Back to mobile

Snake Oil

Texas Juvenile Justice Reformers Take A Victory Lap

A new study affirms Texas' juvenile justice reforms, and suggests improvements at local probation departments
Chief Justice Nathan Hecht  introduces a new study on Texas' juvenile justice system at the Texas Supreme Court, as officials and advocates look on.
Patrick Michels
Chief Justice Nathan Hecht introduces a new study on Texas' juvenile justice system at the Texas Supreme Court, as officials and advocates look on.

 

Since a 2007 sex abuse scandal at a state-run youth lockup in West Texas, state lawmakers have entirely remade Texas’ juvenile justice system, shuttering many of the state’s prison-like juvenile facilities and keeping many more kids under supervision close to home.

Today, a new report from the non-profit Council of State Governments, a team led by Texas criminal justice expert Tony Fabelo and researchers from Texas A&M, provides a sort of book-end to those reforms, affirming that Texas’ reforms over the last eight years have not only kept thousands of kids out of state-run lockups, but also offered better treatment to help them avoid another arrest.

At a press conference at the Texas Supreme Court Thursday morning, Mike Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, suggested Texas’ political leaders could indulge in a little self-congratulation. “You said kids would do better closer to home. You said the state would save money. You said the state would be safer.” On all those counts, Thompson said, Texas was right. The study, he said, also affirms Texas’ place as a national leader in juvenile justice reform, an instructive example for other states.

Among the report’s encouraging findings:

  • In 2007, before Texas lawmakers began these reforms, 4,305 youths were locked up in state-run facilities. Today, less than 1,000 kids are locked up in state facilities.
  • The state also cut its spending on state-run juvenile lockups by $179 million, and closed eight of its lockups. Over the same period, researchers found, statewide juvenile arrests fell by one third.
  • Per capita spending at county probation departments increased from $4,337 to $7,304 from 2005 to 2012—counties, in other words, had more money to spend on each child in the local justice system.

Those all reflect trends that have been pretty well-publicized here in the last few years. This study reaches even further, though, by connecting youth who’ve been in the juvenile justice system with eight years of local arrest data.

“It’s not just enough to know that the census is lower,” Thompson said, “we want to know what’s happened to those kids.” That was the question, from state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Texas Juvenile Justice Department officials, that prompted the study in late 2012. Researchers were able to track 95 percent of youths who’d been in the system, analyzing over one million records. Then, by considering variables like a child’s race, home county and criminal histories, they controlled for a youth’s likelihood of rearrest.

They found that kids who’d been steered to local probation departments instead of state-run lockups were 20 percent less likely to get arrested again.

The report, and a roundtable conversation at this morning’s briefing, also focused on how Texas can further improve its juvenile system. Based on the profiles they created, researchers said Texas is still sending juveniles to state-run facilities who’d be better off with local probation departments.

“The young kids who ought to be in the state facilities ought to only be those kids who cannot be managed or treated effectively outside the state system,” Texas Juvenile Justice Department director David Reilly said today, but he couldn’t say just how much smaller the agency should get. In the last few years, the agency has grappled with how to stem rising violence at its youth lockups, and lawmakers like Whitmire have trying to close even more of the facilities.

Researchers also found that local probation departments hadn’t gotten much more effective than they were in 2007. The departments are chronically underfunded, and supported mostly with county funding. Researchers studied hundreds of treatment programs employed at the county level, and suggested that counties weren’t always connecting the right child with the right treatment—a mismatch, they said, that “can also increase the likelihood a youth will come into contact with the justice system.”

Before a courtroom full of policy experts and reporters, Whitmire,who’s been one of the Legislature’s chief architects of the juvenile justice reforms, said he was looking forward to improving the system further. “From a global perspective, this is why you run for office, quite frankly,” he said.

Juvenile justice reform this session will probably also focus on the role schools play in steering children—disproportionately children of color—into the justice system, and on whether Texas should classify 17-year-olds as juveniles, a shift that other states have made recently, but that Whitmire opposes.

This morning, though, Whitmire suggested that one of the biggest fights this session could be to keep the current reforms in place, especially keeping kids in local probation departments, and out of state lockups far from home.

“We have nine new senators,” Whitmire said. “They have, really, not a great knowledge as we’re drilling down today with what juvenile probation really consists of. They will have a bad press article about a youth doing something horrendous, obviously violent, and they’ll paint with a broad brush. They do not understand … If you’re not close to home, so you’ll go to Giddings or Gainesville, you immediately do not have the professional help for drug or alcohol, you’re obviously away from your family.

“Some of my colleagues will say, ‘Oh you just want ‘em to be comfortable.’ No, I’m not trying to make them comfortable. I’m trying to turn their lives around.”

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings
Patrick Michels
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was an early supporter of the home-rule drive for Dallas ISD, which came to an end Tuesday night.

Last night in Dallas, the commission that could have completely redesigned the city’s school system—handed control to the mayor, done away with elected trustees or rewritten teacher contracts—voted instead to call off its school reform experiment entirely.

It’s a quiet end to a dramatic reform drive that began almost a year ago, when a group called Support Our Public Schools announced its plans to make the state’s second-largest school system into its first “home-rule charter” district.

As Matt Haag at The Dallas Morning News wrote last night, the home-rule effort had already been slowly fizzling away for a while. Bob Weiss, the commission’s chairman, worried last night that, as Haag put it, “a home-rule district could undermine people’s democratic rights.”

Put that way, it almost sounds like a bad thing.

But to Houston billionaire John Arnold, the home-rule effort’s only financial backer to ever publicly come forward, that was kind of the point. As Arnold explained to the Morning News last year, “It’s very difficult to pass effective reforms with elected school boards. … What happens is you have window dressing of small reforms that collectively add up to very little effect.” To really focus on school improvement, he said, a school board needs to be free from “the ugly parts of politics.”

That willingness to blow up the current system, even at the expense of, say, democracy, is a hallmark of the philanthropy-driven school reform movement that is urging parents away from a system driven by elected school boards and influential teachers’ groups.

Dallas is an appropriate crucible for this sort of fight: plenty of poor urban schools with a track record of low graduation rates and poor performance on state tests, and a wealthy business class used to tackling problems with fistfuls of money. Not enough money to fund smaller classrooms or more bilingual programs for DISD’s 65,000 English-language learners, but enough to direct the conversation around reform. Arnold, for instance, would like to talk more about cost-cutting pension reform for public employees.

In Dallas’ ongoing school reform drama, which began in earnest when Superintendent Mike Miles was hired in 2012, the home-rule drive was just one particularly dramatic episode. Home rule could have had sweeping implications for the district, but it was never clear just what they would be—the commission never got around to writing the plan.

On Tuesday night, Weiss, the home-rule commission’s chairman, called the legal mechanism that allows for home-rule—a little-known piece of Texas’ original charter school law—”a very bad piece of legislation.” At the very least, it’s a complicated one.

In the next few months, lawmakers may try to rework the law to make it easier for districts to make the shift—Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick introduced such a proposal in 2013—within a broader movement of free-market school reform. If they do come up for discussion, you can bet Dallas’ near-miss with home rule will be Exhibit A.

Donna Campbell
Patrick Michels
State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) promotes her new school choice bill at a Texas Public Policy Foundation event with, from left, former state Rep. Kent Grusendorf and economist Arthur Laffer.

 

If ballplayers wore suits with their pinstripes and vendors walked the stands hawking copies of Steve Forbes’ new book (it’s actually just called Money), then the Sheraton by the Capitol would feel an awful lot like spring training. Here at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s pre-session policy confab, the air is thick with free-market dreams for another Lege session.

There’s a little extra spring in Rep. Bill Zedler’s step as he strolls by, a little extra shine on the ostrich boots shuffling across the lobby floor. And nobody in this hotel is half as excited as Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) telling the press about her hottest prospect for the new session, filed just yesterday: Senate Bill 276, “Relating to state savings and government efficiency achieved through a taxpayer savings grant program administered by the comptroller of public accounts.”

In a word: vouchers.

Or, as Campbell suggested today: “universal school choice,” because “voucher” suggested a golden ticket in limited supply. Her plan is unlimited.

Two years ago, it was then-Sen. Dan Patrick who delivered an enthusiastic pitch for vouchers just before the session’s start. Today, with Patrick in the lieutenant governor’s office, it was Campbell’s turn to beam about the miracles school choice will bring, to help us forget how decisively the Legislature has rejected vouchers in the past, and inject her voice with a little extra gravity as she describes our “moral obligation” to spend public money on private schools.

Her plan was simple: parents who move their kids from public to private schools get a tuition reimbursement of up to 60 percent of the state’s average payout—for classroom operations, but not facilities funding—for each public school student. Campbell and new Attorney General Ken Paxton offered the same proposal in 2013; back then, the maximum grant would be $5,000. In five years, the Legislative Budget Board estimated, the program would save the state $1.1 billion.

She spoke quickly—too fast to catch it all—as she related the miracles in store for a Texas that embraces school choice. “It will turn poor performing schools into better schools,” Campbell said. “It will equalize the playing fields. … It will improve our economy. … It decreases the number of dropouts. It improves the graduation rates.”

Many of these are familiar arguments for school choice, but then there’s so much more. At some point, standing there circled around the podium, you had to stop and wonder, where’s she getting this stuff?

The answer was in a booklet on a table beside her, a new 43-page literature review produced for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Association of Business, written by the man standing next to her: Art Laffer, namesake of the “Laffer curve”—an economic model often wielded as a cudgel against higher taxes—who hugged Campbell at the podium and called her a hero.

“There’s not one thing that isn’t improved by charters and choice,” Laffer explained.

At a panel discussion later, Laffer elaborated. His report, he said, reviewed the research out there already on the subject. What he found, he said, was “just a huge volume of evidence, all supporting school choice. There’s almost nothing negative about school choice at all.”

Laffer was clear that his report doesn’t break new ground. The handful of voucher programs around the country have been studied closely, and there are plenty of meta-analyses on school choice out there already. Laffer’s is hardly the only example of cherry-picked research on vouchers, but with its bold promises that school choice will mean “$260 – $460 billion more in our economy,” it could grab plenty of attention at the Legislature.

Arthur Laffer
Patrick Michels
Economist Arthur Laffer speaks on school choice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s policy orientation in Austin.

Many times today, Laffer joked that the research he reviewed—”all these boring articles, and they truly are boring”—was too dry for the audience to worry much about. (For what it’s worth, the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center has found plenty of negative findings about the impact of voucher programs.) But Laffer impressed on the audience that school choice isn’t all about the bottom line, after all, but about “bringing ethnic minorities into the mainstream. … Once you lose these kids, you lose them forever. And they become hostile, and you have to spend a fortune protecting yourself from them.”

And then it’s about the bottom line again.

Laffer made three speaking appearances for TPPF today—probably a sign of how important this issue is to the group—and always returned to the question of race. On a panel with Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick, Laffer put it this way: “We’ve seen it on CNN, and Al Sharptons [sic] and what’s going on with Trayvon Martin. … The opportunities for inner city kids are not there. School choice will bring those opportunities for those kids.”

Laffer strolled further down this path earlier in the day, explaining that the higher property values sure to follow school choice would, on their own, make racism a thing of the past.

“There may be racists on both sides of the aisle, but when these racists have good paying jobs and they’re making money hand over fist, they don’t have time to be racist.” After all, he said, employers only have the luxury of discrimination if there’s competition for their job. “If you have 15 job openings and one person applies, you hire the son of a gun as quick as you can.”

To hear Campbell tell it today, you’d think she had hit on a big new idea—and not that vouchers have been proposed, and even tried once, and then shot back down again for decades in Texas. Every two years TPPF, or its founder James Leininger, shepherds a voucher bill into the Capitol and every two years a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans shoots it down. Last session the House made a big show by preemptively banning voucher funding even before a bill came over from the Senate.

The new school choice bills are sure to face similar concerns—private schools are specifically exempted from state testing under Campbell’s bill, for instance, and most private schools (see anecdotal accounts from Dallas, Houston and Austin) charge more than $5,000 a year, so parents would have to pony up the rest.

Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond briefly alluded to Dan Patrick’s bill last session, saying only that “for whatever reason, it didn’t gather momentum.” The game for Campbell today was to build new momentum for the coming session, armed with Laffer’s report and her own emotional appeals. As she explained today, probably not for the last time, “Every year that we wait is another precious year for a child that passes.”

Strangest State: Death by Donkey, Popular Plots and Meth by the Mail

Notes from far-flung Texas for January 2015
Officials in Jasper gather to appreciate nature's majesty.
Officials in Jasper gather to appreciate nature's majesty.

In this month’s issue of the Observer, we’re debuting “Strangest State,” 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]

The family of late Hollywood Park Mayor Bill Bohlke spent the last two years lobbying, apparently in vain, for Atascosa County officials to investigate Bohlke’s 2012 death as a cold case, rather than stand by the long-unquestioned conventional wisdom: that Bohlke was fatally trampled by an angry 500-pound donkey. Bohlke’s widow managed to secure a court order to exhume the mayor’s body for a proper forensic examination—he’d been buried without one, the San Antonio Express-News reported, because the local morgue was full—but per the judge’s ruling, the family must pay for the procedure. The family’s fundraising campaign—“Help us get the body of Bill Bohlke exhumed!”—had raised $575 by late October, when, according to News 4 San Antonio, Tonia Bohlke was shocked to find a fresh layer of sod at her husband’s gravesite. Without alerting Bohlke’s widow, the county had apparently exhumed his body. County officials wouldn’t comment except to say that an investigation is ongoing. The family’s lawyer, Edgardo Baez, explained: “This is a very peculiar case.”

Stephenville // Demand for new plots at the expanding West End Cemetery has outpaced the city’s best-laid plans. Per the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, a crowd of prospectors braved freezing temperatures to line up well before the cemetery opened on the morning of Nov. 12, hoping to secure prime real estate for their eternal homes. “We thought we’d have, at the most, five people,” Butch Lovvorn told the Empire-Tribune. “We’ve tripled that already.”

Jasper // A record half-ton alligator was discovered in the Rayburn Country Resort, the Jasper Newsboy reported, when game warden Morgan Inman noticed kids throwing rocks at it. Harley Hatcher, “a nuisance hunter and a star on Swamp People who lives in Fannett,” was called in to dispatch the gator, but circumstances required Inman to subdue the beast before Hatcher’s arrival. “It required several shots,” the Newsboy explained, “as it was moving and Inman could not get very close to it as aggressive as it was acting.”

Lubbock // The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal’s advertising department did brisk holiday business, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. The newspaper’s Thanksgiving edition included a whopping 800 pages of advertising—which meant heavy lifting for delivery crews. In a candid interview, circulation director James Grimmett admitted to his employer: “Quite frankly, our carriers do a great job.”

Hooks // Chris Harris resigned from the Hooks Independent School District board after jokes he posted to Facebook, in his words, “got taken way out of context.” According to Raw Story, Harris posted a logo for a “Black Panther Hunting Club,” a photo of a hooded Klansman emblazoned with the words “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” and the following commentary on Ferguson, Missouri: “I say the hell with the national guard let’s bring the KKK in they will settle shit down.”

Lorena // A federal task force busted mail carrier Edward Flores for delivering methamphetamine on his route. Officials told the Waco Tribune-Herald that Flores had been selling meth for years using his job as a cover.

Dallas // City records show Dallas spent $26,000 to care for nurse Nina Pham’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Bentley, while Pham was being treated for Ebola last year, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Nueces County // Sheriff Jim Kaelin vowed that Todd Hebert, an inmate at the Nueces County Jail, will be “held accountable” for causing a five-hour lockdown and incurring costs “in the five digits” by telling jail staff he’d ridden on a Mexican bus with a fellow passenger who had Ebola, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Medical officials determined that Hebert had not, in fact, been in Mexico.

Madisonville // Madisonville’s newest doctor, Yemi Chukwuogo, is enjoying life in East Texas, according to The Madisonville Meteor. “Chukquogo [sic] knows and accepts the fact that differences exist,” the Meteor wrote in a recent profile. “I love change and differences. We’re all people and we all bleed red,” Chukwuogo told the paper, sharing a bit of her medical knowledge. The paper reported that Chukwuogo studied medicine in New York, Dominica and New Jersey. “Dominica,” the Meteor clarified helpfully, “is an island in the Caribbean.”

Denton // Kids at a birthday party found Vicodin tablets among leftover Halloween candy in a piñata, WFAA-TV reported.

Beaumont's West Brook High School Bruins football team
Patrick Michels
Beaumont’s West Brook High School Bruins wait to take the field on homecoming night 2014.

In a few weeks, we’ll be inundated with news and speculation on statewide education policy—funding, charters, vouchers, universal pre-K and more—once the Legislature gavels back in. But a legislative off-year like 2014 was a good reminder that, for all the noisy debate at the Capitol, most education stories play out on the local level. Whether it’s school choice or standardized tests, what happens in Austin affects kids differently if they’re in Highland Park, Beaumont or El Paso.

The state takes over Beaumont ISD

My October story for the Observer on “the most dysfunctional school district in Texas” ends with a rare state takeover at Beaumont ISD, and the question of whether this dramatic shakeup can undo years of corruption and distrust. If I could venture a future spoiler: No, it probably won’t. But whatever good can come from state-appointed superintendent Vernon Butler’s work, backed by the state-appointed managers who’ll run Beaumont’s schools for the next couple years—it’ll depend a lot on who’s left in charge when they go. This year was about cleaning house—raids, arrests and federal indictments tied to the old administration—but 2015 will be about how the district moves on.

Local cheating scandals

There were no widespread cheating scandals on par with, say, El Paso or Atlanta, in 2014. (Former superintendent Lorenzo Garcia, who’d been serving a federal prison sentence for his role in the El Paso scheme, was released this November.) But a handful of teachers were caught around the state cheating on a smaller scale this year. Whether the cheating is classroom-, campus-, or district-wide, the motivations are basically the same. These stories are a reminder of how easily we can be manipulated into seeing any school or teacher as good or bad, if a few test scores are all we consider.

In Houston and Dallas school districts, scandals surfaced where schools’ performance improved too quickly to believe. Houston ISD began reassigning teachers at Houston’s Jefferson and Atherton elementary schools in late 2013 over concerns about cheating. In spring 2014, HISD’s investigations found at least three teachers at Atherton and five at Jefferson had helped students cheat. The Houston Chronicle noted other anomalies in the schools’ testing stats, including that, for instance, “100 percent of English-speaking third-graders at Jefferson passed state exams in reading and math in 2013, ranking the northside school far ahead of others in the district.” This fall, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office said it would help the district investigate further.

Dallas’ Umphrey Lee Elementary saw its rating from the state plummet this year after the district found at least seven teachers had been, as The Dallas Morning News put it, “feeding students answers on most of the” state tests.

Home rule in Dallas ISD

When The Dallas Morning News broke the story in March that a few Dallas civic leaders, backed by Houston billionaire John Arnold and some anonymous donors, were out to make Dallas ISD the state’s first home-rule charter district, it was a shocking piece of news. It was a confusing piece of news, too—most folks had no reason to know Texas even had a home-rule charter law, since no district had ever used it before. But the implications of the little-known law were serious—a revised teacher tenure system, even mayoral control of the schools, all possible within a few months. As Mayor Mike Rawlings’ then-spokesman—and current City Council candidate—Sam Merten explained the mood back then: “I think this is gonna be the story of the year for our city.”

The home-rule backers mounted a successful petition drive, but didn’t manage to get a home-rule charter drafted in time for November’s election—a crucial deadline because, by law, a successful home-rule election requires high turnout. Whether Dallas opts for home rule, and what that might look like, should be decided in 2015.

School reform money in local races

This is a trend that’s sure to continue in 2015 and beyond, but began small in 2014. Out-of-state school reform advocates like Democrats for Education Reform—backed by New York hedge fund managers and Obama administration veterans—and Teach for America’s Leadership for Education Equity backed candidates up and down the ticket in this year’s elections, from the State Board of Education and the state House on down to local school board races. The Texans for Lawsuit Reform’s new education spinoff, Texans for Education Reform, began its major spending on campaigns this year as well, backed by some of the state’s most generous political donors.

Austin school board candidate David “D” Thompson became a poster child for the phenomenon this fall, in a campaign that ended with a narrow runoff defeat. Along the way, the former KIPP Austin Collegiate charter school teacher received contributions from national school reform advocates including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Austin’s same-sex schools

Buzzfeed‘s recent piece on Austin ISD’s experiment with same-sex schools offered a great inside look at the first semester at the Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy and Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy, two troubled district schools that reopened this year to pilot a new approach. Built on a foundation of outdated pseudoscience and gender stereotypes, helped along with local political will and a try-anything-once approach to experimenting with failing schools, the schools are running now on earnestly enthusiastic staffs. At the same time, the ACLU has sued the district, noting the shaky research base supporting same-sex schooling and suggesting that you don’t need to be a charter school to make guinea pigs of poor, Latino and black students.

Schools launch Mexican American studies courses

Earlier this year, the State Board of Education punted on its promise of new Mexican American Studies textbooks until at least next year. But as the San Antonio Express-News noted in July, some schools around the state are marching ahead with their own plans for Mexican American Studies classes. The paper counted programs planned or in place in Austin, San Antonio, and the Rio Grande Valley. Houston author Tony Diaz, who’s been active in the textbook campaign with the state board, told the Express-News the trend is nothing short of “a Chicano renaissance.”

Banned books in Highland Park

September’s Banned Books Week kicked off with news that Highland Park ISD had pulled seven books from classroom use in response to complaints from parents about obscene content. The district’s move became national news, loaded with complaints about parents in the wealthy Dallas bubble hoping to keep their kids sheltered from titles like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. A new group of parents formed to advocate for the books’ continued use, lamenting the national scorn that’d been heaped upon the district, and the superintendent reversed his decision, un-banning the books, within weeks.

But as the Texas Tribune reported in November, some in Highland Park are still working to remove books they find objectionable. The looming fights there, and in districts across Texas about to purchase books from the state’s new list of social studies texts, could resemble locally produced productions of the State Board of Education’s better-known culture war debates.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks at a Texas Charter Schools Association conference.

This was already going to be a record year for charter school closures in Texas. Before this week, state regulators had already moved to close eight charters in 2014. But on Tuesday, the Texas Education Agency announced 14 more were on the chopping block—the largest single revocation the state’s ever seen.

Sweeping new charter school legislation passed in 2013 encouraged new charters to open and made it easier to close struggling ones. But the charter growth promised in Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick’s bill—which lifted the state’s cap on charters and encouraged successful charters from out-of-state to come to Texas—hasn’t materialized so far.

The bill also required schools to give up their charters after three consecutive years of low student performance or financial accountability scores. And by that measure, the bill is showing significant results:

All but one of the 23 charter revocations this year were mandatory under the new law. (Deion Sanders’ Prime Prep Academy is the other.) Texas has moved to revoke almost as many charters in 2014 as it did in all other years combined. In just this year, Texas has begun revoking more than one-tenth of the charters in the state. (Here’s a spreadsheet with more details on the schools slated for closure, and TEA’s letters to the schools.)

David Dunn, who directs the Texas Charter Schools Association, responded to news of the revocations Tuesday by saying he supports closing schools when it’s warranted, but that “the charter revocation process must include a fair and transparent review.” (He also reminded Education Commissioner Michael Williams of his “responsibility” to grow and recruit successful charters.)

But Tuesday’s news won’t come as a surprise to many of the schools, which should have known months ago that their latest state ratings set them up for closure. If recent closure attempts are any clue, though, they won’t all go quietly. The 14 schools targeted by the state yesterday have until Jan. 12 to appeal the decision, triggering a review process that takes months.

Prime Prep opened as usual this fall despite mixed messages about whether the state would let it. Honors Academy defied the state by opening as usual this year as well, becoming what Commissioner Williams called “a de facto private school.”

Before the law changed in 2013, closing down a Texas charter school was an incredibly messy business, almost certain to entail a lengthy legal fight. The new rules are meant to create clear standards for charters, and clear consequences for those that don’t make the grade.

But there are also lots of ways to run afoul of the new law, sometimes just by a hair. Transformative Charter Academy in Killeen, one of the 14 schools put on notice yesterday, maintained solid academic performance but missed the financial cutoff by just one or two points in the last three years. Ignite Public Schools, with over 1,000 students in the Rio Grande Valley, wound up on the list after barely missing a single academic measure—the “performance gap” between its economically disadvantaged students and better-off students around the state. Lynda Plummer, founder of Bright Ideas Charter School in Wichita Falls, told lawmakers last month that her school failed its financial rating one year because its audit was one day late.

And there’s also the question of whether some charters on this list scored low because they attracted, and kept, students who typically score lower on tests. Compare the 22 schools slated for mandatory closure to the total of charter school enrollment in Texas:

Three schools fighting to keep their charters have sued over the new law, claiming their evaluations haven’t been fair. One school leader has suggested he’s being targeted because he runs a small, locally raised charter and not a powerful out-of-state network.

Lawmakers in the Capitol spoke proudly last year about the good charters that would come to Texas, and the bad charters that would be shut down, as a result of the new law. So far those new charters have been slow to arrive, and the ones slated for closure span a wide range—some look pretty bad, others maybe got a tough break.

Last year’s law, which passed with fairly broad and bipartisan support, was the most dramatic change to Texas’ charter school system since its creation 20 years ago. When lawmakers return to the Capitol next month, they may not be too happy with what they got.

Former Jasper Police officers Ricky Grissom and Ryan Cunningham
Surveillance camera footage from May 5, 2013, shows Jasper Police officers Ryan Cunningham and Ricky Grissom's brutal treatment of a woman inside the city jail.

Two former Jasper police officers won’t face criminal charges for assaulting a woman in their custody last year, the last chapter in an incident that became a flashpoint for racial tension in the East Texas town.

The Beaumont Enterprise reported in November that a grand jury had cleared officers Ricky Grissom and Ryan Cunningham, who are white, for a violent encounter with a black woman named Keyarika Diggles inside the Jasper City Jail. Overhead cameras caught the officers grabbing Diggles by the hair, slamming her face onto a counter and pinning her to the floor, before dragging Diggles, by the feet, into a holding cell. According to her lawyers, Diggles spent hours in the dark “detox” cell before being strip-searched by police dispatcher Lindsey Davenport.

Along with the damning video footage, the case was troubling because Cunningham and Grissom had arrested Diggles at home that morning for nothing more than an unpaid traffic ticket. And the ticket wasn’t quite unpaid—the single mother of two had been paying down her debt in monthly installments. Even after those payments, she still owed $100 at the time Grissom and Cunningham knocked on her door—but it’s still not clear why they’d chosen to arrest her that day.

It was already a touchy time for Jasper’s police. The city’s first black police chief, Rodney Pearson, had been removed in 2012 by a City Council stacked with new members who ran, in part, on a pledge to replace Pearson with a chief they deemed more qualified; all the serious candidates they considered were white. It wasn’t until October 2013 that the council hired the current chief, Bob MacDonald, who spoke freely about the need to reach out to the city’s black community and build trust. One of his first initiatives was to buy body cameras for the city’s police force.

Former Jasper Police officers Ricky Grissom and Ryan Cunningham
Former Jasper Police officers Ricky Grissom and Ryan Cunningham

Diggles settled a civil rights lawsuit against the city and the officers last December for $75,000. And less than a month after the incident, Jasper’s city council voted to fire Cunningham and Grissom. That alone was a stronger response than many allegations of police brutality get, and Jasper Mayor Mike Lout said the council would work with the district attorney to consider criminal charges against the officers. Lout and other city leaders stressed that the Diggles case wasn’t a sign of some deeper racial divide in the city, but an isolated incident with the perpetrators swiftly punished.

“The law is the law for everyone, and just because you have a badge on doesn’t mean you have the right to break the law, or do something wrong,” Lout said at the time.

These days, in the week since the Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury cleared Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, that hasn’t exactly been the prevailing sentiment. We’ve been reminded of how easily prosecutors can secure indictments when they want, and how rarely police officers are indicted for shootings and other allegations of misconduct. Emily DePrang’s Observer series on impunity in the Houston Police Department detailed those same problems last year.

The Jasper grand jury’s decision, coming so long after Diggles’ beating, but a few days before Darren Wilson was no-billed in Ferguson, is at least another marker of just how wrong it is to suggest that “the law is the law for everyone.”

In September 2014, after losing his city police job, Cunningham hired on with the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office, according to records obtained by the Observer from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Grissom apparently isn’t working in Texas law enforcement at the moment, but he easily could someday, like so many officers with spotty records who shuffle quietly from town to town.

And Diggles, whose beating remains unpunished, wound up back in the Jasper jail last May—for trying to shoplift $31 of baby formula from Walmart.

 

Truth in Texas Textbooks founder Roy White
Truth in Texas Textbooks
Truth in Texas Textbooks founder Roy White

When they write the history books about the State Board of Education, last week’s drama over our new social studies textbooks probably won’t go down as a high point.

After punting on a preliminary vote Tuesday, the board approved the textbooks on Friday despite receiving hundreds of pages of revisions at the last minute, which many members hadn’t read. Those revisions came partly in response to 1,500 worried letters from the public that were still arriving just last week. Though the 10-5 vote split on party lines, members agreed that this year’s textbook approvals had been a mess.

But the process was a big win for at least one man, Roy White, and his fellow volunteer textbook watchdogs.

White’s year-old group Truth in Texas Textbooks made an impressive entrance into Texas’ ancient and ongoing fight over what children learn in school, with a recently-released 469-page review of this year’s social studies textbooks. The review was cited widely by conservatives upset over the books and helped drive publishers to rework many passages—dozens of small changes like removing the word “nonpartisan” from a description of Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters in a McGraw-Hill text. Republicans on the board agreed to scrap all the submissions from one publisher, Worldview Software, because the company seemed insufficiently deferential to public concerns—a decision Worldview’s president called “arbitrary and capricious.”

With an avid grassroots following, and conservative board members receptive to his concerns, White and his group have quickly become influential gatekeepers to the hot and everlasting debate over Texas’ schoolbooks.

Samples of most books and electronic materials are available for anyone to review online, but some are only available in-person in Austin or at a regional education center. And even then, reading through the texts is a lot of work. Most people only encounter the debate after it’s been framed by one of a few mediating groups with the motivation and the manpower to get through all the texts. The Texas Freedom Network has long been one of these, and succeeded this year in pushing back on climate change doubt, and language minimizing slavery’s role as a cause of the Civil War.

Truth in Texas Textbooks’ review offered ammunition to folks more concerned that Ronald Reagan gets the admiration he deserves, or that books don’t gloss over the dangers of militant Islam. Where one world history text describes Christianity in its glossary as “the religion based on the belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God,” a Truth in Texas Textbooks reviewer complains: “Fourteen words is hardly an adequate definition of the greatest and most powerful religion in the known world or all of history.”

Concerned citizens flooded board members and publishers with more than 1,500 emails about the social studies texts, and Truth in Texas Textbooks’ own volunteers provided much of the live public comment before last week’s vote. White alone spent more than an hour at the podium during his statement.

White tells the Observer that activists in other states, and longtime state board observers, were amazed to hear publishers made so many changes in response to his group’s review. “They started laughing when I said the publishers are talking to us,” he says. White figures it’s because he caught the publishers at the right time, at the end of a critical approval process with a board that values public comment.

“Everybody I have talked to—TEA, SBOE members, even lobbyists with the publishers—tell me, in the history of Texas they had never seen so many inputs from the public to the process. So that, I think, is a good thing,” White says.

White is a pilot with Southwest Airlines, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a former public school teacher. He also chairs the Bexar County chapter of ACT! for America, which circulates news about the dangers of Islam. “It’s been described as an anti-Muslim group, which it is not,” White says. “It’s an education in radical Islam.”

In 2012, ACT! for America produced a report on Islam in textbooks nationwide, titled “Education or Indoctrination?” And last year, White says someone from ACT! for America asked him to lead a textbook review for Texas. He and his research director, a home-school mother named Pat Blair, put out calls for volunteers on tea party email lists, and sought input from conservative culture war veterans like Neal Frey and Common Core critic Sandra Stotsky.

Most of all, he says, his group is citizen-driven—all volunteers, regular folks, no paid reviewers. He’s not running a nonprofit; he’s funding the work himself. And together, over conference calls and online project management tools, they completed the monstrous task of a full textbook review. In Austin last week, his team met in person for the first time. “It’s another wonderful testimony to why I love living in Texas, and the spirit people have to really get things done,” he says.

“I’ve talked to some people in the media trying to put labels in front of people’s names, as they have with me. [It] doesn’t really help educate and lay the foundation for what the article should be about, which is improving textbooks. Who wouldn’t want better textbooks?” But White, who’s also been a spokesman for the Southwest pilots’ union, doesn’t let it get to him. “The media does what they do. I’ve been around long enough to understand that.”

Here’s how White’s group describes its mission instead: “The purpose of TTT is simple, to provide Social Studies textbooks that are truthful and factual that meet the Texas Education Knowledge Standards.” It’s the state standards, not White, after all, that include Moses as a leading influence on the founding fathers.

White says some volunteers bailed on the group early on, when the group’s training made it plain that their job was to remain objective. “We certainly see some ideology seep into there, and we have to kind of beat down our biases,” he says. “For us, we just said judge us on our work, judge us on the quality of our work.”

The group’s comments on each text are posted online as Word documents, plus a 52-page summary of their findings. They include grammar fixes and corrected dates, but dwell mostly on the usual questions of patriotism, religion, global warming and evolution—all the usual battlegrounds the State Board of Education is known for. Most of all in the reviews, you’ll find Islam—insisting that armies, not traders, spread Islam to new parts of the world, and that jihad can’t be defined as anything but violent struggle.

The Texas Freedom Network’s review of the new group’s reviews called its complaints “peculiar” and questioned whether the group’s reviewers were qualified for the job. A note on one Truth in Texas Textbooks’ review, TFN notes, suggests including information on Young Earth Creationism sourced to Conservapedia.com.

Texas allows months of public comment on these books, which generates weeks of blow-by-blow news coverage. But in practice our textbook adoption process is still pretty opaque because of the sheer volume of material it produces: thousands of pages of original text to review, and thousands more pages of back-and-forth between reviewers and publishers. Even White isn’t sure how many of the group’s recommendations made it into the texts approved on Friday.

But he and his group are still hard at work, sorting through the last-minute revisions to find out. And when they do, they’re ready to make textbook purchasing a whole lot simpler—because the state board’s decision is only a prelude to the real show: a final Truth in Texas Textbooks review complete with one simple letter grade for each book. Once they know which book is an “A,” a “B,” or a “C,” they’ll know which books to lobby their local school board to purchase.

“I think that’s the misconception—for us, how they voted, up or down was just another day on the calendar for us. Most people think when you’ve done the review process, that’s it,” White says. “Our goal all along was not to just do the reviews, but to give the customer, the parent, the school board member a tool to assess what material they should purchase.”

Alpine Synthetic Drug Case Ends in Plea Deal for Purple Zone Owner

Reason magazine features Purple Zone case in documentary alleging affair between shop owner and prosecutor
An Alpine police officer stands watch outside the Purple Zone smoke shop during a federal raid in May.
Tom Cochran
An Alpine police officer stands watch outside the Purple Zone smoke shop during a federal raid in May.

Back in July, the Observer featured the story of the Purple Zone in Alpine, a smoke shop near the Sul Ross State University campus that’s been raided repeatedly by local and federal authorities.

The cases resulting from those raids sat on the leading edge of the war on drugs—from a federal task force cracking down on narcotics near the border to a small-town prosecutor on a crusade against synthetic drugs. But there was also a major problem with the cases: Though the potpourri products seized from the Purple Zone did test positive for chemicals Texas has banned, they weren’t illegal at the time of the raids.

The trials of Purple Zone owner Ilana Lipsen and—for reasons that charging documents never made clear—her mother, who occasionally visits the shop, promised a dramatic showdown in a West Texas courtroom this fall.

That’s where our story ended, but in late September Lipsen pleaded guilty to a state charge of felony drug possession. The federal charges against Lipsen, stemming from a dramatic multi-agency raid in May, were dropped, and Lipsen’s record will remain clean if she completes 10 years’ probation. The charges against her sister and mother were dropped as well.

To other rural prosecutors trying to pursue expensive synthetic drug cases on a limited budget, this was probably a predictable end. Lipsen can move back to Houston, where she grew up, and escape the constant scrutiny of small-town law enforcement. But closing these cases also means plenty of big, strange questions will remain unanswered.

We’ll never know how Brewster County District Attorney Rod Ponton would make the case for convicting Lipsen of possessing drugs that weren’t illegal at the time. Nor will we hear a full accounting for the two wildly differing accounts of the violent federal raid at the shop in May, or for why Lipsen’s conditions of release from jail required her to publicly recant her complaints to the press.

But a few weeks ago, Lipsen’s story did get a full airing for a national audience, when the libertarian magazine Reason featured her case with a story irresistibly headlined, “Sex, Spice and Small-Town Texas Justice.”

Anthony Fisher’s story, and an accompanying 10-minute video, place the Purple Zone raid in the context of the national law enforcement build-up, tracing how a place that “evokes the Texas libertarian ethos of a quiet, safe town where you can expect to be left alone” became a stomping ground for “body armor-clad agents of the state.”

Late in the story and video (you can watch it below), Lipsen suggests Ponton’s fixation on her shop is rooted in personal jealousy, because she rebuffed him years ago after a one-night stand. In a response to Reason, Ponton called that allegation “a blatant lie.” (He issued a 10-point rebuttal to the story, to which Fisher replied here.)

Fisher’s story also includes a telling segment with Scot Erin Briggs, former managing editor at the Alpine Avalanche, describing just how toxic this story became around Alpine shortly after the federal raid, including an unhappy visit from the DA, then pressure from her bosses to give extra credence to the feds’ version of what happened in the raid.

According to Briggs, Ponton visited her at the Avalanche‘s office saying “I’m not here to threaten you.” He added that local law enforcement did not appreciate the article and “we don’t consider [the Lipsens] a credible source.” He also scolded her for not grasping how bad “spice” is. Briggs offered to have Ponton write a letter to the editor, which she promised to publish. Ponton declined and told her that he had contacted the paper’s owner.

Shortly thereafter, Briggs says the paper’s owner told her that while her facts were sound, “her tone was all wrong.”

But as Briggs goes on to explain, “The job of a local paper is to get at the truth the best we can, not be the voice of those in power.”

 

avid-dewhurst-ballot
Jade Stanford/Twitter
A new champion appears to some Bexar County voters

What a week. What a country! From coast to coast, Americans spoke clearly to defend the principles they hold most dear: a higher minimum wage, legal marijuana, robust, diverse voter turnout and the conservative political leaders who share those values.

I.

But make no mistake as to what this election was really about. Tuesday’s results were absolutely a referendum on one man alone, who wasn’t even running in Texas:

avid_Dewhurst.”

Avid Dewhurst. An emphatic Dewhurst, a committed Dewhurst, a champion for these uncertain times.

While most Texans were casting their votes for either Greg Abbott or Wendy Davis, a dozen lucky Bexar County voters were offered a third way.

Avid Dewhurst. A man of such substance and grace that he is well-suited to the moniker “Mountain Dew.” A Dewhurst who will not equivocate, who will not yield, who will not leave for a snack or watch the clock run out when principle—whatever principle—is on the line. A man who does not just see jars of feces and tell someone about it later, but smashes them, then and there, with the gavel the people have placed in his capable hands.

Yes, though David Dewhurst may be but a memory in Texas politics now, Avid Dewhurst was making news on Election Day. At least 12 voters in Bexar County were served an electronic ballot with, instead of Greg Abbott, someone named “avid_Dewhurst.”

Actually, the machine’s manufacturer explained, avid_Dewhurst’s unlikely candidacy was due to a “faulty memory card.” But what is more likely, after all? That the fault lies with one computer’s memory, or that the fault, in fact, is ours?

We may disagree, but isn’t it, after all, only the terms of the issue that divide us, and not the issue itself?

II.

Consider the non-discrimination ordinance in Houston.

The move by the city of Houston’s outside legal counsel to subpoena sermons from five pastors—relating to the ordinance, “Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity”—made it clear what the ordinance is really about. And last weekend’s “I Stand Sunday” mega-prayer rally in Houston offered glimpse of where we’re headed. In a word: Nazis.

Author Eric Metaxas provided a historical perspective on the need to rise up against tyranny before it’s too late:

“If we don’t wake up and fight before then, we won’t be able to fight. That’s just what happened in Germany. And that’s the urgency that we have in America now. And people may think that’s incendiary or I’m being hyperbolic. I’m sorry—I wish, I wish, I wish I were. I’m not.”

RightWingWatch collected a few of the event’s greatest hits, like First Baptist Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress, who explained that it was all in keeping with Satan’s longtime modus operandi that those in power today are attacking Christians by “trying to paint them as extremists.”

Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, national treasure and patron saint of truck stop novelties, offered some reassurance, and a keen understanding of what goes on in women’s bathroom stalls:

“For all you ladies in Texas, trust me when I tell you this. When you’re seated in your restroom, putting on your Maybelline, when I need to take a leak, I’m not going there.”

Robertson’s message was clear. Liberal spin aside, Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance is actually about one thing above all: letting men into the ladies’ restroom.

Sometimes a thing’s true meaning can be difficult to discern. Outsiders of questionable morals may try and twist the message to their own purposes.

III.

Consider, for instance, this T-shirt sold by the football team at Arlington’s Martin High School:

martin-football-t-shirt-2

An editorial in the school paper explained that, sure, we all get that the shirt is about turnovers and giving up the football, but hey, a reasonable person might—saving questions about the Native American mascot in a feather war bonnet for later—wonder whether the shirt’s humor here might play on something outside the game itself:

The shirt’s main message is to state the player’s idea that there is no need for the opponent to put up a fight in letting our team take the ball away from them. … But can this saying be easily misunderstood? Yes. Though it certainly was not the goal of the shirt, its slogan connoted rape culture.

Speaking with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Ken White, the Martin booster club president, responded with swift sympathy and the outrage of great moral conviction:

“I have a wife, I have a daughter, I have a mother,” White said. “Our players have sisters and cousins. It’s unwarranted. Our kids deserve better, especially from our own school.”

Strong words. White was, of course, not suggesting that “our kids deserve better” than a rejected punchline from Chicken Soup for Clayton Williams’ Raunchy Cocktail Hour. He was defending the T-shirt after the school district banned it.

Yes, the outside world might see “Shhhhhhh, just let it happen” and think “rape joke” or even “insanely rapey“—but actually, White explained, it’s about team unity:

“It’s sickening to me that it was misconstrued.”

IV.

Consider another recent example of attempted nanny-state nannying in the private affairs of the market. KHOU reported this week on the persistent business of “murderabilia”—”souvenirs produced by and about notorious killers,” like James Byrd Jr. killer John King.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn has tried to shut down the business, but to little avail. Said Houston-based victim’s rights advocate Andy Kahan:

“The problem is enforcement. It’s virtually impossible to enforce a Texas law when you have a California dealer or any other dealer from another state selling items from a Texas inmate.”

KHOU spoke with murderauction.com founder G. William Harder, who’s upset because he’s been banned from visiting inmates in Texas. Crime victims may complain that the people who killed their loved ones are profiting off the crime, but Harder explained that, actually, his business is about the very bedrock of the American idea:

Harder, who proudly shows off photographs he’s taken with Charles Manson, argues he’s merely exercising his rights by serving an unusual niche of crime aficionados. Nothing, he said, separates him from an author writing a true crime book, a television network airing crime documentaries or a broadcast reporter covering a lurid murder.

“Just because a segment of society doesn’t like it, doesn’t mean you can tell me I can’t do it,” Harder said. “I understand that there’s victims attached to this. It’s a sensitive subject, but I don’t invite them. This is what this country was founded on: free enterprise and capitalism.”

1 2 3 20