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The Whole Star

Rep. Jason Villalba (center right with red tie) and Rep. Krause (center left) on "Inside Texas Politics"
WFAA
Rep. Jason Villalba (center right with red tie) and Rep. Krause (center left) on WFAA's "Inside Texas Politics." Villalba says Krause helped him draft a proposed constitutional amendment promoting religious freedom.

State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) remains adamant that a proposed constitutional amendment he filed earlier this month isn’t intended to undermine local ordinances prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

But Villalba also continues to tout the fact that he received input in drafting the amendment from a lawmaker known for his anti-LGBT views and from the Liberty Institute, which is actively fighting a nondiscrimination ordinance in Plano.

Villalba has characterized his HJR 55 as a tamer version of SJR 10, a similar religious freedom amendment introduced in the Senate by Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).

And Villalba has objected to a “license to discriminate” label that was attached to his amendment in an Observer headline and in a fundraising appeal from Progress Texas, denying accusations that the measure is designed to undermine local nondiscrimination ordinances by allowing business owners to claim religious exemptions.

“Not true at all,” Villalba told Breitbart Texas for an article published Sunday. “That was not our intention at all. … I’m not trying to pander to the right, or to offend the LGBT community or to support discrimination.”

Villalba told Breitbart he supports the authority of local governments to pass LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and said HJR 55 is instead designed to protect things like nativity scenes on government property.

But LGBT advocates continue to question Villalba’s motives—particularly since he unveiled HJR 55 on Facebook by posting an Empower Texans article slamming the Plano ordinance shortly after it passed. “We must stand athwart those who seek to eliminate every vestige of our religious heritage from the public square,” Villalba wrote. “Tomorrow, we fight back.”

On Monday morning, Villalba took to Facebook again to post the Breitbart article, writing above it: “Many of you have asked about what HJR 55 actually does. In essence, it protects the free exercise of religion in Texas. Here is an article that spells it out nicely. Special thanks to Matthew Krause and Liberty Institute for their help and insight in putting this together.”

Rep. Krause (R-Arlington) received the lowest score of any lawmaker on LGBT issues from Equality Texas following the 2013 session.

In response to a comment below his Facebook post Monday from this reporter, Villalba sent a chat message referencing Campbell’s resolution.

“Perhaps I should drop HJR 55 and let the alternative version pass,” Villalba wrote. “Is that what you would prefer?”

Asked whether he believes Campbell’s resolution, which has been defeated in three consecutive sessions, would pass in 2015, Villalba referenced an expected shift to the right in the Senate next year thanks to November election results.

“Have you not seen what just happened in the Senate?” Villalba wrote. “It [SJR 10] would easily pass.”

Asked whether he strategically introduced HJR 55 as a more moderate alternative to SJR 10, Villalba said: “My goal is to pass the best bill that advances the cause of religious liberty.”

One commenter pointed out below Villalba’s post that he recently hired a new district director, Christine Mojezati, who previously worked for the American Family Association, which has been identified as an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Dude. I’m a conservative Republican. What did you expect, the ACLU?” Villalba told the Observer when asked about hiring Mojezati. “I hired her because she is qualified and an excellent ambassador for the district. She worked for the AFA for like 30 minutes as an intern in the summer. She’s 24 and barely out of college. She spent the last three years working on campaigns. Including [Republican Reps.] Linda Koop and Dan Branch.”

According to her LinkedIn profile, Mojezati worked as a field representative for the AFA in Denver from October to November of this year. In addition to Branch and Koop, she has worked for Republican Attorney General-elect Ken Paxton and state Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano).

In a previous interview, Villalba told the Observer he opposes anti-gay discrimination and doesn’t believe being gay is a choice. However, he declined to endorse legislation to ban anti-LGBT discrimination statewide. Asked Monday whether he supports same-sex marriage, Villalba wrote: “I defer to my district on a question of that nature. I believe that marriage is a creature of the state. And therefore, the people of the state should should make that decision.”

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said Monday the organization opposes HJR 55, in part because Texas already has a state statute that provides strong protections for religious freedom.

“Texas led the nation with the passage of its Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1999, which is a model policy and works well,” Williams said. “Ill-considered attempts to weaken the delicate balance of that policy, however well intended, are not in the best interest of Texas or Texans.”

March for non-discrimination ordinance in San Antonio
Forrest Wilder
March outside San Antonio City Council meeting in favor of updating a non-discrimination ordinance to include LGBT people.

Critics say the proposed constitutional amendments could invite a flood of expensive lawsuits from those who claim various laws are impinging upon their religious freedom.

Former Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), who authored the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, told the Observer he believes Villalba’s amendment would have the same impact as Campbell’s “as far as opening up all civil rights laws for litigation over ‘compelling interest’ and ‘least restrictive means.'”

In addition to civil rights laws, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act lists exemptions for zoning, land use planning, traffic management, urban nuisance and historic preservation. But the proposed constitutional amendments do not.

Villalba and Campbell’s bills “may be designed to trump local nondiscrimination protections, and that’s a serious problem, but the bigger problem for government is the fact that it then becomes prohibitively expensive to enforce things like food safety law,” said Jenny Pizer, senior counsel for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal. “What if somebody has a religious belief that requires them to make large bonfires in the backyard as part of a religious tradition, and you have dry, dangerous fire conditions? There are basic safety regulations. … This is far-right grandstanding, but it’s grandstanding with very serious potential implications for government.”

A panhandler in Houston
Alex Proimos/flickr/CreativeCommons
A panhandler at the intersection of Richmond and Chimney Rock in Houston.

When Houston commuters think of I-45, many thoughts and emotions come to mind. Among those that can be referenced in a family-friendly publication are the feelings of rage and resignation when we are buried in traffic jams; the sensations of stupor or sublimity as we blur past strip malls and strip clubs; and the mindless humming inspired by old songs and the mindful attention inspired by a new one.

But rarely is I-45 a stage for moral quandaries—at least until you exit, stop at the first intersection, and confront an ethical impasse at the underpass. There, at the red light, you face a panhandler.

There is no better verb than “face,” if only because that is also the noun that captures what’s at stake. Many of us do our very best to evade these face-offs. There are drivers who, coming to a stop next to the panhandler, will nudge their cars forward. Others will try to edge their way into the far lane. Yet other drivers will run the light, running the risk of an accident in order—or so I suspect—to avoid spending the several seconds in the uncomfortable company of the needy.

When those strategies fail, there are yet others. Some of us stare furiously at our smart phones, while others take a newfound interest in odometer readings. Many of us will gaze straight ahead, pretending to be lost in thought, all the while a prisoner of just one: Why is this light taking so long to turn?

Some of us will look at the panhandler, but in the way we might look at faces in a police line-up or X-rays of our children’s teeth. We try to assess the situation, comparing the pleas on their signs with the clothing on their bodies or the expressions on their faces. Are those Ray-Bans he’s wearing? If he’s really homeless, why is he so clean-shaven? Or, Since he is homeless, shouldn’t he make himself more presentable? If she’s feeding three kids, why is she overweight? No wonder he’s begging; he clearly spent all his money on tattoos.

How do I know all these tactics, ruses and excuses? It’s simple: I’ve tried them all. While I send out yearly checks to a dozen charities, I cannot without effort fork over to a beggar the same couple of bucks that I thoughtlessly spend on an espresso. Why?

For the Jewish thinker Emmanuel Lévinas, our moral understanding is founded on “the face to face.” Truly seeing another person’s face is “the most basic mode of responsibility.” In the beginning, for Levinas, was not the Word, but the wordless encounter between two humans dependent upon one another not just for survival, but for recognition.

But perhaps recognition asks too much of us. In The Brothers Karamazov, one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s characters declares that while we might love our neighbor abstractly, we rarely do so up close. This is the reason, he concludes, that beggars “should never show themselves in the street.”

This is especially the case on the feeder roads of I-45. Unlike downtown’s sidewalks and parks, the concrete banks and macadam tributaries of I-45 are the last place one expects to face a face. Encountering a human who isn’t enveloped in a shell of steel and glass shell in these parts is always a bit of a shock.

And yet there she is, a human being, her head abuzz with the torrent of traffic as she slowly works the line of cars. Let’s face it: She wants to be seen. Will I allow myself to see her? Or will I allow the inevitable bottleneck of questions and rationalizations to come between us? Will she spend my buck on drugs or booze, or drive off in Mercedes once her  shift is over?

But where is my common sense? Must we be sociologists to know that most panhandlers spend their money on food? Do I need to be an economist to know that giving cash to the poor is the most efficient way to help them? Do I have to consult a psychologist to grasp how difficult it is to ask strangers for help in the shadow of an underpass?

The next time we face another at an intersection, we should take the opportunity to face ourselves as well.

Legislators Seek to Overturn Anti-Gay Birth Certificate Law

LGBT group says the 1997 restriction hurts kids, calling it ‘the lowest form of politics’.
Andy Miller (left) and Brian Stephens with their son, Clark
Andy Miller (left) and Brian Stephens with their son, Clark

 

The day Andy Miller and Brian Stephens jointly adopted their son Clark in 2007 was among the happiest of their lives.

But the couple’s elation turned to disappointment when they walked out of the courtroom and down a hall to the Travis County Clerk’s Office.

That’s when Miller and Stephens realized they faced a difficult choice, because they couldn’t include both of their names on Clark’s supplemental birth certificate.

“As he got older, it became less about us and it became more about him,” Miller said this week of Clark, now 7. “This is his document that he’ll carry with him the rest of his life, and it very clearly only lists half of his family on it, and that’s when we kind of became angry and said the state is treating our son differently because of who his parents are, not because of anything he has done or hasn’t done. This needs to change because of our kids. The state is basically targeting them for unequal treatment.”

The Texas Legislature added a provision to the Health & Safety Code in 1997 requiring supplemental birth certificates issued to adoptive parents to contain the name of one female, the mother, and one male, the father.

According to the legislation’s author, former state Rep. Will Hartnett (R-Dallas), it was part of a renewed commitment to “conservative values.” But Hartnett acknowledged last year that the law should be revisited if it’s negatively impacting children.

On Wednesday, state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) introduced a bill for the fourth consecutive session that would remove gender requirements for adoptive parents on supplemental birth certificates. And for the first time, a companion to Anchia’s bill was introduced in the Senate by Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston).

Many judges in Texas routinely grant joint adoptions to same-sex couples, so the legislation wouldn’t create new parental rights. But not having accurate birth certificates causes problems when it comes to enrolling children in school, adding them to insurance policies, admitting them for medical care and obtaining passports.

Anchia, whose bill has never made it out of committee, said if it fails to do so in 2015, he plans to force a floor vote by offering it as an amendment, and he’s confident it will pass.

“I think if you asked every member of the Legislature, they would say they care about orphaned children, and if we can get them to understand that this bill is about children and not about who their parents are, then that should carry the day,” Anchia told the Observer this week. “There’s no doubt that this policy has cruel effects.”

According to Equality Texas, the birth certificate restriction is among the inequities facing the LGBT community that wouldn’t be solved by legalization of same-sex marriage—since it involves the relationship between a parent and a child, not between parents.

About 9,200 same-sex couples in Texas are raising children, according to Census estimates, but it’s unclear how many are adoptive parents.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, called the birth certificate restriction “the lowest form of politics possible—if you don’t like someone, attack their children.”

Williams said the legislation filed by Anchia and Garcia on Wednesday has bipartisan support in both chambers, but added that he didn’t know of any Republican legislators who’d be willing to publicly endorse the bills at this stage.

Two years ago, Anchia’s bill faced opposition from the anti-LGBT group Texas Values. The group’s president, Jonathan Saenz, said in media interviews it would result in the words “mother” and “father” being removed from all birth certificates. PolitiFact rated Saenz’s claims “mostly false.”

Ken Upton, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said Texas is one of only a handful of states that don’t issue accurate birth certificates to same-sex adoptive parents.

A few years ago, Upton challenged a similar law in Louisiana and won in district court before the decision was overturned by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Upton said he’s interested in challenging the Texas law, too—and plans to do so eventually if it isn’t overturned legislatively—but he added that “no one thinks the time is right in the 5th Circuit.”

Miller and Stephens said they remain focused on the Legislature, where they see an opportunity to change hearts and minds.

Two years ago, when Miller and Stephens lobbied on behalf of Anchia’s bill, they took Clark with them, and his gregariousness helped initiate conversations with even the most conservative legislators.

Earlier this year, Clark pulled a wagon into the attorney general’s office containing thousands of petitions calling for Attorney General Greg Abbott to stop defending Texas’ marriage bans.

Miller and Stephens, who also run a support group and website for gay dads, The Handsome Father, said they view their activism as a way of setting an example for their son.

“If he doesn’t like something and feels that something needs to change, we want him to see that he can be a part of that change,” Miller said.

CPPP chart on kinship care benefits
Center for Public Policy Priorities/Texas Department of Family and Protective Services/Kids Count Data Center

A quarter-million Texas children are living with family members other than their parents, and many aren’t getting the state and federal benefits they’re due, according to a report released Tuesday.

When the state of Texas decides a parent is no longer able to care for their child, formal procedures dictate a few options: children may be placed with foster families, or in group homes or residential treatment centers. Or children may be placed into what’s known as kinship care, living with family members through a court order or an arrangement with the state. Children and their caregivers get health and financial benefits, and often a caseworker to help them navigate the system.

But a new report from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Austin-based policy analysis group, estimates that many more Texas children are living with relatives or family friends without the state’s involvement, and without the benefits they’re entitled to receive.

“Kinship caregivers are raising some of Texas’ most vulnerable children in challenging circumstances, and their service saves the state millions of dollars each year,” said Rachel Cooper, the report’s lead author and a senior policy analyst with CPPP, in a statement. “Texas has the opportunity to ease the financial burden of becoming a caregiver by providing the support families need to offer stable, loving homes for children in need.”

The report, “Keeping Kids with Family: How Texas Can Better Support Kinship Care,” notes that informal kinship caregivers are more likely to be “poor, single, older, less educated and unemployed than traditional families with at least one parent present.” Yet these caregivers often face significant barriers to getting public benefits like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Caregivers may not have access to the documentation necessary to receive benefits for a child, or they may hesitate to take a “handout” from the government. The report shows a small percentage of these caregivers enroll children in Medicaid, even though almost all children qualify if they live in households other than their parents’.

Much of the problem, according to the report, is that the agencies that run support programs aren’t reaching informal caregivers, and the application process can be cumbersome and confusing.

The report estimates 253,000 children live in informal kinship arrangements in Texas, the second most in the nation after California. There are 27,000 children in state custody, either in formal kinship care or paid foster care, under the Department of Family and Protective Services. But that much smaller group receives far more attention from the state.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities says one solution is to establish a Kinship Navigator Program, where the state could partner with an existing nonprofit that would continue to educate caregivers and serve as a referral network for services. The report says the Legislature should also raise TANF payments to caregivers.

“To support families and keep children out of the state’s already overburdened foster care system,” the report states, “Texas should move quickly to ease the financial burden of becoming a kinship caregiver in Texas.”

Under the state’s formal kinship program, caregivers receive at least $400 a month. Foster families get, at minimum, just under $700 per child. But the most an informal kinship caregiver receives is $96 per month from TANF programs for one child. That is hardly enough money, says Angie Grindon with the Houston-based Relatives as Parents Program. The program helps keep kids out of state care by helping caregivers access resources and educate them about their new roles.

“We need to raise the awareness of all of the folks out there throughout our community that are doing this and raising our children,” Grindon says. “If you don’t have the kinship caregivers stepping up to take care of these children, they’re going to end up in [state custody], and that’s gonna require state money to take care of them.”

Grindon says the first two years of informal kinship placements are the most difficult, but keeping children in their family or community is often best. “When you take on an extra child, there’s extra money involved,” she says. “People do not want their children to go into the CPS system. They much prefer that they stay with a relative without having to become a ‘child of the state,’ so to speak. People really step up to keep the children in their own extended family as much as possible, but they struggle tremendously.”

Parade in favor of Denton fracking ban
Garrett Graham
A parade in favor of Denton's fracking ban

 

The exhilaration my neighbors and I felt on election night after Denton’s referendum to ban fracking passed by an overwhelming majority lasted about 12 hours or so. But by the next morning Denton was under assault—not only from the oil and gas industry, but from Austin bureaucrats and politicians.

The city was slammed with lawsuits from the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas General Land Office, now headed by George Prescott Bush. In true “Bush Doctrine” fashion, the lawsuits seek the preemption of Denton’s democratic process, attempting to halt the ban’s enforcement before it began.

This backlash from the oil and gas industry and their bought-and-paid-for legislators in Austin was more than anticipated by those of us who have struggled against fracking in Denton for more than five years. On election night, moments after the results were announced, the only words that the president of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, Cathy McMullen, could muster were: “Bring it.”

We’re certainly not naïve about what it means to rebuff fracking in the shale where the technique was pioneered. But it’s the response from the Texas Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick that seems to have struck a raw nerve here in Denton.

Craddick told The Dallas Morning News in early November that she would continue issuing drilling permits to the industry for fracking operations in our city. “I believe it’s my job to give permits, not Denton’s,” she told the Morning News. Her comment was not only a reactionary and obstinate slap in the face, but revealed the lengths to which the Railroad Commission will go to protect the interests of the very industry it regulates.

Craddick’s comments make little sense to Denton residents who’ve watched city council members use their home-rule authority to approve various drilling permits over the years. Indeed, it was the issuance of special use permits, like the one granted to Range Resources in 2009 to drill across the street from a public park and a hospital, that set off the movement against fracking in Denton.

Adding further insult to injury, the Denton Record-Chronicle published an op-ed from Craddick in November that attempted to explain how we had been manipulated into our beliefs by unnamed groups:

Since hydraulic fracturing became a widely used practice in Texas, it has been plagued by a cloud of misinformation, mainly due to groups more interested in scaring people than actually understanding the complex science of minerals extraction.

In the op-ed, she implores Denton residents to “work together” with the Railroad Commission to “find solutions” even after publicly stating she would continue to issue permits for fracking operations in Denton.

Craddick’s op-ed is not just patronizing, it is myopic, revealing how little she understands about the regulatory situation that brought Denton to this point. Since Range Resources’ McKenna Park gas well was drilled in 2009, residents and city staff have tried every single institutional avenue available to regulate fracking in Denton.

The battle over the McKenna Park gas well prompted the city to review its entire drilling ordinance in 2009, and despite an industry-stacked gas drilling task force, which vetted the proposed changes to Denton’s drilling ordinance, the community was able to pressure the City Council to approve a stronger set of new rules, including a 1,200-foot setback requirement.

But after the new rules were passed, the gas companies found a loophole, arguing that their permits to frack pre-existing gas wells were grandfathered under the old rules. This is the history that Craddick doesn’t understand; it’s what led voters in Denton to pass the frack ban in a landslide.

There’s something else that Craddick’s comments fail to address: her potential conflicts of interest. Before she was elected to the Railroad Commission, Craddick lobbied for oil and gas interests and represented oil and gas clients as an attorney. According to LittleSis, a research arm of the Public Accountability Initiative, Craddick reported $50,000 in personal royalties from the oil and gas industry in her 2012 financial disclosure form, including one royalty payment of $25,000 from Kinder Morgan, which is active in Denton County.

Craddick’s potential conflicts of interest are part of a deep-rooted problem with the Railroad Commission. Industry ties and monied influence are “business as usual” for the agency. So much so that in 2010 the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative body that reviews state agencies for efficiency, recommended that the Railroad Commission be abolished and replaced with a new entity, the Texas Oil and Gas Commission. Under the sunset plan, the Oil and Gas Commission would be run by a part-time five member board appointed by the governor.

The sunset commission also found that the Railroad Commission is the only Texas regulatory agency overseen by elected officials who overwhelmingly rely on campaign contributions from the industries it oversees. No wonder, then, that the Railroad Commission pursued action on enforcement in only a tiny percentage of the thousands of violations identified each year.

Denton and other home-rule cities provide a clear example of why municipalities are perfectly capable of handling many regulatory tasks on their own. Cities following Denton’s lead in confronting fracking are putting in place restrictions that the Railroad Commission either is unwilling or unable to enact.

The Railroad Commission has created many enemies, both on the right and the left, with its failure to protect citizens directly impacted by the oil and gas industry. It’s now clear that the Railroad Commission is willing to abandon and overrule the democratic decision of a community it is meant to protect. But in doing so, it’s helping to build a movement of people who can put pressure on legislators to abolish the Railroad Commission, as the sunset commission recommended. Many Dentonites are planning to make this case to our legislators in January.

Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster
Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster

In October, Mark Lamster, architecture critic at The Dallas Morning News, issued an unusual call: Dallas, he said, should begin converting its many abandoned jails into hotels, schools and other facilities for reshaping the city.

In his stirring column, Lamster wrote of “healing the broken relationship between the built city and its promise of justice”—a process that he says will “take years, if not decades, to accomplish.”

“A just city provides its citizens with adequate facilities for education and economic opportunity, mobility and play—not just incarceration.”

Also a professor at UT-Arlington, Lamster frequently writes about urban planning and preservation with a humane touch. He wrote in his first Morning News column, in April 2013, that although “genius architecture is [not] bad—a city needs its defining monuments … you can’t live in a museum or a concert hall. You need places to live, work, shop, learn, eat and play.”

In reimagining Dallas, Lamster takes aim at Dallas’ highly visible penal institutions. The massive Lew Sterrett Justice Center, Dallas County’s main jail facility located in downtown, serves as “the unholy gateway to our city,” he’s written.

“What does it say about our values that we have allowed these buildings to achieve, along with the bail bondsmen, package stores and payday lenders that are their sad detritus, such symbolic prominence as the gateway to our city?”

The Observer recently talked to Lamster about his call to action.

 

Texas Observer: How feasible will it be, converting jails in a state that historically has favored imprisonment?

Mark Lamster: I think it’s feasible. First of all, one of those prisons, the Dawson State Jail, is empty. Bureaucratic inertia regarding what to do with that site is the only thing slowing us.

Also, we are a law-and-order state, but we are also definitely a state that does not like to spend money: fiscally conservative. Prisons are an unbelievably expensive and inefficient way of dealing with criminal justice. It makes no sense to spend the amount of money that we do on prisons, when there are more efficient ways to tackle criminal-justice problems than prisons.

Dawson State Jail
Patrick Michels
Tall and imposing, the now-shuttered Dawson State Jail offers an ominous greeting into downtown Dallas.

[Dallas Police Chief David Brown] will tell you that you can’t incarcerate your way into crime prevention. It doesn’t work in terms of space; you can’t build enough space for the prisoners. It’s counter-productive and overly expensive.

So, yes, we can solve this problem. Dallas is littered with abandoned jails. They’re all over the city. It’s kind of ironic: We have a habit of building jails and then leaving them.

 

TO: Assuming you had full economic freedom to do so, what next steps would you take to provide Dallas with adequate facilities for education and economic opportunity? Are there buildings that you would re-purpose next?

ML: There is a lot of vacant criminal justice infrastructure in Dallas, and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it. But things are definitely happening already. The old Dallas Municipal Building—one of the city’s most notorious jails [and] where Jack Ruby shot Oswald—is being transformed into a law school for the University of Texas at Dallas.

Preservationists are working to restore the former Dallas County Criminal Courts Building, which is also downtown, like the Dallas Municipal Building.

The most important case right now is the site of the Cabana Hotel. It was a 1960s motor hotel. The Beatles stayed there; Doris Day owned it for a time. It’s an incredibly important, historic hotel. The Cabana was converted to a detention center, but is now vacant. The city has just taken bids for restoration. There were numerous bids to turn it into a hotel. But it appears—not clear yet—that the winning bid was to demolish it.

The Cabana is another bit of “prison” legacy—it didn’t start as criminal justice architecture, but it became that and has been decommissioned. Many of us in Dallas are trying to figure out what to do with all of that.

 

TO: What are the obstacles to achieving your vision?

ML: Dawson State Prison, which is now vacant and a mar on the cityscape, is in bureaucratic limbo between the city and state. The city needs to figure out what it wants to do with that space, then decide on some kind of deal with the state to make it happen. As I mentioned, the Cabana Hotel should be preserved as a hotel, given its history, but right now it looks like it might be slated for demolition.

Meanwhile, the historic Dallas Criminal Courts Building is moldering on a prime block in the city’s historic center. Preservationists and developers should be able to find some way to restore this building, down the line.

As for the dun-colored Sterrett Justice Center, I fear getting rid of that is a very long-term project. But it surely could use some rethinking to create a more restorative, rather than punitive, environment for the city.

 

TO: Are you impressed by the directions some cities have taken, back-burnering prison installations and instead focusing on education and recreation?

ML: Big cities are figuring out that they need to move from a kind of retributive justice to a more rehabilitative justice. They are integrating mental health care, job training, vocational training into a single structural system.

Otherwise you take people in and spit them out into the same position they were in. Then they cycle in and out, and so on. That’s not only terrible for them; it’s horribly expensive for communities.

Around the country, we’re starting to see prison populations decline—so there’s less need for prisons.

We had a punitive system of justice in the 1980s with three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws. But people who go to jail come back to our communities, then we have to pay for the jails. It’s one thing to talk about law and order, but we have to think a bit more holistically.

 

TO: How should we think more holistically about how Texas cities present prisons and jails and how they present economic opportunity and education?

ML: When you talk about making changes, you have to have a pretty big table: community leaders, criminal justice officers, advocates for prisoners, people who’ve been to prison and can talk about it and have been successful in re-integrating to society on how they’ve done it, victims’ groups, public health professionals, people who work in prisons, architects.

We need to look at the conditions for workers too. If Texas has some prisons without air-conditioning, it’s hard for prisoners, but it’s also hard for the workers. Bad conditions lead to bad behavior and more confrontation between prisoners and guards. You want to build spaces that are humane.

The War at School

Save Texas Schools rally at the Texas Capitol, Saturday, February 25.
Patrick Michels
A dissatisfied public school student at the Save Texas Schools rally.

 

This year, as we do every Thanksgiving, my brother-in-law Ryan and I traded war stories over a table laden with food and drink. Our front lines are in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan, but deep in the heart of Houston. Our stories are drawn from the stuff of our lives as teachers, soldiers in the education wars unfolding in the classrooms of our nation.

Ryan and I fight our battles in different theaters. I teach history at a university in Houston while Ryan teaches English at a nearby high school. Both of our respective institutions, of relatively recent birth and still busily inventing their school traditions, pride themselves on spanking-new football stadiums and high-tech classrooms. But this year, as in year’s past, our experiences were dramatically asymmetrical. When I confide my anxiety that I have fewer than 10 students in one of the two classes I teach twice a week, Ryan shares his relief that he has fewer than 30 in one of the six classes he teaches every day. After I express my impatience with students who do not read deeply, Ryan tells me about students who cannot read at all. When I have the ill grace to bemoan earning $30,000 a year less than the national average for full professors, Ryan smiles wanly, too gracious to reply that this gap represents more than two-thirds of his own yearly salary. While I worry about the mad spawning of administrators at my school, Ryan confesses his hope to become an administrator—if only to escape the grim impasse in which he finds himself.

Simply put, Ryan is in the trenches and I am not. Like many volunteers who rally to their nations’ colors in times of need, my brother-in-law was an idealist when he signed up. An indifferent student in high school, Ryan fell in love with literature at university; as a teacher, he hoped to reach students who resembled his younger, bored self. More than a decade on the front lines, however, has pulverized that idealism. Just as all war gives the lie to words like “honor,” “duty” and “sacrifice,” so too has teaching undermined Ryan’s belief that few professions are more honorable than teaching and his willingness to make financial sacrifices on behalf of duty to a literate citizenry. His experiences have trumped all of that. I do not know if it’s true that there are no atheists in foxholes, but I have good reason to believe there are few if any idealists still working in Ryan’s school.

How could there be? Take the example of 1914: Once that war of movement ossified into one of stasis, generals and politicians increasingly turned to technological breakthroughs to snap the stalemate. From poison gas to dirigibles, tanks to flamethrowers, one silver bullet after another was fired during World War I. Most were duds, and some were worse. Poison gas drifts over one’s own lines, tanks become firetraps and flamethrowers turn their users into Roman candles.

While no such horrors have been visited on Ryan and his colleagues, they are casualties nonetheless of the same kind of magical thinking. Like the mustachioed generals of yesteryear, Ryan’s school administrators insist that technology can win hearts and minds. To this end, Brian and his students were armed this year with Dell tablets. The administration’s ambition to go paperless, which carried a $17 million price tag, has turned into a fiasco worthy of the Battle of the Somme. Every day, Ryan teaches six classes, each of which runs 49 minutes. This race against time, thanks to the Dells, has become an obstacle course. Inevitably, students forgot to charge their tablets, or forgot to save their material or simply forgot to bring their tablets. Other students were plagued by software problems, while some of the more privileged, scornful of the Dells, refused to use them. After three months of mayhem and muddle, Ryan’s students have tabled the tablets and are again, like students in far more advanced Finland and Japan, using paper and pen.

The costs of technological magical thinking extend far beyond landscapes littered with torched tanks and darkened Dells. There is also our passionate attachment to standardized tests. In Texas, administrators cling to the STAAR—the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness—with the same desperate conviction that Douglas Haig, Britain’s commander at the Somme, applied to Heavy Artillery Reserves (HAR). Just as the makers of munitions always emerge from war victorious, it is the corporate education complex and its legion of consultants who benefit most from these tests. Given that Pearson Education, the maker of STAAR, charges Texas taxpayers $90 million a year, is it surprising that Ryan must lead his students over the top and into the test? His students’ futures and his own rest on this test, and the twining is doubly tragic: Ryan risks his job if his students don’t test well, and his students risk missing the true rewards of reading and writing if they’re only taught to test well.

This massive investment has birthed a new literary genre in Texas—the 26-line STAAR essay, for which students are drilled relentlessly—at the expense of genres like the novel and drama. “Teaching the test,” Ryan told me, “comes at the cost of teaching literature.” Even the path to the test is mined with difficulties. All of Ryan’s classes include special-education students. The state rightly compels schools to mainstream these students, but in a cost-saving strategy about which many parents are unaware, nearly half of the students in some of Ryan’s classes have special needs. To attend to the dizzying array of needs in these classes requires daily miracles as great as that of the Battle of the Marne.

When Ryan is not careening through one class to the next, he is mired in paperwork, and here lies the true pity of his situation. Though he works 60 to 65 hours a week, he has barely any time to meet with his students, the ostensible beneficiaries of his labor.

But do we parents really care? Like family on the home front who find comfort in the official version of events—WWI gave us the modern spin on the word “propaganda”—we gaze at the facades of our schools and are reassured by the medals, like “Exemplary” and “Recognized,” they have earned. We turn our gaze elsewhere, convinced we are on the road to victory. But when I listen to Ryan, I cannot help but think that such victories may be no less Pyrrhic than those of 1918, or 1950, or 2003.

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