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Snake Oil

Leticia Van De Putte speaks at the Texas' capitol's outdoor rotunda at a press conference on the state's women's health programs, February 20, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Leticia Van de Putte

Since Texas embarked on its journey of high-stakes testing decades ago, we’ve relied on an imperfect vehicle to get us down the road. Everyone agrees the test is broken—academics measure it, lawmakers complain about the noises it makes, and everyone tries to jiggle the ignition or bang on the hood till something gets better. Every decade or so, we trade in the old test for another and start all over again.

A few days ago, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced he would have to delay a plan to raise the passing score on the state’s standardized tests—the latest layer of duct tape on the bumper.

Texas’ test numbers are always based on a little mathematic sleight-of-hand because every year, a team of state regulators decides how many correct answers on a given test are enough for a passing grade. By setting the bar higher or lower, you can affect the number of students who pass the test. There is a science to this process, and sometimes the science gets thrown out the window.

When the new STAAR test was first unveiled, the plan was that to keep the passing level—or cut score—low at first, then raise it slowly over a number of years. To pass Algebra I, for instance, students had to answer just 37 percent of the questions correctly. But scores on the new STAAR test haven’t risen as fast as the state expected, so according to Williams’ new plan the cut scores will stay put for another year. After that, they’ll rise more slowly than originally planned.

A few days after that announcement, Williams sat before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, trying to explain why the pass rate didn’t rise fast enough. What followed was a good reminder of why legislating around test scores is such a bad idea, and why we’re probably doomed to repeat it again next year.

Williams offered a few explanations for the stagnating scores. (Over three years, the passing rates on some tests have risen slightly, while others have fallen.) For one thing, he said, STAAR is harder than TAKS, the test it replaced. Texas also has more students with limited English and more students in poverty. And in a set of remarks that will probably dog him for a while, Williams even blamed the teachers: “We haven’t raised the level of instruction significantly enough to meet and match the level of rigor that is required in order to satisfy the passing rate,” he said. “I’m just simply saying that we haven’t jumped high enough in the classroom.”

But Friendswood Republican Sen. Larry Taylor wondered if the students weren’t just being asked to jump too high: “My concern is that the STAAR test is too rigorous compared to what our students’ capabilities are.” Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger wondered if scores were flat because the tests don’t cover the right material.

Leticia Van de Putte took the idea further: “Are we actually measuring what’s relevant? How do parents know … our accountability system is valid?” she wondered. This test, she said, “destroys their creativity, [it] does not allow them to show their whole potential … and it’s not working ’cause you haven’t been able to raise those cut scores.”

But Williams said the quality of the test wasn’t an issue, citing “70 separate validity studies” on STAAR.

After everyone else took a turn grilling Williams on why the pass rate was so low, committee Chair Dan Patrick turned the question completely around. He wanted to know why the passing cutoff for Algebra I is still just 37 percent—well below what’s normally considered good enough for a “C” in class. “Why is the score for the test half of what we expect in the classroom?” he asked.

To recap: This test is too easy to pass, and not enough students are passing it, maybe because the test is too hard.

Presented with little improvement in tests scores, the lawmakers triangulated their way to a different explanation, everyone claimed to have the inside scoop on what’s really happening in classrooms, and once again we seem headed for a legislative session in which lawmakers can’t resist the urge to fix public education by just sort of poking at schools with a stick.

One year after the Legislature cut the number of high school exit tests from 15 to five, a few senators seemed to have an appetite for more changes next year. The contract for STAAR—famously awarded to Pearson for $468 million—is up again for bidding next year, and senators sounded very interested in changing the terms of the deal.

There are so many variables that could explain what’s behind student test scores, it’s very hard to know what they really mean. Williams hinted yesterday at those challenges, but ultimately seemed to settle on the idea that students simply aren’t learning enough. Senators seemed sure the problem was with the test or with Williams.

Van de Putte offered one way out. Sitting just a few seats from Patrick, her rival in the lite guv race, she repeated an idea she recently unveiled in her campaign: to uncouple the test from students’ graduation requirements and rate schools on just a sample of student tests. She wants, according to her own graphic imagery, to “remove the high stakes from the backs of our children.”

Faced with another year of dissatisfaction over test scores, and thousands of students who may not graduate because their test score didn’t rise to meet the state’s bar, and widespread mistrust of a system that always seems to be raising and lowering that bar, she suggested it’s time for a more fundamental change.

“Why,” she asked, “are we still embedded in something that is giving our parents and our students and our educators real pause about trusting this accountability system?”

Lets-Be-Cops-poster

Let’s be cops!

Let’s just run with the premise of this weekend’s biggest box-office laugher. Let’s find a buddy and go on a little pro bono neighborhood patrol. Let’s assert a little authority around here!

We wouldn’t be the first to try it lately.

Let’s parade through Houston’s black communities in a crowd of white guys with guns!

“We think that an armed society is a polite society,” said Open Carry’s C.J. Grisham. “We want to encourage citizens in the Fifth Ward to take back their community from the criminal element.”

Let’s use philosophy!

“If people tell you not to exercise a right, do you not exercise that right,” asked Grisham.

Let’s explain why someone else’s neighborhood is better off with our assault weapons!

“I told him that emotions would run very high on the outset and that there were better ways to come into our community,” Quanell X says.

“I would never tell a black man or anyone that he is not welcome in any part of this country, but that’s what they did to us,” Grisham says.

“He needs to do some history homework. He will learn and see why black people don’t like white men coming to the Fifth Ward,” said Quanell X on Thursday. He points to a history of racial unrest in the area dating back decades, of night riders and blacks being told to get inside before sundown.

Well hey, let’s just hold off for now. Maybe let things cool down a little.

mclennan-county-sheriff-posse

Or let’s join a posse!

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara says he has been overwhelmed with community support after posting to social media his idea to form a “posse.”

“I’m very excited about it,” he said. “I’m overwhelmed by the response. I really am.”

mclennan-county-posse-facebook

Deputy Danie Huffman, the Parker County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said she can’t say enough good things about the Parker County Sheriff’s Posse, which was formed in 1947.

“Posses these days are really not the same as posses years ago,” she said.

Let’s maybe consider this plan in light of the Texas Monthly 1998 story on McNamara’s previous posse, “The Last Posse“:

We don’t hang horse thieves anymore, which is lucky for the men who took Marisa McNamara’s sorrel mare. But as the band of old-time Texas lawmen who hunted them down will proudly tell you, frontier justice is alive and well.

I know, let’s join a militia! Let’s secure the border and give those drug lords what-for!

“What I was told is (the militia groups) are on private property, helping ranchers and owners to keep illegals coming onto or through their property … and there haven’t been any problems,” [State Rep. Doug] Miller told the Express-News. “When (the groups) are coming into an area, they’ve been very forthright, letting (law enforcement) know they were there so there wouldn’t be some type of negative interaction.”

 

So many places to protect! Where to go first? Let’s just vent our impotent rage for a bit!

east-texas-militia-facebook

 

Oh, holy crap. If this is a game warden, let’s be game wardens!

Let’s be politicians! Let’s loosen up our flag-print ties, throw on some tactical gear and take a gunboat cruise along the Rio Grande!

State Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels), right.
Doug Miller/Facebook
State Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels), right.

Let’s be governor! No. Commander-in-chief!

“You now are the tip of the spear in protecting Americans from these cartels and gangs,” Perry said in a visit to Camp Swift near Bastrop, where the Guard is training. “As they are able to get past you, they could be headed to any city, any neighborhood in this country, and they’re spreading their tentacles of crime and fear.”

Let’s better watch out for those other folks spreading fear!

Or let’s start our own country and just defend it ourselves!

A 60-year-old Corinth man who shot at officers and firefighters Monday in Far North Dallas espoused anti-government views and claimed to be starting his own nation called “Dougie-stan,” police said Tuesday.

Police say they had found no link between Douglas Lee LeGuin, a Corinth homeowner with no criminal past, and any specific anti-government groups or movements. There was also no clear link between LeGuin and the Far North Dallas house where police said he planned to “occupy” the new nation.

[…]

He also said he was upset with Dallas police for “shooting the mentally handicapped.”

 

Not that it’s done anything to dampen the political bluster, the border vigilanteism or the enthusiastic firepower parade here in Texas, but this really isn’t the week to play cops.

 

Deion Sanders at an open house for Prime Prep Academy in Dallas.
Patrick Michels
Deion Sanders at an open house for Prime Prep Academy in Dallas.

The New York Times‘ sports section on Sunday featured a long look at Prime Prep Academy, the Deion Sanders-backed basketball powerhouse, reality TV backdrop, academic nightmare and administrative soap opera that also happens to be a publicly funded charter school licensed by the great state of Texas.

Licensed for now, anyway—the state’s working on that.

The Times‘ Michael Powell offers a blow-by-blow account of Prime Prep’s troubled first two years, much of which will be familiar to folks in Dallas, where the media has rightly made great sport of the school’s foibles. (WFAA reporter and human tackling dummy Brett Shipp is probably staking out the football field from an unmarked van right now.)

But see all the trouble strung together into a single narrative—after trying to fire Sanders, the school director walks out to find her rear windshield smashed; parents sell pizza to students in the cafeteria while phantom school lunches (billed to the USDA) never get served—and you wonder why any parent, so empowered by school choice, would ever choose Prime Prep.

In fact, Powell says, enrollment is up.

The reason is Deion—the man who sweet-talked state officials, lured parents and coaches, promised athletes exposure to top recruiters, and then bridled at the suggestion that his was more properly a supporting role.

It’s a little embarrassing that this school ever opened. Powell writes:

Prime Prep was conceived in celebrity, its charter proposal offering a near satirical turn on edu-speak. The proposal mentioned “our training methods” and a “Leadership Studies Curriculum” without explaining the nature of that special sauce. Students, the proposal noted, would “model traits” such as “responsibility” and “courage.” Students would “become self-actualized.”

Yes, well.

A similar hunch—though you’d never read it in the Times, one might best call it the bullshit alarm—is what prompted the first of a couple pieces I wrote about Prime Prep’s early days. It turned out some of the language in its application was probably plagiarized—it was identical to passages on websites for a suburban Dallas private school and a charter school in Idaho. For evidence of the school’s strong financial prospects, the application promised $186,000 in grants already secured from Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the NFL Network, among others. I called around, and it turned out that had been news to Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the NFL Network.

The secondary headline on the Times‘ story said that Sanders’ school has “come under scrutiny.” But “under scrutiny” is where this school has been for nearly three years. Leslie Minora, then with the Dallas Observer, uncovered a bizarre real estate deal behind Prime Prep’s Fort Worth campus, and accusations that they’d poached another school’s basketball coach and star players threatened to keep Prime Prep out of competition. Through all the trouble and bad press, Sanders always found a way forward. Writes Powell:

We’re accustomed to living in the shadow of the rotten tree that is major college sports. It’s almost refreshing that so many college administrators and coaches have dropped the pretense that recruits are more than underpaid young men and women in shorts, jerseys or shoulder pads.

[…]

Prime Prep offers baroque twists on this American sports tale. It features celebrity culture run amok and shoddy oversight of a charter school.

Over the weekend, Al Jazeera‘s “America Tonight” also took a long look at Prime Prep’s history, and suggested at least a more charitable purpose behind the school: Sanders’ “vision to marry tuition-free academics for underprivileged youths with big-time high school athletics.” But students and parents they interviewed, speaking anonymously, felt cheated by that promise, even if they did get to meet Snoop Dogg and Johnny Manziel:

“There were nights I cried myself to sleep,” [one student] said. “I’m a smart kid, and I knew I could go to college and be a good student. I had dreams of playing at a Division I school, so the fact that dream was taken away from me due to people not doing what they were supposed to do — it sucked.”

If you’re going to explain the problems with Texas’ old system for approving new charter schools—with a majority vote from the elected State Board of Education—Prime Prep would be Exhibit A. (Beaumont Republican David Bradley called Sanders’ team “first class,” and their pitch “flawless.”) As of last fall, we have a new system: charters are vetted by the state’s professional regulators, then the state board can veto any of their picks. It’s not free from the prospect of political influence, but it’s harder for a terrible applicant to sneak through.

Years later, Prime Prep is once again an instructive example as the state tests its powers to shut charters down.

Last month, state regulators announced plans to revoke Prime Prep’s charter, most of all because the school lost its eligibility for the federal school lunch program. (Which is what happens when you take $45,000 in federal money for meals you can’t prove you served.)

For now, Prime Prep is in the midst of a lengthy appeals process, during which the school can stay open and keep taking state money. And while the state has investigated the school for much more, the letter announcing its charter revocation only mentions the trouble with the meal program. Sanders has said he’ll pay the school’s lunch bill to get Prime Prep back in the feds’ good graces; its new superintendent, former Dallas ISD trustee Ron Price, says the school is doing just fine under its new management. Call the Prime Prep’s Fort Worth campus today, and the word is that classes will resume as scheduled on August 25.

It’s tempting to read Sunday’s Times story as Prime Prep’s obituary. Maybe that’s what it’ll be. But Sanders’ school has faced long odds for survival before, and come away with an upset every time.

 

Correction on August 25: The Times writer’s name, Michael Powell, has been corrected throughout the story.

Shane Dewayne Hadnot
Jasper County Sheriff's Office
Shane Dewayne Hadnot, in a booking photo from an earlier arrest.

Late last year, a Jasper physical therapist named Alfred Wright disappeared along a remote stretch of East Texas highway in between his scheduled house calls. From the start, Wright’s family was suspicious of local authorities who seemed certain his mysterious disappearance was drug-related; in an area that’s become notorious for racially fueled violence, Wright’s family and others in Jasper’s black community suspected there was more to the story.

In March, the Observer featured the story of Wright’s disappearance and the debate, which stretched from the Sabine County courthouse steps to American Idol fan blogs, over the racial implications of how Wright’s case was handled. We reported that authorities had focused their investigation on one 28-year-old Jasper man who could have sold Wright the lethal dose of cocaine later found in his body. Still, complex theories about Wright’s death—that he’d been tortured and mutilated before his death, or forced to ingest the drugs that killed him—spread and grew more intricate in part because authorities wouldn’t say anything so long as the investigation was still open.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office broke that silence at a press conference in Beaumont this morning, announcing that it had indicted that 28-year-old Jasper man, Shane Dewayne Hadnot, for two charges of drug distribution resulting in death, each of which carry a 20-year minimum prison term.

The indictment, which was just unsealed, dates to June 25, and attributes the strange circumstances of Wright’s death to a state of “excited delirium” from the cocaine, methamphetamine and Xanax later found in his system. The document is the most detailed look yet at the official investigation into Wright’s death, while one of Wright’s family members says it only suggests a further official cover-up.

According to the indictment, Hadnot admitted to both Wright’s wife Lauren and to Texas Ranger Danny Young that he’d sold cocaine to Wright on the day he went missing. According to the indictment, Hadnot “admitted that he sold half-grams of cocaine to Wright on a daily basis.” The indictment also quotes daily text messages from Wright to Hadnot beginning on October 8, 2013, to arrange the deals, coded messages like “grammy award” or—on November 7, the day Wright disappeared, “1 gino and a 20 and 3 handles.”

Wright, according to the indictment, was erratic with patients on the afternoon of his disappearance. One of Wright’s patients recalls him showing up late and complaining he was sick; another witness says they spoke to Wright in his or her driveway and “found him extremely disoriented and unable to communicate clearly” before telling Wright to leave.

Once Wright’s body was discovered in late November, the forensic evidence became another point of contention in the case. The Texas Department of Public Safety released an official autopsy that attributed Wright’s death to a drug overdose, but Lee Ann Grossberg, an independent examiner hired by Wright’s family, announced at a press conference that after examining Wright’s body, she had “a high index of suspicion this was a homicide.” That quote helped fuel suspicion that Wright hadn’t simply overdosed, despite Grossberg’s insistence that her investigation wasn’t finsihed. According to the indictment, when Grossberg released her report in May (this time without a press conference), she agreed with the state examiner that Wright’s death was an accidental overdose.

At 3 a.m. Friday morning, Wright’s sister Annilia Wright-Mosley sent an email about the Justice Department’s forthcoming announcement. “I must say I am very numb right now,” she began. “This is what they are doing to uphold the Toxicology report and to validate their claims to [Alfred’s] demise. I am so very disappointing [sic] in our justice system” which, she writes, “recruit[ed] an innocent black man to take the fall.” She says she and her family will be protesting at the federal building in Houston at 3 p.m. this afternoon.

You can read the full indictment here.

The text of Wright-Mosley’s email follows:

Greetings,

I must say I am very numb right now with the news of what my parents just informed me of that the DOJ (Malcolm Bales out of Beaumont, TX) called and said to them. This is what was stated:

On tomorrow August 8, 2014 They will be inditing a young black man by the name of Shane Hadnot (who suppose to be a drug dealer in Jasper, TX) for the death of my little brother Alfred Wright. They said he is getting charged because he sold the drugs to my brother which caused him to overdose and die. This is what they are doing to uphold the Toxicology report and to validate their claims to his demise. I am so very disappointing in our justice system.

My brother tongue was cut out, eyes gouged out, throat slit, ear cut off, he had missing teeth, missing finger nails, signs of violence and torture (which was confirmed by the second patholigist, Dr. LeeAnn Grossberg in the beginning of the investigation. But after the DOJ got involved she later retracted her claims and became distant to our family which was very suspicious). Later in the investigation my father was finally able to reach her and she informed him that the DOJ had sent reports to her and this is what she based her findings on basically on what the DOJ said. So my mother stated to Malcolm Bales that you mean to tell me that my son slit his own throat, cut his ear off, knock teeth out of his mouth, cut his tongue out, and his response was, It was animal activity.”

This is really sad news to our family, community and to the state of Texas. In 2014 the justice system is yet covers up a HATE CRIME and MODERN DAY LYNCHINHG and recruiting an innocent black man to take the fall (who they cannot prove a connection to Shane being at the scene of the crime). I wanted you all to have this information before they come forward to release the lies and cover up of this case on tomorrow

The Wright Family is asking for your continued prayers and support! We thank you for everything youv’e done to keep the voice of justice alive for Alfred Wright.

Gilbert Stuart's 1796 Portrait of George Washington
Gilbert Stuart's unfinished 1796 Portrait of George Washington. Texas State Board of Education Member Ken Mercer says the College Board is trying to completely un-finish the job.

Light the lanterns and load the muskets—the liberals are coming for our history again.

To veterans of the State Board of Education’s Culture Wars of 2010, the Great CSCOPE Panic of 2013 or the Common Core Purity Tests of 2014—”You use Common Core, you go to jail,” goes the timeless refrain—it will come as little surprise to learn that a new front has opened in the battle for the minds of our children and the story of our nation. Those hapless school administrators have wheeled yet another Trojan horse through the gates.

Newcomers to this sort of thing, however, may be stumped by the growing backlash to the news that Advanced Placement U.S. History has been revised.

As part of a general overhaul of nearly three dozen AP tests—which cover a broad range of subjects and let high-scoring high school students earn college credit—the College Board has released details of the new AP U.S. History test to be given this spring. The new test will require more conceptual thinking from students, big-picture explanations of trends and connections over time, meant to more closely mimic the demands students would face in a college course. “To this end,” according to a College Board announcement, “the curriculum framework presents required course content conceptually, allowing teachers the freedom to present that content in a variety of ways.”

The transition has been years in the making. In October 2012, the College Board released a framework for the new test, a 98-page list of the concepts with which students should be familiar. In the past, it had only issued a five-page outline.

On July 8 of this year, State Board of Education member Ken Mercer, a San Antonio Republican, answered the new framework with a call to arms. He began:

On July 4th, we witnessed nationwide patriotism honoring our Founding Fathers and the sacrifices of our courageous men and women in uniform. This must have annoyed David Coleman, the chief architect of the controversial Common Core national standards, and many of his College Board (CB) colleagues.

Coleman co-wrote the English standards for the Common Core initiative, before joining the College Board as president in 2012. For some veterans of the anti-Common Core fight, Coleman’s presence at the College Board is proof enough that AP courses have been “infiltrated” by the collectivist dogma of the nationwide school standards. That would be especially nefarious in Texas, which never adopted the Common Core—proof that no one is safe from the plot to nationalize America’s schools.

And just how much does the College Board hate America? Mercer counts the ways. “In the period of the American Revolution up to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, almost every Founding Father is omitted – no Jefferson, Adams, Madison, or Franklin,” he writes.

The lessons on World War II omit “The Greatest Generation,” Truman, Hitler, D-Day, Midway, the Battle of the Bulge, and every military commander including Dwight Eisenhower. Inexplicably, Nazi atrocities against Jews and other groups are “not required.” The CB concludes its treatment of WWII with this blunt statement: “The decision to drop the atomic bomb raised questions about American values.”

Of course, omitting names, dates and places is kind of the point. “Allowing teachers the freedom” to teach how they want, or how their states require them to teach, is what the new AP framework is about. Texas fought hard over who should or shouldn’t have a place in its social studies standards, and every other state has a list of its own. Avoiding a Hitler reference is hard enough on YouTube’s comment threads; nobody is seriously suggesting he should be left out of a lesson on World War II.

Mercer references “lessons on World War II,” but there are no lessons at all in this framework, just a list of big-picture ideas students should consider. Teachers are the ones who tell students, with the benefit of a course syllabus, textbook and their state’s history standards, which historical figures, dates and places are crucial to explaining the past. Mercer either completely misunderstands what’s happening here, or he’s stirring the fear-fire’s embers to remind us there’s a war on.

“For today’s patriots,” Mercer writes, “this is our Valley Forge and our D-Day – this is the Revolution of 2014!”

Ken Mercer
SBOE member Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio)

That was almost a month ago. Last night, Mercer joined a nationwide conference call to reissue his plea, joined by two of the sources he refers to in his letter: Larry Krieger, a retired history teacher and author of test prep books like the AP® U.S. Government & Politics Crash Course, and Jane Robbins of the Washington-based American Principles Project. The call was hosted by Concerned Women of America, a nationwide group in Georgia, and promoted to groups in Texas and all over the country, from Idaho to Florida. When I called in at the beginning of the conversation, an automated voice told me I was the 317th caller.

Krieger recalled his shock at seeing everyone the new framework left out—even “my own personal hero George Washington.” But worse than the omissions, Krieger said, were the personal slights against our Founding Fathers. Reading the framework, Krieger says:

I saw a consistently negative view of American history that highlights oppressors and exploiters. Now instead of striving to build a city on a hill, according to the framework, our nation’s founders are portrayed as bigots who, quote, “developed a belief in white superiority.” End quote. That was in turn derived from quote, “A strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority” and that of course led to, quote, “creation of a rigid racial hierarchy.”

[…]

Actually, the theme of oppression and conflict continues. Later on I turned to Manifest Destiny. Now, you were probably taught, I was taught and I also taught, that Manifest Destiny was the belief that America had the mission to spread democratic democracy and new technology across the continent. Well, sorry, on page 44 the framework says, quote, “the idea of Manifest Destiny was built on a belief of white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.”

Mercer chimed in later: “If this is what our university professors believe to be good U.S. history, then this document is an indictment of our colleges and universities.” From Robbins, and questions from other callers, came a broad suggestion that parents ought to quit letting big outside groups dictate what their children are taught. This time around, the most rousing call to action came from Krieger:

The time has really come to push back. Rosa Parks said ‘no’ and she galvanized the civil rights movement. Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Now I think it’s time for us to stand up, push back to the College Board and say no.

Krieger, like Mercer, wants the College Board to delay its implementation of the new test, so our young Americans won’t grow up looking too harshly on our complicated past. College Board vice president Trevor Packer has suggested Krieger’s motivations are more cynical: “As someone deeply invested in the test preparation industry, Krieger cannot be expected to welcome the way that AP courses and exams are being revised to emphasize inquiry and depth at the expense of memorization.”

During the state board’s meeting in mid-July, SBOE chair Barbara Cargill made time for complaints about the framework, and discussion about keeping it out of Texas schools—a measure that, it seems, would put Texas’ 46,000 AP test-takers at a distinct disadvantage. After hours of testimony from upset patriots—some dressed in period costumes—a College Board official named Debbie Pennington took the mic to answer questions.

She reiterated that there’s no Common Core in the AP history standards, and that the framework really is just a framework—not, say, a denial that the Holocaust happened—and Pennington fielded a question from Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight: What should we make of this scandal? Is Mercer’s “Revolution of 2014″ fact or fiction?

“I love listening to this stuff,” Pennington replied. “This is what the First Amendment, this is what this body is all about.”

Latino-Coalition-for-Educational-Equity
Patrick Michels
The Latino Coalition for Educational Equity's press conference outside the Texas Senate in February 2013. Patricia Lopez, who led research on the new education survey, is third from left.

In February 2013, while Texas lawmakers kicked around major changes to public eduction, a handful of Latino activists and educators banded together outside the Senate chamber to send a message that they were getting left out. After weeks of committee hearings dominated by business groups and mostly white parents and students, this super-group of advocates calling itself the Latino Coalition for Educational Equality united to say they’d had enough.

New graduation requirements were in the works, threatening a return to Texas’ old system of “tracking” Hispanic students into vocational programs instead of college prep. In budget talks, lawmakers were considering how much money to budget for schools. And even when they considered the fast-growing proportion of Hispanic students, few legislators consulted with the state’s wealth of Latino education experts. Hispanic students appeared in talking points mostly as test scores or arguments for more funding. But by the close of the session, the Latino coalition’s pleas did little to change the conversation.

So, just five months from another Lege session, Hispanic groups want to change that dynamic for good. During the 2015 session Hispanic students will make up a clear majority of Texas’ schoolchildren, and Latino advocates say it’s time their voices were heard.

To that end, the band got back together after the session ended to develop a unified agenda for 2015. Led by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Senate Hispanic Caucus, a coalition of Latino groups met for a summit last October, split their effort into areas like health care, immigration and civic engagement, and gathered ideas from a broad selection of Latino advocates around the state. Organizers say the education study alone—with 70 groups and interviews with 120 bilingual teachers—is the most far-reaching survey of Latino and Latina groups in memory.

You can read the full report here—there’s a list of participating groups on page 7.

“The Latino community, we’re always talked about like we don’t vote, we don’t show up, and we constantly have to push back on dominant stereotypes,” says Patricia Lopez, the former University of Texas researcher who ran the education survey. “We have to be out there. These organizations are doing a lot of work that’s off the grid, not in the spotlight.”

The survey results include a mix of big needs, like improving access to college, and small-bore policy ideas—like new programs to unite schools with their neighborhoods—that the groups will start shopping around the Capitol soon. They’re counting on Hispanic caucuses in the House and Senate, led by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) and Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), to push these issues when the Lege returns.

School finance is, by far, the biggest priority the groups identified, and the report summary echoes a lot of what the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) has argued in its piece of the everlasting school finance lawsuit: that Texas’ school funding is based on what lawmakers want to spend, not what a quality education actually costs, and that cuts in school funding have meant scaling back bilingual education programs.

Interestingly, the teachers surveyed here are all bilingual teachers—either working in school districts or enrolled in teacher prep programs—and they were far more concerned with teacher quality, school accountability and access to books than school funding. Lopez says that’s a reflection of their more direct interaction with classrooms. “School finance obviously is intertwined in every issue,” she says. “You can’t advocate for more materials and more appropriate materials or resources without it being a school finance issue.”

Teachers and advocates also agreed, according to the report, that “increasing the number of well-prepared Latina/o teachers” should be a top priority—a finding that squares with research suggesting that Hispanic teachers tend to stay in high-needs schools longer, bringing stability to classrooms as well as a cultural relevancy that helps students relate to lessons.

It’s also worth noting what’s not listed among the top priorities: charter school chains, vouchers and full-time online schools, which the report dismisses as “privatization experiment efforts” that siphon money away from the schools most kids attend. In other words, if you ask Latino teachers and activists—and not Sen. Dan Patrick—there are plenty of “civil rights issues of our time” more pressing than school choice.

It’s not that teachers and advocates were opposed to charter schools or any particular group of reformers, Lopez says, just those “who come in who have no historical participation in a community, and see it as a potential market.”

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

For folks hoping to open a charter school in Texas, this time of year is a little like spring training: full of possibility for the bright future ahead, lots of idealism mixed with meticulous planning.

And every year in mid-July, during intense, hours-long interviews in Austin, state regulators take their turns dumping buckets of cold water on the would-be school operators. Having picked over the schools’ epic applications—this year’s longest is 648 pages—Texas Education Agency staff and State Board of Education members probe the applicants for weakness, grill them on financing, on their grasp of federal law, on their typos, offering at least a taste of the greatest challenge of all: keeping the school running once it opens.

Ten applicants were invited to in-person interviews this week, which wrapped up Wednesday. The meetings were long and intense, with tears, applause, and more than a few awkward pauses to explain, for example, what looked like plagiarism in one application.

Though lawmakers want to grow Texas’ charter school offerings, it’s one of the smallest applicant pools ever, with none of the out-of-state networks state leaders are so enthusiastic about. California-based Rocketship Education—the most high-profile applicant this year—pulled its application this month.

To judge by last year’s class, only a few of the remaining 10 will get the green light from Education Commissioner Michael Williams (and the SBOE has the chance to veto any of his picks after that). With no big charter-school brand names in the mix, the remaining 10 proposals offer a fascinating look at locally raised ideas for giving students programs they need. Some are small, some are really big; four (by my estimation) have vaguely religious roots; some come from well-established local nonprofits; one is from a team of Texas’ best-connected education researchers.

So if you’re scoring at home, here are the latest applications, along with my notes. These applications are long and detailed—often padded with generalities and jargon that’s hard to pin down (hello, “brain-based learning“)—and the state has the benefit of reviewers with actual qualifications. Texas even contracted with a national charter school group to provide training on the interview process.

Below, I’ve included a few things I found most interesting about each school. If anything else catches your eye about an application, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Click on the school’s name and you can read the full application—the state has them online as PDFs, but the files are big and unsearchable. Our links go to searchable versions on DocumentCloud that you can read without downloading.

 

Athlos Academy
Where: 15 campuses in Dallas and Tarrant counties, likely beginning in East Dallas
Grades: K-8, expanding to K-12

Who’s behind it: Edward Conger, Martha Rocha, Paul Reyes, Erin Ragsdale. Conger is superintendent at another charter school, International Leadership of Texas. Rocha is a director at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, and Ragsdale is an executive at Dallas political communications firm Allyn Media.

Their proposal:
A school built on Athlos’ “three pillars of excellence: Prepared Mind, Healthy Body, and Strong Character.” The application focuses on the achievement gap in state test scores, but also on students’ health and well-being and sports, with a P.E. program developed by California-based Velocity Sports. The school would have after-school sports, but not contact football. “We view athletics as a tool that when utilized to its full extent, has the ability to improve the mind, body and character.” Students can get instruction in English, Spanish and Chinese, and Dual Language Immersion for English. A charter school with a similar approach, Athlos Leadership Academy, is opening in San Antonio this fall (under a pre-existing charter for the Jubilee Academic Center). Athlos is Greek for “feat” or “achievement.”

 

Beta Academy
Where: 3 campuses in Houston/Harris County
Grades: K-6, expanding to K-12

Who’s behind it:
Latisha Andrews, Martha Smith, Philip Smith, Reba Blakey, Teresa Sones. Andrews is director of Responsive Education Solutions’ Vista Academy charter school, and a former principal at Life Christian Academy, both in Houston. Sones chairs the sponsoring Beta Foundation. Philip Smith is a program manager at Raytheon.

Their proposal:
This is Andrews’ third time pitching the state on a charter—last year the Texas Tribune featured Andrews and Beta in a piece about charter schools in churches:

Andrews started Beta Academy after her own church, which is across the street from Christian Temple and where her husband is a pastor, closed its private school because of declining enrollment.

Beta promises “a world-class school” with “a culture of ‘joyful rigor.'” Supplemental programs would include aviationScrabble, and fundraising for the Invisible Children campaign.

 

Brentwood Stair Preparatory School
Where: 1 campus in Fort Worth
Grades: Pre-K to 8

Who’s behind it:
Julia Michelle Nusrallah, Nabil Bawa, Walid Joulani, Alex Farr, Nizam Peerwani, much of the leadership from the sponsoring nonprofit, the private Al-Hedayah Academy. Peerwani is Tarrant County’s chief medical examiner and sits on the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

Their proposal:
The school would also locate at Al-Hedayah’s campus near I-30 in west Fort Worth. “The Al-Hedayah Academy wants to ensure that families who have previously expressed a desire to attend but may not have been able to afford the tuition are given a chance to enroll.” Brentwood Stair’s team promises a “non-parochial school” with a “richly diverse faculty and staff.” Students can learn Spanish or Arabic, and teachers will encourage students’ self-discovery and differentiated learning.

Excel Center
Where: 1 campus in Austin
Grades: 9-12

Who’s behind it:
Traci Berry, Dodie Brown, Roberta Schwartz and other leadership generally come from Goodwill Industries of Central Texas.

Their proposal:
Excel Center applied last year, too, promising a dropout recovery school for “older youth and young adults up to age 25,” with a twin focus on diplomas and career skills. A similar school run by Goodwill has opened in Indianapolis, which was featured on PBS NewsHour in January. The Austin location would be at the Goodwill location at Anderson Lane and I-35.

 

Foundations Charter School
Where: 50 (!) campuses of 50-100 students each surrounding Dallas and Houston
Grades: Pre-K to 2, expanding to pre-K to 5

Who’s behind it:
Steve Edwards, David Greak, Michael Owens, Don Hooper, Susan Landry, Lonnie Hutson. Edwards’ Ignitus Worldwide is the charter sponsor. Owens and Greak are associated with Texas Successful Charter Schools, a charter school support company that would also partner with this school. Landry leads the Children’s Learning Institute at the UT Health Science Center, which has (somewhat controversially) become a powerhouse in Texas’ pre-K world. Hutson runs a series of pre-K centers around Houston. Schools would locate at pre-existing child care and early ed facilities. Former state Rep. Rob Eissler (R-The Woodlands) is also on the school board.

Their proposal:
An innovative, research-based focus on early education to keep students from falling behind before the “learning gap” develops, promising what Landry calls “a seamless link” into later grades. Instruction—offered year-round or on a traditional schedule—would be “presented in the context of a relevant or coherent ‘whole.'” The school would partner with the UT Health Science Center’s Children’s Learning Institute—which developed a number of programs the school would use—and specifically mentions an agreement with the online Western Governor’s University to provide a pipeline of new teachers. The TEKS Resource System (neé CSCOPE) would help map the curriculum.

 

High Point Academy
Where: 3 campuses in Fort Worth, first in west Fort Worth
Grades: K-8, expanding to K-12

Who’s behind it:
Katie Stellar, Lori Manning and Dana Yates. Stellar is, according to her LinkedIn profile, executive director of Faith In Action Fort Worth—the nonprofit sponsoring High Point Academy’s charter—a former art teacher, owner of a custom T-shirt firm and an ordained Methodist minister. Manning is a former principal at Fort Worth’s Pinnacle Academy of the Arts, one of seven campuses under the umbrella of Honors Academy—which Texas Education Commissioner has moved to revoke after three years of subpar test scores. The group is opening its first charter school this fall in Manning’s hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. The group applied in Texas last year too, but Stellar pulled its application after learning parts of it had been plagiarized.

Their proposal:
High Point promises a focus on STEAM instruction—that’s science, technology, engineering and math, plus art—and will use the Texas Resource Management System (neé CSCOPE) and E.D. Hirsch‘s “Core Knowledge” program. They’ll offer before- and after-school programs including Zumba and Krav Maga, and tablets and laptops for textbooks.

 

Ki Charter Academy
Where: 1 campus in San Marcos
Grades: 1-12

Who’s behind it:
Lura Davidson, Ruben Garza, Trinidad San Miguel. Davidson is an adjunct professor at Concordia University. Garza and San Miguel are instructors at Texas State University.

Their proposal:
A school for students in state residential facilities (RFs), with plans to partner with the largest RF in the state, the San Marcos Treatment Center. School would top out at 220 students, and focus on an “underrepresented and high-needs population” with a curriculum including Scholastic’s boxed Read 180 and Math 180 programs, and the “Pitsco STEM/CTE Modular laboratory,” a short-term program with a 2-to-1 student-teacher ratio.

 

Royal Ambassador Academy
Where: 1 campus in Beaumont
Grades: Pre-K to 4, expanding to pre-K to 8

Who’s behind it:
Johnny Brown, Rev. John Adolph, Felicia Young. Adolph is pastor of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Brown is CEO of the J&C Brown Institute for Learning, and a former superintendent at ISDs including Wilmer-Hutchins and Port Arthur. Young and other leaders come from the sponsoring nonprofit, the Jehovah Jireh Village Community Development Center.

Their proposal:
A Montessori program with a STEAM—science, technology, engineering and math, plus art—focus, plus character (social, emotional and moral) education and strong parent involvement. The school would be located at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.

 

SA Youth Youthbuild Academy
Where: 1 campus in Central San Antonio
Grades: 9-12

Who’s behind it:
Cynthia Le Monds, and other SA Youth leadership. “SA Youth is one of the largest and most respected youth serving organizations in San Antonio,” according to the application, a 30-year-old nonprofit focused on “high-risk urban youth.”

Their proposal:
Built on the Youthbuild model developed decades ago in Harlem, a year-round high school for students, most ages 16 to 24, who’ve dropped out of traditional schools—basically the students SA Youth already serves. They’ll prevent kids from dropping out again by building tight-knit, family-style cohorts for both classroom and career education. Instruction will be self-paced, including online coursework, a web-based curriculum like Plato Courseworks, and direct instruction from teachers who’ll be “on call” in the evenings.

 

Trinity Environmental Academy
Where: 1 campus in South Dallas, “near Great Trinity Forest”
Grades: K-1 and 6, expanding to Pre-K to 12

Who’s behind it:
Jennifer Hoag, Lisa Tatum, Dhriti Pandya, Michael Hooten. Hooten comes from the well-established North Texas charter chain Uplift Education. Sustainable Education Solutions is the nonprofit behind the application.

Their proposal:
A school in a high-need South Dallas location taking advantage of its proximity to the Great Trinity Forest, “the largest urban hardwood bottomland forest in North America.” Students would conduct “local environmental field investigation,” with classroom programs built on environmental education, health, sustainability, STEM, civic skills, and “green career pathways.” The Trinity River Audubon Center and Paul Quinn College’s football-field/garden would offer more connections between the school, the community and the environment.

Anti-immigration protestors at a demonstration at the Mexican consulate in Austin, July 18.
Sarah Mortimer
Anti-immigration protestors at a demonstration at the Mexican consulate in Austin.

Texas and federal officials have been preoccupied this summer by the immediate needs of the 50,000-plus children who’ve arrived in South Texas since last fall, fleeing violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The kids are entitled, by federal law and international agreement, to food, shelter, medical care and legal attention in the U.S.—even if they’re destined to be returned to their home countries eventually—all of which has the government scrambling to meet the most basic needs.

A few of Texas’ bold political thinkers, though, have taken the long view and urged their neighbors to consider—as conservative activist Alice Linahan put it recently—“What is going to happen in September?” Well, late August, really. That’s when public schools in Texas welcome kids back and—according to the horrific scenario some tea party groups envision— tens of thousands of little Central Americans will slide right into school desks alongside your sons and daughters, hands out and palms open, demanding a free education.

“We must begin the crisis planning immediately to address the catastrophic wave of minor school-age children that could be enrolled in Texas schools this coming September,” the Clear Lake Tea Party announced in late June, on the way to asking Gov. Rick Perry to convene the Legislature for a special session to “deal with all of the peripheral issues” related to illegal immigration. The tea party group’s announcement was posted by Mary Huls, a former Texas House candidate, and coupled familiar notes of xenophobia—painting the refugees as dangerous or diseased—with worries over Texas kids. “Do your schools have the capability of managing youths that are members of or affiliated with criminal gangs?” the group wonders. “Are health protocols in place to protect our children from common diseases endemic to the Third World?”

On Alice Linahan’s online Women on the Wall radio show, Kaufman County Tea Party Chairman Ray Myers said he’s spreading the message that the crisis on Texas’ border is about to become a crisis in Texas’ schools. “We’re trying to raise the awareness of those soccer moms and dads,” Myers said. “We’re trying to raise the awareness that this is coming and it’s coming to your school, and they’re gonna take your kid’s desk. … There is not a public school in the state of Texas that has a budget prepared for this particular pitfall this September,” Myers said. “They didn’t budget for it.”

At a press conference last week, state Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) jumped on board too, telling Breitbart Texas he’s worried about “the detrimental effects on the public school system, that the new arrivals would ‘overwhelm’ the public schools and should be returned to their home countries quicker than current immigration policies were allowing.

So… sound the alarms? Well, not exactly.

“We don’t anticipate that this is going to be a problem,” Edinburg CISD Superintendent Rene Gutierrez tells the Observer. “We have the resources and the staff to accommodate those kids if they stay in our schools.” But kids who enter the immigration system in South Texas won’t stay there for long—they’ll move on to federal shelters within a few days, and then to family or foster homes across the country. Gutierrez says that Hidalgo County officials have said most kids will leave Texas for New York, Chicago or Pennsylvania—but even if many return to his district in the Rio Grande Valley, Gutierrez says, “we have the space.”

School districts in Houston and Dallas have so much space, in fact, that they may even turn vacant school buildings into temporary federal shelters for the kids. Grand Prairie ISD is also considering letting the feds use one of its vacant schools as a shelter, prompting debate at a packed board meeting last week.

It’s too soon to know how many Central American refugees will be enrolling in the state’s biggest districts this fall, but officials from both say their districts are prepared. Houston ISD spokeswoman Sheleah Reed says her district already has programs for students who speak little or no English, and says they’re ready to expand those in southwest Houston. That’s where refugee students would likely be concentrated, Reed says, which they know because Houston ISD got 900 new students from Central America last year—all without a budget crisis or a disease outbreak.

“It doesn’t matter where a student comes from,” Reed says. “Before they go to school, they would have to have the appropriate immunizations and health support. Wherever they come from, we would work to make sure they have those.”

But Ray Myers and his suburban Dallas tea party group won’t just wait and see if this year is different. Myers said he’s coordinating with activists in Arizona, Oklahoma and Louisiana to spread the word about the looming school invasion—and best of all, he said, “We’ve got Ted Cruz on board.”

“We’re talking about thousands of kids and they don’t care a thing about George Washington,” Myers said. “They’re here to overload the system. This is part of Obama’s plan and this is part of the Democrats’ plan.”

That plan, Myers explained, even has a name: the Cloward-Piven strategy—a 40-year-old theory that overwhelming America’s systems of social welfare, healthcare and schools, might undo the country’s capitalist foundation. The notion that President Obama is now orchestrating just such a gambit has been spread by luminaries like Texas Congressman Steve Stockman and former Georgia Congressman John Linder, and even Rick Perry. “I mean I hate to be conspiratorial,” Perry told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in June, “but I mean how do you move that many people from Central America across Mexico and then into the United States without there being a fairly coordinated effort?”

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks to the Texas Association of School Administrators.
Patrick Michels
Education Commissioner Michael Williams

For 17 years, new charter schools hoping to open in Texas needed a simple majority vote from the State Board of Education—until last year, when a major reform law handed most of the board’s charter authority to the education commissioner. Board members were left with one important power: They could veto the commissioner’s picks.

The board used its power once last year, putting the kibosh on an Arizona-based charter chain’s application to open in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But late last month, board members were startled to learn that Education Commissioner Michael Williams had, by waiving a few state rules, given the school permission to open in North Texas anyway. His move has been especially contentious because of the school in question: Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies, a chain with deep roots in Arizona’s conservative political world, and former Rick Perry chief of staff Ray Sullivan for a lobbyist here in Texas.

This morning, board members grilled Williams about his decision and whether they should expect him to go over their heads like this in the future.

As Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight put it to Williams: “When is a veto not a veto?”

David Bradley, a Beaumont Republican who supported the school last year, told Williams that his decision to go around the veto, at the very least, suggested something wrong with the new system. “It’s ugly and it’s not working well,” Bradley said.

Williams had a neat deflection. “Mr. Bradley, I’d like to say, I did not override your veto. … The commissioner has authority in this area that is broader, that is deeper than you do. I found another avenue to do what I thought was in the best interests of children.”

He added that his call was based on satisfying another aspect of the new law, a mandate to encourage well-established, high-performing charters around the country to open campuses in Texas. “We want to extend the [message] that the doors of Texas are open,” Williams said. More than a year after the law passed, the Texas Education Agency hasn’t produced rules defining what makes an out-of-state charter “high performing,” but Williams said TEA would release a proposal this Friday.

Williams also said his decision wouldn’t set a precedent. “This was a one-time deal and it will never happen again,” he told the board. Great Hearts, he explained, already had a charter to open schools in San Antonio, and under the new law, which went into effect on Sept. 1, the board has no authority over charter expansions. For Great Hearts to expand, Williams waived a requirement that schools be open for four years before adding new campuses.

But Williams’ decision has been so contentious not only because of the procedural issues, but because education leaders question whether Great Hearts—a chain of 19 schools in the Phoenix area (as of this fall), all but one of them in the suburbs outside the city—can replicate its program for Texas students.

Great Hearts advertises SAT scores hundreds of points above the national average, glowing college attendance rates and an “A” rating from the state for most of its schools. Williams told the board this morning that Great Hearts’ track record suggested they clearly fit the bill for a “high performing” network. But critics—like those who rallied to keep the chain from expanding into Nashville—say Great Hearts gets those results because its student body reflects the white, affluent neighborhoods where it opens. None of Great Hearts Arizona’s 7,617 students are classified as “English language learners,” according to the Arizona Department of Education, and just two of its schools have any students on free or reduced lunches—a common shorthand measure of student poverty.

Roberto Gutierrez, who leads Great Hearts’ nationwide growth efforts, said in a statement that they’re committed to serving a diverse student body in Texas. “Our first campus in central San Antonio is in a neighborhood that is more than 61% Hispanic/Latino,” Gutierrez wrote. Great Hearts’ school in that city is set to open this fall on two campuses in the Monte Vista neighborhood near Trinity University. “The Dallas and Irving neighborhoods we seek to serve are also diverse, urban communities full of parents and students who support these new public school offerings for excellence.” They’re still looking for a campus in Old East Dallas, Oak Cliff or downtown Dallas.

Speaking to the board this morning, Williams allowed that in Arizona, “the bulk of [Great Hearts’ students] are white and probably not poor.” But he said it’s wrong to hold that against them. “There is nothing in Texas law, and nothing in the public policy of this state, that says that one cannot have a charter, or an expansion amendment, that serves kids who are not poor and who are not minority. Quite frankly, I think the latter part would be against the law. … State law doesn’t say that you can only have charters for brown, poor and black kids.”

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Michael L. Williams speaks at the Texas Charter Schools Association annual conference in Austin, Tex.

When the State Board of Education reconvenes in Austin this week, a few members will have some choice words for Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, who surprised many by approving a charter school over the board’s veto—something board members weren’t aware he could do.

Last December, the SBOE voted 9-6 to veto a bid by the Arizona-based charter school chain Great Hearts Academies to open four campuses in North Texas. Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight had pointed out that the chain’s campuses in the Phoenix area have much whiter, more affluent student bodies than nearby public schools. State Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) had also complained that Great Hearts hadn’t told school districts in North Texas of its plans, as Texas requires applicants to do.

It was the first test for a system the Legislature created last year, which put charter approvals in the hands of the education commissioner and left the SBOE with only the power to veto his picks. Great Hearts was the only school the board voted to block.

But as the Texas Tribune‘s Morgan Smith reported early this month, Williams found a way around the board’s veto anyway, by waiving a handful of rules and letting Great Hearts grow from one San Antonio campus—which hasn’t yet opened—to add new campuses in North Texas without SBOE approval. Knight complained she was blindsided by Williams’ decision. Thomas Ratliff, a Republican board member from Mount Pleasant, said Williams’ move “flies in the face of legislative intent.”

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s editorial board was also critical of Williams’ method:

In granting Great Hearts a waiver, Williams may have been acting within the recently expanded bounds of his authority.

But that doesn’t instill confidence in the approval process, nor do any favors for the charter school movement.

The more general concern here is about whether charter schools are being held accountable for the public money they receive. Senate Bill 2 last year—the bill that reshaped the approval process—was meant to tighten accountability by making it easier to close lousy charter schools. But in approving Great Hearts’ expansion, Williams waived rules requiring schools to perform well before the state lets them expand. Board members who voted against Great Hearts last year wonder why the school is getting such special treatment.

Great Hearts was one of a handful of charter networks wooed to San Antonio from outside Texas in 2012, under an initiative called Choose to Succeed funded by local civic boosters. Great Hearts will open its first San Antonio campus this fall, and its website advertises nine potential campuses in North Texas, plus more in Austin and Houston to open as soon as 2017. Great Hearts advertises a “traditional liberal arts education” and high scores on college entrance exams and Arizona state tests. But those scores are significantly higher at Great Hearts’ suburban Phoenix campuses where students are more affluent and mostly white.

Knight tells the Observer there’s no way to know how well Great Hearts will perform with a more diverse group of students in Texas. And she’s worried that Texas is privileging slickly marketed, out-of-state charters over local, community-grown schools. “I just think we have opened the flood gates for out-of-state charters with this decision,” she says. “I don’t see an even opportunity for our locally grown charter schools, versus these out-of-state charters who seem to have all of their needs accommodated.” Though Knight can’t be sure what’s behind Williams’ decision, she has some ideas.

In early June—weeks before Williams reversed the board’s veto—Great Hearts hired Rick Perry’s former chief of staff Ray Sullivan to lobby for them in Texas. And late last year, according to the Tribune, board member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) said he’d been surprised to to get a call from the governor’s office wondering how he planned to vote on Great Hearts. In its expansion bids, the chain seems capable of calling in quite a bit of political firepower. Texas is no exception.

In 2012, Republican leaders in Tennessee engaged in a nasty, drawn-out fight with Nashville’s school board. Although  state leaders insisted the school be approved, the local board rejected Great Hearts’ bid to expand into the city, sticking to that decision even after the state withheld $3.4 million in transportation and utilities funding. In Nashville, as in Texas, critics had worried Great Hearts would locate in wealthy neighborhoods far from the city’s worst-off schools.

And in Arizona, where the school began in 2004, Great Hearts expanded quickly under a board led by Jay Heiler, a well-connected operative in state politics and media who’s defended Senate Bill 1070—Arizona’s infamous immigration crackdown law—supported private school vouchers and agitated against proposals to boost public school funding. Heiler also did a stint on the board of the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix think tank similar to the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Goldwater advances conservative political causes at the state level and is backed by well-known corporations and the Koch brothers.

“I think that this situation leads to a very uncomfortable precedent,” says SBOE member Marisa Perez (D-San Antonio). “The voice of the communities, by way of state board members elected by the communities, is basically meaningless.” Perez says Williams and the Texas Education Agency need to be clearer about their rules—a point she plans to make at this week’s board’s meetings, which begin Tuesday.

Knight, too, hopes TEA can clarify just how the decision to override the board’s veto can be justified. She hopes TEA’s general counsel David Anderson can help answer how much power the board really has to block charters.

“In the absence of any detailed conversation with the commissioner about why [Williams] made his decision,” Knight says, “it appears to me that Great Hearts is very powerfully politically connected. I have said to them that they need to stand on their own skill sets as opposed to their political connections.”