Google+ Back to mobile

Snake Oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aycock said his priority is to correct illogical and outdated features in Texas’ school finance formulas, like adjustments for higher salaries in expensive urban districts or the extra cost of educating students with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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The infamous Socorro ISD taco dog, aka "lunch"

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


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

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

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

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

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


David Simpson speaks to the Texas House.
Patrick Michels
State Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) wants to curb synthetic drug sales without expanding the failed war on drugs.

Almost as soon as synthetic marijuana started appearing at smoke shops and gas stations—promising a legal alternative to more conventional, and more obviously illegal, highs—lawmakers have been trying to ban it.

But even with a statewide ban in place for the last four years, local cops have struggled to shut down the sale of “spice” and “incense” because—as we reported last week—the ban is effectively unenforceable in court. Synthetics are also expensive to test, and manufacturers are constantly re-engineering the drugs to steer clear of new chemical bans.

Shoehorning synthetics into our existing anti-drug framework has been maddening for prosecutors, too. In Lubbock, the DA’s office has hand-delivered letters pleading businesses not to sell the drugs. In Alpine, local police backed by the Brewster County DA’s office raided the same smoke shop four times in two years without finding any substances that were illegal at the time of the raids.

Horror stories keep cropping up around the state, and especially in rural Texas, of “bad batches” of spice hospitalizing people who don’t know what it is they’re smoking, or how much they can safely smoke. Decades of marijuana scaremongering have inured most of us to overblown claims about the drug’s dangers. Though the dangers vary from pouch to pouch, early research suggests synthetic marijuana has serious risks, much more so than marijuana.

So lawmakers face the challenge of cracking down on a dangerous new drug at a time of waning support for punitive drug-war policies, when the mood is swinging more toward legalization. Longview Republican Rep. David Simpson is suggesting a different approach, one he says could protect people without giving the state another excuse to lock them up.

“I don’t like the course of violence that is so often pursued on this so-called war on drugs,” Simpson says. “I think the better way to handle it is let the people who’ve been harmed have recourse to justice.”

To that end, one of Simpson’s bills would create a civil penalty for selling or giving synthetic drugs to a minor. Another would make the sale and manufacture of synthetic drugs a violation of Texas’ Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act.

“On the flip side, I think there’s good uses for natural drugs such as marijuana,” Simpson says. “It’s really helping people in the district that I serve, but they’re having to go to Colorado because they’re felons if they bring it back.”

His bills would, in effect, give overdose victims recourse to sue their dealers, a novel anti-drug approach that’s only even possible because synthetics have proven so resistant to traditional criminal penalties.

“We’re hoping that the manufacturers say, ‘It’s better to take care of our clientele than to get sued by them,'” Simpson says. Today, someone buying a packet of spice can’t know much at all about what chemicals they’re about to inhale, or how their body will respond. Lighting up synthetic marijuana may seem like a familiar experience, Simpson says, but what’s actually happening to a person is less clear.

“They don’t realize this roller coaster, though it has a steel monorail, it’s connected to a rotten wooden structure that’s destined for derailment,” Simpson says. “Kids may expect to have some ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh,’ but they don’t expect the train on this fast woopty-doopty monorail to go off the tracks.”

In an op-ed published in the Longview News-Journal this week, Simpson presents another analogy:

Imagine having a beer with friends. You know your tolerance for alcohol will allow you to have one beer and drive home without impairment. Now imagine trying a “synthetic beer” and enjoying it. The next time, though, instead of being able to drive, you find yourself suffering from severe anxiety, nausea, an elevated heart rate, tremors, seizures, hallucinations or temporary blindness.

With no clear idea what’s in that foil pouch, Simpson says, and especially when the product is marketed as “potpourri” or “incense,” the sale is deceptive on its face. “It should be an honest transaction,” he says. “Most people know they’re not really getting potpourri, but they don’t know what they’re getting either.”

Another new bill, filed in the Senate, focuses on how spice packets are labeled. Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry’s proposal creates a broad new legal definition of synthetic drugs, and requires sellers to include labels with the product’s weight and ingredients even if—as many synthetics are today—they’re branded “not for human consumption.”

Like Simpson’s proposals, Perry’s would target the people selling synthetic drugs, not the users.

One more proposal, filed Monday by Amarillo Republican Rep. Four Price, would let the commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission classify new synthetics as controlled substances on a temporary basis, until the Legislature reconvenes. His bill also provides some protection for consumers, who would be safe from prosecution for taking synthetics if they’d requested emergency medical help.

Simpson and Perry’s bills focus even more on the supply chain, and allow for enforcement in civil, not criminal, courts. Texas District and County Attorneys Association spokesman Shannon Edmonds says that’s an important distinction because the burden of proof is lower in civil cases, making it easier to prove a product meets Texas’ definition of a synthetic drug.

“The goal,” Edmonds explains, “is that you’re going after these businesses that are selling this stuff, and hitting them in the pocket book is the best way to stop them from putting deceptive products on the market.”

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.