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Snake Oil

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams says TEA will get serious with those who cheat the accountability system.

One of the nice things about starting a new job is that nobody can blame you for mistakes that happened before you arrived.

Michael Williams, for instance, must have been thrilled to take over the Texas Education Agency a year ago, and not have to answer for TEA’s colossal inaction in response to cheating complaints at El Paso ISD. Twice in 2010, TEA cleared El Paso ISD of wrongdoing—before a federal investigation confirmed the district was “disappearing” low-scoring students to game federal accountability ratings, carrying out one of the most nefarious cheating schemes ever in U.S. schools.

Not long after he became education commissioner, Williams pledged to get to the bottom of TEA’s failure, asking State Auditor John Keel to investigate all the nasty stuff that went on before he got there.

The state auditor’s report was released a week ago. It pretty much confirms early EPISD whistleblowers’ concerns that TEA was (a) uninterested in investigating their complaints and (b) overmatched by then-Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia’s scheme. The El Paso Times, which got an early copy of the audit, summed it up in the headline, “Texas Education Agency can’t spot cheating.”

Williams made the most of the moment, telling the Times that TEA’s past response was “an entire organizational breakdown and … started with the old leadership team.” But now, he assured them, there’s a new sheriff in town: “This is a new agency, this is a new leadership team and this leadership team understands the importance of aggressively ferreting out and identifying the truth.”

Williams said nobody at the agency will be punished based on the audit’s findings. He blamed leadership and institutional shortcomings at TEA, which is consistent with the new audit. I’ve highlighted a few choice passages from the audit below, but the main takeaway is that TEA is not built to catch the kind of cheating that went on at El Paso ISD and, it seems, other districts around the state.

If a district is mishandling state money, or if teachers are helping students to cheat on tests, TEA has ways to investigate those complaints. But if whole groups of students are being misclassified or shooed away from class to boost a school district’s test scores, the agency is paralyzed. While they don’t dwell on TEA’s shrinking staff and funding over the years, auditors note that TEA is poorly outfitted for fraud-catching, with just one investigator.

One TEA employee told auditors she’d been suspicious of the miracle turnaround underway at EPISD, but didn’t know who to tell about it. TEA’s plan for monitoring districts, according to the audit, “does not encourage Agency employees to initiate investigations based on observations and professional judgment.” And when the U.S. Department of Education directed TEA to investigate 10 complaints from then-state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, TEA’s investigators decided half of them were outside the agency’s jurisdiction, and never followed up.

State auditors recalled the time in 2009 when the Winfree Academy Charter Schools around Dallas rearranged their students so none were listed as 10th graders—meaning there’d be no test scores on which to base a federal rating—and TEA only caught it after receiving an outside complaint.

That, too, was on former commissioner Robert Scott’s watch. (Scott didn’t reply to a voicemail from the Observer, nor has he spoken with other media about the new audit.) But blaming the old boss for TEA’s shortcomings doesn’t quite explain what went wrong.

The Dallas Morning News was quick to point out TEA’s cursory investigation—before Scott’s arrival—after a Morning News report uncovered many schools making “statistically improbable gains” in test scores. TEA did hire an outside investigator, which found hundreds more suspicious schools. TEA responded with swift and ruthless justice… by sending those schools a questionnaire about their test security.

But why stop there? Walt Haney, the Boston College researcher famous for debunking the “Texas Miracle” of rising test scores in the ’90s, analyzed statewide enrollment by grade in 2001. His results, he wrote, “clearly suggest the possibility that after 1990-91, when TAAS was first implemented, schools in Texas have increasingly been failing students, disproportionately Black and Hispanic students, in grade nine in order to make their grade 10 TAAS scores look better.”

Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia’s way of “disappearing” students from the 10th grade was a particularly nasty rendition of the same old con. So long as there’s such a huge incentive to raise test scores, administrators will keep finding creative ways to beat the system. And when the state’s investigators are underfunded and uninterested, it’s that much easier for cheaters to get away with it.

Now, at least, Michael Williams says TEA is ready to get proactive. TEA responded to the state audit by announcing that it will create a new office dedicated to these investigations. The agency will start watching districts’ enrollment and testing data for funny stuff. And as for TEA’s outdated complaint tracking system, the one that made it so hard to communicate within the agency—they began work on its replacement six years ago. According to TEA’s response to the audit, there was just one problem:

“The project was not able to be completed due to budget constraints and resource limitations.”


Forty years after NASA canceled its Apollo 20 mission to the moon, Houston’s school district reclaimed the name for a new program with even bolder ambitions: Turn around 20 of its most struggling schools, lower dropout rates and boost test scores.

The program shares a goal with the most popular school reform initiatives—from Teach for America to the KIPP charter schools—and it draws inspiration from their methods as well. The Apollo 20 program stresses longer school days and one-on-one tutoring, plus less clearly defined priorities like quality school leadership and high standards with a “no excuses” approach.

Some education experts saw Apollo 20 as such a revolutionary program because it took lessons from the charter-school movement and applied them in the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

Since Apollo 20 launched in fall 2010, it’s been featured in a PBS Frontline documentary, lauded by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and has attracted just shy of $17 million in support from private foundations and implacable do-gooders like Chevron and JPMorgan Chase. Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier claims that the dropout rate has hit an all-time low, and the graduation rate an all-time high.

At the same time, Apollo 20 has been lambasted by critics who say the district is spending too much to help too few students. They also say the program’s reforms have been disruptive. Before the program’s first year, more than one-third of the teachers in Apollo 20 schools were replaced; 76 first-year Teach for America teachers helped take their place.

Principals in some Apollo 20 high schools turned over frequently: After one principal left Kashmere High in 2012, his predecessor had to return from a nonprofit he’d fled to just months earlier. Four of the nine new Apollo principals left after less than two years. Another Apollo campus, Ryan High, was slated for closure earlier this year.

Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist whose research formed the basis for Grier’s design, sent research teams to evaluate Apollo 20 classrooms and test results. Fryer released encouraging research on the results after Apollo 20’s first year, showing gains on state math and reading tests, and modest improvement in school attendance. But Fryer’s report also criticized the program for presenting students with material that they found too easy.

Two years later, some of the program’s funders are growing impatient. Fryer’s next round of research is due in November, though the Houston Chronicle reported that this isn’t soon enough for the Houston Endowment, which is withholding the final third of a $9 million grant until it sees the results of Apollo’s first three years.

“It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen data,” Houston Endowment President Ann Stern told the Observer. “All of us in public education are going to learn a lot from these results, so we want to get it right.”

Stern is satisfied to wait a month or two more for Fryer’s report, but the Houston Endowment’s announcement set off a brief panic in the school board, which contemplated asking Fryer to speed up his results, then voted to hire an outside reviewer to check out Fryer’s report for bias or faulty methodology.

Fryer, a 2011 MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, wasn’t too pleased, judging from an email he wrote to Grier, which the Chronicle published. “I think your school Board is a bit confused about the academic process,” he wrote.

Perhaps, but we’ll all find out soon enough if Apollo 20 has been a success, or if its promises were out of this world.

Jen Reel
A drill instructor at the Brownsville Academic Center.

Back in June, the Observer featured Brownsville ISD’s boot camp school, exploring the question of whether—to steal a line from the cover of the magazine—”military-style discipline helps or harms.”

The Brownsville Academic Center, a gleaming new $8 million campus built for up to 200 students, is Texas’ largest boot-camp style disciplinary school—but as I wrote in that story, it isn’t the only one. Juvenile boot camps, popular in the ’80s and ’90s heyday of zero-tolerance discipline, have generally fallen out of fashion after a string of allegations of abuse and intimidation by drill instructors.

These school district-run programs promise a kinder, gentler approach drawing on the military as an inspiration for the structure and self-esteem the schools hope to hard-wire into students. Still, it’s an extreme model for a public school—especially when it’s the only disciplinary program the district provides.

Here, then, is a rundown of the other districts around Texas with boot camp-style disciplinary schools. Any quotes are from district spokespeople or principals. This isn’t a scientific list—it’s based on my own research and interviews with school officials, so join in the comments with any others you know and I’ll add them here.

Judson ISD (San Antonio)
Judson Secondary Alternative School
Students: 15
Grade range: 6-12

The district has other disciplinary options, but students are referred here for “significant and or chronic disruption to the safety and education of the student or fellow students.” It includes military uniforms, drill instructors, physical training and a zero-tolerance discipline policy.

Southwest ISD (San Antonio)
Southwest ISD Boot Camp
Students: 25-28
Grade range: 6-12

One of two disciplinary programs run by the district, students are referred here for “infractions of the student code of conduct.” It was created as a “transition back to the traditional secondary campuses.”

Sherman ISD
Sherman ISD Boot Camp

(Sherman ISD officials did not reply to questions)

Lamar CISD (Southwest Houston suburbs)
Fort Bend County Alternative School
Students: 14-23
Grade range: 4-12

LCISD has its own alternative learning center, but operates this school under contract for the Fort Bend County Juvenile Probation Department, not its own students.

Floresville ISD
Wilson County Boot Camp School
Students: up to 25
Grade range: 7-11

A partnership with the Karnes/Wilson County Juvenile Probation Department, it’s a juvenile justice alternative education program (or JJAEP) for mandatory expulsions, or for students referred by a judge. Floresville ISD runs a separate (non-boot camp) disciplinary program as well.

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD
Buell Central High School

Includes military dress, physical training and drill instructors. Students are referred for violating the student code of conduct.

Harlingen CISD
Secondary Alternative Center
Students: 93
Grade range: 6-12

HCISD’s only disciplinary program, the “S.A.C. uses military drill, counseling, and strategies in order to achieve student success.”


You’ll notice none of these districts are among the wealthiest in the state. As I wrote in June:

Misbehaving kids from Austin, Houston and Highland Park don’t wear battle-dress uniforms to school or have a drill sergeant follow them into the bathroom for “head breaks.” Most of BAC’s students come from schools in the poorest parts of town, where the military and Border Patrol recruit heavily.

That last line was based on remarks I heard repeatedly during interviews, that students from Brownsville’s poorest schools were disproportionately represented at the boot camp.

Adding up five years of referrals to BAC show that’s pretty much the case. In the map below, each dot represents a Brownsville ISD school—blue for high schools, green for middle—and the size of the dot represents how many students were referred to BAC. Click on a dot, or hover over the school’s name on the table, for more detail.

El Paso ISD School Board
Patrick Michels
El Paso ISD trustees, in happier times.

Former El Paso ISD Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia is still cooling his heels in a Pennsylvania prison on the mighty Susquehanna River, but the cheating scandal that put him in jail is now spurring other investigations in school districts outside El Paso.

McAllen ISD, 800 miles from El Paso, is the latest district touched by investigations into special policies that keep transfer students from Mexico out of 10th grade—when test scores determine a school’s state ratings.

It’s less insidious than Garcia’s scheme in El Paso ISD—in which students with limited English skills were intimidated into staying home on test days, or told to leave the school district—but it reflects a common response in border school districts adapting to the huge influx of students fleeing violence in Mexico, beginning in 2007.

There’s a delicate line between McAllen ISD’s policy and an all-out gaming of the system, as The Monitor in McAllen describes it:

To be clear, the McAllen school district is not accused of cheating, but in the world of Texas education, the questionable practice — at first glance — shares a similar characteristic to a high-profile scandal in El Paso that dates back to 2010.

The El Paso Times broke the McAllen ISD story on Tuesday, based on an audit released this month about El Paso’s Socorro ISD, which had a similar policy from 2007 to 2012.

According to auditor Pam Padilla, from 2009 to 2012 Socorro ISD kept 70 transfer students from Mexico in ninth grade their first year, then skipped them past 10th grade—the year their standardized tests count for the school’s state rating.

Socorro’s superintendent at the time, Xavier De La Torre—who’s since moved on to lead a large district in Northern California—says he had no idea about the policy. He’s blamed either his predecessor, or counselors acting on their own. Socorro ISD placed four administrators on leave after the audit came out this month.

The El Paso ISD scandal struck fear in border school administrators who scrambled to audit their districts’ policies toward students transferring from Mexico.

This summer, Congressman Beto O’Rourke called on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate all of El Paso County’s school districts.

Canutillo ISD is one such district—where according to an internal audit released in December—Garcia’s lieutenant Damon Murphy replicated the scheme to boost test scores by manipulating transcripts and holding back students deemed likely to score low on state tests. Facing pressure from the school board, Murphy resigned later that month, and others in the district also left.

When I was in El Paso last year reporting on El Paso ISD, people I spoke with were convinced that Garcia’s scheme had spread not just around El Paso, but all along the border and throughout South Texas.

Dan Wever, a former El Paso ISD board member and one of the first to notice the district’s stats looked fishy, said EPISD administrators had software to predict which students would score low on the state tests, so they could take action before test day. Those programs, like Inova and Eduphoria, would help any other district do the same.

Eliot Shapleigh, the former state senator who very publicly accused Garcia of running a scam in 2009, was adamant that Garcia had brought “a cancer” into El Paso’s schools. “I have no doubt that this approach has been rolled out in various states, and different districts around the state,” he said.

Anti-CSCOPE activist Alice Linahan
Patrick Michels
Anti-CSCOPE activist Alice Linahan speaks at the Capitol Monday, next to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Kids in school learn that it only took four major battles to secure Texas’ freedom. But that was before today, before Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Rep. Steve Toth and a few of their favorite patriots fired the first shots in the Battle of Llano ISD.

The enemy, of course, is CSCOPE, the curriculum tool that’s become a hot target for Texas culture warriors who claim its lessons support an anti-American and anti-Christian agenda.

After enlisting lawmakers to make an example of CSCOPE, the program’s Tea Party foes discovered that by striking CSCOPE down, they had made it more powerful than they could possibly imagine. Once CSCOPE’s state-funded managers pulled the plug on the lesson plans, they fell into the public domain—free for any teacher to copy its lessons. Rural school districts have indicated they still want to use CSCOPE’s lessons next year.

Now CSCOPE’s opponents have gone to the courts, and announced at a press conference today that they’ve secured a temporary restraining order preventing Llano ISD teachers from using any CSCOPE lessons.

Llano Tea Party president Bill Hussey is one of six plaintiffs in the suit (read the whole thing below), which says Llano ISD will run afoul of a new state law if its employees use CSCOPE lessons in the classroom. Senate Bill 1406, by Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), “bring[s] the lesson plans under the same vetting process that the [State Board of Education] uses for textbooks and instructional materials,” according to the House Research Organization.

But thanks to a 2011 law, that vetting process is totally optional for textbooks, notes Thomas Ratliff, a Republican State Board of Education member who’s pushed back strongest against the “Stop CSCOPE” movement. Under a different bill passed earlier this year, districts have to hold hearings and get public input before adopting new curriculum materials.

Ratliff says CSCOPE is subject to the same local control afforded to any textbook, and he doesn’t see much merit in the Llano ISD case. “Whoever wrote that TRO would do very well on the state standardized test for creative writing,” he says.

That man is Tim Cowart, a personal injury and family lawyer in Llano who introduced himself today as “not a government lawyer,” “not an education lawyer,” but “a podunk lawyer from Tow, Texas, that’s spelled T-O-W.” Standing next to Dewhurst today, he recalled how Hussey visited him with a story from the local newspaper about Llano ISD planning to use CSCOPE, despite the new law about the state review process.

“What they’re all saying is [S.B. 1406] doesn’t apply because CSCOPE is in the public domain. … I can say this, I’ve got a neighbor of mine in Tow, Texas, named Boose”—he didn’t bother spelling that one out—”and Boose tells me that you can try to glue quills onto an armadilluh, but that’s not gonna make him a porcupine,” Cowart said. Dewhurst, beside him, stared straight ahead as Cowart went on, “In this situation these lesson plans were developed by these educational service centers, thus they are subject to State Board of Education approval.”

Cowart said District Judge Dan Mills signed the restraining order last Friday “based on our side of the story.” Next, he’s scheduled to fight it out with Llano ISD’s lawyers at the Burnet County courthouse this Friday, August 16, at 1:30 p.m.

In a statement today, Llano ISD administration said it “believes that its actions are legal, and is contesting the claims raised in the lawsuit.” Llano ISD Superintendent Casey Callahan wouldn’t elaborate on the legal case they’ll make on Friday, but did say he’d been hearing from “many concerned teachers” since news of the lawsuit broke. “We didn’t expect this. I don’t know how else to put that.”

The coming court fight is just the latest chapter in a controversy that looked to be finished months ago, except on conservative networks like Texas CSCOPE Review and Alice Linahan’s Women on the Wall Radio. They’ve kept up the drumbeat calling for Ratliff’s impeachment (over conflict of interest with his lobbying work for Microsoft) and further investigation into CSCOPE’s finances. Toth, a Republican freshman from The Woodlands, urged Ratliff today to either resign his SBOE seat or give up his business with Microsoft—repeating a suggestion, common among CSCOPE’s loudest critics, that Ratliff is pushing an effort by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote the Obama administration’s Common Core standards.

“The layers have been peeled back, and peeled back,” Linahan said today. “I firmly believe that Common Core is in Texas.”

Gov. Rick Perry has vowed that Texas won’t adopt the Obama administration’s Common Core standards—but Linahan says CSCOPE is rooted in the same collectivist, pro-critical-thinking mindset. In an email promoting today’s press conference, she detailed what’s at stake:

If we allow our public schools to be taken over by the Common Core/CSCOPE philosophy of education they will fail. Charter Public and Private schools will no doubt fill in the gap. The challenge is these schools are run by appointed boards and they are beholden to who provides the grant money. Local elected school boards will be no more. The gift of earning that vote by a local school board giving freedom and control to parents and teachers in the community will be no more. Our American System will be effectively dismantled from the ground up. School Choice then becomes no choice.

Today Dewhurst thanked Linahan and other anti-CSCOPE activists for their efforts, and said the restraining order against Llano ISD is evidence that “the active participation of citizens” remains critical to our democracy.

“I personally have a problem with any effort to politicize this fight,” added Dewhurst, who is facing a primary challenge from Dan Patrick.

Update Friday at 4:33 p.m.: Saying his court lacks jurisdiction judge in Burnet County has set aside the temporary restraining order on Llano ISD, the Austin American-Statesman‘s Kate Alexander tweeted today.

For background on the CSCOPE panic, check out our web feature posted Friday: “Adios, Reality: Texas Culture Wars Take a Madcap Turn.”


Three long months ago—back when folks were still calling 2013 the Legislature’s “kumbaya” year—school funding was one of the things that had Republicans and Democrats singing and holding hands.

After cutting $5.4 billion from schools in 2011, lawmakers came back together this year to add $3.4 billion back in.

That extra cash, along with a big scaling back of standardized testing in high schools, was enough to prompt the judge in the big school finance trial to reopen the case. Lawyers for school districts, charter school groups and the state will regroup to argue the numbers again in January.

So, at last, here’s the only chart you ever need to see about school finance in Texas:



Kidding! But ultra-simple (and outdated) pictures like this are still used regularly to paint Texas’ school system as a bloated, out-of-control money-sucker.

Nothing is simple in Texas school finance. Even after two years, whether the Lege cut $5.4 billion or $4 billion from schools in 2011 is a matter of entrenched debate. Federal, state and local money all figure into the total. Your local school district’s budget depends on its enrollment, its tax rate and what the local property is worth—plus a recapture system that redistributes money from the richest districts to poorer ones.

Now that the dust has settled on the session, and as schools get the 2013-2014 school year started, it’s a fine time to step back and look at how the next budget figures into big school finance trends.

The first thing to remember is that the state’s public school system is growing at a steady clip.



And the students coming into the school system are the ones who cost more to educate.



Since the last estimates from before the session, we’ve got a better idea of what school spending will look like in 2014-15, as well as what the state spent in 2012-13. In her breakdown of the new school budget picture, Center for Public Policy Priorities analyst Chandra Villanueva noted that in the next two years, Texas will still spend $761 less per student than it did five years ago. Here’s a year-by-year look based on CPPP’s data, zoomed in to show how it’s been changing:



When she shared these numbers—they’re based on reporting from the Legislative Budget Board—Villanueva explained that the spike in 2009 only reflects the Lege spending more to undo a payment deferral from the previous session.

Students are better off in the next two years than they were the last two. But the long-term trend—the most important measure for a system like public schools—is less spending over time:



This chart from CPPP is based on one produced by Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston). The gray bars in the background show Texas’ growing enrollment, and that red line across the top is the overall per-student spending shown in the previous chart.

When District Judge John Dietz ruled in February that the state’s school finance system was unconstitutional, he pointed to a similar (though less colorful) chart from the LBB that showed inflation-adjusted spending hadn’t changed much since 2004, even though the school system has to serve many more students:

LBB chart


When he and the lawyers get back together in January, they can add two more years to the trend line. This is an unscientific Photoshop job, but based on CPPP’s inflation-adjusted numbers, I’ve extended that chart out a couple years:



What that line of little diamonds shows is that, once you correct for inflation, Texas’ school spending has increased pretty modestly over the last 10 years. Its enrollment over the same stretch has risen by almost a quarter.

Remember that the next time you hear about reckless waste in public education. Even with some of the damage from 2011 undone, the long-term trend is that we’re spending less on each young Texan’s education.

Partying for School Choice on Milton Friedman’s 101st Birthday

David Dewhurst's gift to school choice fans on Friedman's birthday: He'll skip the two-thirds rule to pass a voucher bill in 2015.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Patrick Michels
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst speaks at Americans for Prosperity-Texas' school choice event at the Acton School of Business in Austin Wednesday.

If you’re anything like me, you woke up this morning with a little extra spring in your step. The birds seemed to sing a little sweeter, the coffee brewed a little stronger. Because July 31 is a great day for America—today would’ve been free-market hero Milton Friedman’s 101st birthday. How did you celebrate? Maybe you treated yourself to a haircut, or splurged on a spa treatment and soaked up the cucumber and freedom.

Or maybe, like me, you celebrated with Sen. Donna Campbell and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, for a school choice jam session in the Capitol Grill. Maybe you followed that up with Americans for Prosperity’s school choice ice cream social this afternoon.

And maybe now you’re a little jealous.

Those are just a few of the ways school choice fans—folks who want to see way more publicly funded, privately run alternatives to the traditional public school system—celebrated Friedman Fest 2013.

It’s funny timing for Texas school choice fans to celebrate, so soon after Senate Republican leaders’ promises for “taxpayer savings grants” fell so completely flat in the House. Sen. Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 2 will expand the state’s charter school program, but it’s a far more modest change than what Patrick had hoped for.

Back in the days of James Leininger’s San Antonio voucher program, education free-marketeers really had something to rally around. In 2013, even with such a strong Republican majority in the Legislature, 103 House members signed on to an amendment prohibiting public spending (or tax credits) on private schools. So how do you celebrate the eternal word of Milton Friedman in a time like this?

By repeating the arguments Friedman made 50 years ago, for starters, and decking them out in red, white and blue. As Donna Campbell reminded the room at the TPPF event: “Folks, we’re in Texas. We’re in America. Choice. Shouldn’t parents have the freedom to choose the best school for their child?”

Sen. Donna Campbell
Patrick Michels
Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) speaks at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s school choice event on Milton Friedman’s birthday.

Over the lunch hour today, Campbell re-explained her taxpayer savings grant bill to a crowd that was already on board. Tom Currah, a senior adviser in the comptroller’s office, explained how the state calculated how much voucher bills cost or save the state.

Lindsay Gustafson, with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association until recently, reprised her role as foil for TPPF’s school choice crowd—”My boss calls me the piñata at these things”—wondering how private schools would be accountable for how they spend public money. The school choice argument is rooted in the fear that our school system today is failing, and Gustafson said there are plenty of measures, like scores on the NAEP test, to show today’s schools are doing pretty well.

Peggy Venable, the Texas director for Americans for Prosperity, couldn’t let that one go: “One of the tragedies of our system,” she said, “is that we can sit here and say that our public schools are overall doing very well.” Venable reminded the room of the kids trapped in failing public schools, the reason vouchers are “the civil rights issue of our generation.”

Venable was the only one who mentioned Friedman’s legacy, calling him an “amazing, amazing man,” and fondly recalling his visit to a TPPF event years ago. At her group’s ice cream social a few hours later, Uncle Miltie’s presence was strong.

AFP’s event was at the Acton School of Business—the school founded by Jeff Sandefer, Rick Perry’s higher education visionary—across the river from downtown Austin. A smaller crowd, including a lot of the same folks, milled around the bright, professional-looking entry room.

I asked Venable what makes celebrating Friedman’s 101st birthday different from his 100th, where she sees progress in the school choice cause when the House seems so set against vouchers. She said technology and distance learning are the new variables that will force a major shift in the public education system

“I’m fairly confident that education won’t look like it did years ago,” she said. “When markets are allowed to work, we can’t really know where they might take us.”

Republican Rep. Tony Dale got the crowd’s attention to share his memories of that House vote against vouchers—and how shocked he was that just 43 Republicans voted for school choice. “Obviously, we’ve got more work to do.”

The guest of honor walked in as Dale was winding down, and Venable introduced Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, “who’s really been fighting for freedom issues for a long time.”

“I don’t know why, but there’s this blind, blind stubborn resistance to school choice,” Dewhurst told the crowd. He recalled donating to the private voucher program in Edgewood ISD, how the schoolchildren in San Antonio would run up and grab his leg.

And he made a promise for the 2015 session, if he’s back in the Senate to enjoy it, suggesting he’d bend the Senate rules the same way he did this year to ensure abortion restrictions passed: “I’m determined to make school choice a reality. And to do that, we may have to adjust the two-thirds rule in the Senate.”

Thomas Ratliff
State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff

As the Great CSCOPE Controversy of 2013 continues on its baffling way, State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff has emerged as the embattled program’s most outspoken defender at the state level—one of the very few elected officials willing to wade into tea party waters and pick a fight.

Democrats have mostly stayed out of the controversy over the state-produced curriculum tool and its supposedly un-American, anti-Christian classroom lessons. As Rep. Dawnna Dukes put it on the House floor in May, “CSCOPE is not a concept that Democrats even know about.” So rural superintendents looking for a little cover from Austin have found support from Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant.

“I think Democrats are probably enjoying this,” he says, “because this is yet another example of the Republican Party eating its own young—and people like Dan Patrick are only accelerating the state’s conversion from red to purple.”

(New Democratic SBOE member Marisa Perez has been one entertaining exception, complaining about Patrick’s grandstanding back in May and, more recently, suggesting he’s trying to claim the title of “Academic Tool Czar online.”)

After declaring the end of the CSCOPE era earlier this year, Patrick has cranked the volume back up lately, after news that CSCOPE lessons are in the public domain, and would be free for any teacher. Now he and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst want to somehow police Texas classrooms to ensure no kids are learning any CSCOPE lessons.

Ratliff’s home turf—Mount Pleasant and nearby East Texas districts—happen to be where CSCOPE was born in the early ’90s. He was an early defender of the program, calling out its critics late least year for scaremongering about CSCOPE as an indoctrination plot.

Since then, he’s only gotten in deeper. After Patrick issued an open challenge to debate CSCOPE with any of its defenders, Ratliff emailed reporters last Friday to announce he had accepted Patrick’s challenge. Ratliff said Monday that so far, he hasn’t heard back—but he’ll keep reminding the lite guv candidate that his offer is on the table.

“The only reason why it’s still alive today is because Dan Patrick told everybody, ‘I killed CSCOPE’ when he didn’t. And now the tea party’s mad at him, and he’s got to take it up to the next level … to prove to the tea party that he’s not all hat and no cattle.”

Ratliff, meanwhile, came onto the SBOE with a mandate to represent the reality-based community’s interests in the culture wars, ousting Don McLeroy in 2010 and fending off a challenge last year from social conservative Randy Stevenson.

Since his first days on the board he’s been a tea party target. Conservative blogger Donna Garner has kept up a steady drumbeat writing that Ratliff isn’t eligible to serve on the SBOE, because he’s also a lobbyist. CSCOPE critics have taken up the Ratliff impeachment cause, despite the fact that Attorney General Greg Abbott clarified the law’s limits on lobbyists on the SBOE two years ago and the the state’s Public Integrity Unit has cleared him to serve.

Ratliff says he helped the SBOE’s then-chairwoman Gail Lowe draft the request for Abbott’s opinion, and went to the Public Integrity Unit on his own, hoping to put the question to rest. Of course, it hasn’t been that simple.

“This is the only thing they’ve got, so they just play that card over and over,” he says. “The tea party has opposed me from day one … and I can’t make ‘em any madder than they were three years ago or four years ago.”

Ratliff says there’s a simple, related reason he called out Dan Patrick:

“Throughout my life, I have never tolerated bullies. And if you’ve seen my physical structure, you know that’s been a dangerous place for me to be, because I’ve got a pretty big mouth, but I don’t have a very big body to defend my mouth when I open it. … This issue to me really isn’t about CSCOPE. It’s about standing up to a bully that wants to micromanage our schools from Austin at the same time as he rails against government overreach.”

“If you polled public education parents and asked them what CSCOPE is, or asked them if they thought their kids were being taught to hate America or convert to Islam, they’d laugh in your face.”

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has vowed action against CSCOPE: “We’re gonna step all over their face on this.”

Near the end of the regular session, Sen. Dan Patrick, chair of the Senate Education Committee, headlined a “Mission Accomplished” press conference. He stood with other conservative Republicans to proclaim the end of the vile “CSCOPE era” in Texas, freeing us all from that long Texan nightmare of the last 20 years.

The state’s regional education service centers, which sell the curriculum management program to almost 900 of Texas’ thousand-plus school districts, agreed to discontinue the classroom lessons, placating tea party groups who believed that CSCOPE muddied children’s minds with critical thinking exercises about U.S. history, religion and gender. (One lesson did untold damage by placing “communism” at the top of a list of economic models, rather than at the bottom.) Our future, once again, was safe.

But that victory suddenly turned very hollow last week, when Texas Education Agency general counsel David Anderson told the State Board of Education that CSCOPE’s lessons were in the public domain now—accessible to anyone at all, for free.

The latest chapter in this controversy comes just in time for the lieutenant governor’s race, a fine chance to out-charm the right-wing fringe. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst vented his outrage over CSCOPE (and how the Internet works) on conservative activist Alice Linahan’s web radio show on Monday.

“It’s still sitting on the Internet, and it’s available for any and all of our school districts to uplift it and use it,” Dewhurst said, later adding, “I thought it was dead. And all of us thought it is dead. But it is sitting there, on the Internet.”

But Dewhurst told listeners that he’s tough—tough enough to handle these lesson plans, that’s for sure!

“You’re talking to someone who was in the United States Air Force as an officer at the end of the Vietnam War. You’re talking to somebody that was in the CIA and posted abroad. I didn’t think twice about standing up to this mob two times and stand them down. … If this curriculum is going to be employed and it teaches values that are contrary to what we believe, I’m going to step all over their face on this. We’re gonna stop this.”

One thing that makes CSCOPE such a great punching bag is that it’s hard to explain who or what it is. But now that Dewhurst has raised the stakes like this, it’s fair to wonder: Just whose face will he step on? The administrators who built and ran a program the vast majority of school districts still want to use? The retired teachers who wrote those lesson plans years ago? Or maybe the teachers who will continue using CSCOPE lesson plans in their classrooms next year?

News that CSCOPE’s lessons are fair game in the classroom is good news for teachers in Texas who’d been headed into a new school year without a key resource. One of the most daunting things about being a new teacher is the prospect of filling up all that class time, and wondering if you’re filling it right. Textbooks help, but they’re not a full curriculum. The state standards, the TEKS, help too—but they’re a list of what kids should learn, not how you should teach it. Over time, good teachers develop their own lessons and projects, and big school districts have resources to help their teachers, like lesson plans and schedules to make sure they cover the standards.

But without CSCOPE—or a more expensive alternative made by, say, Pearson—teachers in smaller school districts don’t have that. As Dewhurst keenly observed, once something’s been released to the Internet it’s tough to get it back. But Patrick, who hopes to oust Dewhurst in next year’s primary, is committed to the CSCOPE purity cause.

“I urge parents to monitor closely the decision of their districts who attempt to use any public domain material whether it is CSCOPE or another program,” he wrote on Facebook last week. On Wednesday, Patrick filed a bill prohibiting districts from using old CSCOPE lessons. He’s asked Gov. Rick Perry to add CSCOPE to the special session that ends next week.

Trying to police individual classroom lessons from the Capitol is not only creepy, but really impractical. What happens when a teacher uses a CSCOPE handout with a few names changed? What if a lesson they’ve been using a lesson for years happens to be like one in the CSCOPE package? There are so many classrooms in Texas and inside each one, hundreds of lessons. Who could possibly do that policing?

You probably know the answer to that one. Last weekend Donna Garner, an educator and a conservative writer, asked her readers to spread the word: “Any teacher who chooses to teach CSCOPE lessons after August 1, 2013 should expect to be opposed publicly at local school board meetings by assertive activists who do not want their school children indoctrinated by CSCOPE.”

Greg Abbott greets his family onstage Sunday
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott is greeted onstage by his wife Cecilia and his daughter Audrey after he announces he's running for governor Sunday in San Antonio.

By the time Greg Abbott came onto the stage in San Antonio Sunday afternoon, his most enthusiastic supporters in the front rows had been waiting in the sun for nearly three hours.

“I know it’s hot,” he told them, “but not nearly as hot as this campaign’s about to get.” The crowd of a few hundred went wild.

Filling a plaza in La Villita Arts Village a few blocks from downtown, they had their Greg Abbott paper fans to keep them cool—tea-party yellow with the slogan “Fast Cars, Firearms & Freedom-It’s a Texas Thing”—and all the “Abbott for Governor” campaign stickers they could ever want.

“Been waiting on this a while?” I asked an enthusiastic red-coated woman in the front row.

“Twenty years,” she answered right away—she knew Abbott back when he was a state district judge in Harris County.

Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott soaks up the applause after announcing he’s running for governor.

Most of the state is probably more familiar with him simply as a gleeful foil to the Obama administration, so Abbott spent most of his first official campaign appearance—on a multi-city tour that continues today in Houston—on a more personal than political note. He asked the people of Texas to elect him governor, but he sounded like he hoped to be their new best friend.

His 16-year-old daughter Audrey introduced him onstage. He told the crowd about his proposal to his wife Cecilia, and waxed poetic about the marriage he described as the combination of two different houses—one Anglo, one part-Irish and Hispanic—built on the same principles. “Dos casas pero una fundación,” he said. “The story of my family is as old as the story of Texas itself, the uniting of cultures to form one unique people.” He told of a childhood split among Texas cities and full of properly Texan youthful endeavors like Little League, Boy Scouts and guns.

By the time he got to the story of the falling oak tree that left him paralyzed—”on a steamy summer day almost identical to this,” 29 years, to the day, before his campaign launch—the crowd had already heard it twice, once from Abbott himself in a campaign ad played on a giant video board.

“Texans may get knocked down, but we always get back up,” he said, repeating a slogan he has used before to universalize his story of overcoming adversity. The crowd ate it up, along with another line building his image as a political fighter and showing that he’ll joke about his disability: “Too often, you hear politicians get up and talk about having a spine of steel,” he said. “I actually have one, and I will use my steel spine to fight for you and Texas families every single day.”

Cheering Abbott supporters
Patrick Michels
Abbott supporters cheer on the attorney general as he begins his campaign for governor.

Abbott didn’t offer much more substance than that as to what his Texas would look like. He correctly surmised that “water supplies are too low,” many roads need fixing and “our schools can do better.” Of course, he’d already noted that the sun is hot.

He suggested his time as governor would generally be spent like his time as attorney general, screwing with the federal government and talking about guns—and that’s all this crowd needed to hear. Each mention of suing the Obama administration got a cheer almost as loud as the time someone mentioned Ted Cruz.

He closed by proclaiming his devotion to “the ideals and values of the greatest people to inhabit this earth, the people of Texas.” As the crowd cheered, before his friends and family joined him onstage, he finished revving up the crowd with a perfect couple of words for the occasion: “Texas! Texas!”

Abbott fans wave hand-made signs of almost uniform quality and style.
Patrick Michels
Abbott fans wave hand-made signs of almost uniform quality and style.
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