Google+ Back to mobile

Snake Oil

Carrol A. Thomas stadium in Beaumont
Patrick Michels
After playing a part in the scandal that enveloped Beaumont ISD, electrician Calvin Walker has filed a suit against 32 defendants.

Two figures at the heart of the recent scandal in Beaumont ISD, who were often presented as emblems of the district’s lax financial controls and toxic personal politics by reform activists, have fired back against dozens of officials and reporters they say targeted them out of racial bias.

The last four years have been a particularly intense and litigious time even by Beaumont standards. A group of mostly white community leaders accused BISD’s first two black superintendents of running the district into the ground. The schools have lately seen federal investigations, a state takeover, the replacement of a superintendent and an entire school board, and prison time for former officials.

The district’s former purchasing officer is in federal prison for transferring school money to himself. A former high school booster club president was sentenced in June to a year in federal prison for using the club’s money as his personal debit account. And Calvin Walker, a contract electrician accused of overbilling the school district by at least $2 million, is scheduled to stand trial in early August.

This latest chapter comes just as the district seemed to be settling down after years of turmoil. It’s been 15 months since the FBI raided an administrator’s home, for instance.

In May, a new superintendent took over for the interim leader brought in by the state, and the state-appointed board of managers will be gone by next May, ending the state’s takeover. Bit by bit, vestiges of the previous era in BISD are disappearing. New superintendent John Frossard has promised to improve the schools by fostering cooperation in the community. There is much talk, particularly from those who’ve come out on top in the recent shakeup, of healing and leaving the past behind.

And then, earlier this month, came Calvin Walker’s lawsuit against… well, pretty much everybody.

Just ahead of his scheduled criminal trial in Jefferson County on August 3, Walker filed a lengthy complaint against 32 defendants, whom he accuses of joining in a complex conspiracy to destroy his reputation and his business. Among those named in Walker’s suit: the local electricians’ union, a host of school officials from both before and after the state’s takeover, state and federal prosecutors, and four news outlets.

Walker alleges that leaders of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers chapter sought vengeance because he refused to join the union, undercut union members on costs and started getting work from the school district. According to the complaint, former high-ranking school district officials Terry Ingram and Jane Kingsley parroted the union’s concerns about Walker at BISD meetings, drawing extra scrutiny to Walker’s work. The complaint alleges the school district maintained tougher standards for black contractors, but that Walker’s low bids made it impossible to award work contracts to anyone else without obviously discriminating — until, of course, his 37-count federal indictment on fraud charges.

Walker at one point faced the prospect of life in prison, but with help from Houston mega-attorney Dick DeGuerin (former clients include Tom DeLay, Robert Durst and David Koresh), his first trial ended in a mistrial. Walker later pleaded guilty to failing to pay income taxes. Now Walker faces state charges of fraud and money laundering related to his work for the school district, charges he’s currently fighting by claiming that yet another trial would amount to double jeopardy.

On Thursday, Walker was joined in the suit by Jessie Haynes, spokesperson and top adviser to former Superintendent Carrol Thomas. Haynes became a key player in the battle for BISD after tangling with a school board member as she tried to block him from a room in the district office. Haynes was convicted of “obstructing a public passageway,” while her defenders rallied for “Justice for Jessie.”

Giugi Carminati, the Houston attorney representing Haynes and Walker, said the common thread in their cases is that their success made them targets. She said Walker and Haynes are especially dramatic examples of a dynamic that’s harmed many other black residents in Beaumont over the years. “When they identify a black person that is in a position of power, or is being ‘uppity,’ or is being successful, they try and put them back in their place,” Carminati told the Observer. “You don’t have to scratch very deep to see that it’s a question of racial tension.”

Her clients’ reputations are so damaged now, she said, that Walker can’t find business — according to the suit, his company has gone from 15 employees to just two — and that Haynes can’t find work.

Prosecutors and school trustees were complicit in the conspiracy, and were driven more by personal vendettas than any actual wrongdoing, she claims. She says she has the emails and Facebook messages to prove it. The complaint quotes U.S. Attorney Malcolm Bales in an email to then-District Attorney Cory Crenshaw: “I have seen Calvin’s manifesto. His criminality is outstripped only by his hubris.”

In the complaint filed this week, Walker seeks at least $22 million for defamation, and he and Haynes are also asking for unspecified damages beyond that.

The complaint also claims that the Beaumont Enterprise, Beaumont Examiner, Watchdog.org and SETInvestigates.com, defamed Walker, particularly by reporting that Walker’s plea agreement included an admission that he over-billed the school district by millions of dollars.

Jerry Jordan, whose SETInvestigates.com was the first to report many of the twists in the unfolding BISD scandal, said he was in the awkward position earlier this month of breaking the story that he and 31 others had been sued. Jordan said that being a defendant in the suit also complicates his reporting on Walker’s upcoming criminal trial.

The details he reported on Walker’s plea deal came directly from a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he said. He was surprised by the suit, though, because Walker often returned his calls for comment on the stories he wrote. “I have no animosity toward Calvin, except damn dude, I just wish you wouldn’t have sued me,” Jordan said.

Other media outlets and other defendants contacted either declined to comment or have not yet responded to the Observer’s requests.

 

Christopher Duntsch
Dallas County Sheriff's Office
Plano neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch faces criminal charges in Dallas County related to surgeries that left patients dead or injured.
Christopher Duntsch mugshot
Dallas County Sheriff's Office
Plano neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch faces criminal charges in Dallas County related to surgeries that that patients dead or injured.

Christopher Duntsch, the Plano neurosurgeon whose deadly surgical mishaps became a case study in how Texas law allows even the most dangerous doctors to keep practicing, is facing criminal charges—and this time it’s for more than stolen pants.

On Tuesday a Dallas County grand jury indicted Duntsch on six counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The victims: his patients. The weapons: “hands and surgical tools,” according to the indictments.

Five patients are named in the indictments, including three—Jeff Glidewell, Mary Efurd and Floella Brown—who were featured in Saul Elbein’s 2013 report for the Observer. Elbein’s piece detailed how Duntsch left some of his patients injured, paralyzed or dead, sometimes for minor procedures.

As the tragedies mounted, Duntsch’s peers tried unsuccessfully to prevent his return to the operating room. Duntsch easily moved from hospital to hospital. The Texas Medical Board took nearly a year to suspend his license after receiving the first complaint against Duntsch.

A handful of Duntsch’s patients turned to the courts to hold Duntsch and the hospitals accountable. In legal filings, they allege Duntsch was erratic, and even under the influence of drugs and alcohol while performing surgery. But his patients faced a roadblock: the decade-old tort reforms that raised the burden of proof and reduced the potential payout for medical malpractice cases. Duntsch made a cameo appearance in last year’s governor’s race, as the star of an attack ad against Gov. Greg Abbott, who, as attorney general, sought to intervene on the hospitals’ behalf, against Duntsch’s injured patients.

Some of those lawsuits are still ongoing, though Duntsch has been removed from some of the cases, and until today, the chances seemed slim that he would be held to account for more than the shoplifting charge we detailed here in May.

Duntsch faces two felony counts related to surgery performed on Mary Efurd, who appeared on the cover of the September 2013 Observer.
Duntsch faces two felony counts related to surgery performed on Mary Efurd, who appeared on the cover of the September 2013 Observer.

Tuesday’s indictments change all that.

“It was a very long investigation,” said Kevin Brooks, felony trial bureau chief in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, who declined to comment further.

Asked about precedent for a case like this, Brooks noted the recent conviction of a Michigan cancer doctor, who was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison for prescribing chemotherapy treatments to people without cancer.

Texas legal experts told the Observer that it’s exceptional for a doctor to face criminal charges related to delivery of care — and not, say, for drug, billing fraud, or sex crimes.

“It’s rather uncommon as you might assume,” Texas Medical Board spokesman Jarrett Schneider told the Observer. The board’s records of disciplinary actions, dating back to 1997, list only one doctor who lost his license following a conviction for criminal negligence: Michael Jackson’s doctor Conrad Murray.

Duntsch’s attorney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but in the comments section of our May story, Duntsch offered the most detailed defense of his actions he’s provided anywhere—30,000 words’ worth of rebuttal to his critics, or anyone who would suggest his care was anything other than excellent. “I am ranked in the top 2% in the world against 4 million scientists and higher than the last 10 nobel prize winners,” Duntsch wrote. To news outlets like the Observer, The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle, which repeated Dr. Randall Kirby’s estimation that Duntsch is a dangerous “sociopath,” Duntsch promised “100000 law suits [sic].”

In his comments, Duntsch did admit to shoplifting, which he explained as a simple mistake. “I do not see any approach to defending these actions other than explaining context, and I cannot imagine I would not simply be honest with the facts and the plea, your honor, I am indeed culpable for this misdemenor [sic],” he wrote.

Duntsch now must turn his legal efforts to the six new felonies he faces today.

 

 

standardized testing
National and local civil rights groups are divided on their support for the growing opt-out movement protesting standardized tests.

Late last school year, as word spread in Houston that a growing number of parents planned to protest standardized testing by keeping their kids home on test day, the Houston Independent School District reached out with a not-so-friendly reminder. In a letter to parents, a district official noted that failure to show up on state test day would result in “negative consequences” such as a score of zero and mandatory summer school.

The letter was notable, first of all, because it wasn’t true; the district soon backtracked, calling the threats an editing error. But the greater truth behind the missive is how far the opt-out movement has come in such a short time. Three years ago, just a handful of Texas parents, frustrated by the way testing and test prep had come to dominate their children’s class time, were pulling their kids from test days as a sort of civil disobedience, to deprive schools of at least a few precious test scores. This year, the movement was large enough to compel a response from the district.

Much of that is thanks to a group called Community Voices for Public Education, which held meetings in homes around the city explaining parents’ rights. Ruth Kravetz, a former HISD administrator who co-founded the group, says she knew of one parent who opted out in 2014. She counted 80 parents doing so this year.

The opt-out movement has grown even faster outside the state, particularly in hotbeds of resistance to the national Common Core standards. Around 200,000 children opted out this year in New York. The growing movement’s most visible members — in the press and in positions of leadership — have been mostly white, middle- and upper-class parents; the opt-out trend has been criticized for sidelining the voices of poor black and Latino parents.

Against that backdrop, 12 national civil rights groups signed a letter in May opposing the opt-out movement and suggesting the language of civil rights had been “appropriated” wrongly by the anti-test crowd. “When parents ‘opt out’ of tests — even when out of protest for legitimate concerns — they’re not only making a choice for their own child, they’re inadvertently making a choice to undermine efforts to improve schools for every child,” they wrote.

But the letter reflects a split among civil rights groups — in some cases, even different chapters of the same group. The national NAACP signed the letter, for instance, even as its local chapter in Seattle was celebrating its massive opt-out drive. The national League of United Latin American Citizens signed the letter, too, putting it at odds with its largest state chapter, Texas.

“LULAC began in Texas, and Texas LULAC has consistently been against high-stakes testing,” says University of Texas professor Angela Valenzuela. “The national organizations do not at all reflect the studied opinion of LULAC in our state.”

Valenzuela is a former education committee chair for the group’s Texas chapter and was also part of the Latino-led resistance to standardized testing in the 1990s, when the state first began denying high school diplomas to students for failing state tests. That policy prompted a lawsuit from Dr. Hector P. Garcia’s American GI Forum on behalf of poor students of color almost 20 years before affluent Anglo parents rallied state lawmakers to their cause.

Valenzuela’s own children opted out of tests in the early 2000s, and she knows of other Latino students who avoided the tests out of protest, without a large movement behind them, and graduated anyway. But challenging schools and facing threats from officials is a lot to ask of parents who may be poor or don’t speak English.

Anecdotally, opt-out activists say their growing movement is getting less white, but it will always be easier for affluent parents to take part.

Kravetz, who helped organize this year’s opt-out drive in Houston, says black or Latino parents account for about 70 percent of those she knows opted out this year. It’s “crazy talk,” she says, to call the testing in Houston’s schools today a civil right; she expects next year’s opt-out effort will draw even more working-class parents as more people realize it’s their best chance at change.

In June, Community Voices for Public Education joined dozens of civil rights and education groups in a letter highlighting the broad local support for opting out. “High-stakes standardized tests, rather than reducing the opportunity gap, have been used to rank, sort, label, and punish Black and Latino students, and recent immigrants to this country,” they wrote.

“Had you talked to me three years ago, I would’ve said there’s no way that opting out is something that can make things better. I would say we have to change minds and change laws. But at this point, it looks like they’re going to be over-testing our children until all our schools are closed,” Kravetz says. “You can’t operate like testing people is going to make them not be poor.”

 

Correction: This story has been corrected from an earlier version, which mistakenly cited the work of Loyola University Chicago researcher Amy Shuffelton as related to the testing “opt-out” movement; her recent article dealt with school privatization and women “opting out” of the workplace.

Athlos Leadership Academy in Austin
Patrick Michels
North Austin's Athlos Leadership Academy under construction in August 2014.

 

Update July 20, 2:19 p.m.:
Late on Friday, Athlos Foundation Board President Tiffany O’Neill said in a statement that the board was “disappointed” by the 12-2 vote to reject its charter application, but that she and the board will keep trying.

During Friday morning’s meeting of the State Board of Education, Dallas Democrat Erika Beltran raised concerns about Athlos’ ambitious growth plans—particularly given that Athlos’ local information session drew just 15 prospective parents—and an out-of-state track record Beltran called concerning. Amarillo Republican Marty Rowley wondered about conflicts of interest in the school’s plan to lease buildings from an Idaho construction firm associated with Athlos Academies.

O’Neill told Beltran that theirs would be the first schools to use the academic curriculum developed by Idaho’s Athlos Academies, so comparisons to test scores at schools in other states would be unfair. To Rowley’s concerns, she said she still planned to solicit bids for the school construction, but simply used the Idaho firm’s contract and estimates as a reference point in the school’s application.

It’s the second year in a row that the state has rejected an application for an Athlos charter school amid concerns about the real estate and governance ties between a Texas-based Athlos Foundation board and the Athlos Academies leadership in Boise.

 

Update July 17, 11:47 a.m.:
In its meeting Friday morning, the State Board of Education vetoed the Athlos Academy application.


Original Story:
In a parallel universe somewhere, on an obscure cable network’s early-morning programming, there’s a reality show for folks vying to open their own charter schools. In that universe, as in ours, the prospects are a motley bunch of would-be edupreneurs, with “leadership academies” they’ve named after themselves, and side businesses selling vitamin supplements optimized for workplace productivity. And they’ve all got vastly different plans for improving Texas’ school system, a few hundred kids at a time.

On that reality show, a year’s work of filling out elaborate applications, holding public meetings, studying real estate markets and getting grilled by state regulators would all build to a tense final episode—one that would look an awful lot like the State Board of Education’s next couple of days.

Six new charters, which would open in fall 2016, are up for final approval by the state board Friday, based on final recommendations from Education Commissioner Michael Williams. All were tentatively approved this morning by a committee of five board members. Now the prospective schools now face one final hurdle: With a majority vote, the state board can veto any of the commissioner’s picks.

This is the second year under that approval system. Last year the board vetoed one application: a charter for Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies to expand into North Texas. (Williams sidestepped that veto by letting Great Hearts expand under a pre-existing charter for San Antonio.)

There’s probably a limited chance of drama in this year’s picks, but expect some debate from the board over one application in particular, from Athlos Academy. In its interview earlier this year, the Athlos team faced tough questions from board member Ruben Cortez over the school’s ties to out-of-state groups. Its application lists an entirely Texas-based board, but the Athlos brand refers to an Idaho-based charter school and real estate group that licenses the “Athlos” name for its character education program. The Athlos application includes a letter from the team in Idaho—an Athlos-associated group, The Charter School Fund—promising the school a $80,000 grant, as well as a lease agreement with an unspecified company at The Charter School Fund’s address in Boise.

According to the school’s proposal, between lease payments and licenses for the Athlos character curriculum, the new school would send about 20 percent of its state funding to Idaho.

Cortez told the Observer that his main concern with the Athlos application is its out-of-state roots. “I’ll take a position against any out-of-state entities wanting to come up and set up a charter in Texas,” he said. “I’m just gonna bring up my concerns, and obviously every member has a right to vote how they decide.”

As the Observer reported last year, the Idaho-based Athlos crew has been making inroads in Texas by constructing stately new school buildings and leasing them to pre-existing charters, some of which also take on the Athlos name or the character curriculum. Twice before, a group using the Athlos name has applied for its own charter from Texas and come up short; barring a surprise at this week’s meetings, they’ll finally be in luck.

Athlos plans to open two schools in the Dallas suburbs (its application originally proposed six), with a learning environment built on a model balancing academics with athletics and character development.

Other applicants up for final approval include Houston’s A+ Unlimited Potential, tied to the well-established education nonprofit Houston A+ Challenge and based on a classroom model they’ve piloted in the last few years. The rest of the schools, including Athlos, are scattered around the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs: Lone Star Language Academy in Plano, which would be the state’s only K-8 public school with a Hebrew language program; Trivium Academy in Frisco, which promises a “progressive take on a classical education”; Pioneer Technology and Arts Academy, which plans five middle- and high-school campuses around the Metroplex; and Kauffman Leadership Academy in Cleburne, headed by Dr. Theresa Kauffman who first applied for a charter in 2011. Kauffman Leadership Academy proposes an individualized learning environment with an anti-bullying focus—its application refers specifically to a series of child suicides with possible connections to bullying in Cleburne’s public schools.

More notable than the particulars of this year’s finalists may be the fact that there are so few of them—just six approvals out of 32 applications. Lawmakers sold the 2013 overhaul of Texas’ charter school system as a vast expansion. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, then a senator, heralded Senate Bill 2 as an opening for 100,000 Texas families on charter school waiting lists—a statistic that’s still used today as evidence of the unquenched thirst for school choice.

Instead, the law has closed low-scoring charter schools at an unprecedented rate while new applications have been flat.

David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, says he’s glad to see so many community-based charters opening in Texas, but he hopes the state will do more to extend the popular sales pitch “Texas is open for business” to top charter school organizations in other states.

“I think some from out of state see some of the closures and things like that, and are looking to see the effects of that settle out. As the closure effects of Senate Bill 2 start to stabilize, I think we’ll start to see more interest from others as well,” Dunn told the Observer.

SBOE Vice-chairman Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican, said he’s in no hurry to see the state award charters at a faster clip. (Ratliff said he’ll vote this week along with members whose districts include the proposed charters.)

Ratliff sees the low number of approvals from Commissioner Williams as a sign that state regulators have been vetting applicants more rigorously.

“If it were a high number that would make you worry,” Ratliff says. “The small number gives me reason to believe that they’re sharpening their pencil a little bit on these, and that’s good because it’s hard to close them once they’re open.”

Big Red Chair of Kilgore
KLTV instigates the big red chair east of Kilgore.

Strangest State is a recurring feature on local news you might have missed from around Texas. From profiles of small-town doctors to monstrous swamp creatures found by local kids, they’re stories that don’t fit… anywhere, really, but we want to be sure don’t go unnoticed. Got a local oddity or some small-town news to share? Tips are welcome at [email protected]

Richmond // An off-duty detective stumbled onto an apparent identity theft operation while working a side security job and turned the evidence over to the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office. That evidence, according to the Houston Press, included “several boxes and bags containing numerous wallets, 171 driver’s licenses, more than a dozen Social Security cards, several hundred credit and debit cards, and more than a dozen checkbooks.” To spread the word about their crime-fighting work, Craig Malisow reported, the sheriff’s office then issued a press release including high-resolution photos of the haul in which the victims’ identifying information was clearly visible. A second press release quickly followed the first: “If you can blur the cards, that would be fine. Otherwise, please discard the photos.”

KILGORE // KLTV news took Rusk County viewers to new heights with an April investigation: “How big is the big red chair east of Kilgore?” There, on the side of County Road 173, in “a place that looks much like the shire with its llamas and wild beasts,” reporter Jamey Boyum found the big red chair. “My wife’s dad wanted a big chair, and so he got a big chair,” Michael Truitt told the reporter. Boyum, who tried and failed to climb into the chair, reported that the chair cost $3,500. “They say they got the chair at the Home and Garden Center in Longview,” Boyum said. For the record, the chair is 12 feet tall.

ODESSA // Of all the reasons a person might have for dressing in uniform and outfitting his ride with the siren and lights of an unmarked police car, most are probably threatening, creepy or some other kind of awful. Michael Chico managed to get caught doing the merely unscrupulous: flashing his lights and running the siren in order to cruise to the front of the line at a Whataburger drive-thru, according to the Associated Press. Tough luck for Chico that a genuine Odessa cop was at the burger shop, too, and saw through the ruse. Face to face with the officer, Chico came clean, and now faces a charge of impersonating an officer. Per the Associated Press: “[W]hen confronted, Chico said he wasn’t an officer and also used the lights and sirens to get through traffic lights.”

CANUTILLO // Canutillo’s new Congressman Silvestre & Carolina Reyes Elementary School offers a striking facade that evokes an enormous American flag, with stars and stripes set into the wall. It’s also orange all over. Or cimarron, more specifically, in keeping with the surrounding homes of the Cimarron neighborhood, whose developer, Hunt Communities, complained that earlier plans to paint the flag-like wall red, white and blue would clash with the surrounding homes. With backing from former Congressman Reyes himself, the school district now plans to go ahead with a red, white and blue makeover for the wall, according to the El Paso Times. Hunt Communities has complained that the makeover plan is unpatriotic because the flag, which is also a wall, touches the ground.

MCALLEN // Marc Fantich, founder of McAllen-based Fantich Media Advertising Agency, was charged in March with burglary of a vehicle after police say he took keys, a checkbook and a radar detector from a Cadillac parked in the driveway next to his. The neighboring house belonged to Fantich’s ex-wife, The Monitor reported. The Cadillac belonged to her boyfriend. Further damage to the car included spilled tea on the driver’s seat and raw shrimp scattered throughout. The car’s owner, Eduardo Canales, told police that some of his clothes had been removed from the trunk and replaced with more raw shrimp. “Not until the next morning did Canales find the briny surprise,” wrote The Monitor.

BRAZORIA // Most places, the kids these days are always glued to their smartphones, so transfixed by city council agendas and proposed ordinances that they never even talk to their elders anymore. Not so in Brazoria! No, where other cities aim for accessibility, Brazoria still “keeps it personal.” While state law mandates that any city website include basic information about elections and city council meetings, the town of 3,000 masterfully navigates that minefield by… not having a website at all. “I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have a website except us,” Mayor Ken Corley told local newspaper The Facts with evident pride. Corley explained that the town is an early adopter of technology “that allows officials to send messages to residents’ phones, both landlines and mobile,” which is all the automation he cares to consider. “I would rather speak to a person than look at a machine,” Corley said.

 

A House Divided

A generation after Texas legalized home schooling, a new crop of leaders fights for the booming education movement's future.
home schooling
Patrick Michels
Amy Ott, left, and Jill McKeever supervise Fallon Stanislawski during a computer lesson at the Austin Area Home-schoolers Friday Co-op.

 

Until late September, James and Lisa Pennington lived with all nine of their children, ages 6 to 24, in a charming country house outside Kerrville. James ran an accounting practice in town and managed the books for religious and home-school organizations. Lisa handled the children’s education and decorated the house in a modern homespun fashion, with reclaimed wood and glass, freshly painted antiques and inspirational messages—“relax,” “laugh,” “discover & explore”—scattered around the walls. Her blog, “The Pennington Point,” turned a godly, pastel-tinted lens on the lovable chaos of their life. When the chickens started pooping on the Penningtons’ new front deck, Lisa wrote about covering the wood with a new rug, which she then hand-painted with a tiny houndstooth pattern. In a how-to post, she demonstrated how to stencil a wall with quotes from Chapter One of the Book of James. She and her daughters dressed with stylish modesty: high necklines, long skirts, and many-layered sleeves that projected a coffee-shop artsiness. It was the sort of home and family that could inspire other Christian families, which was partially the point; from their home, the Penningtons ran a ministry dedicated to fostering what they called “home-oriented relationships.” Lisa once explained their approach: “It is a little like the desert island challenge. If you were stranded on a desert island with nothing but the Bible as your guide, how different would your life look?” Five years ago, the Texas Home School Coalition named Jim and Lisa “Leaders of the Year.”

Unlike many home-schooling families, their practice is quite public. James once ran as a Constitution Party candidate for state comptroller. Lisa speaks at home-school conferences around the country, giving advice on parenting, education and blogging. Her posts often veer into the personal, covering weight loss and health, and the right way to spank a child—in a since-deleted post, she describes a 30-minute bout with “a little back scratcher that barely stings, but it’s great for babies”—and the relief she finds in the Young Living brand of essential oils she endorses on her site. So last fall, Lisa began writing frankly about her recent pain and struggle, how the family was still reeling from what happened on Sept. 24, when her 18-year-old daughter Alecia Faith ran away from home.

“She gave us no warning, no signs that it was coming. She didn’t try to talk to us about it or work with us. She, with the help of my parents, just left. And with her she took pieces of my heart that had been torn to shreds,” Lisa wrote. “We have been making an effort to find our new normal without her. It has been really hard and we all miss her terribly, but I have learned a lot about how to deal with grief throughout the past month.” She got through it all, she says, with prayer, the love of her children and essential oils.

Lisa’s confessional posts drew hundreds of supportive comments. But the story is better known from Alecia’s perspective, because of a video the runaway daughter recorded in February. In front of a white door and a plain white wall, Alecia, who was by then 19, faces the camera and explains that she can’t get a job, fly on a plane or get a driver’s license because she has no proof of her own identity and her parents won’t help. From someone at the Texas Vital Statistics department, she says, she’s learned there’s no record of her birth. The midwife who delivered her at home apparently never filed a birth certificate. Alecia had no Social Security number. She had no school records, either. “I didn’t pick this situation for myself,” she says in the video. “I just have to deal with the consequences, and I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know how to get out of this.”

Her video spread fast: Within days, it was the top video on Reddit, drawing a massive online community that tended to treat her case as a mystery with her parents as the suspects. As of the date of this posting the video has been played on YouTube nearly 1.4 million times, and as her story spread this spring, Alecia did find herself with a new identity. Back home, she’d been Faith, alongside her sisters Grace and Hope, one of nine kids gathered around the table. But her video introduced her to the world with her full name, and as Alecia Faith Pennington—or often just Alecia—she’s found a place alongside Tim Tebow and the Duggar children of 19 Kids and Counting fame as a public face of home schooling.

It’s been 100 years since Texas, following the lead of all but two other states, made public school compulsory and banned children under 14 from working. The law included exceptions for private and parochial schools, but not home education, so it was as outlaws and radicals that 1970s progressive activists first began home schooling, beginning a grand experiment in American education that has quietly exploded over the last generation. Child-centered “un-schoolers” fleeing the factory of public school bureaucracy were followed shortly by a movement in the Christian right that popularized home schooling as an escape from secular influences. Home schooling is, by nature, difficult to generalize about or quantify; even the count of home-schoolers in the country varies wildly depending on your source. The most recent federal estimates say between 3 and 4 percent of students—about 1.77 million children—were home-schooled in 2012. More than 300,000 kids are home-schooled in Texas, according to home-school advocates, which is even more than attend private schools.

Texas is one of 11 states that doesn’t require parents to register as home-schoolers. Home-school regulations here are some of the weakest in the nation: Unlike their peers in public schools, home-school students don’t have to take standardized tests or submit any proof of their work. Parents aren’t bound by state standards; they can use any curriculum they like, and anyone can be a home-school teacher. This freedom is the result of hard-fought court battles in the 1980s that spawned groups such as the national Home School Legal Defense Association and the Texas Home School Coalition, which work to prevent new home-school regulation.

Today, the first large generation reared in this well-organized and often rigidly patriarchal system is graduating into adulthood, and for the first time, a significant number of home-school alumni are taking on leadership roles in the movement, with differing ideas about where to lead it. Some are fulfilling the dreams of its founders, defending the movement that raised them to fight for parents’ rights above all. Others, such as Alecia Faith Pennington, are calling for change on behalf of the next generation.

 

The origin story for Texas home-schoolers begins in 1981, when a lawyer at the Texas Education Agency looked over the state education code and determined that home education wasn’t legally allowed. Since 1916, Texas has required children to attend public school unless they are disabled, severely ill, or at private school instead. The law said nothing about home schooling, and in 1982 a higher-up TEA lawyer told prospective home-school parents that “all of our legal research concludes that a person may not teach their children at home simply by calling their home a private school.” From 1981 to 1985, local districts charged 150 home-schoolers with truancy violations, taking about 80 of them to trial. When the State Board of Education finally held hearings in 1986 to define qualified home schools, thousands of parents swarmed the hearings in Austin, rallying for what they called the “Austin T.E.A. Party.” Home-schoolers fought back against the state’s attempted regulation with a class-action suit led by Arlington parents Cheryl and Gary Leeper. The court heard testimony from, among others, Rousas Rushdoony, godfather of the Christian Reconstructionist movement, who favored strict biblical justice and trusted in, as he once said, “dedicated minorities who stand unconditionally on their faith” to recover a Christian past. Home schooling was integral to his vision. Rushdoony reminded the state’s lawyers that American education had only recently become a centralized bureaucracy. “Attempts to define a school too precisely are always dangerous because you can define a school and you wind up with a shell, with a building, with so many teachers, with so many hours of instruction, and there is no guarantee that all of these things will provide learning,” Rushdoony explained. “This is the problem of our time.”

The Texas Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that any home-school setting with a curriculum that teaches reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and good citizenship could qualify as a private school. (By then, the state had long since scrapped its anti-home-schooling policy.) Home-schoolers hailed it as a great victory, and still do today. The Texas Home School Coalition’s recent animated history of the Leeper case is called “The Legacy of Freedom.” Many other states require home-schoolers to register, to take tests or submit work portfolios at the end of the year. Some have proposed periodic mental health check-ups for home-school students. Not in Texas. Here, home schools are regulated like private schools—which is to say, not at all.

Former Texas Education Agency General Counsel David Anderson joined the agency just months before the Leeper decision, and here’s how little oversight of private and home schools he had: “If I decide tomorrow morning that I want to be a private school,” Anderson says, “and I just hung up a sign outside my house, I would have some issues with zoning, I think, with the city of Austin, and the health department would probably say my sinks aren’t big enough if I’m serving food to the public. But I would not have to get permission from anybody. A private school can just do that.”

A vision of what the original home-schoolers intended plays out every Friday morning in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood, as about 100 home-school children arrive for class at the Trinity United Methodist Church. For three class periods, in a dozen classrooms, they’ll learn in groups from one another’s parents, as part of one of the many home-school co-ops in town. Almost 3,000 families stay connected on an email list for Austin-area home-schoolers, and co-ops such as this one take place every day of the week.

I visit on a Friday in February, when small children are singing and running in circles with a giant parachute in a small gym, while in another room, older girls with hair dyed in various combinations of pink, purple and blue sit around tables learning to make comic strips on iPads. High-schoolers in the world history class upstairs had just taken a long memorial diversion into Star Trek memories after getting the news of Leonard Nimoy’s death before moving on to the business of the day: presentations on the battles of World War II. Sitting on couches or stretched out on the floor around a giant world map, the five teenagers take turns reading their reports aloud. Shannon Rizzo, the mother of a girl in the class, explains that she’s more facilitator than teacher in this “flipped” classroom. Students handle the lesson prep—in fact, the course offerings each semester are determined by a student vote—and the punishment for showing up to class unprepared is, in the words of one student, “looking like a fool.”

home school
Patrick Michels
Home-school co-op parents lead children in nursery rhymes and parachute games.

“I don’t think we think in terms of consequences,” Rizzo tells me. She says she began home schooling because she didn’t believe 5- and 6-year-olds should be sitting behind desks all day. As they grew, her children enjoyed this informal approach, full of educational road trips and projects built around their evolving interests. “They’ve had the freedom to pursue their own curiosity, and they’re never burnt out on learning,” she tells me.

This 25-year-old home-school co-op is a throwback to the first days of secular home schooling. Students can learn about the Renaissance, parkour, geopolitics and wizardry. A parent here—well, in the parking lot across the street—once taught a class on playing with fire. There are more young children here than high-school-age kids because many enroll in public schools in later grades. Though they recognize their debt to organizations that fought to protect their rights, and still beat back regulation attempts, most parents here seem uninterested in the politics of the home-schooling movement.

That’s left the legal crusades, the seminars and the leadership mostly up to religious home-schoolers, who populate a parallel world of co-ops and sports leagues. (Surveys suggest that well over half, even up to three-quarters, of home-school parents are driven by religious conviction.) To the biggest home-school advocacy groups, home schooling is less about pedagogy than personal rights and freedom from government nannying. The Leeper case allowed for the possibility of regulating home schools—even using test scores to assess students’ learning—but it would be up to the Legislature to create the system. Thanks to home-school defense groups, it’s hard to imagine that happening.

Nicholas Maddox, who was home-schooled in Conroe for his entire childhood, thinks that ought to change. In South Texas Law Review last year, Maddox argued that because education is a right guaranteed by the Texas Constitution, the state is “duty-bound” to ensure that students get at least a basic education. “Currently in Texas,” he writes, “an individual who is a recently convicted felon or partially mentally incapacitated is not allowed to own firearms or even vote, but is allowed to home-school his children for their entire childhood.” Maddox, who now works at the Houston law firm Thompson & Horton, tells the Observer he doesn’t want the state to stand in the way of unconventional home-school learning, but that the state needs to set some basic learning requirement and enforce them. “I think there’s kind of two classes of home-schoolers,” Maddox says. “One is home education, and the other is non-education—the parent who calls up the district one day and says, ‘My child’s being home-schooled, leave me alone.’ Because the state sees these two groups of home-schoolers as one and the same, no one looks into the genuine intent to educate by the parents. … These children are just existing and time is passing.”

“We say that home-schooling parents should have the right to choose how to educate their children, but not the right to choose whether to educate their children,” says Rachel Coleman, who directs the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a new network of home-school alumni. Coleman was home-schooled as a child as well. Now she works to put more legal safeguards in place to prevent abuse in home schools—physical abuse, but also behavior that’s sometimes sanctioned by religious groups, such as wielding overbearing control of grown children or raising young women only for lives as subservient helpmeets to their future husbands. That puts Coleman’s group in direct opposition to the biggest home-schooling groups, which answer to parents, not children. “Home-school children don’t really have a voice. They can’t really step forward and say, ‘Hey, I’m 14 and I can’t read,’” she says. “What’s in the best interests of the parents is not necessarily in the best interests of the kids.”

  • Jennifer Stahl Home school alumni speaking out

    Jennifer Stahl grew up in a military family, and began home-schooling in Europe before her family moved to Ingleside. It was there, in their home near Corpus Christi Bay, that she says her education took a sharp turn, swayed by the newsletters and teaching resources her mother acquired in her home-schooling co-op. Stahl, like many home-school alumni, says the home-schooling culture her family joined was built on control of children and wariness of the outside world. In eighth grade, she asked to enroll in public school, but says her mother refused. She says her parents took the door off her bedroom and controlled her food to encourage obedience. Her father would discipline her with his leather belt until she was 17. She never dated outside of one carefully supervised courtship, a practice many Christian home-schooling leaders embrace as an acceptable prelude to marriage.

    She was 26 when she left home, married a man she met online, and moved to his home country of Germany. Only then, looking back on her childhood, did she realize how different her upbringing had been. “The first year here was really weird,” she says. “I felt like I had to keep telling my husband what I was doing or where I was going.” In the last year, she began looking for stories like her own and found Homeschoolers Anonymous. “The first thing I said was, ‘Oh my God, I’m not crazy!’” Stahl says. “I’m not the only one who did this, and I’m not the only person who kept questioning it.”

  • Eleanor Skelton Home school alumni speaking out

    Eleanor Skelton grew up in Texas and Colorado, and says her parents began home-schooling her because they worried public school was a dangerous environment. From there, her education followed a path that’s common among home-school alumni who are now calling for reform. Home-schooling support groups and newsletters instilled conservative Christian values in her mother, and religion became central to Skelton’s education. As a teenager, she lived near Dallas and attended Rockwall Bible Church, where the pastor decried rock and any other music with chaotic syncopated beats. She learned from her church, and from the popular A Beka home-school curriculum her parents used, that any sin, even wearing a too-tight sweater in public, carried heavy consequences. “I felt very, very personally responsible for the crucifixion. We were told things in bible classes in A Beka that if you even sin a little bit, you're driving nails into Jesus' hands,” she says. In college, her parents tracked her movements with her cell phone’s GPS, and held her to a 7:30 p.m. curfew.

    When she decided to move out at age 22, she says, her parents emptied her savings account and took away her car keys. She only gradually adjusted to life outside. Now she helps other women make the painful split from constrictive families, covertly helping pack their belongings, letting them live for a while in her apartment and staying with them when they’re overwhelmed by the change, in what she describes as a sort of “underground railroad” for former home schoolers.

 

 

The Watchmen are waiting for me underground, one floor below the Capitol rotunda. I’m late, but if they’re upset about it, they’re too polite to say so. Six of them in dark suits, hair all neatly trimmed and styled, they look a bit like one of the a cappella singing groups that sometimes perform here. Friendly, professional and eager, in a rush they extend their hands in greeting, and reaching to shake one hand, I repeatedly bump into another. These are the Texas Home School Coalition’s foot soldiers at the Legislature, all recent home-school graduates, ages 18 to 22, who’ve risen to defend the rights their parents’ generation secured—not only for minimal home-school regulation, but for parental freedom more generally.

At 22, the coalition’s policy director, Jeremy Newman, is the oldest and the only paid Watchman. He embraces the group’s parents-first approach. “You have to be willing to protect the right of the parent to parent,” he tells me. That’s the core of the coalition’s mission, and with the right to home-school secured by Leeper, the Watchmen are on the lookout for other attempts to wedge the state into the family’s business. That’s at the heart of a bill they’re pushing this session, a “Parental Rights Act” to make it harder for other family members to gain custody of children whose home schooling they disapprove of. But it’s also why the coalition opposes mandatory vaccinations and daytime curfews. “Sometimes we get questions or complaints about using resources on [Child Protective Services] issues,” Newman says. “Our response has always been, ‘Your right to home-school only exists because we have the presumption that parental rights exist.’”

home school
Patrick Michels
State Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) talks legislative strategy with Texas Home School Coalition lobbyists, from left, Ryan Parke, Stephen Howsley and Jeremy Newman.

Newman recognizes that some parents make bad decisions about their children’s education, but says the answer isn’t tighter policing by the state: “You cannot fix relationships between people with legislation.” Newman says his group prevents educational malpractice by providing curriculum resources and a community for new home-school parents.

Collectively, the Watchmen seem to comfortably embody what I’d imagined to be an uneasy balance: the precociousness encouraged by a home-school education and the conservative values of home-school politics. One Watchman, 18-year-old Greg Guggenmos, says he first learned to read upside-down. He believes he’s the youngest registered lobbyist ever in Texas, and is now fact-checking his claim with the state. Another, Josh Newman (Jeremy’s brother), tells me he was in eighth grade when he first became concerned about America’s future. They are living together for the session in a house in North Austin. The six seem reasoned and sharp in conversation, confident as any of the power brokers wandering past us. When I ask about their own home-school upbringings, the six laud the power of self-driven education to spark critical thinking and thwart conformity— though they seem to fit in well enough at the Capitol, preaching the gospel of limited government in signet rings and expensive-looking watches.

I follow at their brisk pace through the Capitol’s underground extension, down to the office of sophomore state Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls), so I can see the crew in action. Frank is one of a few home-school parents in the Legislature today, and, together with a growing number of home-schooled staffers, he represents an unprecedented network of home-school sympathizers. But as much as conservative candidates prize a Texas Home School Coalition endorsement, the group still must fight for attention among the competing interests at the Capitol. A serious attempt to regulate home schooling surely would draw an army of home-school parents. (Home-schoolers overloaded the U.S. Capitol’s switchboard in 1994 to beat back a bill that could have threatened home schooling nationwide.) But there’s no such threat in Austin this year. For the second session in a row, the group is trying to give home-schoolers access to public school athletics through a “Tim Tebow bill,” named in honor of the college football star who was home-schooled in Florida by his conservative Christian family but played football with the local public school. More than two dozen states have adopted Tebow bills in recent years, but the measure was never brought up for debate in the last legislative session here.

Frank is working with the Texas Home School Coalition to gather support, and Tim Lambert, the coalition’s president, is down from Lubbock to help. The two are chatting in Frank’s office when I arrive with the Watchmen. Three of them wait in the hall as the rest of us find seats in Frank’s office, a sparsely decorated white room with a big family portrait on one wall and a white board on the other. Frank has good news: He’s heard the Tebow bill is almost certain to get a hearing with the House Public Education Committee—which is just a first step, but more than it got last session. (As of mid-April, no hearing on the bill was yet scheduled.) Frank is rallying support for the bill, and the Watchmen are drafting a set of bullet points to help him, including the high cost of youth sports and the fast growth of Texas’ home-school community. Frank hopes to convince a majority of the education committee to pledge support in writing, which, in turn, could help him convince committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock to get behind the bill. Aycock is a rural Republican and a former Killeen school board member who generally is more interested in traditional public schools. Folks like that—Frank, of course, doesn’t mention Aycock specifically—aren’t usually sympathetic to home-schoolers.

“What’s funny is they’re very concerned with the 5 million kids who are [each] costing $11,000 a year. But the 300,000 kids that are costing the state nothing are not our issue at all,” Frank wonders aloud, perhaps for my benefit. Even worse are the folks who’ve worked in the public school system and see the dropouts and miscreants whose parents only claim to be home schooling. “They’re seeing a very small fraction of home schooling but it’s a very—it’s not indicative of the rest of home schooling,” Frank says. “Most of the ones that are quote ‘good home-schoolers,’ there’s very little engagement between us and the public schools. So they never hear about ’em.”

 

 

Amateur sleuths on Reddit and Facebook trying to make sense of Alecia Pennington’s case—the runaway Texas woman who can’t prove she exists—were surprised to discover that the Penningtons aren’t recluses holed up in some remote bunker, but public figures active in the home-school community. In his only comment to the press, James Pennington told The Daily Beast he had avoided registering with Social Security for political reasons, but would help his daughter get what she needed. James and Lisa each posted videos on YouTube—since made private—denying they ever tried to hurt or control their daughter. State Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) has filed a bill that would help people in situations like Alecia’s get copies of their birth certificates. Buoyed by the attention, Alecia recently announced she’d secured pro bono legal help and was close to getting her documentation.

But the more surprising revelation in Alecia’s story, to many, is that she’s not an anomaly—it’s just that few in her situation are lucky enough to get such attention. Until a few years ago, their stories might have never been heard. In 2013, four home-school alumni who’d met one another on the Christian debate circuit, including two Texans, organized as Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out (HARO) to give voice to abused and neglected home-schoolers. HARO began publishing stories, including Alecia’s, in which parents maintain control of their grown children by withholding government and school records. The phenomenon is called “identification abuse,” and a survey the group took in February netted many alumni who said their parents did the same thing. “I left due to physical abuse and they refused to give me any documents as punishment,” one respondent wrote. “Withheld Social Security card to control relationships and keep me from getting a job,” wrote another.

Reading stories from other home-schoolers, many alumni are shocked to recognize familiar behaviors, things they thought were quirks of their own upbringing. Texas-raised home-school alumni contacted for this story recalled parents removing the door from their bedroom, controlling their food portions or tracking them outside the house. Seeking reform, these home-school alumni are sharing their stories of abuse, control and neglect in the hopes that leaders in the home-school movement will accept that they allowed these crimes because they defended near-limitless parental rights. There are troubled families at any sort of school, of course, but the reformers point to particular aspects of the home-schooling community today. Home-schooled children may not have anyone outside the home, such as a teacher, to check on their well-being. Some leaders in the Christian patriarchy movement encourage parents to build isolated family empires, require strict obedience from all children, and raise girls to be submissive and not necessarily well-educated wives.

The home-schooling movement began as a celebration of the empowerment of parents, many of whom dreamed of raising an army to fight for America’s Christian future. Michael Farris, a key leader in the movement since the early ’80s, has called these now-grown children the “Joshua Generation.” “Just as Joshua completed Moses’s mission by slaughtering the inhabitants of the Promised Land, ‘GenJ’ would carry the fundamentalist banner forward and redeem America as a Christian nation,” Kathryn Joyce wrote in a 2013 American Prospect story on the “homeschool apostates” who have broken that “GenJ” mold. In the wave of home-schooled children coming of age today, many are less concerned with carrying their parents’ torch than with speaking up on behalf of kids like themselves. Their stories, publicized by HARO and a few other groups, have illuminated patterns of harmful behavior that would otherwise have remained locked away at home. Some old-guard home-school leaders have bristled at the criticism. Kevin Swanson, a leader in the movement’s most conservative wing who was home-schooled in the ’60s and ’70s, has called them “homeschool whiners” and “traitors” to “the cause of freedom.” As founder of the Colorado ministry Generations with Vision, Swanson has built a speaking and writing career on the promise of a Christian awakening that will return America to its Puritan days.

home school
Patrick Michels
Andrew Roblyer, home-schooling accountability activist

Andrew Roblyer, who cofounded HARO with three other former home-schoolers, says Swanson’s unwillingness to engage the new generation’s concerns is a dangerous, but common, approach. “It’s such a core part of the identity that when you challenge home schooling, I think a lot of parents feel like you are accusing them, each individual parent, like everyone is equally part of the problem,” says Roblyer.

Roblyer grew up in a military family, moving often until they reached College Station, where he finished high school and still lives. He was glad to take schoolwork at his own pace, and to avoid the social uprooting he would have faced switching from school to school. Like HARO’s other founders, Roblyer was a devoted competitor on the national Christian debate circuit. Farris encouraged debate as a way to prepare the Joshua Generation for its future in politics. Roblyer’s family weren’t devoted home-schoolers or even conservative Christians; debate was a hobby, not a solemn vocation. But he  debated religion and public policy with students from more fundamentalist backgrounds—a common policy proposal on the circuit was defunding the Department of Education—and he says his debate training taught him to think critically about the institution of home schooling.

“Our parents’ generation really had to fight for the right to home-school, but I think that fight has made them very defensive,” Roblyer says. “What HARO is saying is, we can address these problems without advocating for some widespread policy change. … We sidestep that entire conversation and say, ‘OK, let’s remove the government from the picture and look at what we can do to make the community better.’”

The group is building a set of lessons on LGBT acceptance, recognizing learning disabilities, and how to speak out when parents encounter a child suffering neglect or abuse. HARO repeatedly applies for, and is often denied, space at home-school conferences, including a Great Homeschool Conventions seminar in California last year. Roblyer says the home-school establishment is skeptical of anything that could crowd out a parent’s rights—especially if it involves reporting another parent to the state.

“There have been cases, regardless of how few and far between, where home-schoolers have been discriminated against,” Roblyer says. “And when that happens once, it becomes the rallying cry. So, there’s a lot of fear that if they give any ground, they’re going to end up giving a lot more.”

 

There are signs that home-school leaders are paying attention to concerns about hidden neglect, as Joyce noted in The American Prospect. While the Home School Legal Defense Association may not be interested in touching issues rooted in religion—“Some of the grievances I am reading now against home schooling seem to be merely differences of philosophy in child-rearing,” HSLDA attorney Darren Jones told Joyce—the group has created an online guide to recognizing evidence of abuse and intervening. (Joyce points out that the guide still suggests confronting the parents before alerting Child Protective Services.) Meanwhile, some old gatekeepers of the far-right home-school movement are dying off. The San Antonio-based Vision Forum, which for years propagated the dream of a patriarchal fiefdom in every home, collapsed in 2013 under the weight of founder Doug Phillips’ sex scandal. No comparable organization has stepped in to take its place.

Research on contemporary home-schoolers suggests that growth in the movement isn’t being driven by the Joshua Generation of large Christian families, but by a new group that embraces home schooling as just one option in the broad menu of school-choice possibilities. Historian Milton Gaither describes a shift from “homeschooling” to “home schooling,” where learning happens to take place in the home, perhaps online, or in a community college, a weekly co-op or a seminar on pyrotechnics in an adjacent parking lot. All these options leave parents and students less dependent on the institutions that first secured home-schoolers’ rights.

The Texas Home School Coalition’s Watchmen agree that there’s a growing diversity of thought in the home-school community. Jeremy Newman recalls a phrase Tim Lambert uses to describe parents who want to avoid any engagement with state regulation—he refers to their “free-floating anxiety.” Newman says home-school parents are getting bolder, empowered by their growing numbers and less rooted in a Leeper-era fear of the state. As his brother Josh says, the shift of opinion reflects a recognition that home schooling today, complex, big and diverse, can’t survive on ignorance. “Being forgotten by the government,” Josh says, “doesn’t get you freedom.”

 

Correction: Mental health checks for home-school students have been proposed, but are not currently in place, in states outside Texas.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
Patrick Michels
Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)

School district officials, researchers and education advocates had a week to study the school finance reforms proposed by House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock before bringing their opinions to his committee on Tuesday night.

Most began the way Drew Scheberle, an Austin Chamber of Commerce official, did: “Thank you.” Thanks for the $3 billion more for public schools, they told Aycock, and thanks for tackling the messy school finance system at all. In the past, lawmakers have rarely done so without a court ruling forcing their hands.

Houston ISD trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones appreciated that House Bill 1759 would save her district from a looming $200 million tab owed under the current “Robin Hood” recapture law. Others appreciated that it would begin funding career and technical education sooner, beginning in the eighth grade.

But the biggest change Aycock proposes is the elimination of the Cost of Education Index (CEI), which steers more funding to urban and high-poverty districts to pay for higher teacher salaries. In the last few weeks, Aycock has stressed that the index is hopelessly outdated—it was created in 1991 and hasn’t been updated since—and nobody argued that point Tuesday night. But many weren’t willing to simply let it go.

“The underlying premise of the CEI is undeniably sound,” said Lori Taylor of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, who has conducted a series of studies since 2000 on how the Legislature could update the index to reflect current costs.

Former state Rep. Paul Colbert (D-Houston), a school finance leader in the ‘80s and ‘90s, agreed that while the index is flawed, its purpose—steering more money to urban and high-poverty districts that must pay higher salaries—is still vital. “You can’t just do away with it and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. You’re merely not addressing an uncontrollable cost,” Colbert said. “And that’s not equitable.”

Aycock agreed the change would affect districts unevenly; changing any piece of the school finance system creates winners and losers. Aycock has said he’s trying to minimize the pain of simplifying the system. “The party that gets hit the worst removing the CEI is the Valley area,” he noted at one point last night.

“How do we fix that?” wondered Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston).

“I don’t know that I can,” Aycock told her. “I’ve done everything I think I can to fix that.”

Any talk about making the system more or less equitable conjures the specter of the school finance lawsuit that’s now before the Texas Supreme Court. Should Aycock’s proposal pass, nobody knows how it might affect the case, which hinged on, among other questions, whether the funding system is fair and adequate.

Aycock has suggested his bill would improve equity by moving more districts closer to the state average of per-student funding. But it would also enrich wealthy districts more than poor districts, which some analysts last night noted was basically the opposite of equity. San Antonio’s Edgewood ISD, with 96 percent students are from low-income families, would gain $171 per student under Aycock’s bill, while nearby Alamo Heights—with 22 percent low-income students—would gain $469. In South Texas, Los Fresnos CISD would gain $54 per student while the wealthier Point Isabel ISD. which includes South Padre Island, would gain $289.

Analysts outside the Capitol realm have noted these disparities too. Bellwether Education Partners analyst Jennifer Schiess recently told Education Week that Aycock’s bill “isn’t negative on equity. It just doesn’t move very far.” Schiess wonders whether such modest improvement is truly worth the fight.

Representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Center for Public Policy Priorities and the Intercultural Development Research Association urged the committee to focus on steering money to students who need it most, and to follow Travis County District Judge John Dietz’s suggestion last year by updating the adjustments for poor students and those with limited English. Like the CEI, those weights have been untouched for decades.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso), who has co-authored a bill that would require a “comprehensive review” of those expenses, asked Aycock to run cost estimates of an updated CEI and an increased weight for bilingual education, and how they might fit within his plan. “I do think we want to talk about, in what ways does this bill increase or decrease equity?” she said.

Aycock has described his bill as part of a broad, ongoing conversation about reforming school finance in Texas. But last night, Aycock said he was interested only in how to partition the $3 billion already on the table, without spending any more. As the night went on, lawmakers seemed less interested in a comprehensive school finance debate. Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) cut off CPPP analyst Chandra Villanueva after she raised concerns about the equity issues the bill left unresolved.

She pointed out that the bill’s elimination of the CEI could also have unintended effects on poor and urban districts. Because CEI is also used to calculate a district’s weighted attendance, eliminating CEI would hit some schools twice: once in their per-student allotment, and again in the number of students the state funds.

When lawmakers sounded unswayed, she offered, “I have a chart.”

“Everybody has a chart,” replied Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian). “One thing I know is that whoever wrote it, you can make it say whatever.”

Mike Baldree, superintendent of Leon ISD, a property-rich East Texas district, reflected the ambivalence—if not the mood, exactly—of much of the public testimony. Baldree wasn’t thrilled about everything the bill would do to the system, but he was grateful to have some relief from an old funding mechanism set to expire in 2018 that would cut 34 percent of his district’s funding without some action by the Legislature.

“For me, it’s kinda like kissing my sister,” Baldree said. “It’s wet and it don’t have a whole lot of kick, but it’s good for me.”

As laughter spread through the room, King thanked Baldree: “I want to say I appreciate your comments, because I am not the biggest redneck here.”

The Holy Mother
The Virgin Mary's likeness on a hospitalized boy's arm.

Strangest State is a recurring feature on local news you might have missed from around Texas. From profiles of small-town doctors to monstrous swamp creatures found by local kids, they’re stories that don’t fit… anywhere, really, but we want to be sure don’t go unnoticed. Got a local oddity or some small-town news to share? Tips are welcome at [email protected]

LUFKIN // The new film Fifty Shades of Grey might more aptly be titled “50 Shades of Sin,” according to some East Texas pastors’ recent sermons. “God is not gray, he’s black and white,” Harmony Hill Baptist Church Pastor John Greene told his congregation in late February. “I don’t think anyone can see the movie and leave unscathed.” Fredonia Hill Baptist Church Pastor Pat Kelly sermonized, “It is pornography. It is sickening. It will destroy marriages, OK? Can I just say that?” KTRE-TV’s Blair Ledet explained that the pastors “agree that seeing the film would stir up emotions that shouldn’t be stirred. … Mr. Grey’s version of submission was very different than the Bible’s use of the term.”

GRANBURY // The annual Handsome Hunks of Hood County benefit was a great success, the Hood County News reported, raising $83,000 for Ruth’s Place Clinic by giving some of Granbury’s leading male citizens a catwalk and an audience for suggestive dancing. Firefighter Todd Lane beat out H-E-B manager Pat Wilson and Dr. Romeo Bachand for top honors from the judges. “As the evening wore on at the packed Granbury Resort Conference Center, inhibitions seemed to lower,” the News reported, and emcees were forced to halt one performance after “Granbury City Council member Gary Couch engaged in a 50-Shades-of-Gray-like [sic] dance routine with a woman who seemed to have lost her skirt.”

MIDLAND // Upon waking in a West Texas hospital bed, a boy discovered the likeness of the Virgin Mary imprinted on his arm. Bedsheets had apparently left the mark, either by coincidence or divine intervention, NewsWest9 reported, and though the boy and his family declined to speak with the station, “a friend acknowledges the faith instilled in the family after seeing this image.” Monsignor James Bridges of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Midland testified to the power of personal revelations, even when the rest of the world expresses doubt. “Others may not be convinced even when they see what you’re pointing out,” Bridges said. “They may not get the same impression.”

ROUND TOP // “While many Fayette County residents will spend Holy Week in church seeking spiritual renewal, others might be worshipping at a different altar, reported The Fayette County Record, thanks to a planned show by an “all-male erotic dance troupe calling itself’American Cowboy Las Vegas Revue.'” Round Top resident Stephanie Welch booked the act to help liven up the annual antiques festival, but some locals told KXAN-TV the antiques show was doing just fine without semi-nude country dancing. Innkeeper Kiki Teague complained that the planned performance “just doesn’t fit. … That’s just not really what Round Top’s been about.” The town of about 80 residents is otherwise best known for pie and antiques, and former Gov. Rick Perry is building a house nearby. County Judge Ed Janecka told KXAN that the show’s timing on Easter weekend, and its location across from a church, “really makes it distasteful to me and the vast population.”

GOLIAD // Rev. Darryl Edwards of Fannin Street United Methodist Church was in the midst of eulogizing church member Sally Bland with a “sermon about God’s timing and love, mentioning that anyone, at any time, can be called to heaven,” when he collapsed and died. “He was talking about how you need to be ready for death because you never know the day or hour,” Edwards’ sister Sheila told the Victoria Advocate, “and about then, it happened.” According to family members, Edwards, 55, had spent his adult life ministering to the Goliad community, at nursing homes, traveling on his motorcycle, or by donating meals from his restaurant, Hack’s Backyard Barbecue. “Those who knew him best say Edwards died doing what he loved. And if he had to die, they wouldn’t have wanted to see him go any other way,” the Advocate reported. “He always said you never know when you’re going to go, so you have got to do what’s right, right now,” his sister said. “His life and death is a ministry.”

WEST COLUMBIA // Brazoria County’s The Facts explored young romance at West Columbia Elementary School on Valentine’s Day, finding the students generally ill-equipped to answer questions about the matter. “That’s because they relate more to having a crush than being in love,” reporter Andy Packard learned. According to his report, second-grader Hailey Eulenfeld’s sister Kayla has a crush on someone, and second-grader Rhett Roundtree claims that two girls in his class like him. Though none were planning to attend the fifth-grade Valentine’s Day dance, the children did provide secondhand confirmation that “dancing and kissing” were common. Having satisfied The Facts’ inquiries, the children then returned to class. “It turns out,” Packard concluded, “the one love they already embrace awaited them back in their classroom: Candy.”

From Harlingen's "Treasure Hills STAAR Song"
From Harlingen CISD's "Treasure Hills STAAR Song"

This is where we are in 2015. The school year winding down, the big state test on the line, and teachers all looking for that little special something to kick the kids into beast mode. Last year, it was a new take on Pitbull and Shakira with “STAAR Test (It’s Goin’ Down),” the “Harlem Shake” before that. This year, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and even a ventriloquist lent their talents to the cause.

What’s big this year? Found objects continue to play key roles in the prop department. A few videos this year include a pre-music narrative set-up of the type that’s so popular in Nashville today. And thanks in part to the ubiquity of “Shake It Off,” many of these have an inspiring message of self-assuredeness, not to let the doubt and pressure get you down. And also: eat breakfast.

If you read the comments on these videos, a common response is to lament the way testing has seeped into the bedrock of school culture. Like cave paintings of horses or NASCAR hoods mounted on the barroom wall, these reflect what we cared about in the early 21st century: high scores on the test.

When he talks about testing Education Commissioner Michael Williams likes to say, “You measure what you treasure.” But just think how much you have to care to write a four-minute parody of “All About That Bass,” dance down the hallways singing it and put it on YouTube.

 

Wills Point Middle School: “WPMS is Shaking Off the STAAR”
In the style of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”

The message here: Don’t get distracted by the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world get you down, and do your best.

Cause others like to play, play, play, play, play
laugh at how long we’ll take, take, take, take, take
But we’re just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
Shake it off, we’ll shake it off

 

Denton ISD McMath Middle School: “STAAR Test Funk”
In the style of “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars.

This is the year’s big hit—almost half a million views so far. Great production, impressive choreography and solid lyrical adaptation; it’s funny, with a big finish that actually could fired up for an all-day test.

Denton, get pumped up
Our schools will triumph
STAAR test don’t mop you up
Our scores will measure up

 

Marcus W. Johnson, UT-Austin: “STAAR Test Motivation”

A motivational talk set to epic movie music and clips of epic things like battle scenes, space shuttles and pencils getting sharpened.

It’s always going to be something. It used to be the TAAS test, then it was the TAKS test. Now it’s the STAAR test.

Next thing you know it’s going to be the moon test and the sun test, and the Neptune.

[…]

This is a test of your willpower and your determination. This is an opportunity to prove yourself to yourself.

Right now anything they put in front of you, any test they put in front of you is food.
And it’s time to eat. 

 

Dallas ISD Ebby Halladay Elementary: “I’m Gonna Pass the STAAR”
In the style of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop.”

Extra points for not taking the easy route and riffing on “Shake It Off” or “Uptown Funk” this year. Bold, broad costuming and prop design, and an impressively large cast of teachers.

I’m gonna pass the STAAR
Only got pencils in my pocket

 

Harlingen CISD Treasure Hills Elementary: “STAAR Song”
In the style of One Republic’s “Counting Stars.”

Shocking that this wasn’t a more popular parody choice this year—the song title is a gimme. Wait for the drone-powered aerial shots, and a clever narrative framing device at the end. Also, Principal Roland Ingram really nails the high notes here—that’s school leadership with some serious range.

Lately I been, I been losing sleep
Dreaming about the things that you could be
But students, I know you’ve been working hard
There’s no denying that you will, you will pass the STAAR

 

 

Honorable mention:
La Joya ISD Tabasco Elementary: “TABASCO PASS THE STAAR”
“Say our name, you know who we are. We’re too hot.”

Mesquite ISD: “Shake it off (Take the STAAR)”
The student vocals lend this one an honesty you just can’t produce in a studio.

Katy ISD WoodCreek Elementary: “STAAR Test Video”

Richardson ISD Forest Lane Academy: “Pass the STAAR”

Here’s a playlist with all those and many more.

 

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
Patrick Michels
House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) with House members last month.

Two weeks after announcing that he’d try to fix the school finance system in the current legislative session, House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Ayocck (R-Killeen) unveiled his plan in a committee hearing this afternoon. Aycock had already announced his plan would come with $800 million in new money; today he explained how it would work.

Like most things in school finance, it’s complicated stuff. You can read the details of his plan, and its projected effects on your favorite school district, here.

Generally speaking, Aycock’s proposal involves scrapping a number of outdated or impractical funding tools—the “Cost of Education Index,” for instance, is 24 years old and has never been updated—and putting all of that money into the basic per-student allotment.

“Part of my objective when I began this was to simplify this system that we’re in,” Aycock said as he explained his bill, later adding, “I wish I could make it simpler. It’s not a simple deal.”

Any tweaks to the school finance system would ripple out across Texas’ thousand-plus school districts in different ways. (Aycock said that modeling his possible fixes “literally crashed” a state computer.) To minimize the number of districts losing money under the proposal, the House has passed a budget with $3 billion in new spending for public schools—including $2.2 billion that budget writers agreed upon early in the session, and $800 million more announced as part of Aycock’s plan.

The Senate draft budget includes much less for schools, and Aycock has said his counterparts in the upper chamber haven’t been a part of the House school finance talks. If the Senate doesn’t sign to match the House’s proposal, Aycock said his restructuring must be scuttled too.

Without new money, he said, “the pain of making these changes would be insurmountable.”

But there are new and different sorts of pain in store if the Legislature does nothing.

For one, under the current system, Houston ISD will soon owe the state around $100 million in “Robing Hood” funding—money that wealthy districts pay the state to cover poorer ones. Aycock has mentioned this point repeatedly, saying Houston ISD would either have to cut its services or raise taxes to cover the cost—or both—and get its voters to agree to foot the bill.

For another, many school districts are about to get a whole lot less from the state after September 2017. That’s when a relic of the last school finance “fix” in 2006 will expire, and a whole bunch of districts whose funding has been artificially inflated, by a tool known as ASATR, will watch their funding deflate in a hurry. Aycock conveyed the point with a different image today: “We’re going to hit a cliff at that point, and we’re going to hit it at 100 miles per hour,” he said.

His bill would move all but 2 percent of school districts off that artificial funding mechanism and onto formula funding, which is generally more stable. “Those that do fall in ’18 fall a lot less,” he said. “When they fall off that cliff, they don’t fall as far.”

Since 2006, as Abby Rapoport explained in the Observer a few years back, ASATR has been a finger on the scales that has persistently privileged some districts over others in some weird and unfair ways. Moving all but 2 percent of districts onto formula funding instead makes the system more fair.

That question of equity isn’t just important for students in those districts. It’s a central issue in the ongoing school finance case that the Texas Supreme Court is set to take up months from now. Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) has said that Aycock’s proposal would mean new money for schools, but she doubts it would do enough for poor students or English-language learners to make the system truly equitable.

That was a major issue in District Judge John Dietz’s ruling against the state last year, and Aycock said this afternoon that his bill didn’t touch the funding weights that provide money for those students. But he did call his plan “the most equitable statistical sample that’s been proposed for many years,” and said, “I honestly move it helps the state’s position, moves the ball in the right direction.”

He went even further with reporters after the hearing:

The committee will hear public testimony on the bill next Tuesday.

1 2 3 21