Snake Oil

Greg Abbott Proposes Statewide District for Struggling Schools

In other states, the school turnaround strategy has meant major charter school expansion
Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Texas gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott

One of the Texas Legislature’s more entertaining moments in 2013—before, well, you know—was the late-session fight in the House over a bill creating the “Texas Achievement School District,” to centralize school turnaround efforts across Texas under a single superintendent.

Sen. Royce West and Rep. Harold Dutton, both Democrats, authored the bill, which would create a sort of intervention program for struggling elementary schools. Elementary schools with a track record of low performance would be temporarily removed from their local districts, and placed under a state superintendent, who’d have broad authority to replace staff, begin new programs or hand control over to someone else. Or, as Dutton explained on the House floor in late May, “We let a school get so sick we basically take it to the cemetery. … Let’s take it to the emergency room, where we can diagnose it and then fix it.”

The bill had already passed the Senate at that point, but it was killed by a procedural move that night in the House. What made the debate so interesting, as the Tribune‘s Morgan Smith pointed out at the time, was that Dutton’s effort was stymied by a group from within his own party, led by Houston Democrat Armando Walle.

The concern, voiced by teacher groups as well, was that schools placed in the Achievement School District—though they’d remain nominally under state control—would be handed off to charter school operators; that the “emergency room” Dutton alluded to would be staffed by “doctors” from KIPP, Harmony or some other big charter chain, while elected school trustees and public employees at the school district were pushed aside.

That’s exactly what happened in Tennessee, which has its own achievement school district, and Louisiana, where a “recovery school district” covered New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In both cases, school “recovery” has been accomplished with sweeping charter-school takeovers. Michigan and Virginia have their own versions now, too.

West and Dutton’s bill anticipated that possibility in Texas, naming the conditions a charter operator would have to meet before assuming control of a public school in the achievement school district.

Though clock ran out on their effort last year, today Greg Abbott has revived the proposal, by including the Texas Achievement School District in the second half of his campaign’s education platform. As governor, he says, he’d embrace the “innovative reform” laid out in the bill last session—West and Dutton must be gratified to hear that!—with a provision that any reforms, like new teachers or charter school operations, could remain in place even after the school is returned to its home district.

Abbott credits the recovery district in New Orleans with raising that city’s graduation rate, and says the Tennessee district “has had a profound effect on the public school system, particularly in Memphis,” going on to quote from a 2013 story in the Atlantic. He does not quote that story’s sub-hed: “Tennessee’s new Achievement District gives control of some public schools over to charter networks, with mixed results.”

Get ready to hear a lot more about the Achievement School District idea here in Texas. It’s already been a banner week for the idea, after it came up Tuesday in an interim House committee hearing on school turnaround ideas. Representatives from Texans for Education Reform—the new group with deep pockets and close ties to the better-known Texans for Lawsuit Reform—turned up to make the case for an achievement school district there, too. As the Dallas Morning NewsTerrence Stutz reported:

“We have to think about morally responsible timelines for intervention at low-performing schools,” the group’s executive director, Julie Linn, told the panel. “We want to create opportunities rather than close down these schools.”

As Stutz notes in his story, Texans for Education Reform spent almost $650,000 on lobbyists last session, and has spread around nearly $1 million in campaign contributions this cycle. West and Dutton each got $10,000 of that.

The Latest Fad in Education Reform: Testing 4-Year-Olds

Greg Abbott's plan would bring Texas in line with federal policy and big business plans.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Outside Greg Abbott's campaign, standardized testing for 4-year-olds isn't just a right-wing policy idea.

Since the very first No. 2 pencil bubbled in the very first answer key, school testing in Texas has probably never been so unpopular.

State lawmakers have lately thought better of the test-everything approach they’d embraced till just last year. In their dramatic conversion last legislative session, they cut high school testing by two-thirds and tried to cut elementary testing, though the federal government put the kibosh on that effort. A vocal bunch of activist parents, longing for the days before high-pressure drills and test prep ruled classrooms, now keep their kids home on testing day as a sort of civil disobedience. Even in Texas, the breeding ground for No Child Left Behind, “testing” has become widely scorned.

So it was a bold move when Greg Abbott announced in March that, as governor, he’d improve education in Texas by standardized-testing 4-year-olds.

The idea was part of his campaign’s 26-page plan for Texas schools, which included intensive new training for reading and math teachers, and what he characterized as a responsible expansion of pre-kindergarten.

Nothing in American education policy has the clout that pre-K does today. There’s a long history of research suggesting that good early childhood education improves students’ performance later on. From the Obama administration on down, expanding pre-K has become the single most popular idea in education around the country.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro wisely capitalized on the momentum in 2012 by championing a local tax increase to build new pre-K centers, after state lawmakers cut funding. Similar efforts have since popped up in Houston and Fort Worth.

To get in on the pre-K craze without looking like some kind of free-spending liberal, Abbott came up with a $59 million-a-year pre-K expansion with grants to programs that proved themselves worthy. He proposed a few ways to pick the best programs, one of which includes, of course, “direct assessment.” One form those “direct assessments” might take: “norm-referenced standardized tests.” The plan explains, “A typical question on a direct assessment might ask the child to identify the letter B and provide three options.”

Maybe it sounds absurd to test 4-year-olds and grade their pre-K classrooms based on their progress. Abbott’s Democratic challenger, Wendy Davis, sure thinks so. “Greg Abbott wants to subject 4-year-olds to another intrusive, state mandated requirement,” she said in a statement. (Her own plan calls for universal full-day pre-K at a cost of $750 million a year.)

Abbott’s spokesman Matt Hirsch has countered by denying the campaign ever endorsed standardized tests for 4-year-olds, calling the accusation “absurd,” apparently because “norm referenced standardized test[ing]” is just one of three options.

Texas’ new anti-testing climate may have Abbott on the defensive, but testing kids in pre-K is well underway in other states, and big business is getting on board. President Obama’s Race to the Top program has encouraged new “kindergarten readiness testing” ideas. Amplify, Rupert Murdoch’s education technology outfit, has developed pre-K tests for its tablet computers and—as the Austin-based Democratic consultant and columnist Jason Stanford wrote in February—its newest lobbyist in Texas is the Bush-era school testing evangelist Sandy Kress.

Texas already has a home-grown solution to evaluating pre-K programs. Texas School Ready is a certification program that schools can opt in to. Built by the UT Health Science Center in Houston, the program is meant to help parents pick a quality program Its pre-K testing algorithm, as the Observer reported last year, is handled by the company with perhaps the creepiest name in the education business: Arlington-based Optimization Zorn.

Still, Texas’ pre-K quality controls are pretty mild. (Mississippi measures attendance by scanning parents’ fingerprints.) As National Institute for Early Education Research director W. Steven Barnett told the San Antonio Express-News, “Texas has some of the weakest pre-K quality standards in the country with no limits to class size and [student-to-teacher] ratio.”

David Anderson, a former top official with the Texas Education Agency who’s now a HillCo Partners lobbyist, says some quality control is crucial to convince skeptical lawmakers to spend money on pre-K.

“How do you combat that notion that it’s just glorified babysitting and they’re just better off at home rockin’ on mama’s knee?” Anderson asks. Pre-K is both daycare and early education, but only the education piece will convince tight-fisted conservatives to fund it. The key, Anderson says, is to strike the right balance between ensuring quality and knowing when to stop testing.

But history suggests that on school testing, Texas lawmakers have a hard time knowing when to quit.

Republican State Reps. Matt Krause, Jonathan Stickland, Bill Zedler, Giovanni Capriglione and Stephanie Klick
Republican State Reps. Matt Krause, Jonathan Stickland, Bill Zedler, Giovanni Capriglione and Stephanie Klick at the State Capitol, holding signs for Texas Right to Life's #SilencedVoices campaign. Stickland also has a blank sheet of paper.

 

It was a banner week for civil rights here in Austin. At the LBJ Presidential Library for this week’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, there were many, many banners—plus four presidents, reams of elected officials and a lot of empty seats reserved for no-show Republican state lawmakers.

President Obama got to joke about socialized medicine, George W. Bush joked about presidential dick-measuring contests, college students chained themselves to the campus’ Martin Luther King, Jr. statue, and everyone had a great time not talking about Vietnam. There was at least a little talk—as our Chris Hooks reported—about why the civil rights cause remains vital today.

Exhibit A: The Texas State Board of Education.

“We’re citizens of the United States, not citizens of Mexico.”

That’s Weatherford Republican Pat Hardy—who’s headed into a tough primary runoff against a tea party opponent—explaining to the Houston Chronicle why Texas shouldn’t have to create a Mexican-American history elective for high schoolers. Hardy was part of a small minority on the board that voted Wednesday to solicit new textbooks on ethnic studies, including Mexican-American history.

By voting on the textbooks, and not to create a whole new course, the board avoided what could have been a pretty rough day of debate. San Antonio Republican Ken Mercer still found a moment to shine:

Two of my favorite U.S. senators are Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Would they be included in that class?

Rubio and Cruz are, of course, Cuban-American. To be fair, Mercer’s point was part of a larger conversation about why Mexican-Americans were worth special treatment when even other Latino heroes might be left in the cold. But speaking of Cuba:

Dave Mundy, a Republican running for a South Texas state board seat, warned on Facebook that “our state’s public education system is about to be taken over by the most vile of racist radicals masquerading as academics because WE did not stand up and fight them.” Mundy described the scene Tuesday as “a pep rally complete with a busload of college radicals waving Che Guevara-like signs.”

Really though, kids already get all the Mexican-American history they need from the good people at Budweiser, who remind us that when Cesar Chavez wasn’t on a hunger strike, sometimes he liked to drink his lunch. And when he did, he’d make it a Bud:

Exhibit B: Lumberton ISD

Maybe you remember Lumberton ISD from the Great CSCOPE Panic of 2013, when the rural district north of Beaumont was accused of covert Muslim indoctrination. Now they’re back in the news because some parents complained about a transgender woman was hired as a fifth-grade substitute teacher.

After a public hearing on the matter Thursday night, the Lumberton ISD board reinstated the woman, Laura Jane Klug. But State Board of Education member David Bradley—equally a champion of LGBT and labor rights—proposed a simple work-around speaking to the Texas GOP Vote blog:

“He does not have to be fired as substitutes are not under contract. The district just fails to call him for the next days work.”

If any publishers plan to submit a gender studies textbook for state approval, let David Bradley get the first copy.

But on the bright side, we’ll care a lot less about discrimination and civil rights when we’re all burning in hell:

“Any nation that supports or proposes laws that are contrary to God’s natural created order is cursed and will cease to exist.”

That’s Matthew Staver, dean of Liberty University’s School of Law, relating a line he heard from a speaker in Peru to a crowd of pastors in Austin at the Texas Renewal Project’s briefing. As the Observer reported earlier this week, Staver continued:

“Tears began to roll down my eyes, because I began to think about the United States of America—the country that I was born in, that I love. … What we are doing now is not only destroying this country, but we are working to undermine Christian values in Peru and in countries around the world. This country is doing that. Under our watch! We can no longer be silent.”

And just how long do we have? Not as long as you might think. As the San Antonio Current noted today, Pastor John Hagee is warning his congregation of a “world-shaking event that will happen between April 2014 and October 2015,” referring to the four upcoming lunar eclipses known, among friends, as the “blood moons.” As Hagee explains, the meaning is clear:

“The end of this age is coming.”

If that’s true, why even plan ahead? Or better yet, why even family-plan?

“One thing that happens is that the pill is a gateway drug to abortion,” she insisted. “That’s why you see what sociology cannot explain, which is, as the pill becomes more and more available at ever younger ages, abortion rates go up.”

That’s Mary Eberstadt, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, speaking at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary this week. The symposium was a light-hearted affair focused on our dumbed-down society, the demise of the family and how sorry we’ll be for questioning our Heavenly Father. Byron Johnson, director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, added this hopeful note:

“People who are secular have less children,” Johnson stated. “This is a global phenomenon. There are many countries in Europe that are just not having enough children to sustain the population.”

Johnson is optimistic secularism rates will decrease over the next 50 years, simply because religious couples “outbreed” secular couples.

So thank God this is still America, and our presidential libraries are enormous.

State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville)
Patrick Michels
State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) speaks before public testimony on a proposed Mexican-American history course on Tuesday.

In a surprise twist today at the State Board of Education, members voted 11-3 in favor of strengthening Mexican-American studies in Texas schools—but not quite how they’d been expected to.

Instead of a new course in Mexican-American history, which the board was expected to debate, they approved a plan to ask publishers for new textbooks on the subject, along with other ethnic histories.

Yesterday’s outpouring of support for a new Mexican-American history elective was prompted by Brownsville Democrat Ruben Cortez’s decision last fall to add the course to a “wish list” for new state standards. Heading into today’s meeting, the board was expected to vote on whether to create the new course and ask Texas Education Agency staff to begin the work of drafting new state standards—known, in the parlance of the state bureaucracy, as TEKS—in Mexican-American history.

Some board members had already said they doubted whether Mexican-American history needed its own course. San Antonio Republican Ken Mercer wondered yesterday whether the course would include his two favorite U.S. senators, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (both of whom are Cuban-American). He was joking—one hopes—but the drawn-out process of creating the new course would have invited another round of the sort of hyper-partisan revisionist history that made the State Board of Education famous.

Instead, Cortez proposed using a vaguely defined elective course that already exists, called Special Topics in Social Studies, and asking publishers to submit textbooks on Mexican-American studies to use in the course—along with textbooks on African-American, Asian-American and Native American histories too.

Yesterday, Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller said she hoped the Mexican-American studies course would encourage the board to embrace other ethnic studies in public schools, and Cortez’s proposal did that. (Miller also mentioned women’s studies, which did not get included in Cortez’s amendment.)

After a very brief debate, the board approved Cortez’s proposal 11-3:

Republicans Pat Hardy, Tincy Miller and David Bradley voted against it. Board chairwoman Barbara Cargill abstained.

The move means no new high school course in Mexican-American history but to activists like Houston author Tony Diaz, who championed the recent #SupportMAS cause, the vote was still a win.

After the meeting, Cortez told the Observer that having a state-approved textbook on Mexican-American history would be a huge help to districts that want to teach the subject.

“The most difficult part that our districts have in this state is identifying the instructional materials to be taught for this course,” he said. “So did we create a new course? Did we create new TEKS? No. But as you know, our social studies books have very limited real estate. So they can only teach you about a certain limited number of individuals in history. By doing this, we’ve in essence created four new textbooks.”

Today’s vote was only preliminary; the board will take a final vote on Friday. Assuming his proposal passes then, Cortez hopes to tweak the Special Topics in Social Studies course when the board reconvenes in July. He’d like to see it become a one-credit course rather than a half-credit course, and add language to the course description that suggests a focus on Mexican-American and other ethnic studies.

For now, the textbook proposal dodged a nasty fight over just whose history U.S. and Texas kids should learn about in school. As Cortez diplomatically put today, “I’m just glad this didn’t get over-politicized in the board room.”

Outside the boardroom, things got nastier. This morning, conservative education writer Donna Garner blasted out a call to action asking her readers to call board members and oppose the “discriminatory” Mexican-American history course, as did North Texas activist Alice Linahan’s Women on the Wall.

Dave Mundy, a Republican running for a South Texas state board seat, warned on Facebook that “our state’s public education system is about to be taken over by the most vile of racist radicals masquerading as academics because WE did not stand up and fight them.” Mundy described the scene Tuesday as “a pep rally complete with a busload of college radicals waving Che Guevara-like signs.”

State Board of Education member Marisa Perez (D-San Antonio)
Patrick Michels
State Board of Education member Marisa Perez (D-San Antonio)

Mundy’s challenger in November, Democrat Marisa Perez, was among the board members who spoke at the pep rally, flanked by the signs (they were red and black). Today, Perez told the Observer the vote was a good sign for Texas’ social studies education.

“We’re making great strides in the right direction. I’m definitely excited and anxious about where this is going to take us,” she said. “Had we been approached in the same way for Native American studies or African-American studies, that push would have gone the same way.”

El Paso Democrat Martha Dominguez said she hopes the course becomes a way for Texas’ schools to reach out to students from even more cultures. “It does give recognition to not only the Mexican Americans, Asians and Native Americans, but it’s gonna pave the way for others that are here that we haven’t heard about,” she said.

“What we did today is even better than saying, ‘Let’s have a Mexican-American studies course’,” Cortez said. “And on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, what better way for us to end our day?”

MALDEF attorney Celina Moreno
Patrick Michels
Before testimony at the State Board of Education, MALDEF attorney Celina Moreno says a new Mexican-American history course is at least "a step in the right direction."

Last November, Ruben Cortez casually proposed to his fellow State Board of Education members that Texas develop a course in Mexican-American history.

It seemed like a small moment, easily missed after a contentious debate over Texas’ new high school graduation requirements. Cortez’s suggestion seemed at first to gracefully sidestep the state board’s hyper-partisan tendencies. By adding the course to a “wish list” for the Texas Education Agency to work on, it seemed as though the Brownsville board member had secured a big win for the activists and educators who’ve spent years working to get more Mexican-American history and literature into Texas’ school standards.

“Nobody raised an objection to my request,” Cortez told the Observer in December. “I was kind of speechless, everybody just stayed quiet.”

But over the last four months a political storm has been brewing around the Mexican-American history proposal, as activists for and against the proposal have called board members and raised the stakes. This week, before the State Board of Education votes on whether to develop the course, they’ll do what they do best: play host to Texas’ culture wars.

A few Republican detractors on the board have already suggested there’s no need for the course. As Beaumont Republican David Bradley explained to the Houston Chronicle‘s Lisa Gray, “We don’t teach Irish-American history and Italian-American history.” Weatherford Republican Pat Hardy suggested students would be better off with world geography instead. And anyway, she told the Chronicle, “We’re citizens of the United States, not citizens of Mexico.”

The board will debate and take a preliminary vote on Mexican American studies Wednesday. Tuesday was for live public testimony, which was overwhelmingly in support of the course.

“Our history is skewed,” George Reyes told the board, “and as a result of this, bullying continues to invade our hallways with misrepresentations.” Vero Higareda, president of the Texas Freedom Network’s UT-Pan American’s chapter, drove from the Valley to tell the board that a Mexican-American history course would help students understand the stereotypes she hears all the time, and feel more confident tearing them apart.

For a few hours on Tuesday afternoon, students, educators and recent graduates told the board that a Mexican-American history elective would help students better understand themselves, and see how they fit in with an education system that often feels as though it isn’t meant for them.

Eloy Gonzalez told the board he’s a migrant farm worker from South Texas. “I went to college and I felt like college wasn’t the place for me,” he said—until he discovered Mexican-American studies. That changed everything, he said, and now he’s been accepted to Columbia University. That good news, in spite of the concerns that prompted his testimony, drew the only comment from board members. As he left, board chairwoman Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) cheered him on: “Congratulations! Job well done on your education.”

One of the reasons we’ve come to this point is that Texas’ current social studies standards give so little room to Mexican-American history. David Barton, the controversial far-right historian appointed as an “expert” reviewer during the last revision five years ago, even recommended deleting civil rights leader Cesar Chavez altogether. State approval for a new Mexican-American history elective would encourage schools to teach the course consistently around the state, and show that Texas’ schools are responsive to the more than 50 percent of its students who are Hispanic.

At a press conference before the testimony, Tony Diaz—the author and Lone Star College instructor who leads the “Librotraficante” effort to smuggle banned Mexican-American literature into Arizona—made a dramatic plea to embrace Mexican-American studies in Texas schools. Not approving this course, he suggested, would be a step on the path toward Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies in schools.

Other supporters said board approval for the course would be the beginning of a more inclusive set of state standards. “We hope this opens the door to a conversation about African-American studies and women’s studies and more,” said Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller.

State approval for this one course wouldn’t change the fact that so much of Texas’ education agenda—like the new graduation requirements the Legislature passed last year—is set without input from Hispanic leaders. Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney Celia Moreno called the potential course “a step in the right direction,” but what’s needed more than anything, she said, is “a paradigm shift” to include more input from Mexican-American stakeholders about the rest of the school system. That, she said, “is long overdue.”

Cortez and his fellow state board member Marisa Perez (D-San Antonio) both said they hoped the board would support the new course, but they expected it’d be a tough fight when the debate begins on Wednesday.

Alongside other test reform demonstrators outside the State Capitol, Chamness carries the only sign urging all-out boycott.
Patrick Michels
Anti-testing advocate Edy Chamness outside the Capitol in 2013.

The appointed days of STAAR testing are nearly upon Texas schoolchildren, and on Tuesday the Dallas Morning News marked the occasion with a look at the state of the opt-out movement in Texas.

These are the folks who keep their kids out of school on test days, in protest of the public school system’s insatiable desire for test prep and data. To the opt-outers, it’s a form of civil disobedience in a system they say has made it hard to get their voices heard any other way. By depriving schools of their kids’ test scores, they’re hitting The Man where it hurts.

I covered that movement in the Observer‘s February 2012 issue, profiling Austin’s Edy Chamness, a mother and a former teacher whose frustration with Texas’ test love turned her into an activist on the fringes of the school accountability debate.

In Tuesday’s story, the News calls Chamness “perhaps the best known opt-out parent in Texas,” and she offers one explanation as to why her cause hasn’t exactly taken off: “Parents don’t want to teach their kids how to question authority.”

But the News‘ Jeffrey Weiss rounds up a few more notable tales of opting out, like this one:

Maeve Siano of Celina is one of the few North Texans who has quietly been willing to refuse the tests for her children. Last year, the mental health therapist decided the tests and associated preparation and stress were more likely to damage her son than help him. Celina ISD officials weren’t happy, she said.

“Their reaction was begging and pleading and threatening us that he would be held back,” she said.

Finally, she said, school officials put her son at a desk, placed a test in front of him and had him write “refuse” on it.

The highest-profile new case is certainly that of Kyle and Jennifer Massey, who announced their plans to opt their fourth-grade daughter out of the tests at Waco ISD, in a letter they posted online. In the letter, they list their concerns about the state’s testing regime, saying, “We are not making this decision simply to ‘avoid’ a test, but rather to exercise our rights to ensure that Hillcrest PDS does not force [our son] to take part in school activities that are contrary to our moral and ethical beliefs.” (Read the full thing below.)

The letter made the rounds among education bloggers and activists. The education historian Diane Ravitch, a leader in the responsible-testing movement, reposted the letter with this note:

[The Masseys] want for their child what “the best and wisest parent ” wants for his own children: a full, rich, creative, liberating education, one that prepares him for life in a democracy, not endless drill and practice for tests that are prepared thousands of miles away, whose sole purpose is to rate their child, his teachers, his principal, and his school.

Update at 12:20 p.m.: Austin education activist Mike Corwin passes along a note Austin ISD posted Wednesday reminding parents that, despite what they’ve heard, “Parents may not have students opt out of testing. While AISD and others might be empathetic to some of their feelings, by law there is no “opt out” for students.” Irate parents may take solace, at least, that the possibility of empathy might exist!

I’d reached out yesterday to hear more from Edy Chamness, and only just heard back. She confirms her son, who’s next to her in the photo from our story last year, won’t be taking the 6th grade STAAR this year. Her daughter, she says, has opted out of public schools entirely—in favor of a private school where, she writes, “Everyday starts in a circle with a tap of the gong, lighting of a candle and a moment of silence. We love it.”

It underscores a larger point about the recent resistance to standardized testing here in Texas: lawmakers only really responded to criticism of the state’s testing regime after they started hearing from wealthier and suburban parents. The resistance—and even a lawsuit—from minority groups go back decades.

 

Randy Best
YouTube
Randy Best

In late 2012—though it feels like just yesterday—I featured Dallas edu-preneur Randy Best, whose outfit Academic Partnerships is helping public universities take their degree programs online.

Best’s first foray into the business of public education was a well-timed tutoring firm just as George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law began funneling money to private tutors, and in 2007 he got into the online college business to help his alma mater, Lamar University, recover from a big enrollment drop after Hurricane Rita. Over the years as his business has grown, Best’s model hasn’t changed much: Best helps recruit students and provides a pre-fab online platform to deliver the classes; universities provide the course material and lend their good name to the cause. The public schools collect tuition from the students, and turn over around half of it to Best.

In 2011, Best held a coming-out party of sorts at the Four Seasons in Las Colinas, inviting top officers from public universities nationwide to a comfy summit on “The Future of Higher Education.” Best never appeared onstage, nor did he hard-sell the crowd on hiring Academic Partnerships, but big names like Jeb Bush and thought leaders like Harvard’s Clayton Christensen and Khan Academy founder Salman Khan described a digitized, globalized future of learning that fit neatly with Best’s ambitions. Best closed a few big contracts just after the conference, including one with the entire University of Texas System.

Now Best is back, hosting another invitation-only thinkfest next week at the Four Seasons, this one covering the “Globalization of Higher Education.”

And as impressive as Best’s last lineup was, he’s outdone himself this time. Jeb Bush is back on board, but so are Hillary Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Dunan—it’d make for some amazing photo ops, except the conference is apparently closed to the press (reporters can sign up for access to a video feed instead). Speaking of journalists, Thomas Friedman’s on the bill too, along with CNN’s Fareed Zakariah.

The “globalization” theme makes a lot of sense as a follow-up to Best’s last shindig.

Even before he started Academic Partnerships (first known as Higher Ed Holdings), Best was thinking globally—he’d bought a number of universities in Latin America and was working on building their online programs. In just the last few months now, Academic Partnerships has been busy contracting with private universities outside the U.S. Using the same model they apply to public schools in the U.S., they’ve partnered with two schools in Mexico, and one each in Peru, Colombia and the Philippines.

But Best ambitions for a “globalized” higher ed scene reach into America’s public universities too. When he and I spoke in 2012, he described a happy future in which students from all over the world had access to prestigious degrees from America’s state schools, without the mess and cost of getting a visa or moving to the U.S.

Foreign students, paying full out-of-state tuition, are a key income driver for America’s public universities while states cut back on public higher ed funding. And online degree programs are a pretty low-impact way for schools to grow their enrollment, especially in Best’s model, where Academic Partnerships does the logistical work and a spinoff firm—Instructional Connections—hires low-cost teaching assistants to answer students’ questions. Best-backed online degrees have been a key to UT-Arlington’s enrollment explosion over the last few years, driving big improvements on the physical campus too.

The drawbacks to all this are a little tougher to quantify, like the worry that faculty are forced to cede control when the courses they teach turn into pre-fab products with indefinite digital lives. Or the concern that a school trading on its good name might lose some prestige if it’s branded as an online degree mill.

“I don’t think online is the future–it’s simply a money scheme,” is how William Rowe, an Arkansas State University art professor, put it to Forbes in a long profile this month. But most of that story is glowing—there’s even a sweet sidebar about the Neanderthal and the Siberian cave bear in Best’s natural history collection. “The Stanfords, the Harvards, oh my gosh, those schools are remarkable,” Best tells Forbes. “But they’re irrelevant to the market.”

In honor of next week’s conference, I’ve updated our map of public universities that have contracted with Academic Partnerships for their online degree programs. Though it’s surely not a complete list, I’ve cobbled together details on deals with 33 public schools. (Without naming them, Forbes pegs the total at 40 in the U.S.) New additions to the map don’t include copies of the contracts (yet!), but I’ve linked instead to stories or press releases about those recent deals. Most of the new additions are in AP’s most common degree areas like business, education and nursing—though the University of Miami made a novel addition last month, with an online master’s in music.

Dan Patrick with the Buc-ee's mascot
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Dan Patrick and the Buc-ee's beaver, standing vigilant

Last week, with the primary elections behind us at last, Chris turned the tables for some real talk about just WTF we were all doing at the polls. But now comes the horrifying realization that the campaigns have only just begun. Still nearly eight more months of news like…

I AM VERY PROUD TO HAVE THE SUPPORT OF BUC-EE and his owners. Meet the men behind Buc-cees.

Like so many Texans I love Buc-ees. The service is great, the food is great, especially my favorite, the Pastrami sandwich, and of course my wife loves the clean bathrooms.

That’s leading Republican lite guv candidate Dan Patrick, two months from a runoff against David Dewhurst, posting on his Facebook page last Sunday. Kolten Parker at the San Antonio Express-News picked up the story the next day, and from there it was off to the freak-out races…

 

The Harris County GOP chair devoted a talk radio segment to what it all means, the Express-News wagged a finger at Castro for his Twitter outrage, and this lady punched a metal Buc-ee’s beaver statue, after buying stuff in the store:

 

More jumped aboard the #BoycottBucees train and the company either backpedaled, flip-flopped or clarified that its owners, not the store, had endorsed Patrick, hoping the cartoon beaver might dam the political divide they’d stepped in. Please, let’s preserve the dignity of our beloved Texas chain, one that’s so well mastered the art of roadside poop jokes. As a company lawyer told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s Bud Kennedy:

“We believe Beaver Nuggets and beef jerky taste good regardless of political affiliation.”

Glad we settled that. And speaking of scientific consensus:

At least Congressman Louie Gohmert is done campaigning for now, so he can get back to what passes for work in Congress. Congressman Ralph Hall, 90 years young and gamely heading into a runoff to keep his seat, is still campaigning and still managed to keep doing what Texas’ congressional delegation does best:

Last this week, good news for anyone who loves freedom, trash bags, and defending the American way:

We have all been asked the question, “paper or plastic?” Regardless of one’s preference, embedded in the age-old question, and consistent with the consumer’s expectation, is the unstated premise that, as an integral part of the consumer transaction, the retailer will be providing the consumer a bag—a means for the consumer to transport the goods purchased from the retailer.

So begins the Texas Retailers Association’s stirring challenge to the City of Austin’s ban on plastic grocery bags. The trade group filed the suit last week, suggesting local bag bans violate state law and increasing the chance that the #freedombags cause—which Republican state Rep. Drew Springer so unceremoniously disposed of a few months ago—might be recycled into a whole new political dust-up.

In fact, state Rep. Dan Flynn isn’t even waiting—he’s already stepped up to treat these national treasures with the reverence they deserve. He’s asked Attorney General Greg Abbott whether Texas law protects our right to tote our groceries in a single-use plastic menace. As he told the Texas Tribune, the stakes couldn’t be higher in this epic fight:

“I can’t begin to tell you how many phone calls we received about the legality of the bans,” said Flynn, whose district does not have any communities that have imposed bag bans. Even though it doesn’t affect him directly, “there are a lot of people who are really inconvenienced by it,” he said.

Joel Klein at SXSWedu
Patrick Michels
Amplify CEO and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, ready to rock at SXSWedu.

Austin has been a staging ground this week for two movements advocating very different visions for the future of America’s public schools.

On one side, better known and better outfitted, there are the tech and data evangelists who imagine a reinvented school experience with computer games, tablets and other innovative models, gathered for the fourth year of the SXSWedu conference.

On the other, teachers, parents and education researchers who have, over the last four years or so, built a community of advocates for less flashy solutions like better school funding and more freedom for teachers, and a resistance to privatization and “corporate” reformers. For a long time this group has been only informally organized around a handful of blogs and education historian Diane Ravitch.

This year Ravitch and a few top lieutenants organized their movement into the Network for Public Education, and the group held its first conference last weekend, on the UT-Austin campus.

UT researcher Julian Vasquez Heilig warmed up the crowd Saturday morning, by helping to articulate what the new group is about. “The powers that be have decided that poor kids … we want to do education for them on the cheap,” he said. Anthony Cody, one of the group’s co-founders, laid into “hedge fund managers who have recently discovered their passion for the poor.” He lamented “the cycle of corruption has invaded what should be sacred places for learning.”

Diane Ravitch speaks at SXSWedu on Monday, March 2, 2014.
Patrick Michels
Diane Ravitch speaks at SXSWedu on Monday, March 2, 2014.
The movement is most commonly described by its opposition to school choice reforms like charter school chains, online schools and private school vouchers. They’re often criticized for pooh-poohing reformers without offering better suggestions of their own.

“[Network for Public Education] has a very positive message,” Vasquez Heilig said. “I’m not ‘anti-reformer,’ I just disagree with your form of reform.” As Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis put it: “What we have in common are the values that made this country great.”

John Kuhn and Karen Lewis speak at the Network for Public Education's conference in Austin.
Patrick Michels
John Kuhn and Karen Lewis speak at the Network for Public Education’s conference in Austin.
Presentations were full of epic language and battle imagery—politically popular education reforms were often described as a “scam” or a “hoax” perpetrated by the “corporate elite”; the reform debate as “war.” None amped up the drama more than John Kuhn, (Tyrant’s Foe, Feb. 2013) superintendent of North Texas’ Perrin-Whitt CISD, who lambasted the “new generation of robber barons” meddling in public schools. “The whole setup is a scam and it benefits people in power suits, not the children of America.”

Beyond the rhetoric—there are articulate evangelists on both sides of this debate—were academics who were frustrated by the outsize power wielded by players like Eli Broad and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, even for policies without a solid research base. Teach for America’s five-week teacher preparation program was a popular target, along with new ways to rate teachers based on test scores (and then pay them accordingly).

Kevin Welner, a researcher at the University of Colorado-Boulder, whose National Education Policy Center regularly turns out work skewering reform research from think tanks and foundations, urged academics to “advocate for social justice, not simply for something that improves test scores.”

The next day, Monday, marked the beginning of SXSWedu, a bigger education conference in downtown Austin that has, over the last three years, established itself as a playground for just the sort of private-sector reformers who’d been pilloried at NPE’s gathering. Festival programmers softened that contrast a little this year, including more talks on things like equity and community building, and a presentation by… Diane Ravitch.

On Monday afternoon, Ravitch took the stage in one of the festival’s many rooms, before a crowd almost as big as the one she addressed the day before at NPE. She lambasted “$1,500 conferences where you can cash in on education,” and warned about fetishizing games, apps and online learning. “[They] will harm children, they will destroy the teaching profession,” she said. The targets of her remarks were probably ensconced in another ballroom for a workshop on startup funding, but it was a significant statement with the big orange SXSWedu banner behind her.

A few minutes after Ravitch left the stage, it was occupied by a conversation on “Analytics and Student Success.”

“I am a little nervous,” joked John Wilson, a former Obama administration education official, “being up on the stage right after Diane Ravitch. … Gosh, everything was a hoax, I guess.”

It’s a simplification to sort every player into one side of this debate or the other. If there is a war over public schools, there’s plenty of back-and-forth between the rival camps. Plenty of people at NPE attended SXSWedu (the place and timing of NPE’s first conference was no accident), and SXSWedu—which continues through Thursday—is much more than a product pitch meeting.

But Monday night offered a perfect distillation of the gleeful product boosterism Ravitch decried. SXSWedu’s kickoff party, with drinks, snacks and a performance by Ben Kweller, doubled as a product launch for Amplify, the education tech brand owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The company made a big show of unveiling a tablet computer for students at last year’s SXSWedu, only to have school districts cancel multi-million-dollar contracts for the devices after they started melting.

This week, Amplify was back promising an even bigger announcement, which turned out to be a new tablet, an Intel processor, and a suite of educational software packaged together for $199 per student, per year. Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chief and Ravitch foil who now heads Amplify, looked the part of the ed-tech rock star, navigating the drum kit and guitar stands onstage in a sport coat and black jeans.

He recalled the “rave reviews” for last year’s Amplify tablet, and promised nothing short of a transformation in schools thanks to this new gadget. “We’re gonna change the way that teachers teach and kids learn,” he said. “I think we’re gonna change the world here.”

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A supporter of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kesha Rogers, before the Martin Luther King Day parade in Houston.
A supporter of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kesha Rogers, before the Martin Luther King Day parade in Houston.

The frantic last week before Tuesday’s primary election has been a truly rich pageant of WTF in Texas politics.

Why, just this morning Barry Smitherman promised to fight border crime by cracking down on jaywalking in South Texas. As he explained to KUT (skip to 20:53):

“It will send a signal south of the border that if you come here and break the law, there will be consequences.”

All across the state, nasty intra-party fights got nastier, candidates for small-time office dialed up big-time promises to Fight Obama, and, speaking to the Dallas Morning News, Texas House candidate Sandra Crenshaw got way candid about why she’s running for a South Dallas seat:

“I want to go to the Legislature for eight years and get a pension so I can take care of myself in my old age.”

This week, the Morning News also dredged up an amazing story that’s pretty much WTF from start to finish, about a four-man North Texas Republican brain trust getting scammed by a man who claimed to have found Noah’s Ark (really) buried in Iran.

Attorney general candidate Ken Paxton, Railroad Commission hopeful Wayne Christian and state Reps. Phil King and Bill Zedler, fresh off their last great success managing to screw in a lightbulb together, moved on to high-dollar electricity trading, only to lose hundreds of thousands in what became a Ponzi scheme. Speaking to reporter Gromer Jeffers, Christian was circumspect about the whole thing:

“There were some of us that he hooked. Sometimes you get took, sometimes you don’t. You hate to say you were a sucker, but he took us for a sucker and made off with the money.”

The Morning News judiciously describes one way the scheme’s architect, Archer Bonnema, managed to get in with the conservative Christian lawmaker crowd:

He had been closely linked with the community for years, often distributing video accounts of a 2006 expedition to Iran, led by Dr. Bob Cornuke, that he participated in. Bonnema said they discovered Noah’s Ark, though experts have disputed the claim.

Speaking of electricity markets, here’s Democratic Senate candidate (with a massive lead in recent polls) Kesha Rogers, quoted by the Observer‘s Emily DePrang this week:

Another policy priority is planetary defense, which is “how we are going to defend the planet from asteroids which are very seriously threatening the planet.” The same technology push will help with the “development of a successful industrialization of the moon,” she says, “[for] the mining of raw materials and resources such as helium-3 on the moon, which is a productive resource for developing fusion. I am a very strong supporter and proponent of fusion development as a source of energy.”

Whether it’s her space mining policy, her insistence on impeaching President Obama, or positive associations with the recording artist Ke$ha, Rogers had a 12-point lead in the Texas Tribune and UT poll released this week. It’s been enough to scare the Texas Democratic Party into blasting an email with the hard-to-mistake subject line, “Don’t Vote for Kesha Rogers.” The email includes the phrase “Do not vote for Kesha Rogers” twice, and party chair Gilberto Hinojosa explains:

Rogers believes that the U.S. economy is secretly controlled by London financial institutions and she has advocated for colonizing Mars. That’s not what real Democrats stand for.

Austin Democratic consultant Jason Stanford might quibble with that last point.

And finally, This Week in Xenophobia, state Rep. Debbie Riddle responds to her Lebanese-born challenger Tony Noun’s claim that Riddle told him to “go back to your country and run a campaign” after a Noun volunteer planted a campaign sign next to Riddle’s. Speaking to the Observer‘s Chris Hooks, Riddle wouldn’t deny making the remarks, but stressed that “there’s context missing”:

“All he spoke was Arabic.”

By way of proving her love of all cultures, Riddle—the woman who popularized the term “terror babies”—added that “half of my volunteers, quite frankly, are minority.”

Make no such mistake about lieutenant governor hopeful Dan Patrick, though, who came under fire from a rival campaign for a letter (which Patrick denies writing) vouching for an undocumented immigrant who once worked for him. Responding to a story about the “former illegal alien” in Breitbart Texas:

“Sen. Patrick stated that the worker in question provided false documents and a social security number, that the allegation he was kind to the illegal alien are not true…”

That was, of course, not the last time this week Patrick had to defend himself against the appearance of a bleeding heart. Even fits of campaign posturing can use an editor:

dan-patrick-tweet

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