Google+ Back to mobile

Snake Oil

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

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

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

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

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 In the last few weeks, Aycock has stressed that the index is hopelessly outdated—it was created in 1991 and hasn’t been updated since—and nobody argued that point Tuesday night.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

Katy ISD WoodCreek Elementary: “STAAR Test Video”

Richardson ISD Forest Lane Academy: “Pass the STAAR”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He went even further with reporters after the hearing:

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

John Whitmire
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston

Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire has been on an eight-year march to clean up the Texas juvenile justice system, driving a messy process that’s involved the closure of state-run lockups, the restructuring of two state agencies and a reduction in the state’s population of juvenile offenders to one fifth of what it had been.

Not long ago, Texas was a cautionary tale of mismanagement and unchecked abuse; now it’s seen as a national leader in juvenile justice reform.

This session, Whitmire hopes to further reduce the number of youth locked up in remote state facilities, and place more of them in probation and treatment programs closer to their homes and families. A bill to accomplish that, Senate Bill 1630, passed unanimously out of his committee on Tuesday night.

“This is the next huge step to continuing to keep the youth closer to their communities and give them specialized care,” Whitmire explained last night. “Not only will it have better results in terms of recidivism, but it should save millions of dollars.”

Those two selling points neatly sum up the “smart on crime” approach that’s won broad consensus among Texas lawmakers, law enforcement and advocacy groups over the last decade, and continues to drive state policy.

But a competing interest has emerged this session that has split those groups in some surprising ways: a proposal to raise the age of “criminal responsibility” from 17 to 18 years old. For a century, Texas law has treated 17-year-olds as adults, but many reformers want to scrap what they say is an antiquated practice.

Armed with research on the dangers 17-year-olds face in adult jails and prisons, children’s groups and criminal justice advocates have made the cause a top priority this session. Texans Care for Children convened a summit on the issue last fall, and a January report from a House committee has recommended changing the law.

Texas’ law, the committee notes, is out of step with both federal law and all but eight other states. The report notes research that says adolescent brains are still developing, which calls into question whether they should be held as culpable as adults, and suggests they might have a better chance at rehabilitation.

Sheriffs and jailers have supported the idea as well, in part because federal law already requires them to keep 17-year-olds out of “sight and sound” from older inmates, which is an expensive proposition. In practice, especially in smaller county facilities, 17-year-olds are confined alone instead. Juvenile court judges in Bexar and Harris counties have also signed on, editorial boards at the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-NewsAustin American-Statesman have all called for change this year.

With such a drumbeat of support, moving 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system seems like just the sort of research-based, bipartisan idea that a reform-minded Legislature would embrace. On Wednesday afternoon, a House committee will hear a handful of bills to do so.

But for now at least, the proposal is likely headed nowhere in the Senate, where the most visible opposition has come from an unlikely source: Whitmire.

“I personally, philosophically, believe that if a 17-year-old commits a violent act, I see no reason to change that they wouldn’t be [treated] as an adult. I just think that a 17-year-old knows right from wrong,” Whitmire told the Observer. “I just am not of the opinion that it’s a broken system, and I’m not prepared to change the law to assist the sheriffs in the management of their jails.”

Advocates have been heartened to have sheriffs like Lupe Valdez of Dallas County and Adrian Garcia of Harris County as allies in this effort, but Whitmire sees their support as a simple matter of trying to make 17-year-olds somebody else’s problem. “You know Adrian Garcia, any given day he’s got over 8,000 confinees, with 100 of them being 17-year-olds. And if he can’t manage that, then I’m sorry. But that’s not a reason to change the law.”

The change could be an expensive one, which would run counter to the state’s penchant for criminal justice reform in the name of cutting costs. The Legislative Budget Board estimates it would cost around $60 million per year to treat 8,000 extra 17-year-olds in the state’s juvenile probation programs and secure lockups. Counties would have to cover between $100,000 to over $10 million each year, depending on their size. (A 2012 analysis by University of Texas researcher Michele Deitch suggests that, in the long run, the change would actually save $89 million for each cohort of 17-year-olds, considering the economic benefits of rehabilitating youth before they can become serial offenders.)

Whitmire doesn’t mention the cost among his objections, but he sounds wary of adding the additional stress to a juvenile justice system that’s still a work in progress. He even doubt whether 17-year-olds would be any safer in juvenile facilities.

“Currently, the Juvenile Justice Department does not classify or segregate youth by age. I have a real problem with [placing] 14- and 15-year-olds in with the 17-year-olds.” While it may not be ideal to have 17-year-olds in adult facilities, Whitmire says he’s even more concerned with the juvenile lockups where 13-year-olds are housed near others as old as 19.

“In most instances, because the adult systems are better controlled and supervised,” Whitmire says. “If I was a vulnerable 17-year-old, I’d be much safer in the adult [system] because I’m going to be protected and recognized as a 17-year-old, versus going back and placing me in a juvenile facility, which I think certainly at the state level is out of control.”

Still, the vast majority of 17-year-olds in the system didn’t commit the sort of violent offenses that would land them in a state lockup. And state law would still allow courts to certify 17-year-olds as adults for particularly heinous crimes. Placing 17-year-olds in the juvenile system by default would have the greatest impact on low-level offenders who could get extra treatment or even avoid a criminal record.

Illinois is among a handful of states that has made the switch in recent years; it began in 2009 with 17-year-olds who committed misdemeanors, before extending the change to felonies as well. Today, Whitmire says he and his staff are “seriously reviewing” the way Texas handles 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors.

Whitmire says he doesn’t expect the proposal to get a hearing in his committee this session—and as chairman, he should know. But he says the opposition, while it may have been fairly quiet, is much wider than his own.

Some of that concern surfaced during last night’s hearing on Whitmire’s bill. With his signature juvenile justice reform for the session just moments from passing to the full Senate, Whitmire fielded questions from a few generally supportive witnesses including Harris County Juvenile Probation Chief Tom Brooks. Brooks said he was glad to take on more youth from state lockups if he got the funding to cover them, and he talked about the expanded state oversight Whitmire proposed. But before leaving, he couldn’t help but mention the big, looming question hanging over his department.

“There’s a lot of bills out there with the age-of-jurisdiction change, and I think if that happens, I think it would impede the progress of this particular bill,” Brooks said, as awkward laughter spread among the senators surrounding Whitmire. “I think your facilities would fill up, and your commitments would increase to the state.”

“We were doing real good till you brought that up. Now we’re gonna be here a while,” Whitmire joked. “We will discuss that thoroughly in the future.”

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
Patrick Michels
House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) announces plans to pursue school finance reforms this session.

Crowded at a podium by 18 of his fellow representatives from both parties and all over the state, House education chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) announced his intention Wednesday morning to make major improvements to Texas’ school finance system before this legislative session runs out.

A major school finance case still awaits a hearing at the Texas Supreme Court, and many lawmakers have said there’s little incentive to rework the system before the court rules. But a district judge in Austin last year called the funding system uneven and “plainly insufficient to satisfy constitutional standards.” Aycock said he saw no reason to wait for a decision on the lawsuit before making improvements.

“It’s been in court for a long time,” Aycock said. “We need to do this while there’s funds available.”

Growth in property tax revenue has given lawmakers wiggle room to spend more on public schools this session; the House budget headed to a vote next week already includes a $2.2 billion increase in school spending. The plan announced this morning would add an extra $800 million, for a total of $3 billion in new school funding over the next two years.

The plan for distributing that extra $800 million isn’t set, but will eventually be written into a revised version of Aycock’s House Bill 1759.

Aycock said his priority is to correct illogical and outdated features in Texas’ school finance formulas, like adjustments for higher salaries in expensive urban districts or the extra cost of educating students with limited English proficiency, which haven’t been updated in more than 25 years. Tinkering with any of those would upset the delicate equilibrium of a system that, despite its flaws, has been in place since 2006.

“The fact is that when you change these complicated formulas, some people win, some people win more than others, some people lose,” Aycock said. “In order to mitigate that pain politically, you can only do this sort of modification when there’s more money going into the system.”

Some, but not all, members of the crowd around Aycock this morning have been meeting since last fall in an informal working group on school finance reform. The group includes Republicans and Democrats from both urban and rural districts.

In an interview, Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said Aycock’s plan wouldn’t fix what’s wrong with Texas’ school finance system, but to Democrats who’ve been railing against the state’s chronic underfunding of schools, the extra money was welcome. “It was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” she said.

Still, adding more money this session to Aycock’s plan wouldn’t address the system’s basic flaws, or allow for reforms like pre-kindergarten expansion.

“I think it’s a huge step toward addressing what the court said we need to address,” Howard said, but “I take Chairman Aycock at his word that this is not about trying to make the lawsuit go away.”

In his ruling last year, District Judge John Dietz wrote that the state needed to spend an additional $800 per student to deliver the bare minimum education guaranteed by the state constitution—that’d mean an extra $8 billion in a two-year budget, well above what House leaders proposed today.

But a major infusion of money into the system and an update to the state’s formulas could certainly shake up the court case as it heads to the state’s conservative high court. Aycock said he had no idea what impact his plan might have on the case, but he and other members agreed that it ‘s better to act now than to “try to out-guess the lawyers.”

David Thompson, an attorney representing one group of school districts suing the state, told the Observer that without a bill to look at yet, it’s impossible to guess how the case might be affected. “I do very much appreciate the House’s willingness to spend some time to address the issue,” Thompson said, adding that the plans Aycock described include “some very positive features.” Thompson said he’s most interested in seeing a proposal that steers more money to districts that educate the state’s neediest children.

Had lawmakers completely punted on school finance reform—or if the House’s plan eventually falls through—a Supreme Court ruling against the state would likely prompt a special session in 2016 dedicated to fixing the system. If nothing else, the new reform effort could serve as a practice run for new members getting to know the arcane system for the first time.

“This is a House-led initiative,” Aycock said this morning, crafted without input from the governor or the Senate. Choosing to spend so much more on public schools could be a much tougher sell in a Senate that has been running on a very different philosophy than the House; just hours after Aycock’s announcement, the upper chamber agreed to $4.6 billion in tax cuts.

At the press conference, Aycock said he was confident the chambers could find common ground. “I believe there’s adequate funding to accomplish significant tax cuts and do what’s right for the children of the state of Texas at the same time,” he said.

Thomas Lucas Jr. organized land deals in rural North Texas at inflated prices, promising investors prime access to a planned Disney resort that was entirely make-believe.
U.S. Attorney's Office
Thomas Lucas Jr. organized land deals in rural North Texas at inflated prices, promising investors prime access to a planned Disney resort that was entirely make-believe.

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

CELINA // Investors planning to turn this small North Texas town into the happiest place on earth claim their hopes were dashed by Dallas real estate scion Thomas W. Lucas Jr., who raised millions for a real estate scheme designed around a supposed Disney theme park. Lucas, 40, was convicted in February of bilking more than 100 international investors out of $60 million, using “sophisticated digital architectural plans” and a forged letter from Southwest Airlines regarding a fictional “Frontier Disney Airport.” Initial investors included retired NBA center Jon Koncak and some of his former Southern Methodist University classmates, who, according to The Dallas Morning News, gathered to watch the 2007 Super Bowl around a Mickey Mouse cake, anticipating an announcement from Disney during the game. Lucas promised a huge return on real estate near the resort, claiming advance information supplied by a secret source—a man the Morning News reported was a “Hurricane Katrina transplant with a drug habit who delivered milk and worked other odd jobs before committing suicide in 2012.”

EARTH // Federal authorities say Donald and Karlien Winberg were on the run from the law with their seven children when they were spotted by tourists and arrested in the Bahamas in February, far from their home in West Texas, and even farther from the Denver courtroom where they were supposed to stand trial earlier this year. The Winbergs, authorities say, marketed corn and hay online, gave potential customers tours of fields they didn’t own, and then accepted payment up front for grain they never delivered. The Winbergs apparently made a prior attempt to leave the country in the fall of 2014, paying cash for a sailboat, the Houston Chronicle reported, which they wrecked on their way out of Galveston Bay.

HUNTINGTON // KTRE news reporter Erika Bazaldua peeled back the mystery of the moon’s true nature in a mid-January news report, settling the “controversy” over whether the moon is a planet, a star or a moon. Soliciting opinions from local high-schoolers, fourth-graders, and even quoting an on-air argument broadcast by the shopping network QVC, Bazaldua settled the matter with a visit to a mobile science museum, where retired teacher V.J. Willis explained: “Contrary to common misconception, the moon is not a star or a planet. It is a moon. It orbits a planet.”

CRYSTAL BEACH // Vidor construction worker Larry Nash was working a job near the beach when, he said, a glowing orb in the sky caught his attention. “It was like a bubble,” Nash told the Beaumont Enterprise in late January—a bubble that changed from purple to green as he and co-workers watched. They observed the bubble for 45 minutes, “taking pictures and calling friends,” the Enterprise reported, until their boss told them to get back to work. “That was the last we saw of it,” Nash said.

DEL RIO // A ghost hunt during the town’s annual UFO festival revealed no evidence that the Kress Building downtown is haunted. “But there’s no denying that its dark and empty second and third floors are downright spooky,” Karen Gleason reported in the Del Rio News-Herald. Fifty brave souls joined in the hunt led by Rosa Linda Sanchez, who admitted that she’s “never had any strange experiences inside the Kress.” Amber Street, a San Antonio college student, psychic and “seeker of higher knowledge,” said there were in fact “spirits in the building, but none who wished to make contact with us.”

HOUSTON // Japanese Internet entrepreneur and businessman Takafumi Horie sued Houston attorney Art Dula late last year, alleging that Dula talked him into investing nearly $50 million in a private spaceflight startup called Excalibur Almaz that, Horie said, was never intended to make money. The company announced plans to convert Russian space capsules and space station parts into modern launch vehicles, and even mine asteroids for rare materials—but Horie said the equipment was never fit for anything more strenuous than display in a museum, according to the Houston Chronicle. Another investor made similar allegations in 2012, and in May 2014, the company auctioned off one of its space capsules for $1.39 million, according to the blog Parabolic Arc. In February, Dula denied Horie’s fraud allegations, noting that Horie had signed an agreement not to sue the company—before his own recent imprisonment in Japan for securities fraud.

cupcake amnesty
Reshma Kirpalani / Austin American-Statesman
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller bites into a cupcake during a January press conference in Austin.

In his first big act as Texas agriculture commissioner, with reporters gathered ’round to record the moment, former state Rep. Sid Miller pardoned, and then ate, a pink-frosted cupcake.

Miller’s lighthearted “cupcake amnesty” press conference, a folksy affair with beloved Austin food trailer Hey Cupcake! as a backdrop, was a big hit on the evening news. The story spread fast that, thanks to the intervention of Miller’s nanny-state-bustin’ agriculture department, Texas parents were free at last to send their kids to school with birthday cake for the class. Miller also promised to repeal state bans on deep fryers in cafeteria kitchens and on soda sales at public schools.

“We’ve been raising big, strapping, healthy young kids here in Texas for 200 years,” Miller said, “and we don’t need Washington, D.C., telling us how to do it.”

The whole spectacle was typical Miller. Before losing his state House seat in the 2012 GOP primary, the Stephenville rancher and tree farmer was best known as the author of red-meat fare like Texas’ pre-abortion sonogram law and a bill sanctioning the sporting practice known as “pork-chopping” (shooting feral hogs from a helicopter). Rather than dwell too much on agriculture in his latest campaign, Miller reminded voters of his work defunding the “abortion industry,” named Ted Nugent his campaign treasurer, and even managed to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.”

The cupcake decree was a fitting reminder that Miller—white hat, gleaming grin and all—has returned to taunt Texas liberals again. But as reporters quickly realized, there was little of substance in his announcement. Texas had not, in fact, ever banned cupcakes brought from home to school. And the rule change behind Miller’s announcement took place April 2014, months before Miller was even elected. Last year, under former commissioner Todd Staples, the department repealed the 10-year-old Texas Public School Nutrition Policy because new federal rules for school lunch and food sold at fundraisers had made the state’s policies redundant.

“In other words,” as Houston child nutrition advocate Bettina Elias Siegel wrote in January, “the ‘repeal’ characterized by Mr. Miller as somehow courageously bucking restrictive regulations was actually a show of appropriate deference by our state to the federal government.”

On her blog, “The Lunch Tray,” Siegel struggled to make sense of Miller’s announcement—not only his taking credit for a change he had nothing to do with, but worse, his plans to further peel back nutrition safeguards in the name of local control. “To encourage deep-fat frying and soda and cupcakes is so shockingly backward thinking,” Siegel tells the Observer.

What’s most troubling about Miller’s announcement, Siegel says, is that his department is the one tasked with enforcing those federal regulations he deems so unnecessary. On Miller’s watch, the ag department “could essentially gut [the federal rules] through failure to enforce. And that’s really worrisome to me.”

Spokesman Bryan Black told the Observer that won’t happen; the department, he says, is still “required to comply with all federal regulations.”

But Miller sounds committed to getting around as much of that regulation as possible. Even though 16 percent of Texas’ “big, strapping” high schoolers are obese—a rate that’s higher than the national average, and even worse for low-income, Hispanic and African-American children—Miller takes Texas’ persistent childhood obesity as a sign of government ineptitude.

“These rules were put in 10 years ago, and those figures haven’t gotten any better,” he explained to Tucker Carlson of Fox and Friends. “Government intervention hasn’t worked. But individual responsibility, local control, is what works.”

Following Abbott’s Lead, House Members Propose Pre-K Grants

$100 million program would stop short of funding full-day pre-kindergarten
State Rep. Dan Huberty
State Rep. Dan Huberty

There’s widespread support around the Capitol for more state spending on pre-kindergarten programs, and much less agreement about how to do it.

State Reps. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) have proposed a $300-million-a-year plan to fund full-day pre-K for some children in districts that agree to meet new quality standards. Meanwhile, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has introduced a more ambitious plan: universal, full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the state.

On the campaign trail last year, Gov. Greg Abbott also proposed more pre-K spending, but more cautiously. Rather than a blanket pre-K expansion, Abbott suggested rewarding districts with $1,500 per student if they meet new standards for program quality.

That’s the plan outlined in House Bill 4, filed today by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston). The bill creates a framework for defining the “high quality prekindergarten programs” eligible for extra state funding, but remains vague on how much each school district would get and how their programs would be evaluated. Under HB 4, those decisions would all be left up to the education commissioner.

Huberty formally unveiled his bill at a press conference Thursday morning. Flanked by House budget and education leaders, he said the House budget would include $100 million for the new pre-K program, the Texas Tribune reported. In a statement today, Huberty said many districts would qualify for the extra money with programs they already have in place. The bill, he said, would provide “up to” $1,500 per student on top of the $3,650 the state funds today.

That isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of full-day pre-K, so the bill falls short of what many early education advocates have recently favored. In a statement Thursday afternoon, Rep. Johnson said that high-quality pre-K “is by definition full-day prekindergarten.”

He and Farney will now have to fight to win House members over to a plan that’s more ambitious, and three times as expensive, as the governor’s preferred pre-K plan. Johnson’s office offered a reminder of the advocacy groups and civic leaders around the state that support a full-day program like the one in his bill.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas and a former superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, says HB 4 includes some important elements—encouraging districts to use the state pre-K standards, and rewarding districts for using qualified teachers—but the bill is a missed opportunity if it doesn’t fund full-day learning.

Our research shows students achieve the greatest gains when enrolled in high-quality, full-day pre-K,” Anthony says, with an emphasis on “full-day.” “We have seen first-hand in the research and talking with teachers that they can accomplish so much more in a full-day program than with the half-day.”

Full-day programs tend to fit better around working parents’ schedules. The state doesn’t track how each school district’s pre-K programs run, but a recent survey by the nonprofit Children At Risk found that 47 percent of Texas districts are paying to offer full-day programs beyond what the state covers.

Anthony says he’s worried districts that already fund their full-day programs will be temporarily satisfied with a little extra money from the state. That could relieve the pressure that’s been building lately to create a strong full-day system. “Our concern is they’re gonna see $1,500—that’s better than what they’ve been getting—and thinking that maybe there’s no need for further conversation.”

Until a few years ago, the Legislature offered more than $200 million in grants to help districts expand their pre-K programs. But that money was cut along with more than $5 billion in other education funding in 2011.

Compared to the old program, says Center for Public Policy Priorities analyst Chandra Villanueva, Huberty’s $100 million plan doesn’t look so exciting.

“Right now it looks like the governor’s proposal [as written in HB 4] is basically recreating a similar grant program,” she says. “This program just isn’t going far enough and meeting the needs that we really have.”

Villanueva, like many other early education advocates, says the Legislature should fund any pre-K expansion through the same funding formulas it uses to pay for K-12 education. Grant programs like the one cut in 2011, or the one proposed under HB 4, are much more susceptible to cuts from one session to the next.

Funding pre-K through the formulas, she says, would also help ensure students get more equal funding. HB 4, on the other hand, could reward wealthy districts that already have the money to meet new requirements for, say, class size or teacher qualifications.

“The governor’s bill that’s outside the formulas, it’s really increasing inequity in the system,” Villanueva says. “I think we need a systemic approach to dealing with pre-K, and increase the equity in the system.”

The infamous Socorro ISD taco dog, aka "lunch"

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


Marshall // There’s a glass ceiling behind the bars of the Harrison County Jail, where Sheriff Tom McCool refuses to allow women into the jail’s trustee work program. That’s according to the Marshall News Messenger, which reports that only men are allowed to work odd jobs around the jail, enjoying breaks from their cells and earning credit for good behavior. Eight women locked up in the Harrison County Jail have filed a federal discrimination complaint, but McCool insists he doesn’t have the staff to keep women from “intermingling” with men outside their cells. In any case, McCool explained, it’s mostly men’s work. “Of course, most of our females could not perform the function that some of the males perform,” McCool said, though he has considered one possible solution: “I’ve looked at, ‘Well, maybe we could make a car-washing crew out of the ladies.’”

Terlingua // Brewster County law enforcement officials had been on the lookout for missing 80-year-old Mary Broughton for most of 2014 when Broughton’s daughter, Judith, until recently of the National Psychic Network, helped solve the case. On a tip from Judith, authorities found Mary’s body buried in a bag beneath the kitchen floor of Judith’s home outside Terlingua. Sheriff Ronny Dodson told Midland’s NewsWest 9 his deputies had brought search dogs to the spot before, but the corpse’s scent had apparently been masked by that of dead dogs and cats scattered on top of the shallow grave. “The house is just a total ruin,” Dodson told the station. Judith Broughton had been cashing her late mother’s Social Security checks for months—a grisly situation all around, but not, in fact, all that surprising to local officials. That’s because Judith had just begun serving 10 years in prison for collecting more than $150,000 in Social Security benefits paid to her father since 1997, before his body was found “mummified” in a Kentucky storage locker in April.

Port Lavaca // Thirty-year-old James Dunnell aspired to exceptional customer service at the McDonald’s drive-thru window, but his signature farewell blessing—“Have a lovely day”—just wasn’t having the desired effect. So, as Dunnell explained to The Port Lavaca Wave in a December profile, when a friend returned from Disneyland with stories about being told to “Have a magical day,” Dunnell was inspired to crib the phrase that’s made him a local celebrity. The Wave explains: “Magic as an adjective is defined as something that is ‘wonderful or exciting.’ … The word ‘magic’ brings up images of fairy tales or a man wearing a cape who pulls a rabbit from a hat—the seemingly impossible made possible through some supernatural ability. Who of us could not use a little magic in their day?” The “magical” reputation has begun to precede Dunnell around town. “I go to Walmart and people recognize me as the ‘Have a magical day’ guy,” Dunnell told the paper. “There’s just something about magic.”

Socorro // The scourge of Socorro has been struck from the lunch menu, KVIA-TV reports: “The ‘taco dog’ is no more.” Despite somehow “meeting all the nutritional requirements” for school lunch, according to a Socorro ISD spokesman, the lonely weiner dressed in nothing but a hard taco shell proved so unpopular among elementary school students that the district was forced to cancel its misadventure in fusion cuisine after just one day. “Taco blasphemy,” the El Paso Times called it. If there is a bright side to this sorry episode, it may be found in a school nutrition working group inspired by the affair, which plans to remove sugar-delivery vehicles such as pan dulce, French toast sticks and Pop-Tarts from the menu, too.

El Cenizo // The people of El Cenizo discovered that the arsonists who burned down three abandoned homes were two of the town’s own volunteer firefighters, according to KGNS-TV. Eighteen-year-old Pablo Ernesto Figueroa Osorio told investigators that he and 27-year-old Jeremy Aaron Jones committed the arsons to protest the city’s lack of support for the department. El Cenizo Mayor Raul Reyes called the protest “childish.” The city’s fire chief resigned under pressure from the mayor.


1 2 3 21