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Snake Oil

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.”

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.”

Beaumont ISD students outside the Travis County courthouse, where lawyers for BISD and the state fight over the district's future.
Patrick Michels
Beaumont ISD students (from left) Hope Flores, Alex Treviño, Escarly Candelaria and Roberto Castillo, outside the Travis County courthouse where lawyers for BISD and the state argued Tuesday over the district's future.

The slow-motion trainwreck called Beaumont ISD continued this week in Austin, as lawyers representing a faction of the school board fought to prevent the state from taking control of the troubled district. On Monday, they failed in a last-ditch appeal to the Texas Education Agency. Today, the district’s lawyers took on the state in a Travis County district court.

And as the lawyers kept the board members’ increasingly desperate-looking power struggle alive, a group of middle and high school students, seated in the courtroom, looked on with more immediate concerns on their minds: saving their teachers, and their schools’ fine arts programs, from the chopping block.

“Fraud, waste and abuse” has become something of a mantra for state and federal investigators looking into Beaumont ISD over the last few years, but the most recent trouble came with an email from Superintendent Timothy Chargois to his staff, announcing that the district had overspent its budget from last school year, and would have to cut about $25 million from next year’s budget. (The district will have to return $1.5 million to the state because it over-reported its attendance.) That news was followed shortly by a proposed list of 231 jobs to cut, including 162 teachers—among them, all four orchestra teachers in the district, three choir teachers, three art teachers, three drama teachers and plenty of others, including in math and science.

Hope Flores, who’ll be a junior at Ozen High School this fall, learned about the planned layoffs from her school’s drama teacher, Gina Martin, whose job is on the list.

“It really hit home for me because theater is a passion for me,” says Flores. Laying off Martin would effectively end the entire theater program at the school, Flores says, because she’s the only drama teacher they’ve got.

Flores says students were generally aware of the district’s troubles—the embezzlement trial in federal court, the FBI raids, the brutal audits and moves toward state takeover—but felt compelled to help once they saw their teachers’ livelihoods were at risk.

Meeting in a library, the students have combed the district’s finances for alternatives to staff layoffs. Options they’ve come up with so far include selling off some of the district’s property, or selling the naming rights to the district’s $47 million football stadium. The latter might be an especially popular move: at present the stadium, which opened in 2010, is named for Carrol Thomas, the longtime superintendent who stepped down in 2012 and is often blamed for landing the district in its present mire.

Other students have gradually rallied around Flores—”I guess you could kind of say I’ve been appointed leader,” she says—while other students have helped by running Twitter or Facebook accounts for their cause. One student has been helping the social media efforts and calling legislators while he’s away at summer camp.

The students have lined up not just from Ozen, but all around the district, even from rival high schools. Flores says their unity has surprised a lot of people, at a time when so many adults have made the district the center of pitched battles—between the state and the school board, between rival factions on the school board, or between the city’s white and black communities.

“They’ve really united the city, which has historically been really divided,” says Sarah Sanders, a 2010 Beaumont ISD graduate who’s chaperoned the students’ Austin trip. “The entire city is just flooding us with money to help these kids.” When Sanders posted a notice that the students were eating ramen noodles Monday night to keep their budget low, she says, she got a call from a woman who follows their cause on Facebook, promising to send money for their expenses.

Of course, the students’ cause also aligns them with one of the many competing factions around the district: teachers hoping to keep their jobs, who’d probably rather see administrators laid off instead.

Travis County District Judge Stephen Yelenosky hasn’t ruled yet on the BISD board members’ case. Back in Beaumont, the school board has delayed its vote on the proposed job cuts. Fred Shafer, the state-appointed conservator over Beaumont ISD, has urged the school board not to delay its voting on the cuts, but students like Flores are holding onto faith that a quick state takeover could save at least some of the teachers’ jobs.

Saving any of those jobs may still be a long shot, but in a school district plagued by adults’ greed, distrust and ambition, a few students going to such lengths to defend their teachers is an uplifting turn.


Correction at 10:20 p.m.: This post has been corrected to reflect that Beaumont ISD’s looming $25 million budget cut is due only in part to its over-estimated attendance last year.

Scene from the floor of the 2014 Texas Republican convention in Fort Worth.
Christopher Hooks
OK wait, run that by me one more time.

This time last week, the Texas GOP convention was just heating up in Fort Worth, and before any of our elected thought leaders even opened their mouths, we found ample material in a draft of the party’s platform: ex-gay reparative therapy (good, apparently); a women’s [sic] right to choose to devote her life to her family and children” (oh, clever); the United Nations Agenda 21 (bad); and socialism (extra-double-bad times a million).

But what of the oratory we’ve come to expect from our leadership at great moments like these?

As the debate over the party platform turned, somewhat surprisingly, to net neutrality—which keeps Internet providers from choosing which sites’ content gets delivered faster or slower—Mineola state Rep. Bryan Hughes let fly a logic bomb of stunning density:


The convention was also electrified by the appearance of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, first in cardboard, and then in real life. As Politico reported, Paul went topical to win the crowd:

“Mr. President, you love to trade people,” the Kentucky Republican and likely 2016 contender said to laughs, a reference to the deal made for the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

“Why don’t we set up a trade? But this time, instead of five Taliban, how about five Democrats? I’m thinking John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, couldn’t we send them to Mexico?”

Later, Paul explained he was just funnin':

“It was a joke. Except for Nancy Pelosi, I was serious about her.” When pressed, he added: “Well, I mean, it’s humor, and I hope there’s room for humor. I thought it was funny. It was meant to be humorous.”

Ah yes… humor.

evil laughing cat


The other half of Paul’s proposed trade with Mexico? U.S. Marine Andrew Tahmooressi, who has been jailed awaiting trial since April, when he drove into Tijuana carrying guns that are banned in Mexico.

And speaking of the threats down south…

Phoenix's ABC15 reports on the latest border threat.
Phoenix’s ABC15 reports on the latest border threat.

Reporting from McAllen, Phoenix’s ABC15 warned this week that undocumented immigrants are infecting South Texas with their contagious foreign ailments: scabies, fever, and apparently a raging case of the “immigration dumps.”

Meanwhile, now that the huge influx of Central American children into Texas is getting serious attention, the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers—a virulent super-strain of paranoia achieved by combining the Border Patrol and retirees—offered a peek at what’s really happening here. Or do you honestly believe these children made it to Texas without a little help?

This is not a humanitarian crisis. It is a predictable, orchestrated and contrived assault on the compassionate side of Americans by her political leaders that knowingly puts minor Illegal Alien children at risk for purely political purposes.

Certainly, we are not gullible enough to believe that thousands of unaccompanied minor Central American children came to America without the encouragement, aid and assistance of the United States Government.

Anyone that has taken two six to seven year old children to an amusement park can only imagine the problems associated with bringing thousands of unaccompanied children that age up through Mexico and into the United States.

I doubt even the Cartels would undertake that chore at any price.


President Obama
President Obama executes a textbook Cloward-Piven maneuver.

On Wednesday, Steve Stockman even lent that theory a touch of congressional gravitas, dishing for a WorldNetDaily exclusive headlined, “CONGRESSMEN: OBAMA USING ‘CLOWARD-PIVEN MANEUVER'”:

Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, agreed that Obama – who studied the chaos strategy at Columbia, according to a classmate – “is trying to do a Cloward-Piven thing with the border.”

“Cloward-Piven” is a reference to an obscure 1966 proposal to drown the U.S. welfare system in need, ushering in an era of nationalized care.

“Obama follows all the far-left, Leninist, socialist-type stuff,” Stockman told WND.

Meanwhile in Congress, Louie “Go-Go-Go-To-Hell-If-You-Don’t-Accept-Jesus” Gohmert shined at a Tuesday hearing on religious liberty—specifically, liberty for the Christian right.

Barry Lynn, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, testified before the committee, Gohmert wondered if Lynn—a minister in the United Church of Christ—might be enjoying a little too much liberty in his religion:

Louie Gohmert: “Do you believe in sharing the good news that will keep people from going to Hell, consistent with Christian beliefs?” the Texas Republican wondered.

Barry Lynn: “I wouldn’t agree with your construction of what hell is like or how one gets there.”


LG: “So the christian belief as you see it is whatever you choose to believe about Christ?”

BL: “We could have a very interesting conversation sometime, probably not in a congressional hearing, about those scriptural passages.”

What Compounding Pharmacies Want From Greg Abbott

Compounding pharmacies' interests run far deeper than secrecy over the lethal injection drug supply.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott

For years, when lawyers, activists and reporters asked for details about Texas’ lethal injection drug supply—where the state buys its drugs, or the size of its drug stockpile—prison officials have fought to keep the information secret.

In 2012, Texas Department of Criminal Justice lawyers warned that outing the source would create “a substantial risk of physical harm to the supplier,” specifically from an anti-death penalty group it compared to a violent prison gang.

But over the last few years, Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office has repeatedly ruled that those details should, indeed, be public, noting a prior ruling by the Texas Supreme Court that “vague assertions of risk will not carry the day.” In the 2012 case, Abbott didn’t buy TDCJ’s risk assessment, forcing the agency to name Houston’s Physician Sales & Services as its supplier at the time.

As his office put it in a ruling that year, “while we acknowledge the department’s concerns, we find you have not established disclosure of the information at issue would create a substantial threat of physical harm to any individual.”

But in late May, Abbott’s office did an about-face, denying a request to name Texas’ latest supplier because this time, it said, the “assertions of risk” were no longer so vague.

As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, like so many others, has wondered: “What exactly has changed? Texans are left to guess.”

The ruling from Abbott’s office cites threats last year against The Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy, whose owner was horrified to learn he’d been outed as the drugs’ source, apparently after TDCJ assured him anonymity. When his pharmacy’s name got out, he asked for the drugs back. TDCJ refused, and activists spoiled his suburban forest peace with protests outside the pharmacy. The owner says he lost business and received violent threats.

To protect its latest supplier from a similar fate, TDCJ asked Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw to vet the threats made last year. McCraw—who lent an air of seriousness to last year’s ludicrous “poopgate” incident at the Capitol, and who’s outfitted DPS patrols on the Rio Grande capable of withstanding an onslaught from the British Navy—agreed the threats against The Woodlands pharmacy were very real. “Pharmacies by design are easily accessible to the public and present a soft target to violent attacks,” he wrote, ably describing pretty much any retail business.

The state has also refused to release details of those threats, save this thrilling peek behind the curtain McCraw gave The Texas Tribune: “It was information provided to us and that we looked at.”

Surely that settles it, right?

Not quite. What McCraw’s threat-down leaves out is the national trend toward keeping lethal injection drug suppliers anonymous. After European drug manufacturers quit selling drugs for lethal injections, states turned to domestic compounding pharmacies instead, where the drugs can be ordered in small amounts and made on-demand. One by one, states have passed laws or made rules keeping their sources secret (prompting challenges in some states, like Oklahoma and Missouri), but in Texas—where the Legislature won’t reconvene till next January—there was nothing to protect an innocent pharmacy from profiting off the death of a guilty man. Nothing, that is, until Abbott’s latest ruling.

And then there’s the money.

A week before Abbott’s ruling, the Austin-based watchdog Texans for Public Justice released a report on Abbott’s fourth-most-generous donor in the last year, Conroe compounding pharmacist Richie Ray. As TPJ notes, Ray catapulted into the top tier of Abbott-backers with a $250,000 donation in January—a few months after the mess in The Woodlands, and days after the first of this year’s wave of botched executions.

Because Ray’s pharmacy isn’t certified as a “sterile” facility that can produce drugs for injection, his pharmacy couldn’t be Texas’ latest source. And, in a statement provided to the Observer, Ray is unequivocal that his business has nothing to do with lethal injections: “Richie’s Specialty Pharmacy has never compounded drugs that were used for executions, and we never will. Furthermore, in my 17 years as a licensed pharmacist, I have never compounded drugs that were used for executions, and I never will.”

But as a national leader in pharmacy trade groups, and a major donor to pharmacists’ political allies, he’s taken an active role on behalf of the entire industry. So was Ray hoping to buy Texas’ secrecy, and protect a fellow compounder?

Mother Jones suggested as much in a piece that ran May 28, one day before Abbott’s office ruled to keep Texas’ drug source anonymous. And sure, any time a compounding pharmacy is outed as a source for death row, it’s bad press for the whole industry—but Ray’s political agenda is surely bigger and more complex than the death penalty drugs.

Compounding pharmacies are already locked in a bigger fight—one that more directly affects their bottom line—over how they’ll be regulated by the FDA. That fight involves lawmakers and lobbyists at the state and federal levels, and Ray and his staff have been instrumental in bankrolling compounders’ interests.

Until now, the FDA had oversight of big drug manufacturers, but compounding pharmacies—which had long been little mom-and-pop shops that made drugs for pets or lollipop medications for kids—were left to state regulation. As compounders have grown, so have horror stories about tainted drug batches shipped from compounders to customers nationwide. In its report TPJ recalled the case of Dallas-based ApotheCure, whose drugs killed three patients in Oregon in 2007. Cedar Park-based Specialty Compounding was linked to infections last year in more than a dozen patients. And most notoriously, tainted drugs from the New England Compounding Center killed at least 64 people and infected more than 700 more with meningitis.

That outbreak prompted a quick response from Congress: for the first time, large-scale compounding pharmacies are set for federal regulation, with standards similar to drug manufacturers. But which businesses will fall under federal watch as “outsourcing pharmacies,” and how much that’ll cost them, is all up to rule makers at the FDA.

“That’s kind of the issue that is still unresolved,” says Robert Floyd, an Austin lobbyist for the Alliance of Independent Pharmacists. “At what level does a compound pharmacist have to make a decision to be an outsourcing facility and meet federal licensing, pay federal fees … where is that line going to be drawn?”

That may explain why so many on Ray’s pharmacy staff bet so generously on support from U.S. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming in 2012, or why Ray has employed top lobbyists like Craig Chick, a former adviser to House Speaker Joe Straus, and David Marwitz, who also lobbies for the Texas Pharmacy Association. In his statement to the Observer, Ray said he’s worked for years to educate the public, and lawmakers, “about what appropriate quality evidence-based compounding services should look like and how they can best serve the public safely.”

Richie’s Specialty Pharmacy, isn’t a high-volume producer likely to be caught up in the outsourcing regulation—one of its specialties is a pain cream—but it’d be important to Ray to spread a message about compounding that’s less about meningitis outbreaks or lethal injections.

Floyd provided the Observer with a statement he says “reflects the position of most compounding pharmacies” on execution drugs. In brief, this is one fight the industry wants to be left out of:

While we have no formal position on compounding pharmacies’ preparation of drugs used in executions, the pharmacy profession recognizes an individual practitioner’s right to refuse to dispense a medication based upon his or her personal, ethical and religious beliefs. In a very few cases, compounding pharmacies have been asked by a state government to prepare drugs used in executions because pharmaceutical manufacturers have unilaterally restricted distribution. We believe state corrections agencies should work first with the pharmacy services providers—the companies that provide medications to prisoners within their systems—to source or compound drugs for executions before soliciting a traditional compounding pharmacy.

Before the twin controversies over some compounding pharmacies’ dangerous products—whether accidentally or intentionally lethal—the industry got little attention and light federal regulation. What the industry likely wants, most of all, is to keep it that way.

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State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant)
State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant)

Dr. David Fuller earns $125,000 a year as superintendent of the new C.O.R.E. Academy charter school in Houston. His school has 74 students this year. Do the math: He makes $1,689 per student.

Fuller’s former business partner, Kevin Hicks, earns $248,000 as superintendent of Houston’s Accelerated Intermediate Academy. The charter school, which Fuller and Hicks founded together in 2001, now serves 250 students. $992 per student.

Ollie Hilliard, superintendent of Jamie’s House Charter School in Houston, earns $123,000 to run a school of 131 students—though she may not for much longer. Hers is one of six charters now slated for closure after years of poor performance. In 2001, the state closed another Hilliard project—a residential facility for foster children, also called Jamie’s House—due to health and safety risks. Today, Hilliard makes $939 per student.

Per student, they are the three best-paid charter school superintendents in the state. And though he won’t single them out by name, State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff says some Texas charters pay their leaders far too much, with little public input to hold them accountable.

Earlier this month, he laid out his concerns in a letter to fellow board members, noting that the 10 best-paid charter school leaders earned $79.74 per student, while the top 10 superintendents at traditional public schools earned  $6.39 per student. Ratliff called on the Legislature or the commissioner of education to rein in the top salaries at charter schools:

“I find it ironic that charter schools were supposed to bring free market principals into the education marketplace but they are obviously paying way above free market rates for their superintendents. I would also like to point out that these entities are supposed to be non-profit organizations, but at these salary levels, some people are clearly doing quite well.”

A little more irony: Ratliff’s father, former state Sen. Bill Ratliff, wrote the law that first allowed charter schools in Texas in the mid-’90s.

“I’m not anti-charter,” the younger Ratliff tells the Observer this week. “There are some very good charters and I think there are some kids’ lives that have been saved because of some good charters. But I think the majority of charters are mediocre at best, and they graft off the good press and goodwill from a lot of the best ones.”

Ratliff says what he wants is an honest accounting of how much charter schools spend on their students, and a more open process for setting top administrators’ pay. Each charter school has a board that sets salaries, just like any traditional school district. But most charter board meetings aren’t well publicized or attended, so much of their business happens quietly. Ratliff suggests requiring that half the seats on a charter school board go to parents. “If I’m a parent of a kid in the charter school,” Ratliff says, “and I have a vote on whether to pay our superintendent $250,000 a year for 250 kids, I know how I’m gonna vote every time.”

Partly because charters’ operations can be so opaque, most debate about charter schools tends to treat them like a monolithic group. But the differences from one charter to the next run far deeper than between traditional school districts.

Three more examples:

  • Tom Torkelson makes $299,000 a year running the well-respected and growing IDEA Public Schools network, with 15 schools serving 15,535 students. IDEA supplements its state funding with major foundation grants.
  • Honors Academy superintendent John Dodd makes $250,000 a year heading a single school in Dallas with 759 students. The state is closing his school for poor performance.
  • Westlake Academy Charter School—one of the best schools in the state—serves some of Texas’ poshest neighborhoods, doesn’t provide bus transportation from outside, and supplements its state funding with a $2,000 recommended annual donation from parents. But the school doesn’t pay its superintendent Tom Brymer at all, because he makes his salary as Westlake’s town manager.

As part of the big charter school reforms the Legislature passed last year, charters are now required to post their superintendents’ salaries on their websites. A quick look around shows that many still haven’t done that—but most report their salaries to the Texas Education Agency. An Observer analysis of that data, with some extra reporting to fill in a few gaps, shows that charter superintendents do tend to make more, per student, than their traditional district counterparts:

Distribution of superintendent salaries, as a percentage of total charter or traditional school districts.
Source: Texas Education Agency/Texas Observer
Distribution of superintendent salaries, as a percentage of total charter or traditional school districts.

The Texas Charter Schools Association made a similar analysis of charter superintendent salaries, charting the total number of districts in each salary range. Comparing charters to ISDs that way, says the group’s executive director David Dunn, you’ll see “the distribution among salaries is very similar. … Rather than overreacting to specific cases, you really do need to look at the patterns that are established.”

Overall, charter schools get less money per student than ISDs because they don’t get money for school buildings (a group of charter schools has sued to change that). And, Dunn notes, the state holds charter schools to financial accountability measures that ISDs don’t have.

State Board of Education member Dana Bahorich replied to Ratliff’s note about salaries earlier this month with one of her own, noting that some traditional school districts pay far more than others per student, too. Comparing the median salaries in charter and traditional districts of under 5,000 students, she finds the two sectors aren’t so far off: “about $9,000 for charters and $103,000 for ISDs.”

“There are some variances and outliers in both sectors, but I just don’t see a problem necessitating government regulation over superintendents’ salaries,” she writes, in either charters or traditional schools.

Anyway, says Dunn, nobody’s salary ought to matter as much as whether the schools are helping students. “The key here is outcomes: Are we delivering outcomes for kids, and [do] parents have an opportunity to make choices so they can get he best educational program for their student?”

But Ratliff—who has since fired a second volley of criticism focused on charters’ overall money management—says if more people knew how some charter schools were spending public money, there’d be more of an outcry to fix the system. “I don’t think anybody realizes what kind of money folks are pulling in in these so-called nonprofits,” he says.