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Snake Oil

A water tower marked for UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College
Beth Cortez-Neavel

Three former professors filed a federal lawsuit late Thursday morning against the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, escalating a two-year battle over tenure rights between faculty members and the schools.

The two schools—one a state-funded university, the other a community college—are splitting after a 20-year partnership that’s become strained in recent years as the separate entities argued over budgets and other decisions.

As the Observer reported in May, the separation has left some faculty members without the jobs they’d been guaranteed years earlier. Others have been re-hired but without tenure. The schools announced their separation in November 2010, but aren’t scheduled to completely split until August 2015.

Last year, laid-off nursing professor Karen Fuss-Sommer told the Observer: “I’m a dedicated employee, have been a dedicated faculty member of our institution from the day I stepped on that campus, and this is how it ends for me.” Now, she’s one of three former faculty members suing to get their old jobs back, with tenure, at Texas Southmost College, along with back pay and benefits.

According to the terms of the schools’ original partnership, if the schools ever split, Texas Southmost could re-hire the faculty given a pink slip from UT Brownsville.-Tenured faculty who’d been with the schools since 1992 would be guaranteed similar jobs with tenure at Texas Southmost.

But that’s not what happened when the schools began their divorce.

Last year, UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia told the Observer her school had to cut staff to match a student body projected to shrink as the schools split. UT Brownsville has shed more than 360 of its 518 faculty members so far (the school is also in the midst of combining with UT-Pan American into the new UT-Rio Grande Valley).

This week’s lawsuit, filed with the help of the Texas Faculty Association and the Texas State Teachers Association, came after a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation resulted in a “right to sue” letter saying the schools refused to cooperate with the commission to mediate charges of discrimination.

A TSTA press release said Fuss-Sommer, Juan Antonio Gonzalez and Dorothy Boven were fired using a process that gave non-tenured faculty members priority over tenured faculty, and went against University of Texas System rules. The suit claims that process was especially hard on faculty members over age 40, and was an “artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barrier to employment.”

“All tenure is a right to due process and you can’t be let go without good cause,” Texas Faculty Association Executive Director Mary Aldridge told the Observer. “They didn’t do either. These people have been there for decades and they just washed them.”

Although Texas Southmost has hired Fuss-Sommer, Gonzalez and Boven according to the original partnership agreement, the professors no longer hold tenured positions and have taken a pay cut. The three have lost retirement benefits, including health and life insurance policies and, the suit claimed, suffered “damage to both their professional and personal reputation.”

Congressman Marc Veasey
Patrick Michels
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey represents the district with the nation's highest rate of uninsured people.

Last Friday in Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood, a former college football player, a global expert on walkable cities, a 57-year-old Ethiopian immigrant and a U.S. congressman gathered outside a Chinese restaurant. Facing a row of TV cameras and reporters, they took turns praising the new health insurance options available since Obamacare took effect, and urging their uninsured neighbors to enroll in a plan by March 31—the deadline to get health insurance before facing a tax penalty.

The press conference was part of a nationwide blitz in the weeks before the deadline, led by groups like Organizing for Action and Protect Your Care, which are trying to stoke enthusiasm for President Obama’s signature health care law, and encourage new insurance enrollment.

“I’m determined to do everything that I can to make sure that the Affordable Care Act is implemented successfully,” Congressman Marc Veasey said.

It’s a particularly monumental task in Dallas. From that press conference at Mr. Panda’s Restaurant and Bar, it’s just a few minutes’ drive north to George W. Bush’s ritzy Preston Hollow neighborhood. Just a few minutes to the south or west of Mr. Panda’s, and you’re in U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey’s Congressional District 33, home to more uninsured people than any district in the country.

It’s pretty well known by now that Texas has the nation’s highest uninsured rate, thanks in part to Gov. Rick Perry’s refusal to expand Medicaid coverage. One in four Texans lacks health insurance, too often turning treatable health problems into a death sentence.

Texas Legislative Council
The “minority opportunity” Congressional District 33: a really weird barbell, maybe, or kinda like the earth’s continents laid out flat.

Veasey’s district, a new one created in the latest round of redistricting, is a sort-of barbell-shaped expanse from West Dallas to Fort Worth. It’s home to Dallas’s trendy Oak Cliff neighborhood, the Dallas Cowboys, and more than 265,000 people without health insurance. Nationally, it’s not in the top 10 in unemployment, food stamps or percent of people below the poverty line. But its 38 percent uninsured rate is the nation’s worst, according to 2012 U.S. Census data.

That’s somewhat surprising. U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s rural district in South Texas has a higher poverty rate, though not by much. Troubled areas like South Dallas or Houston’s Fifth Ward are better known around the state. But Veasey’s district owes its distinction to some combination of cartographic chicanery in redistricting, and a recent trend of rising suburban poverty.

“When the economy starts getting bad, the ones that I represent are usually the hardest hit,” Veasey told the Observer last week, when asked why he thought his district had the nation’s most uninsured. The suburbs and older urban areas Veasey represents are 65 percent Latino and 15 percent African-American. The 33rd District includes manufacturers like Bell Helicopter, which has laid off hundreds of workers in the last year.

Other organizers at the press conference lauded the new reports that more than 207,000 uninsured Texans had signed up for health insurance since the new law took effect. Jason Roberts, an Oak Cliff urban planning evangelist who ran against Veasey in the 2012 Democratic primary, said the law helped him get coverage for his recovery from testicular cancer, which he wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. Lemlem Berhe said she was able to retire without worrying about how she’d pay for her new health insurance plan.

After delivering messages for the cameras in English and Spanish, folks from Organizing for Action went door-to-door to encourage people in Veasey’s district to get insured. They’ve got a long way to go.

Brianna Banks
Patrick Michels
Texas Organizing Project health care organizer Brianna Brown

Brianna Brown, who heads the Texas Organizing Project’s healthcare outreach in Dallas County, was also at the press conference. Her group runs phone banks, sends volunteers door-to-door, and holds workshops to explain the new law. Statewide, she says they’ve reached 420,000 people to explain the new law and encourage them to get insured. As the March 31 deadline approaches, people have started inviting them to give workshops explaining the law.

“I think that sense of urgency that you had to create before—I think it’s human nature to procrastinate—has been replaced with a very organic sense of urgency,” Brown says.

She says the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid has made her job much harder, because so many of the uninsured people in West Dallas, Irving and Oak Cliff—areas Veasey represents—are working families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, too little for new federal subsidies on the marketplace, but still have trouble affording private health insurance.

“That’s been the challenge. Especially for families that have never had health insurance before, and have thought this would be an avenue to access health care,” she says. After hearing about people in other states getting subsidies for their health insurance, she says, they’re disappointed to learn they won’t get that help in Texas.

Cleopatra de Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss
Patrick Michels
From left, Cleopatra De Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss, speak with reporters after oral arguments in their suit to overturn Texas' same-sex marriage ban. Their attorney Neel Lane is behind them.


Couples that challenged Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage last fall—two women from Austin and two men from Plano—were in federal court today as their lawyers made their case before U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia. Attorneys for Nicole Dimetman, Cleopatra De Leon, Mark Phariss and Vic Holmes argued in San Antonio this morning for a preliminary injunction, which would scrap Texas’ same-sex marriage ban while the case proceeds through the courts. After two hours of oral arguments today, they’re waiting for Judge Garcia’s decision, which may take a week or more.

“Every day this prohibition is in place is another day these people are denied equal protection under the law,” their lawyer Neel Lane said.

San Antonio was home to an acrimonious debate last year over extending the city’s non-discrimination ordinance to cover sexual orientation. But there were no chanting activists waving signs outside the John H. Wood, Jr. U.S. Courthouse this morning. Only a short line for the metal detector and a few people in the packed courtroom with the words “NO H8″ on their cheeks suggested this was the opening day of a potentially momentous case in Texas.

The national mood toward marriage equality has changed dramatically even since 2005, when three-quarters of Texas voters supported a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to approve same-sex marriage, and after a decade, 16 more states plus Washington, D.C. have followed suit. With the case heard this morning, Texas joins the ranks of states forced to defend their bans in court—many of them launched since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Some of those cases are further along, and the decisions are coming fast—just today, a federal judge in Kentucky struck down that state’s ban on same-sex marriage. On Monday, Nevada’s attorney general announced she’d quit defending her state’s ban.

Outside the courthouse in San Antonio today, Phariss called on Attorney General Greg Abbott to do the same in his case. But in the courtroom, Abbott’s lawyers made it clear just how unlikely that would be.

After acknowledging the “robust social and democratic debate” about same-sex marriage around the country, Assistant Texas Solicitor General Michael Murphy explained the state’s intent to “preserve the traditional definition of marriage” and reject what he called—referring to Massachusetts’ 2004 law approving same-sex marriage—”a more recent innovation than Facebook.” This lawsuit, Murphy said, was simply intended to “remove the issue of same-sex marriage from the democratic process.”

But Barry Chasnoff, another of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, argued that Texas’ democratic process had simply left his clients behind, forcing them to ask the courts to help guarantee their rights. “The very existence of [Texas’ ban] is evidence they don’t have political power,” he said.

Murphy disagreed. After many recent advances to the LGBT rights cause, he said, gay and lesbian couples were doing just fine without the courts getting involved. “The staggering political gains by these people in such a short period of time,” he said, “belies their claim of political powerlessness.”

The plaintiffs, sitting just behind their lawyers, furrowed their brows and exchanged skeptical looks as Murphy laid out the state’s case—particularly as he explained that Texas’ law is not meant to discriminate against same-sex couples, but to “promote responsible procreation.”

Chasnoff called that argument “ludicrous,” recalling his aunt who married when she was 80 years old, and never had to prove she could have kids. That was the only line that drew laughs from the courtroom this morning, but the point underscored a serious difference between the two sides’ definition of marriage: Murphy suggested Texas’ interest in marriage was about making more Texans, while the plaintiffs’ lawyers noted there are lots of other reasons two people might want to marry—and by the way, same-sex couples (lots of them) raise kids in Texas too.

When De Leon had a baby, Chasnoff noted, her partner Dimetman couldn’t be included on the birth certificate. Along with other parental rights, Lane added, there’s the state’s recognition of communal property, rights to child support if a couple divorces and a couple’s right to make healthcare decisions for one another in an emergency.

“What my clients want are the rights, the benefits, the responsibility and the respect that come with being married,” Chasnoff said. “What makes it a fundamental right is their relationship, not the color of their skin or their sexual orientation.”

Chasnoff said same-sex marriage is just the latest cause in which a group has appealed to the courts for protection from state laws, referencing U.S. Supreme Court decisions on school segregation, voting rights and interracial marriage. “We’re not asking the state to redefine marriage,” Chasnoff said. “Our clients just want the same rights as other citizens.”

Judge Garcia left the courtroom without deciding on the injunction, but he recognized that whatever he decides, the appeals and rulings on other same-sex marriage cases will take the ultimate call out of his hands. “Any one of these cases,” he said, “or a combination, or all of them, will make their way to the Supreme Court.”


Dwayne Stovall campaign flyer
Dwayne Stovall campaign
Dwayne Stovall is Texas

Steve Stockman, the congressman and provocateur who’s trying to unseat longtime U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in next month’s Republican primary, has talked his way into more than his share of our WTF Friday roundups. And this week, he’s done it again.

Per an anti-Cornyn screed on his campaign site Thursday:

He thinks all these illegal aliens will vote for him and other Republicans.

That’s stupid!

The million of illegals John Cornyn wants to turn into legal voters will cancel out your vote.

And John Cornyn’s illegal alien voters will elect a permanent Democrat White House.

That’s why Obama is pushing Cornyn do [sic] hard to pass it!


That’s why the illegal alien lobby has endorsed John Cornyn.

But Stockman isn’t the only candidate running to Cornyn’s right in this race. And this week, his other challengers have been fighting back. Ken Cope, a retired Army officer from Midlothian, called on Stockman to drop out:

“As long as you continue in the race, your antics and embarrassing actions will steal the limelight from the serious candidates.”

Serious candidates, presumably, like Dwayne Stovall, the bridge-builder from north of Houston who’s garnered endorsements from the Pearland Tea Party to something called the Facebook Tea Party.

In a video posted this week from the Liberty Forum in Houston in January, Stovall showed he was a serious candidate, indeed. Serious as slavery. Serious as abortion. Serious as paying your taxes:

“Fiscally speaking, we are being enslaved. We are being stolen from 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. … That’s theft. They take our money and add to it with money we don’t have, and by the way the ol’ taxation without representation? What about unborn children? When your taxes, when you enslave the people of the nation in servitude to a national government to things you don’t give your consent to? You talk about tyranny.”

But the week’s most outstanding show of campaign seriousness came from retired Air Force Lt. Col. Reid Reasor. So many true statesmen who’ve stood bravely before a camera to share their disgust with President Obama’s State of the Union speech, but Reasor may have done it best. His 36-minute response to Obama’s hour-long speech hit YouTube Thursday, includes a stiff defense on behalf of “you white men banking Republican GOP guys,” George Soros’ plans for armed revolution in the streets, and a few lessons Reasor picked up in his time in San Marcos, “the Berkeley of Texas.”

The State of the Union, Reasor says is revolution:

“Who we are fighting is not the 1980s communists. That’s not who we’re fighting. We’re fighting the 1960s communists. We need to understand this is the era that influenced and impacted and made these people the way they are. These are the anti-America, you white rich people, you ugly imperialist folks. You capitalist haters that make people lower than. So much so that they actually hate America and love communism. They love communism, that’s who these people are. These are the Clintons, this is Obama.


Do I think our government right now is intentionally trying to cause the conditions for violent revolution in America? Absolutely.”

Feast your eyes, melt your mind, on the entire response below:


Alfred Wright
Sabine County Sheriff's Department
Alfred Wright

For months now—during the search for 28-year-old Alfred Wright last fall, and the investigations into his death that followed, on Jasper’s local TV news and on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360″—Wright’s family has resolutely hoped for one thing: a federal investigation they believe could uncover a truth local authorities might rather keep hidden.

Now, according to Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, the family may finally get its wish. On Monday, Jackson Lee announced the U.S. Department of Justice had been swayed by her request last month and would “investigate and take appropriate action” regarding Wright’s death.

The announcement, first reported Tuesday by the Beaumont Enterprise, is light on details of the scope of this new federal investigation, who’ll carry it out, and what impact it might have on the ongoing Texas Rangers’ investigation. The congresswoman’s office referred me to the Department of Justice for details.

A spokeswoman at the U.S. Attorney’s regional office in Beaumont said Tuesday she was aware of Jackson Lee’s announcement, but declined to comment, as did a Department of Justice spokeswoman in Washington.

Jackson Lee asked Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Wright’s death shortly after meeting with Wright’s family two weeks ago. Wright’s family and friends, and activists who’ve flocked to the “Justice for Alfred” cause, say the Sabine County Sheriff’s Department has mishandled Wright’s case from the start, or may even be hiding evidence that Wright was murdered.

A toxicology report attributed Wright’s death to a lethal combination of cocaine, methamphetamine and amphetamine, and said there were no signs of foul play. A forensic pathologist hired by the family disagreed with that last point, saying she found “signs suspicious of homicidal violence” on Wright’s body, including a cut across his neck.

Wright’s body was found in a field near where he’d disappeared weeks earlier, missing his eyes, an ear and some teeth—damage the official autopsy attributes to animal activity, but which some activists take as signs Wright was tortured before his death. Wright’s case has been a lightning rod in Jasper’s African-American community; rallies and fundraisers for Wright’s family have featured other stories of black men and women who’ve died or disappeared in the area under mysterious circumstances.

There’s no word on how soon Texas Rangers might finish their inquiry, or how federal involvement might affect their efforts. “The case remains under investigation,” Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger told the Observer Wednesday. “I don’t have any additional information at this time.”

In the absence of a conclusive investigation, Wright’s family and friends, and others around Jasper, have begun sharing a general sense of injustice, and specific theories about what really happened to Wright. Those theories got a national airing in a three-night series of reports on Anderson Cooper’s show. The third installment included a segment on a dime found near Wright’s body, suggesting a connection to Sheriff Tom Maddox’s ex-girlfriend, who said that when they were together, she often found dimes around her home. Reporter Deborah Feyerick explains the significance: “In the criminal world, dropping a dime means snitching on someone, and leaving a dime on a scene can be a warning to keep your mouth shut.”

On Monday, the Shreveport TV station KSLA aired a report on Wright’s case including a new anecdote from a Sabine County woman who said her husband, who is black, had recently stopped outside the same liquor store where Wright was last seen alive, two days prior to Wright’s disappearance. The woman said two men attacked her husband at the store and called him racial slurs, but Sheriff Maddox dismissed her concerns that the cases could be related.

And this morning, “Good Morning America” aired an interview with Wright’s wife, mother and father. Wright’s mother Rosalind directly addressed her doubts that her son’s death was accidental: “I feel like they held him hostage, and they tortured him.”

UPDATE Thursday at 3 p.m.:

Wright’s brother Savion is a contestant on the current season of American Idol, and on Wednesday night he performed a song he wrote for Alfred. Talking to host Ryan Seacrest, Savion only hints at the controversy around his brother’s death, saying, “I put all my anger and my emotions into my song.”

The reality show has driven even more national attention to Wright’s death than any previous reporting, and coincided with a crowdfunding campaign Savion Wright began for his brother’s family. Idol fans shared their outrage on Twitter, often sharing new stories in Rolling Out magazine that reject the official autopsy outright, including: “Black father found dead with throat cut, ear missing: Texas sheriff claims he overdosed” and “Alfred Wright murder: Ear cut off as trophy, like lynching postcards.”

Also on Thursday, KTRE reported that the Texas attorney general’s office has taken over the case from Sabine County prosecutors. District Attorney Kevin Dutton said in a press release:

“It is my understanding that the investigation by the Texas Rangers is substantially complete. … Due to the allegations against the sheriff, and to avoid any appearance of impropriety, I have been requested and have agreed to turn this case over to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.”


Previous coverage:

A Missing Man and Familiar Old Wounds in Jasper

Family, Activists Want Outside Help Investigating Jasper Man’s Death

Official Report Cites Drug Overdose as Cause of Alfred Wright’s Death

A supporter of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kesha Rogers, before the Martin Luther King Day parade in Houston.
Kesha Rogers for U.S. Senate/YouTube
A supporter of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kesha Rogers, before the Martin Luther King Day parade in Houston.

As we do every year at this time, we once again join together to remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to try and forget all the creepyobnoxious things that people and corporation-people had to say about his holiday.

Monday was all a little more SMH than WTF, so for the week’s strangest remarks we turn to a few regulars. We begin with lieutenant governor hopeful Dan Patrick, who asks if you know where your children are, and if they know how to count, because, as he said in a candidate forum last weekend reported in the Houston Chronicle, a great many immigrants are probably coming for them:

“[H]ardened criminals we arrested from 2008 to 2012 – not illegals who were here for a job, who got four speeding tickets, but hardened criminals – 141,000 we put in our jails just in four years in Texas.”

“They threaten your family. They threaten your life. They threaten your business. They threaten our state,” he said, adding that they were charged with 447,000 crimes including 2,000 murders and 5,000 rapes.


Those are some pretty dramatic numbers! And as Charles Kuffner has noted, they’re pretty ludicrous, too. Over that five-year stretch, Kuffner says, Texas saw just over 6,000 murders in Texas, meaning that “they” committed one third of the murders in Texas. Couple that with a congressional report which says that from 2008 to 2011, there were 219 murders committed by undocumented immigrants nationwide, and it’s a wonder any of us made it out of 2012 alive.

Enough of this scaremongering, and on to some smart border policy… Go, go, Gohmert!

“Israel has shown you can have a fence, even if it is a wire fence.”

That, of course, is the esteemed Congressman from deepest East Texas, Louie Gohmert, in the midst of an unfortunate civics lesson at Carlisle High School in Price. As the Longview News-Journal reported, government teacher David Minnix’s class invited Gohmert to speak, no doubt as some sort of “scared straight” program for aspiring politicians.

Gohmert took student questions and ran with them to some strange places, predicting “a massive rush” of 40 million people crossing the border from Mexico—”I think we’re wasting time talking about immigration reform”—and explaining why he blames Obamacare for forcing him to cite a litany of bogus costs and cancel his health insurance this week.

But as Lone Star Q pointed out, his most insensitive comments came as he delved into Gohmert’s Big Book of Plumbing:

“I’m not homophobic,” he said, noting his gay friends say they should be able to be with whomever they want. “I agree, but if we’re going to continue society, it’s between a man and a woman. … I still want someone to explain to me how sexual relations between two men helps our species evolve forward.”

He’s been trying out this line for a while now, but it might be the first time Gohmert has delivered a lesson in evolution at a school. The students looked pretty skeptical.

Last, we consider state Rep. Bill Zedler.

Good. That didn’t take long.

Zedler is a sort of Zen master on Twitter—he’s rarely the most offensive or sanctimonious voice in Texas politics, but there’s a bare-faced simplicity to his account that seems to perfectly distill the conservative outrage du jour. (But never actually in French!)

After the people’s filibuster ended last summer, it was Zedler who spread the word that “we had terrorist in the Texas State Senate.” During the government shutdown last fall, Zedler astutely noted, “Obama is closing down memorials, the ocean, etc, THAT HAVE NEVER BEEN SHUT DOWN BEFORE IN PREVIOUS SHUT DOWNS.”

Zedler’s tweets are CliffsNotes for Fox News, a declaration that he, too, has seen all this snark about the liberals and he gets the joke! And so this week, as the conservative backlash spread to Wendy Davis’ real biography—with all the subtlety of a gold-digger’s shovel to the head, Zedler offered this:


Nailed it.

That might even have been his best since last week, when he offered this contribution to the intelligence debate:


As the Houston Chronicle‘s Matt Schwartz was quick to point out, Zedler was absolutely right: “There has not been a single terrorist attack on lunar soil in that time.”

Responsive Education Solutions' campus map, in its 2013 annual report.
Responsive Education Solutions' campus map, in its 2013 annual report.

Zack Kopplin, the creationism-bustin’ wunderkind who made a name for himself fighting Louisiana’s school voucher scheme in 2010, has a great piece in Slate today detailing how Responsive Education Solutions—Texas’ largest charter school network—is using junk science straight out of the intelligent design playbook.

Kopplin has made national headlines before by exposing junk science and other ideologically driven lessons in state-funded private schools in Louisiana. His story today suggests Texas charter schools may be using their freedom to do the same thing. It’s also an interesting window into charter school operations that can be pretty opaque, despite Texas’ open records laws.

Through an open records request, Kopplin got his hands on a few of Responsive Ed’s “Knowledge Units” workbooks, which, for starters cast doubt on evolution and the scientific consensus that the Earth is between 4 and 5 billion years old. Kopplin asked the Lewisville-based school’s leadership about that:

In response to a question about whether Responsive Ed teaches creationism, its vice president of academic affairs, Rosalinda Gonzalez, told me that the curriculum “teaches evolution, noting, but not exploring, the existence of competing theories.”

Bringing creationism into a classroom by undermining evolution and “noting … competing theories” is still unconstitutional. What’s more, contrary to Gonzalez’s statement, teaching about supernatural creation in the section on the origins of life is doing far more than noting competing theories.

The Texas State Board of Education’s latest round of science textbook adoptions—while full of feisty debate over epigenetics and “gaps in the fossil record”—carried a lot less weight last year because Texas schools are no longer required to buy books the board has approved. That freedom was seen as a blow to creationists whose strategy had been to effect sweeping statewide change from the state board. But Kopplin notes that freedom would also allow other schools to follow Responsive Ed’s lead and teach books laced with junk science.

The history text also makes some novel assertions, blaming “anti-Christian bias,” in part, for the outbreak of World War I, and ornery samurai for Japan’s entry into World War II. The samurai, of course, were dissolved in the late 19th century, despite Tom Cruise’s best efforts. Feminism, the workbooks say, “created an entirely new class of females who lacked male financial support and who had to turn to the state as a surrogate husband.”

There a few more gems in the history curriculum:

About President Franklin Roosevelt, it teaches, “The New Deal had not helped the economy. However, it ushered in a new era of dependency on the Federal government.”

Perhaps the workbook’s best line comes when it explains that President Jimmy Carter pardoned Vietnam War draft dodgers out of “a misguided sense of compassion.”

Sleuthing around Responsive Ed’s leadership, Kopplin highlights strong connections between the school and conservative Christian home-schooling outfits and publishers like Accelerated Christian Education and Paradigm Accelerated Curriculum.

Responsive Ed operates 70 campuses, according to its website, with 20 more on the way in Texas this year. Its schools include the “Premier High Schools,” “Vista Academies,” “Classical Academies,” “iSchool High” and “Quest Middle School” brands. Responsive Ed operates the Texas Virtual Academy, which, as Forrest Wilder noted in 2008, has been a haven for home-schooling parents hoping to avoid lessons on evolution. Responsive Ed is also part of a Gates Foundation-backed partnership between charter operators and Austin ISD.

In the story, Kopplin wonders whether the Legislature is likely to investigate these lessons, as  Senate Education chair (and lieutenant governor hopeful) Dan Patrick has proposed doing for another charter chain, Harmony Public Schools. (Harmony has been a longtime tea party target, over concern that it’s tied to Turkish and Muslim leaders). Kopplin doubts Patrick will be quite as upset about Responsive Ed, given that he’s previously supported the chain, and already said he supports teaching creationism in public schools.

Dan Quinn at the Texas Freedom Network turns up in the Slate piece noting Texas’ history of lax regulation of charter schools. Last year the Legislature gave the Texas Education Agency more power to close underperforming charters, and since then TEA has already moved to close six of them. But regulating the content of charters’ curriculum—even when it violates the U.S. Constitution—would mean going much further.

In response to the story, TFN director Kathy Miller said Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams should investigate Responsive Ed. “If these allegations are true,” she said in a statement Wednesday, “they represent a shocking betrayal of the trust that parents and taxpayers put into our charter schools.”

UPDATE: Official Report Cites Drug Overdose as Cause of Alfred Wright’s Death

Family and activists plan "Justice for Alfred" march this weekend
Alfred Wright's family
Patrick Michels
Alfred Wright's mother Rosalind, father Douglas, sister Kassilia and wife Lauren stand beside Beaumont lawyer Ryan MacLeod in December.

Update Jan. 14 at 9:22 a.m.:  In a 10-minute segment Monday night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360° gave Alfred Wright’s mysterious death the national spotlight Wright’s family has been hoping for.

Reporting from Jasper and Hemphill County, Deborah Feyerick offers a dramatic account of the mysterious circumstances around Wright’s death, in interviews with Wright’s wife Lauren, his father Douglas, and Beaumont lawyer Ryan MacLeod. CNN mentions the official report that Wright’s death was an accidental overdose, but raises a few new details, including: that Wright’s throat appears to have been cut and that his body was found missing an ear (neither of which are mentioned in the official autopsy); that Wright had been friends with Sheriff Tom Maddox’s daughter; and that—according to his family—Wright’s body did not appear to have been exposed to the elements for the entire three weeks he was missing.

You can watch that segment below. Part two of their story will air Tuesday night.

Original story: Family, friends and civil rights activists from deep East Texas to Houston have been waiting months for the medical examiner’s word on what killed Alfred Wright, the 28-year-old whose body was found in a Sabine County field weeks after authorities called off their search for the missing man. Now that wait is over.

The official report from a Beaumont medical examiner attributes Wright’s death to “combined drug intoxication,” with levels of cocaine and its byproducts “within lethal range” along with methamphetamine and amphetamine. Consistent with a preliminary report released in December, the new report (which includes some graphic descriptions) says there are “no signs of trauma” on Wright’s body. Texas Rangers have already taken over the investigation into Wright’s death—with some help from the FBI.

“We ask for the public’s patience and request that they withhold passing judgment on this case until the investigation is complete and all the facts have been established,” DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said Wednesday. Multiple agencies, Vinger said, are combining efforts to gather fact “in a deliberate and methodical manner.”

The mysterious disappearance of Wright, a black man, from a county road south of Hemphill became a rallying point for locals worried that Wright had become the area’s latest victim of racially motivated violence, and convinced that the local sheriff’s department hadn’t done enough to find him. Some had so little trust for law enforcement that they were convinced of an official cover-up.

The official search for Wright—including teams of volunteers, dogs, horses and an airplane—centered on a field with a barbed-wire fence where Wright’s clothes and belongings were found, and lasted four days before Sheriff Tom Maddox declared there was nowhere left to search. Weeks later, a group of Wright’s family and friends found his body about 100 yards from the fence where his clothes had snagged, in an area Wright’s family says they were told they couldn’t search.

Maddox says the limits he put on the ground search were safety measures to keep people from getting lost or wandering the woods in the second week of deer season. “I’m sorry we didn’t find the man,” he told the Observer this week. “But hey, every effort there was put out, way out and beyond the call of duty.”

But lawyers at the Bernsen Law Firm in Beaumont, which has been representing the family, have complained about investigators’ lack of professionalism. Early on, a sheriff’s deputy suggested on Facebook that Wright had simply skipped town to avoid legal troubles, and well before the toxicology results were released, other investigators had suggested Wright’s death was probably drug-related.

On Wednesday, the law firm said in a statement that the new autopsy results were a “self-serving continuation of that rhetoric,” and leave plenty of questions unanswered. (Why, for instance, on his way home from work, and while waiting for a ride from his family, would Wright have ingested such a dangerous combination of drugs?) At a press conference the firm hosted last month, a private pathologist hired by Wright’s family said her examination yielded “findings that are definitely suspicious for homicidal violence.”

That press conference drew a caravan of concerned Jasper residents, and it also attracted religious and community activists from Houston and Galveston—some tied to national civil rights groups—who vowed to publicize Wright’s case and call for a federal investigation.

Flyer advertising Saturday's rally calling for Justice for Alfred Wright
Flyer advertising Saturday’s rally calling for Justice for Alfred Wright

On Saturday, activists and Wright’s family will march on Saturday to Beaumont’s Jack Brooks Federal Building with “Justice for Alfred” T-shirts, calling for a federally managed investigation into his death. “We are aware of recent news releases ruling Alfred’s death as accidental,” the flyer says. “This is not an acceptable answer to the circumstances surrounding his death and we will continue to seek answers.”

In December, activists said that even an official ruling that Wright’s death was accidental wouldn’t dissuade them from the cause. Rev. Nathaniel Brown, president of the Galveston chapter of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, told the Observer he was troubled by the local investigation and by its lack of communication with Wright’s family.

Brown joined Quanell X, a leader of the New Black Panther Party in Houston, in a rally outside the Sabine County Sheriff’s Department last fall. “East Texas is the last bastion of great hate that has not been dealt with by the mass of Texans,” Quanell X told the Observer.

“This is a real live murder mystery and it can be solved, but it won’t be solved from within Jasper and Sabine County,” Houston activist Deric Muhammad told the Observer last month. “It’s going to take some outside pressure. So as long as these people, these rednecks in these small towns, know that the likelihood of a camera showing up is slim to none, they’re gonna keep doing what they’re gonna do.”

Tony Diaz
Tony Diaz

Last fall, hundreds of protesters gathered at the University of Texas at Austin after a student group announced it would stage a game of “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” around campus. The local Young Conservatives of Texas chapter was planning a human scavenger hunt, with targets wearing “illegal immigrant” buttons, but canceled the game after receiving criticism from across the country.

The same day, just a few blocks from campus, Houston author and activist Tony Diaz stood before the State Board of Education to offer a modest suggestion: The students who’d organized that “game” just might have benefited from a class that instilled a little cultural sensitivity. The game, he said, was “proof that we need Mexican-American studies in Texas.”

The timing was coincidental. Diaz, who is also director of intercultural initiatives at Lone Star College, had been planning his speech and rallying supporters well before the “catch an immigrant” fiasco blew up.

The State Board of Education was deciding what courses will be necessary for new graduation requirements the Legislature passed last session. Those changes have been controversial; there’s been strong resistance by Latino advocacy groups, among others, to eliminating courses like Algebra II—generally seen as important college preparation—from basic diploma requirements.

But Diaz saw a fresh opportunity in the turmoil. One provision of the law, he noted, adds a “community engagement” aspect to school district evaluations. Adding Mexican-American studies to graduation requirements, Diaz told the board, would go a long way now that more than half of Texas’ students are Hispanic.

But a few board members were skeptical. Diaz made public a conversation he’d had with Houston Republican Donna Bahorich before the meeting. Bahorich wondered, Diaz said, whether Mexican-American literature would be “as intellectually rigorous” as British literature.

“These courses don’t exist,” Georgetown Republican Tom Maynard told Diaz at the meeting, “but the school district has the capacity to create the course.” A handful of schools already offer them, in fact.

“I would beg you,” Diaz responded, “to hear our community say that it should be listed explicitly.”

His appeal was answered the next day, when Ruben Cortez, a new board member from Brownsville, submitted Mexican-American history to the state’s list of new social studies courses to develop. Before joining the board, Cortez had watched from afar as a hyper-political State Board of Education tried to scrub the history standards of figures like labor organizer Dolores Huerta. Cortez told the Observer he was amazed by the board’s response. “Nobody raised an objection to my request. I was kind of speechless, everybody just stayed quiet.”

Cortez sees the board’s acceptance of his proposal as a sign of greater cultural sensitivity, and he’s looking forward to the next potentially divisive step in the process: nominating experts to help design the course. That’s all still a ways off—Mexican-American history is now just one of many on the board’s “wish list” for the future—but the board should advance its plans for those new courses in its meeting later this month.

University of Texas history professor Emilio Zamora says this is the biggest advance in Mexican-American studies education in a decade. A 2003 law authored by state Rep. Roberto Alonzo (D-Dallas) allowed community colleges to offer Mexican-American studies programs. Now Cortez and the rest of the board are poised to do the same thing for Texas’ public schools.

Along with its relevance to the millions of Hispanic students in Texas schools, Zamora says, a Mexican-American history course is a good way for students to develop a better understanding of broader themes in U.S. history and understand “that our national history includes multiple histories,” he says. “I think that’s an important justification that people don’t really talk about.”

Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Frisco) in a santa hat
Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Frisco)

It sure seems like the War on Christmas starts earlier and earlier each year. Those Black Friday bruises have barely healed up, and like clockwork, there’s a gang of elf-loving, milk-and-cookie-mad yuletide patriots anxious to remind you which six letters start the word “Christmas.”

This was supposed to be the first year of peacetime Christmas, thanks to Houston Republican Rep. Dwayne Bohac and the “Merry Christmas bill” he authored in the last Legislature, ensuring public schools are free to celebrate Christmas—or Hanukkah, or the traditional winter holiday  of your choice—without fear of upsetting non-believers.

But even with Texas law behind it, Christmas wasn’t safe this year. The original “forever war” blew up again last week in—of all places—Frisco, the choice Dallas suburb whose quaint holiday-fired largesse once made it a case study in modern American Christmas spirit.

All it took was one rogue elementary school parent to send around party-planning emails reminding everyone to avoid the word “Christmas” and the colors red and green, and by Thursday activists had organized an “emergency meeting” in Frisco with Frisco Republican Rep. Pat Fallon.

“We have to draw a line in the sand—it is a Christmas break we’re having. We are not taking a break just because it’s winter.”

That’s how Fallon explained the cause to the Dallas Morning News this week. (And if you really want to keep Christmas safe, consider a stylish gift from Fallon’s own Virtus Apparel for the “armed and fabulous lady” on your list.)

Alice Linahan, the anti-CSCOPE activist whose recent emails suggest you “Give the Gift of American Exceptionalism to your child or grandchild,” helped organize the meeting. And sure enough, as the News reported, talk turned quickly from Christmas to CSCOPE.

CBS11 investigated the situation further, and declared the “Christmas Spirit Alive” at the school after all, finding “festive hats” on the crossing guards and letters to Santa on the walls. As one school parent lamented:

“It’s a shame, however this all started, that it’s put a bad light on the school.”

Fallon, though, continued beating the dead reindeer on Friday for David Barton’s “Wallbuilders Live.” As Right Wing Watch noted, Fallon said he and his wife planned on testing the limits of our festive freedoms, by passing out “Jesus is the reason for the season” T-shirts at school. And he’s got the tough talk to prove his dedication:

“And I tell you right now, they’d better not send any of those children home, or there’s going to be some issues.”

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