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Chewbacca for banned books

On the first day of Banned Books Week 2014The Dallas Morning News delivered the timely story of how Highland Park ISD—the wealthy enclave still grudgingly accessible by road from the rest of Dallas—has, more or less, banned seven books in response to a groundswell of parent outrage.

The Morning News‘ Melissa Repko reports that parents succeeded in getting the seven titles temporarily removed from classroom use, pending a review that could take months. Repko writes that the outrage surfaced a few weeks ago:

In Highland Park, more than 100 people packed a school board meeting this month. Parents and grandparents brought books flagged with sticky notes. They read excerpts of sex scenes, references to homosexuality, a description of a girl’s abduction and a passage that criticized capitalism. They sent hundreds of emails to district officials.

The school district doesn’t have video of the meeting, but it sounds as though it went a bit like this:

Like that school board in heaven Iowa, Highland Park school officials are urging calm, promising to give parents a chance to review the titles alongside teachers and students, and hopefully reach an understanding.

In a message sent Monday, Highland Park High School Principal Walter Kelly invited students and parents to join in the review. “Beyond the discussions of seven books out of hundreds of literary selections, I am more concerned about how we handle this as a school and community,” he wrote. “Central to the long-term discussion is how we make appropriate choices regarding instructional materials and books.”

Highland Park ISD spokeswoman Helen Williams says only one of the seven titles—Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain—was being taught this fall. Two others are slated for use in the spring, but she expects those books’ reviews will be completed by then.

“In terms of the effect immediately, it is not that onerous,” Williams says. “To give us time to conduct a thoughtful review, we are suspending use of those books.”

All of the books, she notes, are still available in the library—so this isn’t an outright ban—and parents always had the option to excuse their children from reading a given title. Still, this is the first time in more than a decade that parents have raised such widespread concern.

“It certainly a worthy topic and something I think is an age-old debate. What happened at the board meeting September 9 was standing-room only,” Williams says. September’s was the first board meeting of the new school year, and the first opportunity parents had to share their concerns after an email with controversial book passages began circulating in the spring.

The Morning News reports today that a new group of parents has formed to urge the district to put the books back in the classroom.

Highland Park’s banned-for-now list includes Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon—which Barack Obama has called his favorite book—and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, both of which are on the College Board’s reading list for Advanced Placement English Literature. The Morning News has more details on the objectionable content in each of the seven banned titles.

It’s noteworthy that parents would declare war on so many books after more than a decade of peace—though, as Williams notes, worries about sex scenes or swearing in required reading are nothing new.

But there is also something especially rich about parents in Highland Park—where there are zero economically disadvantaged students, compared to 89 percent of the student population in neighboring Dallas ISD—objecting to their children being exposed to David K. Shipley’s 2004 work, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. “Some parents objected to the nonfiction book because it has a passage about a woman who was sexually abused as a child and later had an abortion,” Repko explains.

But then there’s the offending “passage that criticized capitalism,” which was read aloud at the board meeting. That’s not about coarse language, or even “adult themes” that could threaten the book’s G-rating. That’s about trying to control what ideas students are exposed to when they’re away from home—not so far, intellectually, from today’s conservative education movement, which has made statewide causes out of CSCOPE, the Common Core standards and the revised AP U.S. History course they say is too critical of the U.S. and its founders.

Every school district can choose which books to teach, which to put in the library, and which to avoid altogether. According to the ACLU of Texas’ 2013 banned books report, Texas schools have banned fewer books every year since 2007. The group says its 2014 report will be out later this week.

“We respect parents’ right to choose what books their children read and to work with teachers to find alternate titles when parents have concerns,” says ACLU of Texas Communications Director Tom Hargis. “But efforts by a single parent or small group to ban a title and keep all students from reading it infringes on the rights of other parents to make their own choices. No matter how well-intended, banning books is censorship and infringes on the rights of a free society.”

It also, in this case, made things a little awkward for the author Jeanette Walls, who is slated to keynote Highland Park’s literary festival next year, now that Highland Park parents have placed her memoir, The Glass Castle, on the chopping block. Walls explained to the Morning News why people should be allowed to read her book:

“Walls said she was heartbroken to learn that her book was on the list. Her memoir is about growing up in poverty with a father who spent his money on alcohol and a mother who became homeless.

“‘My book has ugly elements to it, but it’s about hope and resilience, and I don’t know why that wouldn’t be an important message,’ she said. ‘Sometimes you have to walk through the muck to get to the message.'”

TSTC culinary arts class
Courtesy TSTC
A culinary arts class at Texas State Technical College West Texas

If you’ve spent any time watching daytime TV, you know the pitch: Industries are critically short on skilled workers, and with the right training, an exciting career with great pay could be waiting for you! Enroll now!

Among technical colleges, the competition for students is fierce, and many make big promises to lure recruits (and the federal loan money they often bring). Texas has been cracking down on for-profit chains, even revoking the license of Dallas-based ATI Career Training Centers. As former Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken explained in 2011, “Schools that misreport employment information about their programs potentially exploit vulnerable individuals with false hopes.”

Today, the commission ensures that for-profit trade schools are up-front with recruits about placement rates—and specifically whether graduates are working in a field related to what they studied. For trade schools, more than any other sort of higher education, it’s a critical measure of success. To stay open, such colleges need to keep their program-related employment rates above 60 percent.

But those regulations don’t extend to public trade schools. Each year, almost 30,000 students attend one of 11 campuses in the state-funded Texas State Technical College System (TSTC). To compete against for-profits and their enormous ad budgets, public trade schools have relied mostly on good public relations; local papers near TSTC campuses often run glowing stories about high placement rates and soaring industry demand.

In 2012, the Marshall News-Messenger cited “a job placement rate at nearly 90 percent” for TSTC’s Marshall campus. In a Valley Morning Star story this March, the chair of TSTC’s surgical technology program flatly declares that “all graduates are placed in jobs.” TSTC makes similar claims online about its Waco campus: “on average, industry has more job openings than TSTC has graduates. TSTC boasts placement rates of more than 90 percent.”

George Reamy remembers how impressed he was the first time he heard numbers like those, back when he taught English at TSTC Waco. “I remember talking to people about that,” he said, “and they kind of whispered to me, ‘hey man, that’s not quite what’s goin’ on.’”

In fact, the “success” rate for graduates includes students employed in any field or enrolled in further education. Say you’ve got a job at Taco Bell, graduate from a biomedical technology program, and then keep on working at Taco Bell. TSTC counts that a “success.” “You’ll never see phrases like ‘program-related’ or ‘in their field of study’ or even ‘technical’ next to the word ‘job,’” Reamy says.

TSTC campuses in Marshall and Sweetwater recently begin posting data on training-related employment. At the West Texas campus in Sweetwater, which advertised a 90 percent placement rate for 2013, the degree-related job placement was just 65 percent. In the News-Messenger last December, TSTC Marshall Director of Career Services Benji Cantu announced a “substantial” placement rate of 81 percent—but didn’t mention the school’s program-related placement rate for 2013 was a less-substantial 40 percent.

Generally, Reamy says, the future for tech school grads is more complicated than these statistics let on. He points to a 2012 survey in which TSTC Waco graduates say they wish the school had been more up-front about their job prospects; the mixed reviews include some very positive comments, and more than a few from graduates who discovered their education was of little help in the job real world. Four call their degrees “a waste.”

For the same reason Texas doesn’t let for-profits make inflated claims about their programs, Reamy says, public schools ought to be transparent with recruits. “People make life-changing decisions based on stories like these,” he says. At his blog, “Watching Texas Technical Colleges,” he keeps up a drumbeat of criticisms against TSTC’s placement claims.

TSTC System Vice Chancellor Eliska Smith is familiar with these sorts of charges. But the truth, she says, is that there’s no systemic way to know which jobs are truly training-related. Unemployment insurance data doesn’t track graduates who leave Texas is prone to broad generalities that could accidentally list a graduate as working outside their field of training.

As an example Smith points to an automotive technology graduate who gets work as a mechanic at a Wal-Mart auto shop. State employment data wouldn’t count that Wal-Mart job as field-related. If a nursing graduate hires on at a school district and not a hospital, the state’s best data would consider that an unrelated field.

“There’s some fallacies in using ‘in-field,'” Smith says. “What matters to us, and what we think matters to our students is that our students are getting jobs.”

For the same reasons, even the Texas Workforce Commission—which has been requiring for-profits to maintain a 60 percent field-related employment rate—is moving away from its current measure, according to Richard Froeschle, the commission’s director of labor market and career information. Froeschle, one of the state’s experts on measuring career school outcomes, says the workforce commission relies today on self-reported numbers from schools, but is working on an objective measure more like what TSTC uses. “A level playing field, if you will,” Froeschle says.

Michael Bettersworth, an associate vice chancellor and data guru at TSTC, is well acquainted with the limitations of the data on training-related employment. For now, at least—until there’s better data on graduates’ jobs—he says it’s the wrong way to measure a school’s success. “I have gone down the rabbit hole of these data elements and philosophical debates,” Bettersworth says. “There are major structural limitations on the available data that limit the assumptions you can make.”

TSTC graduate earnings
Source: Michael Bettersworth and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board
Texas State Technical College graduate earnings from 2009 to 2012

For now at least, Bettersworth says the best measures of TSTC’s success are how many graduates find jobs and how much its graduates earn after leaving. He says it’s a natural fit for TSTC, where the institutional mission is to grow Texas’ economy through workforce training.

Pressure to keep those numbers up has only increased now that the Legislature has tied TSTC’s state funding to its graduates’ earnings. The state’s calculations don’t include whether that job relates to what a graduate studied—they rely instead on a measure of graduates’ wages—a figure Bettersworth happily notes has risen in the first years of the new funding scheme (see the chart to the right).

For its willingness to stake its funding on graduates’ performance, TSTC has become a darling of the results-based higher ed movement that both Gov. Rick Perry and gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott have embraced. In his campaign, Abbott’s plan for higher ed includes funding all sorts of institutions—not just trade schools, but community colleges and four-year universities as well—based on some measure of their performance.

The trade schools offer a good example of how complicated school performance metrics can get, even for a relatively straight-forward question like whether graduates got jobs related to their studies. Performance metrics for, say, a university philosophy department wouldn’t be so straightforward.

And while folks like Froeschle and Bettersworth are fine-tuning measures for the state—probing data sets for weaknesses and being careful not to assume too much—what prospective students see in their local newspapers more often are local trade school officials’ certain claims that “all graduates are placed in jobs.”

Reamy says that’s where his frustration still lies: in the local recruitment pitches, where the nuance is often stripped from the numbers. “If there’s no good data on where people end up after graduation, officials need to quit talking about their employment rate without explanation or caveat,” Reamy says. “Anything less leads to false expectations and disappointment on the part of students and their families. … It boils down to integrity.”

Idaho-Based Athlos Charter Schools Grow in Texas, Despite State’s Denial

Athlos Academies is a new kind of player in the charter school world, combining school construction with an athletics-based approach to learning.
Athlos Leadership Academy in Austin
Patrick Michels
North Austin's Athlos Leadership Academy under construction in August.

 

In the far reaches of North Austin, with Williamson County looming just across the street, the capital city’s newest charter school was still a construction site in late August. Scaffolding wrapped the large building as dozens of construction workers clambered up and down. More workers paced the rooftop, hurrying to finish the job and get students inside the new Athlos Leadership Academy for the new school year.

Like other Athlos campuses across the country, the school has big white pillars, a stately cupola and Monticello-esque wings suggesting a classical place of learning. Athlos notes in promotional materials that the Georgian architecture is designed to “evoke a patriotic feel.” In the weight room and on its basketball court and indoor turf field, students will be trained in Athlos’ signature physical fitness and character development program. For school-shopping parents, the school compares impressively to, say, the Austin Independent School District’s boxy, brick Wells Branch Elementary a few blocks away.

Thanks to the quirky way charter schools are regulated, this was a peculiar summer for Idaho-based Athlos. For even as it opened its seventh charter school in Texas, with thousands of students in its programs, state regulators also denied an Athlos Academy charter application—for the second time in three years.

If you’re, say, a parent or a student trying to choose between public schools, that might sound confusing. But it makes perfect sense if you work within the charter system, where you know a school’s name only says so much about who runs it.

News of the state’s rejection was a frustration, but not a deal-killer, for Athlos Academies because its schools also piggyback onto preexisting charters. A state charter for Athlos would’ve let the organization grow even faster in Texas, and perhaps most importantly, given it more of the all-important cachet it takes to succeed in the charter world.

Combined with a partner called The Charter School Fund, Athlos represents something new in the school reform movement: a developer that lets existing charter schools grow beyond their wildest dreams, then absorbs them into its family of campuses with a unique brand built on leadership and fitness.

Athlos schools have earned high marks in other states, and Texas lawmakers have made it clear that they want more high-performing charters to move in from out-of-state—so in many ways, this looked like it could have been Athlos’ year to get a charter of its own.

 

 

In Athlos Academy’s pitch before state regulators in July, its would-be board of directors made their case with a sense of urgency. The school’s Dallas-based board enthusiastically told Texas Education Agency officials how the Athlos model—”Athlos” is Greek for “feat” or “contest”—would turn out healthy, self-confident students more likely to succeed in the classroom.

Board member Todd Whitthorne was an especially fiery evangelist. “What I have seen in my lifetime, in the past 50 years, our public health numbers are frightening,” said Whitthorne, a motivational speaker and health consultant who promotes “happy pills” for workplace productivity. “They’re absolutely frightening, and I don’t believe that the way we’re operating right now in an obesogenic environment is sustainable.”

The board’s plan was ambitious: 15 campuses around Dallas-Fort Worth with a student body that would grow from 2,600 to 15,000 students within five years. (Charter school enrollment in Texas is just over 200,000 today.) The board chairman, Eddie Conger, runs another North Texas charter school, Independent Leadership Texas, that has grown fast in its first few years after partnering with Athlos. Conger spoke passionately about the transformative power of Athlos, and how many more children they’d reach with a separate charter: “If you were driving down the road and you saw a car accident, would you stop and intervene?”

But regulators seemed perplexed by connections between The Charter School Fund (the likely new landlord for the schools), Athlos Academies and a nonprofit called Complete Kids Inc., which would be allowed to nominate some replacements to the Athlos Texas board. All three shared the same downtown Boise address, along with the Hawkins Companies, a major real estate developer.

“Not only does it concern me when an out-of-state is going to be nominating your board,” TEA legal counsel Karen Johnson told the applicants, “but we have a new state law that says that a majority of all board members need to be qualified voters, which the [attorney general] says means Texas residents.” Johnson’s concerns touched on a delicate balance built into last year’s overhaul of Texas’ charter school law: while lawmakers wanted to attract out-of-state charters to Texas, they were also wary of handing control of public money to interests outside the state.

And the new Athlos school already planned to send a lot of money to Idaho: an estimated $442,395 in the school’s first year—2 percent of its state funding—to license the Athlos curriculum (with 15,000 students, the total could rise to $2.5 million a year) and $52 million over the first five years—about 18 percent of its funding—to rent from The Charter School Fund. (Charter schools’ facility costs vary widely, but, according to Texas Charter Schools Association spokeswoman Tracy Young, consultants often advise charters to keep lease costs under 20 percent.)

Mavis Knight, a Dallas Democrat on the State Board of Education, tells the Observer the arrangement just seemed odd to her, especially the board nominating process. “My mind can’t wrap around why it is necessary for two separate entities to nominate board members of another entity,” she says. (Along with Complete Kids, the nonprofit behind Independent Leadership of Texas would also nominate new Athlos Texas board members.) “Sometimes you just have to listen to your inner self, and my inner self was still not satisfied.”

TEA denied the Athlos application for “multiple reasons,” according to spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe, including an insufficient budget for “required activities”—board members had promised their fundraising skills would help make up the difference—and too many other issues the school would have to work out before opening.

Joseph Hoffer, a San Antonio attorney who represented the Athlos Texas board, tells the Observer the decision was disappointing, and a little mysterious. “The states’s talking about scaling [out-of-state charters], yet they’re worried about corporate operators coming in that they can’t control,” Hoffer says. “They say that’s what they want, and then they don’t approve it. … The commissioner was told by the Legislature that he could grant up to 10 charters, and he’s not doing that.”

Politically, the mood does seem right in Texas for an out-of-state operation with a good reputation. Earlier this year, Education Commissioner Michael Williams went to great lengths to let Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies expand into Dallas despite a veto from the State Board of Education. And according to emails obtained through state open records laws, Gov. Rick Perry has been especially interested in out-of-state charter applicants. “What is the big hold up for recruiting out of state charters form y’all perspective,” Perry’s education policy adviser Whitney Broughton asked TEA in March.

 

 

Legacy Traditional School in Gilbert, Arizona
The Legacy Traditional School in Gilbert, Arizona, uses the Athlos curriculum and was built by The Charter School Fund.

Part of Athlos’ trouble may be that, unlike Great Hearts or Arizona-based BASIS Charter Schools, it can’t claim an academic track record of its own. Though it may be hard to tell from the outside, each Athlos school—like North Austin’s Athlos Leadership Academy—is actually an independent charter that licenses the Athlos curriculum.

“It’s like they’re the hand and then Athlos becomes the glove,” Hoffer explains.

But University of California at Berkeley professor Janelle Scott—whose research covers the growing charter school market—says Athlos’ promotional material doesn’t make the distinction clear. “It’s at least misleading. As I was reading the Athlos website, it does appear to me that those were schools under their management,” Scott says. “They don’t say they’re not the holders of the charter. The charter holder is the one that has fiduciary and pedagogical responsibility for the school.”

Licensing the Athlos curriculum tends to entail a total rebranding: new school name, new marketing style, and a place on Athlos’ list of schools, all of which can make it hard to tell, from the outside, whose charter school it is. Hoffer compares it to franchising with McDonald’s. A similar arrangement lets the online chain K12, Inc., operate in Texas. As a for-profit firm, K12 could never get a charter of its own here, but it can simply contract with a local charter-holder instead. Watch one of their ads on TV, and you’d never know the difference. Should K12’s school perform poorly on state tests—as K12’s Texas campus did for years—it can simply take its business to another charter-holder and start over with a clean slate. That’s exactly what it did in 2011 when it jumped from Southwest Schools to Lewisville-based Responsive Education Solutions.

Athlos and The Charter School Fund don’t dictate an academic curriculum but they provide something more concrete—literally—than K12: an impressive school facility to complement whatever a charter does in its classrooms. Along the way, Athlos extends its message, grows its brand and pads its bottom line. As the nationwide charter school market grows, so does the market for creative arrangements like this. Charter-specific firms occupy a small but growing niche in the real estate world, alongside the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund—as in Andre Agassi—and EPR Properties, which also owns movie theaters and water parks.

Hawkins Companies' Boise offices
855 Broad Street in Boise, home to Hawkins Companies, Athlos Acadmies, The Charter School Fund and Complete Kids, Inc.

Athlos began in 2006, according to its site, when an Idaho dentist named Ryan Van Alfen sold his practice and teamed with a real estate developer named Jason Kotter. They set up Athlos Academies—a nonprofit—and teamed with Hawkins Companies, a developer of ubiquitous retail spots like Walgreens stores and strip malls, to create The Charter School Fund.

Like Hawkins, the fund is a for-profit corporation. But Hoffer—to whom Van Alfen referred our interview request—makes a distinction here: “They’re not a nonprofit, they’re a social venture. They’re not a developer either,” Hoffer says.

In Texas, charter schools don’t get public funding to lease buildings or build new ones; finding and paying for facilities can be one of the biggest stresses in running a charter school. Hoffer says The Charter School Fund helps alleviate that stress. “What they bring is unique in that they’ve designed the facilities around the educational model, and they’ve also brought in the investors—they’ve leveraged their resources to bring in the investors so a charter school can also have a facility.”

Scott, the Berkeley researcher, says it’s common for players in the charter school market to work through a nonprofit arm. “People are still skeptical of having for-profits in education,” she says, so there’s a P.R. benefit to appearing charitable. Scott says The Charter School Fund’s marriage of real estate and physical education seems unique. “But what is common is this idea of a hybridized organization—an arm that’s nonprofit, an arm that’s for-profit, and those arms kind of taking care of teach other.”

On its website, The Charter School Fund claims a record of “$324 million invested in market driven education.” And Kotter and Van Alfen sound like true believers in the power of the private sector to improve public schools. Van Alfen explains in a 2013 Idaho Business Review article:

“We have a solution to the largest obstacle in bringing market-driven education to scale, which we feel strongly is the only way to transform education. We like to challenge the status quo; it drives me crazy to see how this education topic has been demagogued to death. No, it’s not about the kids. It’s about unions protecting union members.

[...]

“Jason helped pioneer a financial model that worked. We develop a structure, lease it to the 501(c)(3) charter school until they stabilize with their enrollment financially, and then they buy it from us. Then we just roll that forward in not-for-profit fashion, into the next project. We bring the equity; we personally guarantee the debt. Nobody is taking more risk on a project’s success than we are.”

As stewards of public money, charters must typically submit their construction projects for competitive bidding. (Another charter school chain, Harmony Public Schools, has drawn fire for using the same few Turkish-owned contractors outside the usual bidding process.) But by leasing a finished product from The Charter School Fund, schools come in too late to worry about who did the work. These projects tend to come with a consistent cast of supporting players, including Idaho-based Pacific Properties and Engineered Structures, Inc. The campus plans often come from Boise-based BRS Architects.

All schools—charter or not—send lots of public money into the private sector. But thanks to their small enrollments and freedom to experiment, charters have become a gateway to the education market for all sorts of new players with unorthodox arrangements.

Van Alfen has explained the Athlos character curriculum was developed with California-based Velocity Sports Performance, a nationwide chain of personal training franchises that maintains a connection to new Athlos schools, and helps to recruit and screen coaches for Athlos schools. Coaches may also use the school gym after-hours for private, fee-based training sessions, according to news stories from Brownsville, Texas, and Arizona. Velcocity and its corporate partners get a privileged position within the schools: Velocity’s website even advertises its gym locations at charter school addresses. The walls of some Athlos school gyms bear a big Velocity Sports Performance logo and according to one handbook, the only corporate logos staff can wear are those of Velocity or its partners like Under Armour. (Athlos Apparel, which Kotter and Van Alfen also own, sells the student uniforms.)

It’s been eight years since Van Alfen sold his dental practice, and despite the recent rejection in Texas, his gamble may finally be paying off. Athlos’ school network spans three states and promises more growth soon. In fall 2011, the Legacy Traditional Schools network in suburban Phoenix opened the Athlos Leadership Academy, the first of at least five campuses they’ve now built with The Charter School Fund. Last fall, New Visions Academy—one of Minnesota’s oldest charter schools—moved into a grand new building on a grassy hill built by The Charter School Fund, then reopened as Athlos Leadership Academy. A group led by a dentist and a former dental assistant school owner has applied to open a new Athlos charter in Nampa, Idaho, in fall 2015.

 

 

Like most charter schools, Jubilee Academic Center started small. Its first campus opened in 2000, with 60 students inside a San Antonio church. Each time the school added a campus it could fit another 200 or 300 students, but growing Jubilee was always a delicate balancing act. Charter schools in Texas don’t get public money for rent or construction. Many rely on grants to cover the cost of new facilities, but Jubilee director Tom Koger was wary of the influence outside foundations might expect in exchange for their money.

Instead, when Koger and the Jubilee board wanted to go big, they enlisted The Charter School Fund, which agreed to build three new school buildings, each far bigger than Jubilee could build on its own—including Jubilee’s Athlos Leadership Academy in North Austin. Jubilee would lease the new buildings, and hopefully buy them someday. The fund, in turn, would use money from the sale to build more schools, which Jubilee could rent to accommodate even more students.

On the same day Jubilee’s board approved the deal in January 2014, it voted to boost its enrollment from 5,550 to 17,276.

Gymnasiums, tracks and fields are luxuries many charter schools can’t afford, but at these new schools they’re integral to the Athlos program, which Jubilee also decided to license. At Jubilee, according to Koger, the connection between The Charter School Fund and Athlos is incidental—both programs fit alongside what his school was already doing. “Jubilee’s always had an emphasis on character … so we feel like it’s win-win for us,” Koger says. Plus, the real estate terms were more favorable than what Jubilee could get anywhere else, which Koger chalks up to a sense of mission among the folks in Boise.

“The thing with these guys from The Charter School Fund,” Koger says, “once you get to know them, they truly are on a crusade to stamp out diabetes and obesity.”

Hoffer says he’s looking forward to next year’s charter school class, when Athlos can once again apply for its own charter from Texas. But until then, Athlos already has more schools in Texas than any other state, with three new Jubilee Academy campuses under the Athlos banner this year, and ILTexas campuses “powered by Athlos” in North Texas. Thousands of Texas students will learn the Athlos model this year, from the Rio Grande Valley to the Dallas suburbs, in big new schools built by The Charter School Fund. With or without the state’s help, the Athlos crusade marches on.

Abbott supporters cheer on the attorney general as he begins his campaign for governor.
Patrick Michels
Greg Abbott supporters cheer on the attorney general as he begins his campaign for governor in July 2013.

After an intense week of news featuring major legal opinions on the most contentious issues of our time—public school funding, abortion access, single-use plastic bags—this short Labor Day week presented a welcome respite from the ideological canyons and petty rifts that divide us.

In the immortal words of Kris Kristofferson, “There’s no need to watch the bridges that we’re burning.” Plenty of time for that before November! For now, let’s just relax and enjoy the good times.

After all, it’s football season! With all the divisive strife in the world today, it’s nice to know that we can all kick back together on a Sunday afternoon, let everyone celebrate their fandom as they like, and may the best team win. A time to put politics aside!

Until Wednesday!

Sen. Wendy Davis Flip-Flops On Her Support For The Dallas Cowboys

SHOT: Today Sen. Davis Said She Has Been “Cheering For The Cowboys” Since She Was Young And Hasn’t Stopped Since.

[...]

CHASER: In August Sen. Davis’ Daughter Said Her And Her Mother Were Both “Big Fans” Of The New England Patriots.

That’s Greg Abbott’s campaign dinging Davis for daring to cheer for the Dallas Cowboys and for an entirely different team on some other occasions. Who knows? Maybe even at the same time! On any given Sunday, Wendy Davis, alone in the universe, may hope to see both the Cowboys and the Patriots win their football games.

Peggy Fikac at the Houston Chronicle followed up to ask the natural next question: So, what team is Abbott’s favorite?

Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said the attorney general favors two Texas teams: the Cowboys and the Texans.

[...]

“Either way, he’s no fan of liberal New England politics or their football team,” Hirsch said.

At Texas Monthly, Dan Solomon takes a deep dive into the many ways this fight is “silly,” but also notes how easily politicians can screw up the seemingly simple “local football team pander.” The funniest thing about the affair might be seeing Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson trotted out to provide the following expert analysis:

“There are more serious issues the candidates need to focus on.”

This week also brought us Greg Abbott’s new campaign ad, “Garage,” in which the gubernatorial candidate recalls his difficult training after being partially paralyzed, which included tackling eight floors of a parking garage in his wheelchair to build upper-body strength. Abbott could be running for governor here, or he might be trying to sell you some Under Armour.

Abbott conveys this simple and inspirational message about how he faces personal challenges, then makes a broad, anodyne leap to the challenges we all face as Texans.

“Just one more. I see life that way, and that’s how I’ll govern Texas.”

If only Rick Perry had used that one after his first term! Or his second!

But seriously, who could find fault in a message like this? And what everyday setting could be more unimpeachable than a parking garage? What could anyone possibly find to rebut in this unassailably upbeat little nugget of bumper-sticker-grade inspiration?

Take it away, Rebecca Acuña:

“If you had told me Greg Abbott was running an ad titled ‘Garage’, I would have assumed it would be an apology to the woman he sided against on the Texas Supreme Court after she was brutally raped in a parking garage.”

Acuña, a Davis campaign spokeswoman, is referring specifically to a case from 1999. The content of Abbott’s ad left little room for attack, but the name… oh, the name! Sure, using that one innocuous word as a cudgel may strike some as a bit of a stretch, but only until you think of all the wild rebuttals that didn’t make the cut. You know who else spent a lot of time in a concrete bunker?

Maybe Abbott can make a sport of this, and challenge Davis by giving his next ads even blander one-word titles. “Satchel.” “Receptacle.” “Spork.” This campaign’s getting hot already!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

So what, we just spend money forever?

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

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

 

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

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

And the underlying problems with the funding formula remain.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Um, yes.

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

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

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

 

 

Travis County District Judge John Dietz
Patrick Michels
Juge John Dietz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LBB chart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lets-Be-Cops-poster

Let’s be cops!

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

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

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

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

Let’s use philosophy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

mclennan-county-sheriff-posse

Or let’s join a posse!

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

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

mclennan-county-posse-facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

east-texas-militia-facebook

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

 

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

 

Deion Sanders at an open house for Prime Prep Academy in Dallas.
Patrick Michels
Deion Sanders at an open house for Prime Prep Academy in Dallas.

The New York Times‘ sports section on Sunday featured a long look at Prime Prep Academy, the Deion Sanders-backed basketball powerhouse, reality TV backdrop, academic nightmare and administrative soap opera that also happens to be a publicly funded charter school licensed by the great state of Texas.

Licensed for now, anyway—the state’s working on that.

The Times‘ Michael Powell offers a blow-by-blow account of Prime Prep’s troubled first two years, much of which will be familiar to folks in Dallas, where the media has rightly made great sport of the school’s foibles. (WFAA reporter and human tackling dummy Brett Shipp is probably staking out the football field from an unmarked van right now.)

But see all the trouble strung together into a single narrative—after trying to fire Sanders, the school director walks out to find her rear windshield smashed; parents sell pizza to students in the cafeteria while phantom school lunches (billed to the USDA) never get served—and you wonder why any parent, so empowered by school choice, would ever choose Prime Prep.

In fact, Powell says, enrollment is up.

The reason is Deion—the man who sweet-talked state officials, lured parents and coaches, promised athletes exposure to top recruiters, and then bridled at the suggestion that his was more properly a supporting role.

It’s a little embarrassing that this school ever opened. Powell writes:

Prime Prep was conceived in celebrity, its charter proposal offering a near satirical turn on edu-speak. The proposal mentioned “our training methods” and a “Leadership Studies Curriculum” without explaining the nature of that special sauce. Students, the proposal noted, would “model traits” such as “responsibility” and “courage.” Students would “become self-actualized.”

Yes, well.

A similar hunch—though you’d never read it in the Times, one might best call it the bullshit alarm—is what prompted the first of a couple pieces I wrote about Prime Prep’s early days. It turned out some of the language in its application was probably plagiarized—it was identical to passages on websites for a suburban Dallas private school and a charter school in Idaho. For evidence of the school’s strong financial prospects, the application promised $186,000 in grants already secured from Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the NFL Network, among others. I called around, and it turned out that had been news to Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the NFL Network.

The secondary headline on the Times‘ story said that Sanders’ school has “come under scrutiny.” But “under scrutiny” is where this school has been for nearly three years. Leslie Minora, then with the Dallas Observer, uncovered a bizarre real estate deal behind Prime Prep’s Fort Worth campus, and accusations that they’d poached another school’s basketball coach and star players threatened to keep Prime Prep out of competition. Through all the trouble and bad press, Sanders always found a way forward. Writes Powell:

We’re accustomed to living in the shadow of the rotten tree that is major college sports. It’s almost refreshing that so many college administrators and coaches have dropped the pretense that recruits are more than underpaid young men and women in shorts, jerseys or shoulder pads.

[...]

Prime Prep offers baroque twists on this American sports tale. It features celebrity culture run amok and shoddy oversight of a charter school.

Over the weekend, Al Jazeera‘s “America Tonight” also took a long look at Prime Prep’s history, and suggested at least a more charitable purpose behind the school: Sanders’ “vision to marry tuition-free academics for underprivileged youths with big-time high school athletics.” But students and parents they interviewed, speaking anonymously, felt cheated by that promise, even if they did get to meet Snoop Dogg and Johnny Manziel:

“There were nights I cried myself to sleep,” [one student] said. “I’m a smart kid, and I knew I could go to college and be a good student. I had dreams of playing at a Division I school, so the fact that dream was taken away from me due to people not doing what they were supposed to do — it sucked.”

If you’re going to explain the problems with Texas’ old system for approving new charter schools—with a majority vote from the elected State Board of Education—Prime Prep would be Exhibit A. (Beaumont Republican David Bradley called Sanders’ team “first class,” and their pitch “flawless.”) As of last fall, we have a new system: charters are vetted by the state’s professional regulators, then the state board can veto any of their picks. It’s not free from the prospect of political influence, but it’s harder for a terrible applicant to sneak through.

Years later, Prime Prep is once again an instructive example as the state tests its powers to shut charters down.

Last month, state regulators announced plans to revoke Prime Prep’s charter, most of all because the school lost its eligibility for the federal school lunch program. (Which is what happens when you take $45,000 in federal money for meals you can’t prove you served.)

For now, Prime Prep is in the midst of a lengthy appeals process, during which the school can stay open and keep taking state money. And while the state has investigated the school for much more, the letter announcing its charter revocation only mentions the trouble with the meal program. Sanders has said he’ll pay the school’s lunch bill to get Prime Prep back in the feds’ good graces; its new superintendent, former Dallas ISD trustee Ron Price, says the school is doing just fine under its new management. Call the Prime Prep’s Fort Worth campus today, and the word is that classes will resume as scheduled on August 25.

It’s tempting to read Sunday’s Times story as Prime Prep’s obituary. Maybe that’s what it’ll be. But Sanders’ school has faced long odds for survival before, and come away with an upset every time.

 

Correction on August 25: The Times writer’s name, Michael Powell, has been corrected throughout the story.

Shane Dewayne Hadnot
Jasper County Sheriff's Office
Shane Dewayne Hadnot, in a booking photo from an earlier arrest.

Late last year, a Jasper physical therapist named Alfred Wright disappeared along a remote stretch of East Texas highway in between his scheduled house calls. From the start, Wright’s family was suspicious of local authorities who seemed certain his mysterious disappearance was drug-related; in an area that’s become notorious for racially fueled violence, Wright’s family and others in Jasper’s black community suspected there was more to the story.

In March, the Observer featured the story of Wright’s disappearance and the debate, which stretched from the Sabine County courthouse steps to American Idol fan blogs, over the racial implications of how Wright’s case was handled. We reported that authorities had focused their investigation on one 28-year-old Jasper man who could have sold Wright the lethal dose of cocaine later found in his body. Still, complex theories about Wright’s death—that he’d been tortured and mutilated before his death, or forced to ingest the drugs that killed him—spread and grew more intricate in part because authorities wouldn’t say anything so long as the investigation was still open.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office broke that silence at a press conference in Beaumont this morning, announcing that it had indicted that 28-year-old Jasper man, Shane Dewayne Hadnot, for two charges of drug distribution resulting in death, each of which carry a 20-year minimum prison term.

The indictment, which was just unsealed, dates to June 25, and attributes the strange circumstances of Wright’s death to a state of “excited delirium” from the cocaine, methamphetamine and Xanax later found in his system. The document is the most detailed look yet at the official investigation into Wright’s death, while one of Wright’s family members says it only suggests a further official cover-up.

According to the indictment, Hadnot admitted to both Wright’s wife Lauren and to Texas Ranger Danny Young that he’d sold cocaine to Wright on the day he went missing. According to the indictment, Hadnot “admitted that he sold half-grams of cocaine to Wright on a daily basis.” The indictment also quotes daily text messages from Wright to Hadnot beginning on October 8, 2013, to arrange the deals, coded messages like “grammy award” or—on November 7, the day Wright disappeared, “1 gino and a 20 and 3 handles.”

Wright, according to the indictment, was erratic with patients on the afternoon of his disappearance. One of Wright’s patients recalls him showing up late and complaining he was sick; another witness says they spoke to Wright in his or her driveway and “found him extremely disoriented and unable to communicate clearly” before telling Wright to leave.

Once Wright’s body was discovered in late November, the forensic evidence became another point of contention in the case. The Texas Department of Public Safety released an official autopsy that attributed Wright’s death to a drug overdose, but Lee Ann Grossberg, an independent examiner hired by Wright’s family, announced at a press conference that after examining Wright’s body, she had “a high index of suspicion this was a homicide.” That quote helped fuel suspicion that Wright hadn’t simply overdosed, despite Grossberg’s insistence that her investigation wasn’t finsihed. According to the indictment, when Grossberg released her report in May (this time without a press conference), she agreed with the state examiner that Wright’s death was an accidental overdose.

At 3 a.m. Friday morning, Wright’s sister Annilia Wright-Mosley sent an email about the Justice Department’s forthcoming announcement. “I must say I am very numb right now,” she began. “This is what they are doing to uphold the Toxicology report and to validate their claims to [Alfred's] demise. I am so very disappointing [sic] in our justice system” which, she writes, “recruit[ed] an innocent black man to take the fall.” She says she and her family will be protesting at the federal building in Houston at 3 p.m. this afternoon.

You can read the full indictment here.

The text of Wright-Mosley’s email follows:

Greetings,

I must say I am very numb right now with the news of what my parents just informed me of that the DOJ (Malcolm Bales out of Beaumont, TX) called and said to them. This is what was stated:

On tomorrow August 8, 2014 They will be inditing a young black man by the name of Shane Hadnot (who suppose to be a drug dealer in Jasper, TX) for the death of my little brother Alfred Wright. They said he is getting charged because he sold the drugs to my brother which caused him to overdose and die. This is what they are doing to uphold the Toxicology report and to validate their claims to his demise. I am so very disappointing in our justice system.

My brother tongue was cut out, eyes gouged out, throat slit, ear cut off, he had missing teeth, missing finger nails, signs of violence and torture (which was confirmed by the second patholigist, Dr. LeeAnn Grossberg in the beginning of the investigation. But after the DOJ got involved she later retracted her claims and became distant to our family which was very suspicious). Later in the investigation my father was finally able to reach her and she informed him that the DOJ had sent reports to her and this is what she based her findings on basically on what the DOJ said. So my mother stated to Malcolm Bales that you mean to tell me that my son slit his own throat, cut his ear off, knock teeth out of his mouth, cut his tongue out, and his response was, It was animal activity.”

This is really sad news to our family, community and to the state of Texas. In 2014 the justice system is yet covers up a HATE CRIME and MODERN DAY LYNCHINHG and recruiting an innocent black man to take the fall (who they cannot prove a connection to Shane being at the scene of the crime). I wanted you all to have this information before they come forward to release the lies and cover up of this case on tomorrow

The Wright Family is asking for your continued prayers and support! We thank you for everything youv’e done to keep the voice of justice alive for Alfred Wright.

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