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 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.
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.
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.
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 whatchildren 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 companyseemedinsufficiently 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.”
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.”
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.
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. 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?
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.
“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.
Consider, for instance, this T-shirt sold by the football team at Arlington’s Martin High School:
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.
“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.”
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.”
Has the entire country just laid down and given up?
Texas Supreme Court Justice John Devine seems to think so. Devine is on the court, having won what the Observer called in 2012 “The Oddest Race in Texas.” He believes the U.S. Constitution should be applied strictly to modern-day legal issues, and if given the choice, would probably reach back even further. Devine recently joined Ohio Christian University’s “Faith & Liberty” talk show, and his remarks were as follows, courtesy a transcript from Right Wing Watch:
It’s like the Ten Commandments, if we would just stick to those basic principles our nation would be far better off and we would once again be the light on the hill. And unfortunately, the church has gone to sleep, many Americans have gone to sleep and we have allowed those with these progressive ideas to inhabit the White House and almost every facet of government.
Sleep, the silent killer, rears its ugly head yet again. And what can be done? Who will rescue us from the modern-day snooze buttons of the soul?
As Chris Hooks wrote here earlier this week, Perry approached his inauguration in Lubbock this week with tremendous flair, one hand on the Bible, two lips on his wife and America’s soul on the line. Perry kept the brimstone lit pretty much start-to-finish, suggesting the Obama administration is finishing what the Nazis began:
“The only difference is that the fraud of the Germans was more immediate and whereas the fraud of today’s government will not be exposed until the final days.”
Like Devine, Perry does not believe America should sleep:
A Japanese Imperial commander said he’d awakened a “sleeping giant” after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, according to Perry. Today, the new state senator wonders where that giant is.
“Has the giant died?” Perry asked after being sworn in. “Where is that giant of a nation that was founded on the eternal and never-changing values of a loving God and the desire to share that? I don’t recognize it on so many levels today.”
And of course, we’ve got plenty more Charles Perry to look forward to next year—but not much more David Dewhurst. The outgoing lite guv, who’s about to have a lot more time to kill on the red carpet—dropped by the Values Voter Summit in Washington last Friday.
Dewhurst made great use of the word “literally”:
“I think about the last year and the tsunami of unaccompanied children and what that means, and literally the president opening up the red carpet for them to come here.”
He also took a discredited rumor based on specious intelligence, and repeated it to stoke fear and score political points. And maybe that’s about right: You find the one thing you love to do in this world and if you’re lucky, you get to wake up and do it tomorrow.
“Prayer rugs have recently been found on the Texas side of the border in the brush.”
Prayer rugs = Muslims = ISIS, of course, which is evidence that President Obama has literally opened the red carpet to the agents of America’s demise to cross our southern border. So long as they leave their prayer rugs behind.
Dewhurst hasn’t offered any new details on his sourcing, but it was probably based on a Breitbart Texas scoop from July, which quotes an unnamed “independent American security contractor”:
“That’s when I saw this thing laying around. And I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ We walked over there and I didn’t really want to pull at it not knowing what was on it. I poked a bit at it with a stick and noticed some of the Arabic writing and was just like, ‘Oh boy.'”
Picking up on this exhaustive reporting, Gawkerdid a little sleuthing of its own and discovered that the prayer rug in the Breitbart piece may have also doubled as a soccer jersey, and was probably manufactured by Adidas, proving that the conspiracy runs even deeper than we’d thought.
And while we’re on the border, literally, Breitbart Texas‘ open line to the Border Patrol did yield a worthy nugget this week in the great annals of TV posturing, noting that Fusion TV anchor Jorge Ramos, as he swam across the Rio Grande in solidarity with illegal border crossers, was also swimming in raw sewage.
Speaking with Breitbart editor Brandon Darby, a Border Patrol spokesman, seasoned communications professional, explained what happened:
“The guy came down here and he literally swam with poo-poos.”
The only problem with that clip, really, is that Morgan Freeman didn’t narrate it.
On the first day of Banned Books Week 2014, The Dallas Morning News delivered the timely story of how Highland Park ISD—the wealthy enclave still grudgingly accessible by road from the rest of Dallas—has, more or less, banned seven books in response to a groundswell of parent outrage.
The Morning News‘ Melissa Repko reports that parents succeeded in getting the seven titles temporarily removed from classroom use, pending a review that could take months. Repko writes that the outrage surfaced a few weeks ago:
In Highland Park, more than 100 people packed a school board meeting this month. Parents and grandparents brought books flagged with sticky notes. They read excerpts of sex scenes, references to homosexuality, a description of a girl’s abduction and a passage that criticized capitalism. They sent hundreds of emails to district officials.
The school district doesn’t have video of the meeting, but it sounds as though it went a bit like this:
Like that school board in heaven Iowa, Highland Park school officials are urging calm, promising to give parents a chance to review the titles alongside teachers and students, and hopefully reach an understanding.
In a message sent Monday, Highland Park High School Principal Walter Kelly invited students and parents to join in the review. “Beyond the discussions of seven books out of hundreds of literary selections, I am more concerned about how we handle this as a school and community,” he wrote. “Central to the long-term discussion is how we make appropriate choices regarding instructional materials and books.”
Highland Park ISD spokeswoman Helen Williams says only one of the seven titles—Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain—was being taught this fall. Two others are slated for use in the spring, but she expects those books’ reviews will be completed by then.
“In terms of the effect immediately, it is not that onerous,” Williams says. “To give us time to conduct a thoughtful review, we are suspending use of those books.”
All of the books, she notes, are still available in the library—so this isn’t an outright ban—and parents always had the option to excuse their children from reading a given title. Still, this is the first time in more than a decade that parents have raised such widespread concern.
“It certainly a worthy topic and something I think is an age-old debate. What happened at the board meeting September 9 was standing-room only,” Williams says. September’s was the first board meeting of the new school year, and the first opportunity parents had to share their concerns after an email with controversial book passages began circulating in the spring.
The Morning Newsreports today that a new group of parents has formed to urge the district to put the books back in the classroom.
Highland Park’s banned-for-now list includes Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon—which Barack Obama has called his favorite book—and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, both of which are on the College Board’s reading list for Advanced Placement English Literature. The Morning News has more details on the objectionable content in each of the seven banned titles.
It’s noteworthy that parents would declare war on so many books after more than a decade of peace—though, as Williams notes, worries about sex scenes or swearing in required reading are nothing new.
But there is also something especially rich about parents in Highland Park—where there are zero economically disadvantaged students, compared to 89 percent of the student population in neighboring Dallas ISD—objecting to their children being exposed to David K. Shipley’s 2004 work, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. “Some parents objected to the nonfiction book because it has a passage about a woman who was sexually abused as a child and later had an abortion,” Repko explains.
But then there’s the offending “passage that criticized capitalism,” which was read aloud at the board meeting. That’s not about coarse language, or even “adult themes” that could threaten the book’s G-rating. That’s about trying to control what ideas students are exposed to when they’re away from home—not so far, intellectually, from today’s conservative education movement, which has made statewide causes out of CSCOPE, the Common Core standards and the revised AP U.S. History course they say is too critical of the U.S. and its founders.
Every school district can choose which books to teach, which to put in the library, and which to avoid altogether. According to the ACLU of Texas’ 2013 banned books report, Texas schools have banned fewer books every year since 2007. The group says its 2014 report will be out later this week.
“We respect parents’ right to choose what books their children read and to work with teachers to find alternate titles when parents have concerns,” says ACLU of Texas Communications Director Tom Hargis. “But efforts by a single parent or small group to ban a title and keep all students from reading it infringes on the rights of other parents to make their own choices. No matter how well-intended, banning books is censorship and infringes on the rights of a free society.”
It also, in this case, made things a little awkward for the author Jeanette Walls, who is slated to keynote Highland Park’s literary festival next year, now that Highland Park parents have placed her memoir, The Glass Castle, on the chopping block. Walls explained to the Morning News why people should be allowed to read her book:
“Walls said she was heartbroken to learn that her book was on the list. Her memoir is about growing up in poverty with a father who spent his money on alcohol and a mother who became homeless.
“‘My book has ugly elements to it, but it’s about hope and resilience, and I don’t know why that wouldn’t be an important message,’ she said. ‘Sometimes you have to walk through the muck to get to the message.'”
Update Sept. 29: The Associated Press reported that Highland Park ISD has lifted the temporary ban on the seven titles mentioned below.
A culinary arts class at Texas State Technical College West Texas
If you’ve spent any time watching daytime TV, you know the pitch: Industries are critically short on skilled workers, and with the right training, an exciting career with great pay could be waiting for you! Enroll now!
Among technical colleges, the competition for students is fierce, and many make big promises to lure recruits (and the federal loan money they often bring). Texas has been cracking down on for-profit chains, even revoking the license of Dallas-based ATI Career Training Centers. As former Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken explained in 2011, “Schools that misreport employment information about their programs potentially exploit vulnerable individuals with false hopes.”
Today, the commission ensures that for-profit trade schools are up-front with recruits about placement rates—and specifically whether graduates are working in a field related to what they studied. For trade schools, more than any other sort of higher education, it’s a critical measure of success. To stay open, such colleges need to keep their program-related employment rates above 60 percent.
But those regulations don’t extend to public trade schools. Each year, almost 30,000 students attend one of 11 campuses in the state-funded Texas State Technical College System (TSTC). To compete against for-profits and their enormous ad budgets, public trade schools have relied mostly on good public relations; local papers near TSTC campuses often run glowing stories about high placement rates and soaring industry demand.
In 2012, the Marshall News-Messenger cited “a job placement rate at nearly 90 percent” for TSTC’s Marshall campus. In a Valley Morning Star story this March, the chair of TSTC’s surgical technology program flatly declares that “all graduates are placed in jobs.” TSTC makes similar claims online about its Waco campus: “on average, industry has more job openings than TSTC has graduates. TSTC boasts placement rates of more than 90 percent.”
George Reamy remembers how impressed he was the first time he heard numbers like those, back when he taught English at TSTC Waco. “I remember talking to people about that,” he said, “and they kind of whispered to me, ‘hey man, that’s not quite what’s goin’ on.’”
In fact, the “success” rate for graduates includes students employed in any field or enrolled in further education. Say you’ve got a job at Taco Bell, graduate from a biomedical technology program, and then keep on working at Taco Bell. TSTC counts that a “success.” “You’ll never see phrases like ‘program-related’ or ‘in their field of study’ or even ‘technical’ next to the word ‘job,’” Reamy says.
TSTC campuses in Marshall and Sweetwater recently begin posting data on training-related employment. At the West Texas campus in Sweetwater, which advertised a 90 percent placement rate for 2013, the degree-related job placement was just 65 percent. In the News-Messenger last December, TSTC Marshall Director of Career Services Benji Cantu announced a “substantial” placement rate of 81 percent—but didn’t mention the school’s program-relatedplacement rate for 2013 was a less-substantial 40 percent.
Generally, Reamy says, the future for tech school grads is more complicated than these statistics let on. He points to a 2012 survey in which TSTC Waco graduates say they wish the school had been more up-front about their job prospects; the mixed reviews include some very positive comments, and more than a few from graduates who discovered their education was of little help in the job real world. Four call their degrees “a waste.”
For the same reason Texas doesn’t let for-profits make inflated claims about their programs, Reamy says, public schools ought to be transparent with recruits. “People make life-changing decisions based on stories like these,” he says. At his blog, “Watching Texas Technical Colleges,” he keeps up a drumbeat of criticisms against TSTC’s placement claims.
TSTC System Vice Chancellor Eliska Smith is familiar with these sorts of charges. But the truth, she says, is that there’s no systemic way to know which jobs are truly training-related. Unemployment insurance data doesn’t track graduates who leave Texas is prone to broad generalities that could accidentally list a graduate as working outside their field of training.
As an example Smith points to an automotive technology graduate who gets work as a mechanic at a Wal-Mart auto shop. State employment data wouldn’t count that Wal-Mart job as field-related. If a nursing graduate hires on at a school district and not a hospital, the state’s best data would consider that an unrelated field.
“There’s some fallacies in using ‘in-field,'” Smith says. “What matters to us, and what we think matters to our students is that our students are getting jobs.”
For the same reasons, even the Texas Workforce Commission—which has been requiring for-profits to maintain a 60 percent field-related employment rate—is moving away from its current measure, according to Richard Froeschle, the commission’s director of labor market and career information. Froeschle, one of the state’s experts on measuring career school outcomes, says the workforce commission relies today on self-reported numbers from schools, but is working on an objective measure more like what TSTC uses. “A level playing field, if you will,” Froeschle says.
Michael Bettersworth, an associate vice chancellor and data guru at TSTC, is well acquainted with the limitations of the data on training-related employment. For now, at least—until there’s better data on graduates’ jobs—he says it’s the wrong way to measure a school’s success. “I have gone down the rabbit hole of these data elements and philosophical debates,” Bettersworth says. “There are major structural limitations on the available data that limit the assumptions you can make.”
For now at least, Bettersworth says the best measures of TSTC’s success are how many graduates find jobs and how much its graduates earn after leaving. He says it’s a natural fit for TSTC, where the institutional mission is to grow Texas’ economy through workforce training.
Pressure to keep those numbers up has only increased now that the Legislature has tied TSTC’s state funding to its graduates’ earnings. The state’s calculations don’t include whether that job relates to what a graduate studied—they rely instead on a measure of graduates’ wages—a figure Bettersworth happily notes has risen in the first years of the new funding scheme (see the chart to the right).
For its willingness to stake its funding on graduates’ performance, TSTC has become a darling of the results-based higher ed movement that both Gov. Rick Perry and gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott have embraced. In his campaign, Abbott’s plan for higher ed includes funding all sorts of institutions—not just trade schools, but community colleges and four-year universities as well—based on some measure of their performance.
The trade schools offer a good example of how complicated school performance metrics can get, even for a relatively straight-forward question like whether graduates got jobs related to their studies. Performance metrics for, say, a university philosophy department wouldn’t be so straightforward.
And while folks like Froeschle and Bettersworth are fine-tuning measures for the state—probing data sets for weaknesses and being careful not to assume too much—what prospective students see in their local newspapers more often are local trade school officials’ certain claims that “all graduates are placed in jobs.”
Reamy says that’s where his frustration still lies: in the local recruitment pitches, where the nuance is often stripped from the numbers. “If there’s no good data on where people end up after graduation, officials need to quit talking about their employment rate without explanation or caveat,” Reamy says. “Anything less leads to false expectations and disappointment on the part of students and their families. … It boils down to integrity.”
North Austin's Athlos Leadership Academy under construction in August.
In the far reaches of North Austin, with Williamson County looming just across the street, the capital city’s newest charter school was still a construction site in late August. Scaffolding wrapped the large building as dozens of construction workers clambered up and down. More workers paced the rooftop, hurrying to finish the job and get students inside the new Athlos Leadership Academy for the new school year.
Like other Athlos campuses across the country, the school has big white pillars, a stately cupola and Monticello-esque wings suggesting a classical place of learning. Athlos notes in promotional materials that the Georgian architecture is designed to “evoke a patriotic feel.” In the weight room and on its basketball court and indoor turf field, students will be trained in Athlos’ signature physical fitness and character development program. For school-shopping parents, the school compares impressively to, say, the Round Rock Independent School District’s boxy, brick Wells Branch Elementary a few blocks away.
Thanks to the quirky way charter schools are regulated, this was a peculiar summer for Idaho-based Athlos. For even as it opened its seventh charter school in Texas, with thousands of students in its programs, state regulators also denied an Athlos Academy charter application—for the second time in three years.
If you’re, say, a parent or a student trying to choose between public schools, that might sound confusing. But it makes perfect sense if you work within the charter system, where you know a school’s name only says so much about who runs it.
News of the state’s rejection was a frustration, but not a deal-killer, for Athlos Academies because its schools also piggyback onto preexisting charters. A state charter for Athlos would’ve let the organization grow even faster in Texas, and perhaps most importantly, given it more of the all-important cachet it takes to succeed in the charter world.
Combined with a partner called The Charter School Fund, Athlos represents something new in the school reform movement: a developer that lets existing charter schools grow beyond their wildest dreams, then absorbs them into its family of campuses with a unique brand built on leadership and fitness.
Athlos schools have earned high marks in other states, and Texas lawmakers have made it clear that they want more high-performing charters to move in from out-of-state—so in many ways, this looked like it could have been Athlos’ year to get a charter of its own.
In Athlos Academy’s pitch before state regulators in July, its would-be board of directors made their case with a sense of urgency. The school’s Dallas-based board enthusiastically told Texas Education Agency officials how the Athlos model—”Athlos” is Greek for “feat” or “contest”—would turn out healthy, self-confident students more likely to succeed in the classroom.
Board member Todd Whitthorne was an especially fiery evangelist. “What I have seen in my lifetime, in the past 50 years, our public health numbers are frightening,” said Whitthorne, a motivational speaker and health consultant who promotes “happy pills” for workplace productivity. “They’re absolutely frightening, and I don’t believe that the way we’re operating right now in an obesogenic environment is sustainable.”
The board’s plan was ambitious: 15 campuses around Dallas-Fort Worth with a student body that would grow from 2,600 to 15,000 students within five years. (Charter school enrollment in Texas is just over 200,000 today.) The board chairman, Eddie Conger, runs another North Texas charter school, Independent Leadership Texas, that has grown fast in its first few years after partnering with Athlos. Conger spoke passionately about the transformative power of Athlos, and how many more children they’d reach with a separate charter: “If you were driving down the road and you saw a car accident, would you stop and intervene?”
But regulators seemed perplexed by connections between The Charter School Fund (the likely new landlord for the schools), Athlos Academies and a nonprofit called Complete Kids Inc., which would be allowed to nominate some replacements to the Athlos Texas board. All three shared the same downtown Boise address, along with the Hawkins Companies, a major real estate developer.
“Not only does it concern me when an out-of-state is going to be nominating your board,” TEA legal counsel Karen Johnson told the applicants, “but we have a new state law that says that a majority of all board members need to be qualified voters, which the [attorney general] says means Texas residents.” Johnson’s concerns touched on a delicate balance built into last year’s overhaul of Texas’ charter school law: while lawmakers wanted to attract out-of-state charters to Texas, they were also wary of handing control of public money to interests outside the state.
And the new Athlos school already planned to send a lot of money to Idaho: an estimated $442,395 in the school’s first year—2 percent of its state funding—to license the Athlos curriculum (with 15,000 students, the total could rise to $2.5 million a year) and $52 million over the first five years—about 18 percent of its funding—to rent from The Charter School Fund. (Charter schools’ facility costs vary widely, but, according to Texas Charter Schools Association spokeswoman Tracy Young, consultants often advise charters to keep lease costs under 20 percent.)
Mavis Knight, a Dallas Democrat on the State Board of Education, tells the Observer the arrangement just seemed odd to her, especially the board nominating process. “My mind can’t wrap around why it is necessary for two separate entities to nominate board members of another entity,” she says. (Along with Complete Kids, the nonprofit behind Independent Leadership of Texas would also nominate new Athlos Texas board members.) “Sometimes you just have to listen to your inner self, and my inner self was still not satisfied.”
TEA denied the Athlos application for “multiple reasons,” according to spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe, including an insufficient budget for “required activities”—board members had promised their fundraising skills would help make up the difference—and too many other issues the school would have to work out before opening.
Joseph Hoffer, a San Antonio attorney who represented the Athlos Texas board, tells the Observer the decision was disappointing, and a little mysterious. “The states’s talking about scaling [out-of-state charters], yet they’re worried about corporate operators coming in that they can’t control,” Hoffer says. “They say that’s what they want, and then they don’t approve it. … The commissioner was told by the Legislature that he could grant up to 10 charters, and he’s not doing that.”
Politically, the mood does seem right in Texas for an out-of-state operation with a good reputation. Earlier this year, Education Commissioner Michael Williams went to great lengths to let Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies expand into Dallas despite a veto from the State Board of Education. And according to emails obtained through state open records laws, Gov. Rick Perry has been especially interested in out-of-state charter applicants. “What is the big hold up for recruiting out of state charters form y’all perspective,” Perry’s education policy adviser Whitney Broughton asked TEA in March.
Part of Athlos’ trouble may be that, unlike Great Hearts or Arizona-based BASIS Charter Schools, it can’t claim an academic track record of its own. Though it may be hard to tell from the outside, each Athlos school—like North Austin’s Athlos Leadership Academy—is actually an independent charter that licenses the Athlos curriculum.
“It’s like they’re the hand and then Athlos becomes the glove,” Hoffer explains.
But University of California at Berkeley professor Janelle Scott—whose research covers the growing charter school market—says Athlos’ promotional material doesn’t make the distinction clear. “It’s at least misleading. As I was reading the Athlos website, it does appear to me that those were schools under their management,” Scott says. “They don’t say they’re not the holders of the charter. The charter holder is the one that has fiduciary and pedagogical responsibility for the school.”
Licensing the Athlos curriculum tends to entail a total rebranding: new school name, new marketing style, and a place on Athlos’ list of schools, all of which can make it hard to tell, from the outside, whose charter school it is. Hoffer compares it to franchising with McDonald’s. A similar arrangement lets the online chain K12, Inc., operate in Texas. As a for-profit firm, K12 could never get a charter of its own here, but it can simply contract with a local charter-holder instead. Watch one of their ads on TV, and you’d never know the difference. Should K12’s school perform poorly on state tests—as K12’s Texas campus did for years—it can simply take its business to another charter-holder and start over with a clean slate. That’s exactly what it did in 2011 when it jumped from Southwest Schools to Lewisville-based Responsive Education Solutions.
Athlos and The Charter School Fund don’t dictate an academic curriculum but they provide something more concrete—literally—than K12: an impressive school facility to complement whatever a charter does in its classrooms. Along the way, Athlos extends its message, grows its brand and pads its bottom line. As the nationwide charter school market grows, so does the market for creative arrangements like this. Charter-specific firms occupy a small but growing niche in the real estate world, alongside the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund—as in Andre Agassi—and EPR Properties, which also owns movie theaters and water parks.
Athlos began in 2006, according to its site, when an Idaho dentist named Ryan Van Alfen sold his practice and teamed with a real estate developer named Jason Kotter. They set up Athlos Academies—a nonprofit—and teamed with Hawkins Companies, a developer of ubiquitous retail spots like Walgreens stores and strip malls, to create The Charter School Fund.
Like Hawkins, the fund is a for-profit corporation. But Hoffer—to whom Van Alfen referred our interview request—makes a distinction here: “They’re not a nonprofit, they’re a social venture. They’re not a developer either,” Hoffer says.
In Texas, charter schools don’t get public funding to lease buildings or build new ones; finding and paying for facilities can be one of the biggest stresses in running a charter school. Hoffer says The Charter School Fund helps alleviate that stress. “What they bring is unique in that they’ve designed the facilities around the educational model, and they’ve also brought in the investors—they’ve leveraged their resources to bring in the investors so a charter school can also have a facility.”
Scott, the Berkeley researcher, says it’s common for players in the charter school market to work through a nonprofit arm. “People are still skeptical of having for-profits in education,” she says, so there’s a P.R. benefit to appearing charitable. Scott says The Charter School Fund’s marriage of real estate and physical education seems unique. “But what is common is this idea of a hybridized organization—an arm that’s nonprofit, an arm that’s for-profit, and those arms kind of taking care of teach other.”
On its website, The Charter School Fund claims a record of “$324 million invested in market driven education.” And Kotter and Van Alfen sound like true believers in the power of the private sector to improve public schools. Van Alfen explains in a 2013 Idaho Business Review article:
“We have a solution to the largest obstacle in bringing market-driven education to scale, which we feel strongly is the only way to transform education. We like to challenge the status quo; it drives me crazy to see how this education topic has been demagogued to death. No, it’s not about the kids. It’s about unions protecting union members.
“Jason helped pioneer a financial model that worked. We develop a structure, lease it to the 501(c)(3) charter school until they stabilize with their enrollment financially, and then they buy it from us. Then we just roll that forward in not-for-profit fashion, into the next project. We bring the equity; we personally guarantee the debt. Nobody is taking more risk on a project’s success than we are.”
As stewards of public money, charters must typically submit their construction projects for competitive bidding. (Another charter school chain, Harmony Public Schools, has drawn fire for using the same few Turkish-owned contractors outside the usual bidding process.) But by leasing a finished product from The Charter School Fund, schools come in too late to worry about who did the work. These projects tend to come with a consistent cast of supporting players, including Idaho-based Pacific Properties and Engineered Structures, Inc. The campus plans often come from Boise-based BRS Architects.
All schools—charter or not—send lots of public money into the private sector. But thanks to their small enrollments and freedom to experiment, charters have become a gateway to the education market for all sorts of new players with unorthodox arrangements.
Van Alfen has explained the Athlos character curriculum was developed with California-based Velocity Sports Performance, a nationwide chain of personal training franchises that maintains a connection to new Athlos schools, and helps to recruit and screen coaches for Athlos schools. Coaches may also use the school gym after-hours for private, fee-based training sessions, according to news stories from Brownsville, Texas, and Arizona. Velcocity and its corporate partners get a privileged position within the schools: Velocity’s website even advertises its gym locations at charter school addresses. The walls of some Athlos school gyms bear a big Velocity Sports Performance logo and according to one handbook, the only corporate logos staff can wear are those of Velocity or its partners like Under Armour. (Athlos Apparel, which Kotter and Van Alfen also own, sells the student uniforms.)
It’s been eight years since Van Alfen sold his dental practice, and despite the recent rejection in Texas, his gamble may finally be paying off. Athlos’ school network spans three states and promises more growth soon. In fall 2011, the Legacy Traditional Schools network in suburban Phoenix opened the Athlos Leadership Academy, the first of at least five campuses they’ve now built with The Charter School Fund. Last fall, New Visions Academy—one of Minnesota’s oldest charter schools—moved into a grand new building on a grassy hill built by The Charter School Fund, then reopened as Athlos Leadership Academy. A group led by a dentist and a former dental assistant school owner has applied to open a new Athlos charter in Nampa, Idaho, in fall 2015.
Like most charter schools, Jubilee Academic Center started small. Its first campus opened in 2000, with 60 students inside a San Antonio church. Each time the school added a campus it could fit another 200 or 300 students, but growing Jubilee was always a delicate balancing act. Charter schools in Texas don’t get public money for rent or construction. Many rely on grants to cover the cost of new facilities, but Jubilee director Tom Koger was wary of the influence outside foundations might expect in exchange for their money.
Instead, when Koger and the Jubilee board wanted to go big, they enlisted The Charter School Fund, which agreed to build three new school buildings, each far bigger than Jubilee could build on its own—including Jubilee’s Athlos Leadership Academy in North Austin. Jubilee would lease the new buildings, and hopefully buy them someday. The fund, in turn, would use money from the sale to build more schools, which Jubilee could rent to accommodate even more students.
On the same day Jubilee’s board approved the deal in January 2014, it voted to boost its enrollment from 5,550 to 17,276.
Gymnasiums, tracks and fields are luxuries many charter schools can’t afford, but at these new schools they’re integral to the Athlos program, which Jubilee also decided to license. At Jubilee, according to Koger, the connection between The Charter School Fund and Athlos is incidental—both programs fit alongside what his school was already doing. “Jubilee’s always had an emphasis on character … so we feel like it’s win-win for us,” Koger says. Plus, the real estate terms were more favorable than what Jubilee could get anywhere else, which Koger chalks up to a sense of mission among the folks in Boise.
“The thing with these guys from The Charter School Fund,” Koger says, “once you get to know them, they truly are on a crusade to stamp out diabetes and obesity.”
Hoffer says he’s looking forward to next year’s charter school class, when Athlos can once again apply for its own charter from Texas. But until then, Athlos already has more schools in Texas than any other state, with three new Jubilee Academy campuses under the Athlos banner this year, and ILTexas campuses “powered by Athlos” in North Texas. Thousands of Texas students will learn the Athlos model this year, from the Rio Grande Valley to the Dallas suburbs, in big new schools built by The Charter School Fund. With or without the state’s help, the Athlos crusade marches on.
Correction Nov. 5: This article has been corrected—Wells Branch Elementary is in Round Rock ISD, not Austin ISD.