Google+ Back to mobile

Snake Oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

I.

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

avid_Dewhurst.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

Consider the non-discrimination ordinance in Houston.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

martin-football-t-shirt-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Threatening eagle with flag

Times like this—well, specifically times when Texas is playing host to the first case of Ebola on American soil—it’s tough to know what to believe. Are we all about to be herded into mass quarantine tents? Precisely where did this man vomit? Are the people of Dallas, its children, or its naive liberal county judge, responding with the appropriate degree of terror?

Has the entire country just laid down and given up?

Texas Supreme Court Justice John Devine seems to think so. Devine is on the court, having won what the Observer called in 2012 “The Oddest Race in Texas.” He believes the U.S. Constitution should be applied strictly to modern-day legal issues, and if given the choice, would probably reach back even further. Devine recently joined Ohio Christian University’s “Faith & Liberty” talk show, and his remarks were as follows, courtesy a transcript from Right Wing Watch:

It’s like the Ten Commandments, if we would just stick to those basic principles our nation would be far better off and we would once again be the light on the hill. And unfortunately, the church has gone to sleep, many Americans have gone to sleep and we have allowed those with these progressive ideas to inhabit the White House and almost every facet of government.

Sleep, the silent killer, rears its ugly head yet again. And what can be done? Who will rescue us from the modern-day snooze buttons of the soul?

Sen. Charles Perry, reporting for duty.

As Chris Hooks wrote here earlier this week, Perry approached his inauguration in Lubbock this week with tremendous flair, one hand on the Bible, two lips on his wife and America’s soul on the line. Perry kept the brimstone lit pretty much start-to-finish, suggesting the Obama administration is finishing what the Nazis began:

“The only difference is that the fraud of the Germans was more immediate and whereas the fraud of today’s government will not be exposed until the final days.”

Like Devine, Perry does not believe America should sleep:

A Japanese Imperial commander said he’d awakened a “sleeping giant” after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, according to Perry. Today, the new state senator wonders where that giant is.

“Has the giant died?” Perry asked after being sworn in. “Where is that giant of a nation that was founded on the eternal and never-changing values of a loving God and the desire to share that? I don’t recognize it on so many levels today.”

And of course, we’ve got plenty more Charles Perry to look forward to next year—but not much more David Dewhurst. The outgoing lite guv, who’s about to have a lot more time to kill on the red carpet—dropped by the Values Voter Summit in Washington last Friday.

Dewhurst made great use of the word “literally”:

“I think about the last year and the tsunami of unaccompanied children and what that means, and literally the president opening up the red carpet for them to come here.”

He also took a discredited rumor based on specious intelligence, and repeated it to stoke fear and score political points. And maybe that’s about right: You find the one thing you love to do in this world and if you’re lucky, you get to wake up and do it tomorrow.

So a year after Dewhurst claimed to have witnessed those “bags of feces” and “jars of urine” getting confiscated at the Capitol, he told a crowd in Washington, D.C. about a troubling new development in the war on terror:

“Prayer rugs have recently been found on the Texas side of the border in the brush.”

Prayer rugs = Muslims = ISIS, of course, which is evidence that President Obama has literally opened the red carpet to the agents of America’s demise to cross our southern border. So long as they leave their prayer rugs behind.

Dewhurst hasn’t offered any new details on his sourcing, but it was probably based on a Breitbart Texas scoop from July, which quotes an unnamed “independent American security contractor”:

“That’s when I saw this thing laying around. And I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ We walked over there and I didn’t really want to pull at it not knowing what was on it. I poked a bit at it with a stick and noticed some of the Arabic writing and was just like, ‘Oh boy.'”

Picking up on this exhaustive reporting, Gawker did a little sleuthing of its own and discovered that the prayer rug in the Breitbart piece may have also doubled as a soccer jersey, and was probably manufactured by Adidas, proving that the conspiracy runs even deeper than we’d thought.

And while we’re on the border, literally, Breitbart Texas‘ open line to the Border Patrol did yield a worthy nugget this week in the great annals of TV posturing, noting that Fusion TV anchor Jorge Ramos, as he swam across the Rio Grande in solidarity with illegal border crossers, was also swimming in raw sewage.

Speaking with Breitbart editor Brandon Darby, a Border Patrol spokesman, seasoned communications professional, explained what happened:

“The guy came down here and he literally swam with poo-poos.”

 

The only problem with that clip, really, is that Morgan Freeman didn’t narrate it.

Chewbacca for banned books

On the first day of Banned Books Week 2014The Dallas Morning News delivered the timely story of how Highland Park ISD—the wealthy enclave still grudgingly accessible by road from the rest of Dallas—has, more or less, banned seven books in response to a groundswell of parent outrage.

The Morning News‘ Melissa Repko reports that parents succeeded in getting the seven titles temporarily removed from classroom use, pending a review that could take months. Repko writes that the outrage surfaced a few weeks ago:

In Highland Park, more than 100 people packed a school board meeting this month. Parents and grandparents brought books flagged with sticky notes. They read excerpts of sex scenes, references to homosexuality, a description of a girl’s abduction and a passage that criticized capitalism. They sent hundreds of emails to district officials.

The school district doesn’t have video of the meeting, but it sounds as though it went a bit like this:

Like that school board in heaven Iowa, Highland Park school officials are urging calm, promising to give parents a chance to review the titles alongside teachers and students, and hopefully reach an understanding.

In a message sent Monday, Highland Park High School Principal Walter Kelly invited students and parents to join in the review. “Beyond the discussions of seven books out of hundreds of literary selections, I am more concerned about how we handle this as a school and community,” he wrote. “Central to the long-term discussion is how we make appropriate choices regarding instructional materials and books.”

Highland Park ISD spokeswoman Helen Williams says only one of the seven titles—Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain—was being taught this fall. Two others are slated for use in the spring, but she expects those books’ reviews will be completed by then.

“In terms of the effect immediately, it is not that onerous,” Williams says. “To give us time to conduct a thoughtful review, we are suspending use of those books.”

All of the books, she notes, are still available in the library—so this isn’t an outright ban—and parents always had the option to excuse their children from reading a given title. Still, this is the first time in more than a decade that parents have raised such widespread concern.

“It certainly a worthy topic and something I think is an age-old debate. What happened at the board meeting September 9 was standing-room only,” Williams says. September’s was the first board meeting of the new school year, and the first opportunity parents had to share their concerns after an email with controversial book passages began circulating in the spring.

The Morning News reports today that a new group of parents has formed to urge the district to put the books back in the classroom.

Highland Park’s banned-for-now list includes Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon—which Barack Obama has called his favorite book—and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, both of which are on the College Board’s reading list for Advanced Placement English Literature. The Morning News has more details on the objectionable content in each of the seven banned titles.

It’s noteworthy that parents would declare war on so many books after more than a decade of peace—though, as Williams notes, worries about sex scenes or swearing in required reading are nothing new.

But there is also something especially rich about parents in Highland Park—where there are zero economically disadvantaged students, compared to 89 percent of the student population in neighboring Dallas ISD—objecting to their children being exposed to David K. Shipley’s 2004 work, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. “Some parents objected to the nonfiction book because it has a passage about a woman who was sexually abused as a child and later had an abortion,” Repko explains.

But then there’s the offending “passage that criticized capitalism,” which was read aloud at the board meeting. That’s not about coarse language, or even “adult themes” that could threaten the book’s G-rating. That’s about trying to control what ideas students are exposed to when they’re away from home—not so far, intellectually, from today’s conservative education movement, which has made statewide causes out of CSCOPE, the Common Core standards and the revised AP U.S. History course they say is too critical of the U.S. and its founders.

Every school district can choose which books to teach, which to put in the library, and which to avoid altogether. According to the ACLU of Texas’ 2013 banned books report, Texas schools have banned fewer books every year since 2007. The group says its 2014 report will be out later this week.

“We respect parents’ right to choose what books their children read and to work with teachers to find alternate titles when parents have concerns,” says ACLU of Texas Communications Director Tom Hargis. “But efforts by a single parent or small group to ban a title and keep all students from reading it infringes on the rights of other parents to make their own choices. No matter how well-intended, banning books is censorship and infringes on the rights of a free society.”

It also, in this case, made things a little awkward for the author Jeanette Walls, who is slated to keynote Highland Park’s literary festival next year, now that Highland Park parents have placed her memoir, The Glass Castle, on the chopping block. Walls explained to the Morning News why people should be allowed to read her book:

“Walls said she was heartbroken to learn that her book was on the list. Her memoir is about growing up in poverty with a father who spent his money on alcohol and a mother who became homeless.

“‘My book has ugly elements to it, but it’s about hope and resilience, and I don’t know why that wouldn’t be an important message,’ she said. ‘Sometimes you have to walk through the muck to get to the message.'”

 

Update Sept. 29: The Associated Press reported that Highland Park ISD has lifted the temporary ban on the seven titles mentioned below.

TSTC culinary arts class
Courtesy TSTC
A culinary arts class at Texas State Technical College West Texas

If you’ve spent any time watching daytime TV, you know the pitch: Industries are critically short on skilled workers, and with the right training, an exciting career with great pay could be waiting for you! Enroll now!

Among technical colleges, the competition for students is fierce, and many make big promises to lure recruits (and the federal loan money they often bring). Texas has been cracking down on for-profit chains, even revoking the license of Dallas-based ATI Career Training Centers. As former Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken explained in 2011, “Schools that misreport employment information about their programs potentially exploit vulnerable individuals with false hopes.”

Today, the commission ensures that for-profit trade schools are up-front with recruits about placement rates—and specifically whether graduates are working in a field related to what they studied. For trade schools, more than any other sort of higher education, it’s a critical measure of success. To stay open, such colleges need to keep their program-related employment rates above 60 percent.

But those regulations don’t extend to public trade schools. Each year, almost 30,000 students attend one of 11 campuses in the state-funded Texas State Technical College System (TSTC). To compete against for-profits and their enormous ad budgets, public trade schools have relied mostly on good public relations; local papers near TSTC campuses often run glowing stories about high placement rates and soaring industry demand.

In 2012, the Marshall News-Messenger cited “a job placement rate at nearly 90 percent” for TSTC’s Marshall campus. In a Valley Morning Star story this March, the chair of TSTC’s surgical technology program flatly declares that “all graduates are placed in jobs.” TSTC makes similar claims online about its Waco campus: “on average, industry has more job openings than TSTC has graduates. TSTC boasts placement rates of more than 90 percent.”

George Reamy remembers how impressed he was the first time he heard numbers like those, back when he taught English at TSTC Waco. “I remember talking to people about that,” he said, “and they kind of whispered to me, ‘hey man, that’s not quite what’s goin’ on.’”

In fact, the “success” rate for graduates includes students employed in any field or enrolled in further education. Say you’ve got a job at Taco Bell, graduate from a biomedical technology program, and then keep on working at Taco Bell. TSTC counts that a “success.” “You’ll never see phrases like ‘program-related’ or ‘in their field of study’ or even ‘technical’ next to the word ‘job,’” Reamy says.

TSTC campuses in Marshall and Sweetwater recently begin posting data on training-related employment. At the West Texas campus in Sweetwater, which advertised a 90 percent placement rate for 2013, the degree-related job placement was just 65 percent. In the News-Messenger last December, TSTC Marshall Director of Career Services Benji Cantu announced a “substantial” placement rate of 81 percent—but didn’t mention the school’s program-related placement rate for 2013 was a less-substantial 40 percent.

Generally, Reamy says, the future for tech school grads is more complicated than these statistics let on. He points to a 2012 survey in which TSTC Waco graduates say they wish the school had been more up-front about their job prospects; the mixed reviews include some very positive comments, and more than a few from graduates who discovered their education was of little help in the job real world. Four call their degrees “a waste.”

For the same reason Texas doesn’t let for-profits make inflated claims about their programs, Reamy says, public schools ought to be transparent with recruits. “People make life-changing decisions based on stories like these,” he says. At his blog, “Watching Texas Technical Colleges,” he keeps up a drumbeat of criticisms against TSTC’s placement claims.

TSTC System Vice Chancellor Eliska Smith is familiar with these sorts of charges. But the truth, she says, is that there’s no systemic way to know which jobs are truly training-related. Unemployment insurance data doesn’t track graduates who leave Texas is prone to broad generalities that could accidentally list a graduate as working outside their field of training.

As an example Smith points to an automotive technology graduate who gets work as a mechanic at a Wal-Mart auto shop. State employment data wouldn’t count that Wal-Mart job as field-related. If a nursing graduate hires on at a school district and not a hospital, the state’s best data would consider that an unrelated field.

“There’s some fallacies in using ‘in-field,'” Smith says. “What matters to us, and what we think matters to our students is that our students are getting jobs.”

For the same reasons, even the Texas Workforce Commission—which has been requiring for-profits to maintain a 60 percent field-related employment rate—is moving away from its current measure, according to Richard Froeschle, the commission’s director of labor market and career information. Froeschle, one of the state’s experts on measuring career school outcomes, says the workforce commission relies today on self-reported numbers from schools, but is working on an objective measure more like what TSTC uses. “A level playing field, if you will,” Froeschle says.

Michael Bettersworth, an associate vice chancellor and data guru at TSTC, is well acquainted with the limitations of the data on training-related employment. For now, at least—until there’s better data on graduates’ jobs—he says it’s the wrong way to measure a school’s success. “I have gone down the rabbit hole of these data elements and philosophical debates,” Bettersworth says. “There are major structural limitations on the available data that limit the assumptions you can make.”

TSTC graduate earnings
Source: Michael Bettersworth and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board
Texas State Technical College graduate earnings from 2009 to 2012

For now at least, Bettersworth says the best measures of TSTC’s success are how many graduates find jobs and how much its graduates earn after leaving. He says it’s a natural fit for TSTC, where the institutional mission is to grow Texas’ economy through workforce training.

Pressure to keep those numbers up has only increased now that the Legislature has tied TSTC’s state funding to its graduates’ earnings. The state’s calculations don’t include whether that job relates to what a graduate studied—they rely instead on a measure of graduates’ wages—a figure Bettersworth happily notes has risen in the first years of the new funding scheme (see the chart to the right).

For its willingness to stake its funding on graduates’ performance, TSTC has become a darling of the results-based higher ed movement that both Gov. Rick Perry and gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott have embraced. In his campaign, Abbott’s plan for higher ed includes funding all sorts of institutions—not just trade schools, but community colleges and four-year universities as well—based on some measure of their performance.

The trade schools offer a good example of how complicated school performance metrics can get, even for a relatively straight-forward question like whether graduates got jobs related to their studies. Performance metrics for, say, a university philosophy department wouldn’t be so straightforward.

And while folks like Froeschle and Bettersworth are fine-tuning measures for the state—probing data sets for weaknesses and being careful not to assume too much—what prospective students see in their local newspapers more often are local trade school officials’ certain claims that “all graduates are placed in jobs.”

Reamy says that’s where his frustration still lies: in the local recruitment pitches, where the nuance is often stripped from the numbers. “If there’s no good data on where people end up after graduation, officials need to quit talking about their employment rate without explanation or caveat,” Reamy says. “Anything less leads to false expectations and disappointment on the part of students and their families. … It boils down to integrity.”

Idaho-Based Athlos Charter Schools Grow in Texas, Despite State’s Denial

Athlos Academies is a new kind of player in the charter school world, combining school construction with an athletics-based approach to learning.
Athlos Leadership Academy in Austin
Patrick Michels
North Austin's Athlos Leadership Academy under construction in August.

 

In the far reaches of North Austin, with Williamson County looming just across the street, the capital city’s newest charter school was still a construction site in late August. Scaffolding wrapped the large building as dozens of construction workers clambered up and down. More workers paced the rooftop, hurrying to finish the job and get students inside the new Athlos Leadership Academy for the new school year.

Like other Athlos campuses across the country, the school has big white pillars, a stately cupola and Monticello-esque wings suggesting a classical place of learning. Athlos notes in promotional materials that the Georgian architecture is designed to “evoke a patriotic feel.” In the weight room and on its basketball court and indoor turf field, students will be trained in Athlos’ signature physical fitness and character development program. For school-shopping parents, the school compares impressively to, say, the Round Rock Independent School District’s boxy, brick Wells Branch Elementary a few blocks away.

Thanks to the quirky way charter schools are regulated, this was a peculiar summer for Idaho-based Athlos. For even as it opened its seventh charter school in Texas, with thousands of students in its programs, state regulators also denied an Athlos Academy charter application—for the second time in three years.

If you’re, say, a parent or a student trying to choose between public schools, that might sound confusing. But it makes perfect sense if you work within the charter system, where you know a school’s name only says so much about who runs it.

News of the state’s rejection was a frustration, but not a deal-killer, for Athlos Academies because its schools also piggyback onto preexisting charters. A state charter for Athlos would’ve let the organization grow even faster in Texas, and perhaps most importantly, given it more of the all-important cachet it takes to succeed in the charter world.

Combined with a partner called The Charter School Fund, Athlos represents something new in the school reform movement: a developer that lets existing charter schools grow beyond their wildest dreams, then absorbs them into its family of campuses with a unique brand built on leadership and fitness.

Athlos schools have earned high marks in other states, and Texas lawmakers have made it clear that they want more high-performing charters to move in from out-of-state—so in many ways, this looked like it could have been Athlos’ year to get a charter of its own.

 

 

In Athlos Academy’s pitch before state regulators in July, its would-be board of directors made their case with a sense of urgency. The school’s Dallas-based board enthusiastically told Texas Education Agency officials how the Athlos model—”Athlos” is Greek for “feat” or “contest”—would turn out healthy, self-confident students more likely to succeed in the classroom.

Board member Todd Whitthorne was an especially fiery evangelist. “What I have seen in my lifetime, in the past 50 years, our public health numbers are frightening,” said Whitthorne, a motivational speaker and health consultant who promotes “happy pills” for workplace productivity. “They’re absolutely frightening, and I don’t believe that the way we’re operating right now in an obesogenic environment is sustainable.”

The board’s plan was ambitious: 15 campuses around Dallas-Fort Worth with a student body that would grow from 2,600 to 15,000 students within five years. (Charter school enrollment in Texas is just over 200,000 today.) The board chairman, Eddie Conger, runs another North Texas charter school, Independent Leadership Texas, that has grown fast in its first few years after partnering with Athlos. Conger spoke passionately about the transformative power of Athlos, and how many more children they’d reach with a separate charter: “If you were driving down the road and you saw a car accident, would you stop and intervene?”

But regulators seemed perplexed by connections between The Charter School Fund (the likely new landlord for the schools), Athlos Academies and a nonprofit called Complete Kids Inc., which would be allowed to nominate some replacements to the Athlos Texas board. All three shared the same downtown Boise address, along with the Hawkins Companies, a major real estate developer.

“Not only does it concern me when an out-of-state is going to be nominating your board,” TEA legal counsel Karen Johnson told the applicants, “but we have a new state law that says that a majority of all board members need to be qualified voters, which the [attorney general] says means Texas residents.” Johnson’s concerns touched on a delicate balance built into last year’s overhaul of Texas’ charter school law: while lawmakers wanted to attract out-of-state charters to Texas, they were also wary of handing control of public money to interests outside the state.

And the new Athlos school already planned to send a lot of money to Idaho: an estimated $442,395 in the school’s first year—2 percent of its state funding—to license the Athlos curriculum (with 15,000 students, the total could rise to $2.5 million a year) and $52 million over the first five years—about 18 percent of its funding—to rent from The Charter School Fund. (Charter schools’ facility costs vary widely, but, according to Texas Charter Schools Association spokeswoman Tracy Young, consultants often advise charters to keep lease costs under 20 percent.)

Mavis Knight, a Dallas Democrat on the State Board of Education, tells the Observer the arrangement just seemed odd to her, especially the board nominating process. “My mind can’t wrap around why it is necessary for two separate entities to nominate board members of another entity,” she says. (Along with Complete Kids, the nonprofit behind Independent Leadership of Texas would also nominate new Athlos Texas board members.) “Sometimes you just have to listen to your inner self, and my inner self was still not satisfied.”

TEA denied the Athlos application for “multiple reasons,” according to spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe, including an insufficient budget for “required activities”—board members had promised their fundraising skills would help make up the difference—and too many other issues the school would have to work out before opening.

Joseph Hoffer, a San Antonio attorney who represented the Athlos Texas board, tells the Observer the decision was disappointing, and a little mysterious. “The states’s talking about scaling [out-of-state charters], yet they’re worried about corporate operators coming in that they can’t control,” Hoffer says. “They say that’s what they want, and then they don’t approve it. … The commissioner was told by the Legislature that he could grant up to 10 charters, and he’s not doing that.”

Politically, the mood does seem right in Texas for an out-of-state operation with a good reputation. Earlier this year, Education Commissioner Michael Williams went to great lengths to let Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies expand into Dallas despite a veto from the State Board of Education. And according to emails obtained through state open records laws, Gov. Rick Perry has been especially interested in out-of-state charter applicants. “What is the big hold up for recruiting out of state charters form y’all perspective,” Perry’s education policy adviser Whitney Broughton asked TEA in March.

 

 

Legacy Traditional School in Gilbert, Arizona
The Legacy Traditional School in Gilbert, Arizona, uses the Athlos curriculum and was built by The Charter School Fund.

Part of Athlos’ trouble may be that, unlike Great Hearts or Arizona-based BASIS Charter Schools, it can’t claim an academic track record of its own. Though it may be hard to tell from the outside, each Athlos school—like North Austin’s Athlos Leadership Academy—is actually an independent charter that licenses the Athlos curriculum.

“It’s like they’re the hand and then Athlos becomes the glove,” Hoffer explains.

But University of California at Berkeley professor Janelle Scott—whose research covers the growing charter school market—says Athlos’ promotional material doesn’t make the distinction clear. “It’s at least misleading. As I was reading the Athlos website, it does appear to me that those were schools under their management,” Scott says. “They don’t say they’re not the holders of the charter. The charter holder is the one that has fiduciary and pedagogical responsibility for the school.”

Licensing the Athlos curriculum tends to entail a total rebranding: new school name, new marketing style, and a place on Athlos’ list of schools, all of which can make it hard to tell, from the outside, whose charter school it is. Hoffer compares it to franchising with McDonald’s. A similar arrangement lets the online chain K12, Inc., operate in Texas. As a for-profit firm, K12 could never get a charter of its own here, but it can simply contract with a local charter-holder instead. Watch one of their ads on TV, and you’d never know the difference. Should K12’s school perform poorly on state tests—as K12’s Texas campus did for years—it can simply take its business to another charter-holder and start over with a clean slate. That’s exactly what it did in 2011 when it jumped from Southwest Schools to Lewisville-based Responsive Education Solutions.

Athlos and The Charter School Fund don’t dictate an academic curriculum but they provide something more concrete—literally—than K12: an impressive school facility to complement whatever a charter does in its classrooms. Along the way, Athlos extends its message, grows its brand and pads its bottom line. As the nationwide charter school market grows, so does the market for creative arrangements like this. Charter-specific firms occupy a small but growing niche in the real estate world, alongside the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund—as in Andre Agassi—and EPR Properties, which also owns movie theaters and water parks.

Hawkins Companies' Boise offices
855 Broad Street in Boise, home to Hawkins Companies, Athlos Acadmies, The Charter School Fund and Complete Kids, Inc.

Athlos began in 2006, according to its site, when an Idaho dentist named Ryan Van Alfen sold his practice and teamed with a real estate developer named Jason Kotter. They set up Athlos Academies—a nonprofit—and teamed with Hawkins Companies, a developer of ubiquitous retail spots like Walgreens stores and strip malls, to create The Charter School Fund.

Like Hawkins, the fund is a for-profit corporation. But Hoffer—to whom Van Alfen referred our interview request—makes a distinction here: “They’re not a nonprofit, they’re a social venture. They’re not a developer either,” Hoffer says.

In Texas, charter schools don’t get public funding to lease buildings or build new ones; finding and paying for facilities can be one of the biggest stresses in running a charter school. Hoffer says The Charter School Fund helps alleviate that stress. “What they bring is unique in that they’ve designed the facilities around the educational model, and they’ve also brought in the investors—they’ve leveraged their resources to bring in the investors so a charter school can also have a facility.”

Scott, the Berkeley researcher, says it’s common for players in the charter school market to work through a nonprofit arm. “People are still skeptical of having for-profits in education,” she says, so there’s a P.R. benefit to appearing charitable. Scott says The Charter School Fund’s marriage of real estate and physical education seems unique. “But what is common is this idea of a hybridized organization—an arm that’s nonprofit, an arm that’s for-profit, and those arms kind of taking care of teach other.”

On its website, The Charter School Fund claims a record of “$324 million invested in market driven education.” And Kotter and Van Alfen sound like true believers in the power of the private sector to improve public schools. Van Alfen explains in a 2013 Idaho Business Review article:

“We have a solution to the largest obstacle in bringing market-driven education to scale, which we feel strongly is the only way to transform education. We like to challenge the status quo; it drives me crazy to see how this education topic has been demagogued to death. No, it’s not about the kids. It’s about unions protecting union members.

[…]

“Jason helped pioneer a financial model that worked. We develop a structure, lease it to the 501(c)(3) charter school until they stabilize with their enrollment financially, and then they buy it from us. Then we just roll that forward in not-for-profit fashion, into the next project. We bring the equity; we personally guarantee the debt. Nobody is taking more risk on a project’s success than we are.”

As stewards of public money, charters must typically submit their construction projects for competitive bidding. (Another charter school chain, Harmony Public Schools, has drawn fire for using the same few Turkish-owned contractors outside the usual bidding process.) But by leasing a finished product from The Charter School Fund, schools come in too late to worry about who did the work. These projects tend to come with a consistent cast of supporting players, including Idaho-based Pacific Properties and Engineered Structures, Inc. The campus plans often come from Boise-based BRS Architects.

All schools—charter or not—send lots of public money into the private sector. But thanks to their small enrollments and freedom to experiment, charters have become a gateway to the education market for all sorts of new players with unorthodox arrangements.

Van Alfen has explained the Athlos character curriculum was developed with California-based Velocity Sports Performance, a nationwide chain of personal training franchises that maintains a connection to new Athlos schools, and helps to recruit and screen coaches for Athlos schools. Coaches may also use the school gym after-hours for private, fee-based training sessions, according to news stories from Brownsville, Texas, and Arizona. Velcocity and its corporate partners get a privileged position within the schools: Velocity’s website even advertises its gym locations at charter school addresses. The walls of some Athlos school gyms bear a big Velocity Sports Performance logo and according to one handbook, the only corporate logos staff can wear are those of Velocity or its partners like Under Armour. (Athlos Apparel, which Kotter and Van Alfen also own, sells the student uniforms.)

It’s been eight years since Van Alfen sold his dental practice, and despite the recent rejection in Texas, his gamble may finally be paying off. Athlos’ school network spans three states and promises more growth soon. In fall 2011, the Legacy Traditional Schools network in suburban Phoenix opened the Athlos Leadership Academy, the first of at least five campuses they’ve now built with The Charter School Fund. Last fall, New Visions Academy—one of Minnesota’s oldest charter schools—moved into a grand new building on a grassy hill built by The Charter School Fund, then reopened as Athlos Leadership Academy. A group led by a dentist and a former dental assistant school owner has applied to open a new Athlos charter in Nampa, Idaho, in fall 2015.

 

 

Like most charter schools, Jubilee Academic Center started small. Its first campus opened in 2000, with 60 students inside a San Antonio church. Each time the school added a campus it could fit another 200 or 300 students, but growing Jubilee was always a delicate balancing act. Charter schools in Texas don’t get public money for rent or construction. Many rely on grants to cover the cost of new facilities, but Jubilee director Tom Koger was wary of the influence outside foundations might expect in exchange for their money.

Instead, when Koger and the Jubilee board wanted to go big, they enlisted The Charter School Fund, which agreed to build three new school buildings, each far bigger than Jubilee could build on its own—including Jubilee’s Athlos Leadership Academy in North Austin. Jubilee would lease the new buildings, and hopefully buy them someday. The fund, in turn, would use money from the sale to build more schools, which Jubilee could rent to accommodate even more students.

On the same day Jubilee’s board approved the deal in January 2014, it voted to boost its enrollment from 5,550 to 17,276.

Gymnasiums, tracks and fields are luxuries many charter schools can’t afford, but at these new schools they’re integral to the Athlos program, which Jubilee also decided to license. At Jubilee, according to Koger, the connection between The Charter School Fund and Athlos is incidental—both programs fit alongside what his school was already doing. “Jubilee’s always had an emphasis on character … so we feel like it’s win-win for us,” Koger says. Plus, the real estate terms were more favorable than what Jubilee could get anywhere else, which Koger chalks up to a sense of mission among the folks in Boise.

“The thing with these guys from The Charter School Fund,” Koger says, “once you get to know them, they truly are on a crusade to stamp out diabetes and obesity.”

Hoffer says he’s looking forward to next year’s charter school class, when Athlos can once again apply for its own charter from Texas. But until then, Athlos already has more schools in Texas than any other state, with three new Jubilee Academy campuses under the Athlos banner this year, and ILTexas campuses “powered by Athlos” in North Texas. Thousands of Texas students will learn the Athlos model this year, from the Rio Grande Valley to the Dallas suburbs, in big new schools built by The Charter School Fund. With or without the state’s help, the Athlos crusade marches on.

 

Correction Nov. 5: This article has been corrected—Wells Branch Elementary is in Round Rock ISD, not Austin ISD.

Abbott supporters cheer on the attorney general as he begins his campaign for governor.
Patrick Michels
Greg Abbott supporters cheer on the attorney general as he begins his campaign for governor in July 2013.

After an intense week of news featuring major legal opinions on the most contentious issues of our time—public school funding, abortion access, single-use plastic bags—this short Labor Day week presented a welcome respite from the ideological canyons and petty rifts that divide us.

In the immortal words of Kris Kristofferson, “There’s no need to watch the bridges that we’re burning.” Plenty of time for that before November! For now, let’s just relax and enjoy the good times.

After all, it’s football season! With all the divisive strife in the world today, it’s nice to know that we can all kick back together on a Sunday afternoon, let everyone celebrate their fandom as they like, and may the best team win. A time to put politics aside!

Until Wednesday!

Sen. Wendy Davis Flip-Flops On Her Support For The Dallas Cowboys

SHOT: Today Sen. Davis Said She Has Been “Cheering For The Cowboys” Since She Was Young And Hasn’t Stopped Since.

[…]

CHASER: In August Sen. Davis’ Daughter Said Her And Her Mother Were Both “Big Fans” Of The New England Patriots.

That’s Greg Abbott’s campaign dinging Davis for daring to cheer for the Dallas Cowboys and for an entirely different team on some other occasions. Who knows? Maybe even at the same time! On any given Sunday, Wendy Davis, alone in the universe, may hope to see both the Cowboys and the Patriots win their football games.

Peggy Fikac at the Houston Chronicle followed up to ask the natural next question: So, what team is Abbott’s favorite?

Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said the attorney general favors two Texas teams: the Cowboys and the Texans.

[…]

“Either way, he’s no fan of liberal New England politics or their football team,” Hirsch said.

At Texas Monthly, Dan Solomon takes a deep dive into the many ways this fight is “silly,” but also notes how easily politicians can screw up the seemingly simple “local football team pander.” The funniest thing about the affair might be seeing Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson trotted out to provide the following expert analysis:

“There are more serious issues the candidates need to focus on.”

This week also brought us Greg Abbott’s new campaign ad, “Garage,” in which the gubernatorial candidate recalls his difficult training after being partially paralyzed, which included tackling eight floors of a parking garage in his wheelchair to build upper-body strength. Abbott could be running for governor here, or he might be trying to sell you some Under Armour.

Abbott conveys this simple and inspirational message about how he faces personal challenges, then makes a broad, anodyne leap to the challenges we all face as Texans.

“Just one more. I see life that way, and that’s how I’ll govern Texas.”

If only Rick Perry had used that one after his first term! Or his second!

But seriously, who could find fault in a message like this? And what everyday setting could be more unimpeachable than a parking garage? What could anyone possibly find to rebut in this unassailably upbeat little nugget of bumper-sticker-grade inspiration?

Take it away, Rebecca Acuña:

“If you had told me Greg Abbott was running an ad titled ‘Garage’, I would have assumed it would be an apology to the woman he sided against on the Texas Supreme Court after she was brutally raped in a parking garage.”

Acuña, a Davis campaign spokeswoman, is referring specifically to a case from 1999. The content of Abbott’s ad left little room for attack, but the name… oh, the name! Sure, using that one innocuous word as a cudgel may strike some as a bit of a stretch, but only until you think of all the wild rebuttals that didn’t make the cut. You know who else spent a lot of time in a concrete bunker?

Maybe Abbott can make a sport of this, and challenge Davis by giving his next ads even blander one-word titles. “Satchel.” “Receptacle.” “Spork.” This campaign’s getting hot already!

Save Texas Schools rally at the Texas Capitol, Saturday, February 25.
Patrick Michels
A contingent from San Antonio's Edgewood ISD at the Save Texas Schools rally in 2013.

A state district judge’s long-awaited ruling on Texas’ school finance case—siding with the more than two thirds of Texas school districts that sued the state claiming that our school funding system is unconstitutional—won’t be the final word on the matter. The Texas Supreme Court will ultimately decide the case, and if history is any guide, there’ll be another lawsuit like it within a decade.

But state District Judge John Dietz’s 383-page opinion in the case is important not only because it could be a step toward a better school system, but also because it covers so much ground. Backed by dozens of expert opinions, the ruling touches on the makeup of the student body to where Texas gets its teachers, from full-day bilingual learning to standardized test scores. Dietz’s ruling is an authoritative, exhaustive discourse on the state of Texas’ schools today.

There is one big point running through the sprawling opinion: When lawmakers have even attempted a close look at the real costs of education, they’ve ignored the results. Nor has the Legislature  reviewed the impact of the cuts it made in 2011. That ignorance alone, Dietz says, violates the Texas Constitution.

The Legislature has been raising the standards for Texas students and requiring schools to provide more elaborate programs—talking big in the Capitol about the state’s high expectations—all while refusing to give schools the resources needed to meet those standards. It’s time, Dietz writes, that the state put its money where its mouth is.

 

Not enough money?! Come on, I heard that Texas’ school spending has never been higher.

That’s what a state witness said, too, showing that total spending—including construction—is way up since 2000. Dietz disagreed, saying it’s better to focus on “operations” spending, which has a greater impact on the classroom.

In constant 2004 dollars, Texas spent $7,128 per student a decade ago, peaked at $7,415 in 2009 (thanks to federal stimulus money), and bottomed out in 2013. Contrary to what you might have heard, Texas spends $300 less per student than it did a decade ago.

 

But just a few years ago, the Texas Supreme Court said we were spending enough.

A lot has changed since then. In 2005, the court ruled that the funding was barely adequate, but today a greater share of Texas students are economically disadvantaged or have limited English—both groups that cost much more to educate. Of Texas’ five million public school students, more than three million are economically disadvantaged. Dietz notes often that schools do have good options for helping these students (like smaller classes or full-day pre-K), but that these programs aren’t free—and the state’s not paying for them. While Texas’ bilingual population grows, it’s spending less on bilingual education.

All the new students we’ve added need new school buildings too, but Dietz said districts can’t raise enough for new construction. To pay for the growth, they’ve had to dip into money they should be spending in the classroom.

 

They can deal with it! It’s not like school’s getting any harder.

Oh, but it is. Since the last school finance ruling in 2005, the Legislature has added an expectation that schools prepare students for college, and begun using a harder new test, STAAR, that’s designed to assess a higher level of learning than the old test, TAKS. Both sides in the case agreed this was a “dramatic increase” in what students are expected to do.

Even last year’s House Bill 5, which cut the number of tests and added “career-ready” alternatives to the college-ready standard, doesn’t change that. In fact, Dietz says, no state witness could point to any cost savings from the new law.

 

I dunno, you look around, seems like schools are doing just fine.

Dietz disagrees. Considering the low pass rates on STAAR, and the fact they haven’t risen much in the test’s first years, he sounds worried. “The failure rates on STAAR constitute a current crisis in the education system,” he writes. Dietz also draws a connection between the flat scores on STAAR, and the lack of new funding for schools. Earlier this week, Education Commissioner Michael Williams said scores hadn’t grown because “we haven’t jumped high enough in the classroom”; Dietz suggests classrooms haven’t been given the resources to allow for that jump.

Even the state’s school ratings set the bar too low to guarantee the “general diffusion of knowledge” required by the constitution. Dietz says a district can have “incredibly poor performance results” on STAAR and still win the state’s “met standard” rating. According to other measures, Texas is losing ground to other states—a new development since the Supreme Court last heard a school finance case. One of the state’s own witnesses called Texas’ graduation rate “a disaster.”

 

OK, but I already got my diploma and I don’t have kids. Who cares?! Ron Paul 2016!

For one thing, this is bad news for students who won’t graduate because they’re not passing tests—disproportionately poor students and students with limited English. Dietz writes: “Waiting for school districts to make slow progress on improving the passing rate is not an option for the hundreds of thousands of ninth and tenth graders who are no longer on track to graduate because of their performance on [end of course] exams.”

You may not see much need for an properly funded public education system, but the constitution disagrees—and for good reason, Dietz says: “Texas’s future depends heavily on whether it meets the constitutional obligation to provide a general diffusion of knowledge such that all students have a meaningful opportunity to graduate college and career ready.”

 

So what, we just spend money forever?

Dietz acknowledges it’s tough to pin down a precise dollar amount for the proper cost of Texas’ education, but he disagrees with the state’s argument that it’s impossible to determine.

For argument’s sake, Dietz defines adequate somewhere in a range of $6,500 to $7,000 per student. By the lowest reasonable estimate he heard, Dietz says Texas needs to be pay at least $6,404 per student—around $800 more than it does today. Of Texas’ 1,020 school districts, only the 259 richest ones can cover the cost of an adequate education within legal tax rates.

 

But I heard the Lege replaced the 2011 education cuts last year.

The trial began as school districts were coming to grips with the $5.4 billion school budget cuts the Legislature passed in 2011; after the Lege replaced $3.5 billion of that in 2013, Dietz reopened the case to get updated testimony. But in his ruling he said the Legislature’s extra spending was “modest indeed—and plainly insufficient to satisfy constitutional standards.” Four hundred-eighty-eight school districts—almost half the districts in the state—are still worse off than they were before the 2011 cuts.

And the underlying problems with the funding formula remain.

 

But didn’t the Lege fix school finance in 2006?

Weeeellll… Not so much. In fact, Dietz says lawmakers only exacerbated problems in the system. Back then when the Supreme Court told the Legislature to fix school finance, Rick Perry took the opportunity to cut local property taxes and replace them with a new business tax that some warned would never make up the difference in the budget. Guess what happened? It didn’t cover the difference! Hence the multi-billion-dollar deficit the Legislature faces with every new session.

Lawmakers set up a delicate house of cards in 2006 that’s since gone all to hell, and the problems have even affected Texas’ wealthiest schools. Dietz notes that the current system makes it hard for so-called property-rich districts to raise more money, thanks to idiosyncrasies like target revenue.

 

More like off-target revenue, am I right?? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Dietz’s opinion deals necessarily with some pretty obscure issues in the school budget, “target revenue” among them. Target revenue, or “ASATR” (which is seriously pronounced “ass-a-tar”), is a good example of how the Lege backtracked in a subtle way the last time it tried to fix the system. As Abby Rapoport explained in a 2011 Observer piece on school finance, target revenue was meant as a stopgap measure to ensure districts didn’t lose money too quickly as the state transitioned to its new funding system.

Instead of reducing the target revenue rate last session, the lege raised it from 92.35 to 92.63 to help ease the pain of those 2011 budget cuts. Under today’s system, target revenue would end in TK, creating a steep cliff for some school budgets. Dietz does not have a high opinion of how Target Revenue—and other neat legislative tricks from 2006, like “golden” and “copper pennies” for tax rates—have played out.

 

Yikes. Well maybe they’ll do the right thing next time!

It’s unlikely, but the Legislature could even take quick action next year to fix the system without a directive from the Supreme Court. The Houston Chronicle detailed a few possible outcomes over the weekend.

But hardly any red-blooded Republican lawmakers want to be seen growing the budget, so it’ll most likely take a firm Supreme Court ruling to force them to do so. Making the system more equitable for all districts, and fixing the local tax rates, will be an incredibly complex proposition that’s bound to hurt some folks and help others. It’s a little hard to imagine this Legislature—full of so many new members—coming to terms on a deal this contentious.

The courts do have a way to make lawmakers come to terms, and they’ve done it before, by threatening to cut off the school system if lawmakers can’t fund it correctly.

 

But won’t schools do better if we just fire all the bad teachers?

No. Or at least, according to Dietz, there’s no evidence that doing so would improve schools as much as giving them the proper resources. Plus, how do you decide which teachers are bad? After hearing from one of the nation’s leading proponents of this strategy, Stanford University researcher Eric Hanushek, Dietz wasn’t sold on its potential to turn the whole school system around.

 

So did Dietz buy every argument the plaintiffs threw at him?

No. One new wrinkle in this suit was a “taxpayer equity” claim from the Equity Center—essentially that, as a taxpayer, your return on your property taxes varies depending on where you live. Dietz didn’t go for this one, though he didn’t explain much about why.

Dietz also shot down arguments from both of the new plaintiffs’ groups in this trial. One, a charter school group, argued that the school finance system is unfair because it allows traditional districts to raise money just for facilities, but charters don’t get any money for buildings. (But because the funding for charter schools is based on an average of the state’s funding for ISDs, he ruled that charter funding is inadequate too.)

Another group, led by former state Rep. Kent Grusendorf and the Texas Association of Business, argued that the system should include a guarantee that districts spend money efficiently. Dietz was unswayed by arguments that schools are, broadly speaking, spending wastefully. Had Dietz ruled differently on their claims, he could have opened the door to an unlimited number of charters, or even school vouchers.

 

This sounds like it was a lot of work! Are the lawyers going to get paid?

Um, yes.

One of this case’s many exciting twists is that school boards had to devote scarce public resources to teams of lawyers to argue on the schools’ behalf. If Dietz’s ruling holds, the state will have to directly pay the school district lawyers’ costs. The charter schools and Grusendorf’s “efficiency intervenors” had no such luck. Here’s how the costs broke down:

  • TTSFC (Equity Center) attorney fees: $1,888,705.91 plus $325,000 on appeal to the Supreme Court
  • Calhoun County (Haynes & Boone) attorney fees: $2,609,642.57 plus $500,000 on appeal to the Supreme Court
  • Fort Bend ISD (Thompson & Horton) attorney fees: $1,733,676.75 plus $400,000 on appeal to the Supreme Court
  • Edgewood ISD (MALDEF) attorney fees: $2,194,027.92 plus $325,000 on appeal to the Supreme Court

The school districts may or may not end up with enough money, but one thing we’re sure of is that the lawyers will get paid.

 

 

Travis County District Judge John Dietz
Patrick Michels
Juge John Dietz

Fifteen legislatures and a million years ago (give or take), school districts, parents and their lawyers—oh, the lawyers!—embarked upon an epic quest to wring more money for public education from state lawmakers: to devise an equitable formula for funding Texas’ schools and to provide sustainable support for students in our fast-growing state.

Today, state District Judge John Dietz ruled on Texas’ most recent school finance case—the seventh in 30 years—finding, once again, that our funding system runs afoul of the Texas Constitution.

In the grand scheme of this Texas epic, today’s ruling is a small victory for school districts—the equivalent of the end of a minor battle somewhere in the middle of one of the Lord of the Rings sequels.

It can be hard to cut through all the noise and political spin around school finance. The suit was a complicated one from the start, with a huge cast of players and competing interests. And it’s far from over. From here, the case goes to the Texas Supreme Court—barring a possible stop at an appeals court—but probably not until early next year. If the high court agrees the system needs a fix, it’ll be the Texas Legislature’s job to draft a plan that satisfies the courts.

The stakes are high. Reworking the entire funding system will have a major impact on Texas’ five million students. Since the first Edgewood ISD case in the ’80s, the Legislature has been happy to let the courts force its hand on school finance, so for anyone hoping schools get more resources or smarter funding for the future, this lawsuit is the only hope.

In his initial ruling in February 2013—which he delivered in brief remarks from the bench after months of testimony and detailed statistics—Dietz offered a poetic consideration of the “miracle of education,” and the “civic, altruistic and economic” rationale behind offering every child a free public education.

Lawyers for more than two-thirds of Texas’ school districts argued that the state had cut funding in recent years, even as it required more from them and as enrollment ballooned. Poorer districts, they said, have been forced to max out their local property taxes, and even then couldn’t keep up with property-rich districts.

Of all the testimony he heard, Dietz said, one chart conveyed the problem best: a graph that showed Texas’ spending (adjusted for inflation) remained basically flat while its enrollment grew by 1 million students:

LBB chart

The schools’ lawyers noted that the state’s estimates of what a good education costs—or how to adjust those costs for different students’ needs or different parts of the state—are decades old. As the situation grows more dire, Dietz said in his ruling today, “the state has buried its head in the sand.” It’s time, he said, for elected leaders to decide what kind of education we want and are willing to pay for.

Dietz reopened the case after lawmakers put $3.4 billion back into public education last year (only partially undoing a $5.4 billion cut in 2011), but his decision today is the same as his ruling last year.

Though today’s ruling is just a step in the case’s long journey, it’s been enough to warrant a new round of political posturing. Attorney General Greg Abbott already tried to get Dietz tossed from the case by claiming he’d shown favor to the schools during the trial. Abbott was unsuccessful, but the ordeal supported an impression that Dietz was an activist who’d rule against the state no matter what. Today, his office said it would appeal, while his campaign avoided commenting directly on the case. “Our obligation is to improve education for our children rather than just doubling down on an outdated education system constructed decades ago,” Abbott said in a statement.

Abbott’s rival in the governor’s race, Wendy Davis, called the ruling “a victory for our schools, for the future of our state and for the promise of opportunity that’s at the core of who we are as Texans.” She repeated her long-standing call for Abbott to drop the state’s defense and get busy fixing the system.

The issue isn’t strictly partisan. State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) recently complained to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that while the rural districts in his districts get less than $5,000 per student, “You’ve got schools all over the state that are getting in excess of $10,000. It is not right.”

When lawmakers return to the Capitol next year, they’ll be in basically the same position they were in last session: forced to draft another two-year budget knowing there’s a lower court ruling against them, but with no guidance from the Supreme Court.

You can read Dietz’s final judgment here, and his (much longer) fact-finding conclusions here. I’ll update our coverage soon with more detail from Dietz’s ruling.

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?”