is Providence Kids, a sister company of Providence Service Corporation, one of the major contractors Texas recently hired to take over and privatize a large swath of its foster care system under a privatization scheme called “foster care redesign.” (Read “Fostering Neglect,” the Observer’s June 2014 feature on foster care redesign here.) Under redesign, large lead agencies oversee dozens of private child-placing agencies, and the deaths call into question whether private contractors can effectively manage such agencies—even the ones they own.

The two children, originally from Waco, had lived with the foster family since August. Georgetown police say the children were playing a breath-holding game in two to three feet of water about 10 to 15 feet from the shore, according to press accounts. After the pair failed to surface for several minutes, a 12-year-old who also lived in the home went looking for them and found the bodies. The victims had two other siblings, a 1-year-old girl and a 22-month-old boy, who lived with the foster family but have since been moved. No names have been released.

The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) is investigating the deaths. “This is an unspeakable tragedy,” said DFPS Commissioner Judge John Specia in a statement on Monday. “We will find out exactly what happened, and whether or not it could have been prevented. Foster children must be kept safe.”

One other foster child, 11-month-old Orien Hamilton, died in state custody this fiscal year. She was crushed to death by her foster mother’s ex-husband. Seven foster children died of abuse or neglect in Texas in the 2013 fiscal year.

Like almost all foster kids in Texas, the children who drowned were placed in their foster home by a private child-placing agency that recruits, trains and supervises foster families. DFPS has stopped placements with Providence Kids until it finishes its investigation. Providence Kids has 29 foster children placed in eight homes in Central Texas, and the department says Child Protective Services will visit each home as a precaution.

Texas has hundreds of private child-placing agencies, but Providence Kids is unique. It shares a childcare license with Providence Service Corporation of Texas, the for-profit company recently contracted by the state to oversee all the other private child-placing agencies in a vast 60-county area of West Texas.

Redesign is controversial for several reasons, including that it places a layer of bureaucracy between the state and its foster kids, distributes the same budget money among more parties—some of which, like Providence, have to turn a profit—and does not include the increased training and oversight that stakeholders say would prevent neglect and abuse. So far, the state has rolled out redesign in two regions and plans to start accepting bids on a third region this summer, a move many stakeholders are asking to delay until more data is available on how redesign affects foster kids’ lives.

For a company to take over a region, it must be a licensed child-placing agency. That means if Providence Kids lost its license because of the two child deaths, Providence Service Corporation would be in violation of its contract with the state.

But while this is possible, it’s not likely. Patrick Crimmins, a spokesperson for DFPS, says it typically would take more than deaths in one family to threaten the license of a child-placing agency. “If this investigation [of Providence Kids] turns up problems in other homes,” Crimmins says, “and persists and persists and persists, you put them on evaluation. If that doesn’t work, you kick it up to probation. At some point down the line, yes, a license could get revoked.”

UT Austin President Bill Powers.
UT Austin President Bill Powers.

The years-long brawl between the University of Texas System Board of Regents and UT-Austin President Bill Powers may be coming to a conclusion this week. Word broke on Friday—July 4th, when few Texans were paying attention to the news—that the regents were moving to sack Powers.

His firing could come as soon as Thursday’s regents meeting, though quite a few are rallying to save him—it’s rare to see Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and former Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on the same side of an issue. For much of the last year, both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature have attempted to stymie the regents’ efforts to depose Powers, including impeachment proceedings for Regent Wallace Hall. But it may be all for naught.

That has huge consequences for the future of the UT System. But how we got to this point—the meandering way a relatively simple power struggle over education policy turned into a years-long bureaucratic trench fight—says a lot about the way politics is conducted in Texas, and not much about Powers himself.

The tactics employed by the anti-Powers coalition, most notably by the groups associated with the conservative powerbroker Michael Quinn Sullivan, have been used on dozens of candidates. All’s fair in politics. But knocking off a (popular) university president feels different, and if they’re successful, it’s a sign that no one, and no institution in the state, is safe from the sprawling blitzkrieg that’s consumed Texas political life.

Though it seems to be infrequently mentioned in a lot of the relevant commentary, the fight between the regents and Powers began for completely different reasons than the ones being debated now. The regents’ efforts to dislodge Powers come in the middle of a years-long fight over the direction of public universities in Texas, which pits a number of right-wing higher ed activists against nearly everyone else.

The first stages of that fight are chronicled in an excellent Texas Monthly story from October 2012. The short of it: An Austin oilman and investor named Jeff Sandefer had a series of long-standing resentments and disputes with the University of Texas, where he once taught in the business school. He, and a number of other wealthy businessmen pulled together in the orbit of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing advocacy organization with a direct line to Gov. Rick Perry. The group sought to make higher ed run more like a business, with a smaller, harder-working faculty, cheaper tuition and less emphasis on unprofitable departments. (Picture an Austin with fewer film students and more petroleum engineers.)

Perry loved their ideas, and appointed the “reform” cohort’s fellow travelers to leadership positions within A&M and UT. They tried to implement their ideas first at A&M, Perry’s alma mater. Among other alienating moves, the reformers made lists of A&M’s faculty, calculating how much money each had generated for the university. Teach lectures with hundreds of kids in an auditorium, and you’d earned your salary—spend time in small groups, or in research labs, and you hadn’t. The A&M fight, too, went on for years.

When they came for UT, the faculty—and many of the university’s alumni—were suitably freaked out from the beginning. Members of the UT Board of Regents made assurances that it wouldn’t try to alter the fundamental character of the university, but the regents’ opponents pointed to their cohort’s past work and statements—that university research efforts provided little of worth, for example. The school’s faculty and alumni feared a more utilitarian approach to college education would cheapen UT’s name and reputation. It fell to Powers, the president of UT’s flagship campus since 2006, to resist the reform agenda.

For several years, it seemed like a stalemate. Members of the Board of Regents, appointed by the governor, were determined to overhaul the system, but unable to do so without the control or consent of UT’s top officers. The regents talked occasionally about firing Powers, but never followed through. In 2012, Teresa A. Sullivan, the widely-liked president of the University of Virginia, was fired for her failure to comply with similar reform efforts, but was swiftly reinstated as a result of demands from faculty and alumni. The lesson from Virginia must have been clear to the Texas regents. If they wanted to fire Powers, they needed to find another reason. And they seemed confident that they would. In early 2013, Hall was in talks with Alabama football coach Nick Saban. Wallace Hall told Saban that Powers would be out of a job by year’s end, an assurance that must have done wonders for Saban’s estimation of UT’s stability.

So, over the course of the last year, they cast around for a reason to fire Powers until they found one. During this whole sordid process, the Legislature had stood firmly behind Powers. Wasn’t it a scandal, Powers’ opponents said, that during this time legislators had written letters of recommendation for friends and family applying to the university? Had Powers helped legislators in exchange for their support? The campaign always seemed thin, but it rumbled on regardless. UT is currently investigating the allegations of improper influence.

So the anti-Powers coalition pivoted, and with a little effort, they recast the whole episode into a more sympathetic narrative. Any mention of the debate over UT’s direction was excised from the stories they wrote. Powers, they started to say, was a fat-cat ally of the fat-cat Legislature. He was a relentlessly corrupt influence peddler, part of the Establishment’s machine. And Regent Wallace Hall, who led the anti-Powers effort, was a bold truth-seeker and whistleblower who had charged, like a lion, into UT’s den of iniquity and emerged triumphant with the terrible, awful truth.

If that new narrative sounds familiar, that’s partly because the effort was led by the amorphous messaging machine around Michael Quinn Sullivan, and his network of organizations, which now seems to have expanded to annex the conservative content aggregator Breitbart Texas. Sullivan used the same Manichean language he’s used in his other crusades in the UT fight, to great effect—he even appointed Powers an ally of House Speaker Joe Straus, his hated enemy. When word first broke on Friday that Powers might be canned, it was Sullivan that wrote it up for Breitbart in an article heavy on anonymous sources.

And his approach went national. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which seems, when it comes to Texas, to be the end point of a pneumatic tube that delivers talking points directly from Sullivan’s office, wrote about the fight in exactly the terms Sullivan outlined. Hall, the Journal wrote, was a crusader that had tried his level best to “root out potential wrongdoing at the university,” and had been penalized by a corrupt and mendacious legislature.

If Powers goes down, he’ll only be the latest public figure to be taken down this way. This playbook–find a hidden flank and relentlessly attack it, sling mud, perpetuate gross distortions and substitute issues of your choosing for the things that are really at stake—has helped the groups attacking Powers knock off dozens of primary candidates and legislators in recent years. They’ve transformed not only the state’s political landscape, but how the state does politics.

But Powers isn’t a politician—he’s outside the political system, ostensibly, though his situation has become increasingly politicized in recent years. Sullivan and his allies specialize in covering up power plays with the cloak of principled opposition. They supported an accused wife-beater against Republican state Sen. Bob Deuell in this year’s Republican primary because Deuell had been insufficiently subservient to Sullivan’s organizations. Instead of saying that, they settled on a lie—Deuell was a pro-choice liberal—and repeated it ad nauseam, until, on election day, he crumbled.

Now, the mau-mauers appear to be expanding their successful campaign to the Forty Acres. If they succeed in picking off the popular leader of a major public institution like UT Austin, that sets a dangerous precedent.

"Saving the Dragan Family" on
The Dragan Family

Over the past decade and a half, the federal government has created a cash cow for private prison companies by detaining record numbers of undocumented immigrants in for-profit lockups. In 2009, Congress even imposed a quota on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), obliging the agency to detain an average of 34,000 immigrants per night across all of its facilities. At an average cost of $164 per day per detainee, the math works out quite well for private prison companies such as GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, which post billions in annual revenue. Taxpayers should be infuriated. Proven, common-sense alternatives to detention, including monitoring and case management, are available at a savings of more than $1 billion a year.

To fulfill the so-called bed mandates, detention centers are often populated with low-level detainees who are neither threats to security nor flight risks. Texas in general, and ICE’s San Antonio field office in particular, house among the highest number of low-level detainees in the country.

Consider 29-year-old Andrei Dragan. Dragan has been incarcerated at the South Texas Detention Center (STDC) in Pearsall, about an hour southwest of San Antonio, since May 23. Dragan, who has lived in the U.S. legally off and on since he was 5, lost his permanent residency due to a drug offense in 2010.

But he doesn’t need to be locked up. He served his sentence and dutifully obeyed his terms of probation.

Dragan and his lawyer believe he’s a United States citizen because his mother became a naturalized citizen when he was a juvenile. “He is an American as much as a Romanian,” his wife writes on a website devoted to Dragan’s release.

Dragan was employed as a Linux administrator in Manor and is the sole breadwinner for his wife and two young children, with a third baby on the way. Though his wife’s pregnancy has been diagnosed as high-risk and his employer sent a character reference to the court on his behalf, Dragan remains trapped, like tens of thousands of others, inside a slow-moving immigration system.

Several immigration attorneys I spoke with confirmed that STDC, which houses an average of 1,500 detainees at a time, is understaffed, and detainees can’t schedule legal appointments in timely fashion. Until recently, GEO Group, the private company that runs STDC, set aside only three rooms at the facility for attorneys to meet with their clients. After much complaining from attorneys, the prison transformed a broom closet into a fourth meeting room with limited access. Lawyers typically wait one to two hours to see their clients, but some tell me they’ve waited as long as eight hours.

“It’s difficult to recruit pro bono attorneys to do this work,” says Benicio Diaz, of American Gateways, an Austin-based nonprofit provider of legal services.

There also aren’t enough judges for every detention facility, so many detainees participate in their legal proceedings on closed-circuit television. Often attorneys have to decide whether to be with their client or with the judge.

“God forbid your client doesn’t speak English,” Diaz adds. “They have to phone in a translator. You’re listening to a translator via telephone, watching a judge on television.”

In an attempt to expedite his release, Dragan has volunteered to leave the country, but the government can sometimes take as long as six months to process a detainee out of the country—a far cry from the popular image of Mexican immigrants swiftly booted back across the river. To add to that, a 2009 Associated Press study of ICE data showed that of the 32,000 people detained on a given day, 950 had been there over six months and more than 400 had been there over a year.   

It’s hard to see who benefits from this inhumane and absurd system, other than private prison companies and their enablers in Congress. Expanding successful, low-cost alternatives to detention programs doesn’t just make good fiscal sense, it’s the right thing to do.

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