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Snake Oil

Coconino Community College's Flagstaff, Arizona, campus
Online students never even have to set foot on Coconino Community College's beautiful Flagstaff, Arizona, campus.

They say attending college increases your earning power. Some ambitious students apparently take that mantra to an extreme.

A 30-year-old Dallas woman named Sussette Sheree Timmons is accused of bilking financial aid programs out of tens of thousands of dollars during a three-year college career at more than a dozen schools. Timmons allegedly became expert in applying for, and receiving, federal grants and loans without ever taking the online classes she enrolled in.

A May federal indictment alleges that Timmons schemed her would-be educators out of almost $20,000 in financial aid for online courses she never took. The indictment outlines a brazen but pretty simple fraud in which Timmons collected federal loans and grants for courses at six online programs in New Mexico, Arizona and Iowa. In each case, she applied for admission and aid, enrolled in a few courses, collected aid money and withdrew from the school soon after.

She didn’t try too hard to conceal her intentions from administrators. “I request the full amount of the unsubsidized + subsidized Stafford loan,” she wrote Ashford University officials in April 2009. “And I want to redraw [sic] from the University after May 25.” When financial aid officers took too long or sent less than she expected, she’d call to get the money flowing again. In a letter to Timmons explaining why they cut off her aid, Coconino Community College officials said they’d learned she dropped out of more than a dozen schools since 2009. Even then, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Dallas, Timmons managed to enroll in online courses at Pima Community College and pocket another $5,600 for her trouble.

Is it really so easy to scam thousands of dollars this way? According to a 2011 federal report, it certainly is. Back then, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General warned of a “dramatic increase” of financial-aid fraud in online programs. Online-only programs “present unique opportunities for fraud and challenges for oversight,” the inspector general warned, because federal aid programs were designed for traditional classroom programs, while online programs let students enroll, apply for aid and take classes (or not) without ever showing up in person.

A follow-up report from the Education Department inspector general in January 2013 estimated the problem’s scope. For the academic years 2009 to 2012—about the same time Timmons is accused of working her scheme—the report estimated that fraud rings took the system for around $187 million. During that time, the report says, the number of “students” taking part in fraud jumped from fewer than 19,000 to more than 34,000.

The Education Department says it’s going to flag more students with suspicious applications and watch IP addresses and emails for signs of a fraud ringleader. So far, though, most fraud rings are uncovered at the local level by financial aid officers who grow suspicious.


In the weeks since Senate Education chair Dan Patrick proudly announced that “the era of CSCOPE lesson plans has come to an end,” defenders and apologists for the state-backed curriculum management system—and tea party bugaboo—have been on a tear, complaining that this political grandstanding will only make life harder for teachers.

State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant) called it a “21st century book burning,” and the Texas Tribune reported earlier this month that small, rural districts are at a loss for how to replace all these lessons in just a couple months. That story mentioned a coalition of rural districts that might either seek an injunction against the state to keep access to the CSCOPE lessons, or waivers from the state’s accountability system. Small districts, the reasoning goes, can’t be held responsible for their struggles after losing such a major classroom resource with so little notice.

Hutto ISD, a district of almost 5,700 students northeast of Austin, became one of the first to seek a waiver, in a letter sent to Education Commissioner Michael Williams on Thursday. “It is impossible for Hutto ISD to create K-12 core curriculum documents in 2.5 months,” Superintendent Douglas Killian writes. “Replacing this curriculum will far exceed the funds we have available.”

Hutto officials don’t sound madly in love with CSCOPE’s lessons—but they don’t like having to scramble to replace them in such a hurry. “Our teachers are not bound to CSCOPE. They are bound to our curriculum,” assistant superintendent Steve Snell told his school board this week, quoted in the Hutto News. “The problem is when you pull all of them at once, it becomes very difficult to replace those.”

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe says three school districts have already filed similar waiver requests: Madisonville CISD, Port Aransas ISD and Rice CISD. Those three are still pending.

Patrick had suggested last month that, without CSCOPE, smaller districts could work together or get help from bigger districts—which was, of course, the whole point when CSCOPE was developed in the ’90s—or buy lessons from an outside company.

In his waiver request for Hutto, Killian lists reasons why Patrick’s first suggestion isn’t workable—like access to another district’s online system, and new training his teachers would need. A growing district like Hutto, quickly turning more suburban than rural, can’t afford a commercial package of lessons either, he writes. “CSCOPE offered a quality curriculum for less than the cost of a teacher. Replacing this curriculum will far exceed the funds we have available.”

One in 10 Kids Locked Up in Texas Report Sexual Abuse

But TJJD says internal numbers don't support results of federal survey.
The Corsicana Residential Treatment Center
Texas Juvenile Justice Department
More than 22 percent of youth in the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center reported sexual victimization in the last year.

More than 11 percent of juveniles locked up in Texas’ state-run facilities reported being sexually victimized in the last year, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Justice.

That’s higher than the national average of 9.5 reported in the study, but well below what kids reported the last time the DOJ did this survey, in 2008. At that time, of course, Texas wasn’t too far removed from the sex abuse scandal that prompted a major makeover of our juvenile justice system.

The new federal study is the second National Survey of Youth in Custody, part of a larger data collection effort stemming from the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act. Nationwide, 2.5 percent of youth reported forced sexual activity with another youth, while 7.7 percent reported any sexual contact with a staff member. The federal report ties the drop in sexual victimization to three things: smaller youth lockups around the country, less time spent locked up and better relationships with staff members.

ProPublica reported on the federal study earlier this month, under the headline “Rape and Other Sexual Violence Prevalent in Juvenile Justice System“—but Texas is a special case. The widespread abuse the Observer reported in 2007 made that clear years ago. Curbing sexual abuse in youth lockups has been at the heart of juvenile justice reforms here over the last few years, including smaller juvenile lockups, internal investigations, new cameras and anonymous complaint lines. After 20 percent of Texas youth reported sexual abuse in the last federal survey, state officials commissioned a report on the problem.

Years into such major reforms, we should be way out ahead of other states—so why, according to this DOJ study, does Texas still have the 14th-highest rate of reported sex abuse?

According to spokesman Jim Hurley, Texas is ahead of other states—you just can’t tell based on a survey like this. “It’s totally anonymous, there’s no way to go back and check up on them,” he says. “It’s really hard when you don’t have the ability to do follow-up to determine the validity of those things.”

Hurley says TJJD got 11,446 complaints from youth last year through its new system, and 131 of them “involved some sort of sexual allegation.” Contrary to the DOJ survey, the minority of those—45 complaints—involved staff members. The agency’s independent Office of Inspector General found evidence of a crime in six cases, Hurley says, of which three were declined by local prosecutors and two resulted in no-bills from a grand jury. Just one of those 131 sexual abuse complaints last year resulted in a conviction, he says. The Observer reported on these issues—why inmates might file false complaints, and why prosecutions are so low—in a 2010 feature as well.

“We don’t want to make light of the DOJ report, but we know that kids overreport this kind of thing. We saw what some of the questions were when they were coming in, and we thought some of the kids might have a hard time understanding the questions.” (The questions, like, “Have you had any other kind of sexual contact with someone at this facility?” are listed here.)

The federal survey also comes just a month after another big report on Texas’ juvenile system found that “youth do not report sexual assault to be a significant problem.”

That one, from Michele Deitch at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, was a special report to TJJD’s ombudsman in response to the spike in violence at juvenile facilities last year. That report comes with a handful of recommendations for cutting down on violence—a new behavior management plan, for one, and a new approach to housing mentally ill youth—but doesn’t recommend any changes related to sexual abuse. “Importantly, given the agency’s history, youth report that sexual assault is extremely uncommon,” the report says.

“Our data does not support the numbers that the DOJ has in their report, and I do feel like we’re very thorough in making sure our kids are safe and investigating any allegation,” Hurley says. “If you look around the nation, everybody is fighting the same issues. … It is nice to be on the leading edge.”

Gov. Rick Perry signs House Bill 5
Patrick Michels
Gov. Rick Perry signs House Bill 5 Monday at the Capitol, surrounded by, from left, Sen. Donna Campbell, Sen. Dan Patrick, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Lawmakers, test reform advocates and reporters packed the governor’s reception room at the Capitol earlier today, where Gov. Rick Perry was scheduled to “give remarks and sign education bills,” per a press release sent Friday.

His office didn’t announce just which “education bills” he planned to sign, and his announcement came after a week of speculation that Perry planned to veto House Bill 5, the session’s most sweeping measure to scale back high school testing.

The Quorum Report cited “sources generally close to the Governor’s office” on Wednesday raising the possibility of a veto, and a few more reporters cited that report (and “growing chatter in the Capitol“) in their own stories on veto speculation. Dallas Morning News education columnist Bill McKenzie mused on how Perry could veto three test reform measures, including HB 5, without hurting his career.

Some business leaders worried that cutting testing, and giving students new graduation requirements focused on career—not college—readiness, meant offering a weaker education. But a veto would have been profoundly unpopular among parents and students who’ve demanded fewer tests.

The bill’s author, House Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock tweeted Thursday that he’d been invited to the signing, but not told why. But with Aycock summoned along with parents and students who’d spent dozens of hours this session complaining to lawmakers about Texas’ 15 required high school tests, there didn’t seem much suspense. Either Perry was going to sign the bill, or he’d arranged the sort of particularly cruel veto ceremony the rulers in Game of Thrones might appreciate. (Spoiler alert.)

He put the speculation to rest early in his remarks, naming HB 5 among the six bills he’d sign, saying they strike “an appropriate balance between our need for rigorous academic standards and the student’s need for flexibility, a balance between our needs for accountability and the appropriate level of testing in the classroom.”

Perry allowed that he had “deep concerns about how [HB5] would impact our students” at first, but was satisfied with the final version. “By standing our ground and not compromising on the high standards that we set for our students, we’ve made this a much better bill.” That’s as much as Perry hinted that he’d been on the fence, and he emphasized that HB 5 doesn’t weaken standards. “Texas refuses to dilute our standards in any way,” he said, “because our standards are working.”

Seated at a table in the middle of the crowd, Perry made great drama of the big moment. “Brother Aycock, brother Patrick,” he said, summoning the bill’s author and its Senate sponsor, Houston Republican Dan Patrick. “Got a low-number bill right here.” Parents in the back of the room let out hoots and shouts of joy as he signed the bill.

Perry also signed House Bills 809, 842, 2201 and 3662, and Senate Bill 441 today—bills that, generally speaking, create new technical courses and career programs in schools.

Education Commissioner Michael Williams was among a handful of other officials who took a turn at the mic, and he hinted at the monster task now facing the state education agency to implement the new bills. Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes had a similar take, noting universities will need more counselors now, to help students bridge the gap between their new high school course requirements and their major in college.

HB 5 isn’t the last of the test-reform measures left for Perry to sign, and he’s got just six days left to do so. Bills that could give high-scoring students a pass from some tests in elementary school, or exempt a handful of “high performance” school districts, are still in limbo, though if Perry takes no action, those bills become law. When the Texas Tribune‘s Morgan Smith asked the governor about some of those other testing bills today, Perry said only what his office had been saying about HB 5 before today: he’s still thinking on it.

“We will notify you at the appropriate time,” Perry said. “I just don’t have the final solution yet.”

The session’s two biggest school reform bills, one from each chamber, have danced around the House and Senate in the session’s closing days—a stalemate that broke Sunday night as both bills passed each chamber around the same time.

Members of the lower chamber began with their own House Bill 5, which reduces the required high school tests from 15 to 5, creates a new set of graduation plans for high schoolers, and lets the state rate its schools on an “A to F” scale. The final version of the bill is closer to the House’s proposal than the one passed by the Senate.

Its author, House Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) urged a quick finish for one of the session’s centerpiece bills, and one that saw hours of debate on the House floor in March. “Let’s just vote it,” he said tonight.

Rep. Mark Strama—who voted against HB 5 when it passed the House—spoke in favor of the bill this time, devoting his final speech on the House floor to the proper role of testing in education policy. (He’s announced he won’t seek reelection.)

“HB 5 is an improvement over current law,” Strama said, but he defended the standardized testing movement of the last 20 years, crediting it with helping African-American and Hispanic students to close the “achievement gap” with Anglo students. “The problem with testing in Texas was the stakes we had attached to those tests,” he said.

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) said he’d vote for the bill too, despite his concern that that it doesn’t go far enough to help “the kids that are going to be on the bottom, I don’t care which test you give. … If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we will keep getting what we’ve been getting.”

The House voted unanimously in favor of the bill.

Senate Bill 2, which would let the state approve around 100 new charter school operators in the next six years, had a less certain fate in the House, where charter expansion bills have died in the last two sessions.

In addition to the new charters, SB 2 moves some authority over the charter application process from the State Board of Education to the education commissioner; makes it easier to close low-performing charters; and allows school boards to turn low-performing campuses into charters.

Debate was quick, with the most critical questions from Fort Worth-area Democrats Lon Burnam and Chris Turner.

Burnam grilled Aycock, the bill’s House sponsor, on the exemptions from class size limits and disciplinary program requirements that in-district charter schools would get. Turner noted it would take just one year of low performance before a campus could be turned to an in-district charter.

That bill passed 105 to 41, with no votes from a handful of Republicans along with Democrats. The Senate passed SB 2 without debate, on a 28-3 vote.

The Senate wrapped up the night’s major school bills, taking up HB 5 just after 10 p.m. and approving it unanimously after a speech by Senate Education Chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston). Patrick said he wore his wedding tie tonight, one of the few times he’s ever put it on, because tonight was such a special night.

“It’s a great night for the future of students [and] parents,” he said, before senators voted for the bill and took turns hugging him beside his desk.

An emotional and incredibly strange war waged over the last two years—in community halls and small-town diners, conference calls and YouTubes, Fox News broadcasts and legislative hearings—concluded this morning as Sen. Dan Patrick announced that “the era of CSCOPE lesson plans has come to an end.”

And so begins the time for Tea Party and anti-CSCOPE activists to take a victory lap, or, if you’re one of the thousands of teachers that used CSCOPE’s lessons in your classroom, the time to start printing off and photocopying those handouts before they disappear forever.

“The big lesson here is that if you can generate a witch hunt that includes enough incendiary and distorted claims, then there are politicians at the Capitol who are ready to throw their supposed commitment to local control out the window,” said Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller in a statement this morning.

The curriculum management program, run cooperatively by the state’s 20 regional Education Service Centers, will still be available for the hundreds of school districts that use it to help teachers cover all the state standards, or TEKS. But the handouts and sample lessons that prompted charges of Marxist, progressive, liberal, socialist, globalist, environmentalist, anti-American, anti-ChristianMuslim, Mexican indoctrination will be gone by August 31.

It all ended with a 72-hour blitz of meetings at the Capitol and a letter late last night, “signed by all 20 members of the CSCOPE board,” Patrick said. CSCOPE administrators had turned over thousands of financial documents to Patrick’s office last week.

“It couldn’t be a more exciting day for us on the education committee,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels). “We identified something that was shrouded in secrecy, that affected education for our children, made it difficult for parents to find out what was being taught to our children, and we now have that issue resolved.”

Kyle Wargo, executive director of Amarillo’s Region 17 service center and a CSCOPE board member, got the privilege of speaking for the defeated. “I’m certainly very excited,” he said, which is understandable given what a punching bag regional service centers have become over the last six months.

“It’s the right thing to do. It’s in the best interests of the school districts, it’s in the best interest of the children.” Wargo said. Writing lessons for schools across Teas just isn’t practical, considering how much diversity of thought there is across a state Texas’ size. “We’ve learned one thing,” he said. “Lesson plans have a lot of subjectivity to them.”

“This is a great example of what happens when moms and dads across the state of Texas come together and get involved in their children’s education,” said Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands). “Everything that happened has happened here as a result of all their hard work, tireless efforts, blogging, Facebook messages, Twitter messages, email, press conferences, traveling tireless hours across the state to raise awareness about this program.”

Toth will pull his CSCOPE accountability bill in response to today’s news, and Patrick said the State Board of Education would also shelve its review of CSCOPE history lessons.

Patrick said he hoped big school districts would step in to help small districts replace the lesson plans they’d been getting from CSCOPE before—a practical solution, but also the sort of regional partnership that created CSCOPE in the first place. Failing that, he said, of course there’s always the private sector: “There are many vendors that, I’m sure, will try to fill this vacuum starting next year.”

Want to know why Devo really broke up?

We featured Rep. Matt Krause’s House Bill 360 back in February as a “bad bill,” because it would let student groups discriminate among its membership, kicking out students who don’t fall in line with the principles the group was founded on. It’s especially easy to imagine groups kicking out gay members in the name of their founding principles.

Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas, put it simply: “It’s not legitimate to use public funds for discriminatory conduct.”

But the Fort Worth Republican said it’s a free speech guarantee, a protection against “subversive” members hoping to hijack a group. He offered what seemed like a hilarious off-hand example at the time: the Red Hat Society, a ladies’ social organization promoting fun, friendship, freedom, fulfillment and fitness. And wearing red hats, probably. “You would exclude the blue hats,” Krause explained.

His bill died at last week’s deadline, but he brought it back today as an amendment to the Higher Education Coordinating Board’s sunset bill. With it, he also resuscitated his old analogy.

“Let’s say there’s a red hat club,” Krause suggested on the House floor today. “Anybody who wants to come in and subvert that, ‘I don’t like red hats’,” well, he suggested they just start their own club.

“Are we opening this up to the Ku Klux Klan?” Krause asked rhetorically. “A school is not going to allow the Ku Klux Klan,” he said answering his own question.

“It doesn’t apply to race, it doesn’t apply to gender, it doesn’t apply to sexual orientation. It only applies to those which would seek to purposefully come in and subvert and undermine the purpose for which the club was in the first place.”

Dallas Democrat Eric Johnson tweeted that it was a “mean-spirited amendment,” and the Texas Freedom Network and LGBT groups were working all day to rally opposition to Krause’s amendment, which had been pre-filed.

Krause’s original bill is exactly the sort of ultra-contentious legislation that’s been kept off the House floor so far this session. Lawmakers have even been pulling down many amendments that might spark bitter partisan battles.

But in a lengthy debate over the amendment, nobody challenged Krause on its implications for gay students, or students of a particular race who could be excluded from a club. Opponents mostly played along with his vague “red hat” scenario—Rep. Senfronia Thompson did suggest replacing it with “The Islamic Club”—and worried it was simply impractical.

Krause batted away suggestions that his plan would run afoul of a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that discrimination in student groups is unconstitutional. He sidestepped the suggestion that his bill would take away local control, or that kicking students out of clubs would create needless paperwork for universities.

Rep. Marisa Marquez (D-El Paso) did press him about what his bill would mean in the long term. “Things change. They evolve,” she said. “The mission changes, sometimes the demographics change. What you’re saying here is that you have to keep these parameters in place for these clubs.”

“Let’s go back to the red hat club,” Krause suggested. “Let’s say everybody want to wear a red hat so it’s a big club. All of a sudden everybody wants to wear a yellow hat. Eventually it’ll atrophy, it’ll get smaller and it’ll be nonexistent.”

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) suggested an alternate possibility: “I think the red hats ought to accept the blue hats, and the blue hat doesn’t look blue to me cause it’s now purple.”

The majority of House members disagreed, passing Krause’s amendment 78-67. The bill passed minutes later. Whether Krause’s plan sticks is up to a few House and Senate members who’ll take on the bill in conference committee next.

Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston)
Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) and his adding machine.

With more money to play with this session, lawmakers in both chambers have already approved sending more dollars to public schools and women’s health providers. On Tuesday, House members tried to make sure businesses get theirs too.

House Bill 500, which passed this evening, would effectively hand back $667 million to Texas businesses with a slew of changes to the franchise tax—$270 million of which came from amendments tacked on during hours of debate on the floor. The plan is in keeping with Gov. Rick Perry’s call for business tax “relief,” though the Texas Tribune notes the bill will be a tough sell in the Senate.

The much-maligned business tax has never raised as much as it was intended to, saddling lawmakers with an $8 billion deficit at the start of each session since the tax was reworked in 2006. House members dug that hole a little deeper today.

Rather than rework the tax law in a streamlined fashion, House Ways and Means Chairman Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) proposed a series of tweaks aimed at particular businesses. Lawmakers—mostly Republicans, some Democrats as well—dropped in amendments adding $20 million at a time, one after another. Most defended their proposals as relief for small business owners. Rep. Angie Chen Button (R-Garland) threw in a $20 million break for corporations with federal contracts, mentioning defense contractor Raytheon as a particular inspiration.

Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) brought an abacus to the back microphone to remind lawmakers he was watching what their amendments cost. He kept the heat on Hilderbran all afternoon. Hilderbran and Turner talked in circles about just who benefits from lowering the tax on businesses, building to a fiery exchange.

Hilderbran: “The small businesses, the mom-and-pop employers, get a tax break in this bill, and their employees will be better off.”

Turner: “Is there a tax break in HB 500 for mom and dad who do not own a business?”

Hilderbran: “If they work for those businesses they benefit from this too, because those businesses thrive, they’re more competitive and they’re gonna grow and then they’re gonna be in a position to elevate wages and hire more people.”

Turner: “Let me telll you my concern here with this bill and some of the others, we talk about—”

At the sound of the speaker’s gavel, signifying his time was up, Turner dropped his head, gathered his papers and stepped aside. Hilderbran sighed, “Daggum, Sylvester.”

On Twitter through it all, the Center for Public Policy Priorities’ tax and budget experts Dick Lavine and Eva DeLuna Castro groused about the ham-handed show of policymaking like they were watching from the Muppet Show balcony. Castro noted the debate showed the “difficulty of cutting business taxes when they’re so low to begin with.” Lavine poked at lawmakers claiming their tax exemptions would only cost a few million, naming school programs the state could fully fund with the difference.

Facing criticism that their cuts would cost the state too much in the next two years, some lawmakers just bumped their cuts back a few years. Lavine called one amendment, from Houston Republican Jim Murphy, a “time bomb” for the 2016-17 budget.

Dallas Democrat Yvonne Davis struck a grave note about the tax reform effort, recalling what a mess the margins tax was when lawmakers created it seven years ago.

“It had an $8 billion hole in it when we passed it. It never performed the way they thought it was going to perform, and what we’re doing today is not fixing that problem,” Davis said. “This has become just a pork barrel add-on attempt to get money for your special interests and special projects.”

Reasoning Mind poster

At one point during this year’s SXSWedu—a slick Austin conference heavy on marketing for education technology—an audience member stood and asked a panel of Texas lawmakers the question most in the room were probably wondering: how do you get the state of Texas to buy your software?

State Rep. Dan Branch suggested an egalitarian process at work behind the scenes: build a good product and put in your time convincing lawmakers. “If you walk the halls and talk to key members of committees, I think you can get your message out pretty well,” Branch said. For example, he said, one particular outfit called Reasoning Mind has built a reputation at the Capitol as “a very strong math software program.”

The creators of the Reasoning Mind software have certainly found success in Texas, but Dan Branch might be surprised to learn how they attained it.

The state contracts with all sorts of companies for educational software; most decisions are made by the Texas Education Agency. Reasoning Mind, a math program, is the only software program lawmakers wrote into the budget by name last session.

In its most recent funding request, TEA suggested cutting Reasoning Mind—they’d already contracted with another online math program—but lawmakers weren’t keen on ditching it. They gave the program its own budget rider and kept its funding steady, at $2.25 million in public funds a year.

It’s even more impressive that Reasoning Mind did so well at the Capitol without the services of a registered lobbyist. But Reasoning Mind has something even better going for it: close friends in the highest ranks of big oil.

Reasoning Mind’s board is chaired by Ernest H. Cockrell, the longtime head of the Cockrell Oil Corp. Its vice chair is Forrest Hoglund, a former Enron CEO and a force in the Dallas philanthropy world. As of 2011, the program’s biggest backer was the ExxonMobil Foundation, which, according to EducationWeek, had donated $5 million to Reasoning Mind. In April, the world’s largest corporation leaned on its support for Reasoning Mind to rebut an ad by an anti-oil group suggesting that “Exxon hates your children.”

Russian couple Alex and Julia Khachatryan founded Reasoning Mind in 2000 as a computer-based math education program for their son, whose school lessons they deemed too basic. Geared toward students in grades 2 through 6, Reasoning Mind promises to build math skills and to encourage critical thinking and independent learning, all with a game-like interface for kids.

Those friends in the oil industry are no accident. Before starting Reasoning Mind, the Khachatryans ran a firm called RPC overseas—short for Russian Petroleum Consultants—based in Moscow and Houston, with clients including Halliburton, Koch Industries and Cockrell Oil. According to its tax filings, Reasoning Mind spent $1.6 million on “computer programming and testing of end product” in Moscow, and paid another $20,000 direct to RPC Overseas for office space. As president and CEO, Alex Khachatryan made $62,292 in 2011, down from $115,000 the year before.

The program is growing. Schools in a few states use Reasoning Mind today, but its strongest foothold is in Texas, where Houston ISD and Dallas ISD both use the program. In all, the company says, 60,000 Texans use the program either as a supplemental curriculum or a full-time course. Nearly 11,000 copies were paid for by TEA.

The company has proved resilient when its funding is threatened. In summer of 2011, during the special legislative session on the state budget, the House overwhelmingly approved an amendment to zero out funding for Reasoning Mind. But when the budget bill returned from conference committee with the Senate, the math program’s rider was back in. House members couldn’t change the bill at that point, so Reasoning Mind’s funding continued. Because the conference committee discussions are closed to the public, it’s hard to say who in the Senate championed the program. Reasoning Mind’s two biggest boosters, Cockrell and Hoglund, have each given $66,000 to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s campaigns since 2004.

In November 2012, the Dallas Morning News reported an internal study from Dallas ISD saying the program cost too much and did too little—but the district with more Reasoning Mind students than any other in the state stood by the program and pulled the study from its site.

Reasoning Mind countered with studies of its own. To help out, Reasoning Mind’s blue-blooded backers got involved. The News recounted an interview with Hoglund, who “said prominent charitable givers might pull their support for DISD if it isn’t continued.”

Too many important people, in other words, had too much invested in the program to let the district pull the plug—performance be damned.

Like so much else in Texas, in the education tech business, it helps to know a few oil execs.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio)

In a county juvenile lockup, you can be shut alone in a room for all sorts of things. Fighting, sure, or trying to escape. But in some counties, “horseplay” and “disrespectful attitude” also count as “major rules violations” that could land you in seclusion with no idea when you’ll get out.

Youth advocates say some counties are putting kids in seclusion too readily, for far too long. Juvenile justice officials say they have those rules for a reason, and when a child is dangerous and acting out, they simply have to isolate them.

It’s a familiar disagreement in juvenile justice, but lawmakers got to hear it again Tuesday night as they considered placing a four-hour limit on counties’ use of seclusion.

Under a bill from Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), only assault, escaping or trying to escape would carry a penalty of seclusion for more than four hours. Each county facility in the state would also have to report how often it placed juveniles in solitary, and why.

As part of the movement away from big, state-run juvenile facilities, more kids are held and treated by county juvenile probation offices. It’s a good idea for many reasons, but it also means rules can vary from one county to the next. It’s tough to get statewide data from such a decentralized system, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition says the state’s oversight of the county system is still too weak.

In advance of the bill’s hearing, the Associated Press took a longer look at the issue, and some of the research on why solitary confinement is so harmful for kids.

“This bill reflects a national trend in rethinking the use of solitary confinement,” said Catherine McCullough from the ACLU of Texas Tuesday night—but the county juvenile officials who turned up uniformly opposed the bill.

Some argued that four hours in seclusion was no great deterrent at all—at 9 p.m., after waiting all afternoon to testify, one woman joked that even “eight hours goes by pretty fast”—and only long stints in seclusion would make an impression on kids.

Others said disciplinary seclusion was hardly as bad as advocates suggest. “When kids are in their room … they have to have all their rights given to them,” said Doug Vance, the chief juvenile probation officer for Brazos County. “They’re not locked away in some dungy cell for hours and hours on end.”

They made a strong distinction between their disciplinary seclusion and the sort of solitary confinement youth might get in the adult system.

The county officials said they were fine with reporting their use of seclusion, but urged senators to commission a study on improving their use of seclusion—if there’s any problem at all.

Mark Williams, Tom Green County’s chief probation officer, said Van de Putte’s bill ignores the reality of running a youth lockup, and gives too much credence to the opinions of outsiders.

“The people that don’t work with the kids are the ones that really like this bill,” he said, “and the ones that work with the kids are the ones that do not.”

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