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The Whole Star

Andrea Grimes
Jen Reel
Andrea Grimes

When we began reinventing the then-biweekly newsprint Texas Observer in 2010 as a glossy-paged monthly magazine, a passel of new columnists was core to the redesign. The first on board was Bill Minutaglio.

Bill was a relative newcomer to the Observer’s pages, but by the time of his inaugural column, in the Jan. 22, 2010 issue, he was already an oddly youthful èminence grise in Texas journalism circles, having worked at dailies in Abilene, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, not to mention staff and stringer stints at top-shelf national outlets too numerous to mention. Nobody knew the ins and outs of the business more intimately, few practiced it more conscientiously, and from his perch as a journalism professor at the University of Texas, few were better positioned to watch the trade’s future scrolling across the transom. The fruits of his experience and insight have graced Bill’s State of the Media column since 2010. 

Until now. Bill has decided to turn his attention to scripts, screenplays and other projects piled up in his perpetually overstuffed pipeline, and if we can’t say we’re surprised, we’re certainly sorry to see him go. We’ve frankly never understood how Bill found the time to teach, write books, serve as a go-to bullshit detector for the national press corps on all topics Texas, and write a monthly column for this magazine, all the while sending us a steady stream of well-trained interns and acting as an on-call reference desk whenever some Observer reporter or frazzled editor needed a pointer to a source or a refresher on how—and why—to do what we do. 

So it’s with great gratitude that we want to acknowledge Bill’s departure from the State of the Media desk after the better part of five years.

“It was an honor to launch this column,” Bill writes. “The media needs watching, and thank goodness the Observer will continue to watch it.”

Indeed we will. Even as we bid Bill a fond adios—(fond and partial, since we fully expect to continue benefitting from his reporting and writing in other contexts)—we say hello to Andrea Grimes, a young Austin writer who’s been making her name not in the state’s legacy daily newspapers but online. Andrea is a former editor of Eater Austin, a former staff writer at the Dallas Observer, an occasional stand-up comedian, a senior political reporter with  RHRealityCheck.org, and the whip-smart human behind the indispensable Twitter handle @andreagrimes. We’re excited to invite you to follow along as she guides the State of the Media column down its next new path.  

BASIS San Antonio's campus

Since the Arizona-based charter network BASIS Schools opened its first school in 1998, the chain has built a reputation as one of the nation’s strongest charter organizations.

Two of the chain’s original schools, in Scottsdale and Tucson, ranked in the top five of U.S. News & World Report‘s latest high school rankings. In 2012, both schools boasted that 100 percent of their students graduated and went on to college. At BASIS Scottsdale, students earned an average of 4.1 out of a possible 5 points on AP tests.

But at the chain’s new Texas outpost, one parent says BASIS has failed to address her child’s special needs, in violation of federal law. Her claim has reignited an old charge against charters that outperform traditional school districts—that they keep scores high by gradually pushing out students who can’t keep up.

In June, BASIS San Antonio parent Sharon Bonilla accused the school of failing to accommodate her child’s ADHD and using bully tactics to push him out of the classroom. She leveled the accusation in a letter published on Cloaking Inequity, a blog written by University of Texas researcher Julian Vasquez Heilig.

As a parent, I was “wooed” by Basis. We were sure that Basis was the “one” for us – the school that would accept all children regardless of color, creed, or impairment. Who wouldn’t fall in love with this charter school initially? Who would have thought our year would end with a hearing, and a desperate search for legal counsel?

[…]

Much to my surprise, drawing up a 504 Accommodation Plan was the extent of the service we got from Basis. There were no plans implemented or followed up on throughout the fall months. The spring was no different. The evidence first came when I saw my child’s failing grades. Basis ignored my steady emails day after day, and week after week. With every failing quiz, test, and progress report, I sent my concerns to the Special Education Director, Head of School, and teachers, which were met with no reply, dismissive attitude, or disciplinary action against my child. It was clear that the honeymoon was over.

Bonilla also happens to be a social worker at San Antonio ISD. She told the Observer that after five months of trying to contact BASIS staff about her child’s special accommodations—under federal law, schools must create what’s known as a “504 plan” to meet the needs of students with disabilities—Bonilla learned that the plan had never been implemented and that her child would be held back a grade.

“It feels like an injustice,” she said. “I did everything I could to get in touch with BASIS staff.”

After she was excluded from decisions about her child’s accommodations, Bonilla said, BASIS’s head of schools tried to counsel her out of sending her child to the school next year.

“She said, ‘Your [child] isn’t doing well here. Why do you want him here anyway?” Bonilla said.

At a formal hearing next Tuesday, Bonilla will plead in front of an arbitrator, hired by BASIS, to move her child to the next grade and restore her rights as decision maker in her child’s education. With help from lieutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte, Bonilla wrote, she also filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency. In the letter posted at Cloaking Inequity, Bonilla summed up her frustration:

Are the events of this year tactics Basis San Antonio practices to scare away children who do not meet their academic standards? Other Basis parents who did not feel supported transferred out earlier this year, should we have moved too? My child was emotionally tormented and struggled entire school year trying to maneuver through the Basis curriculum without his 504 accommodations. … How can a “world class” publically [sic] funded, educational institution be permitted to ignore the needs of their disabled students and their parent’s constant cries for help?

BASIS Communications Director Phil Handler declined to speak specifically about Bonilla’s case, but denied that the school pushes out students with disabilities or lacks the resources to serve them. “We’re a public charter. Anyone who wants to come to our school is welcome,” Handler said.

All schools that receive public funding are required by federal law to offer services for students with special needs. But accusations that BASIS and other charter schools try to wiggle out of offering these services are hardly new.

Educating students with disabilities takes time, money and specially-trained staff—and since the state grades schools by their students’ standardized tests, critics say charters have an incentive to spend more on the students most likely to score high. Traditional public schools still have to educate the rest.

That logic might explain the findings from a 2012 Government Accountability Office report on enrollment in charter schools. The report found that disabled students represented only 8.2 per cent of students enrolled at charters across the 2009-2010 school year, compared to 11.2 percent in traditional public schools. The number suggests a systemic trend that runs deeper than BASIS.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened a federal investigation into a parent’s complaint that BASIS D.C. discriminated against students with disabilities after the school had been open for just one year. The D.C. Public Charter School Board also conducted a two-day review of the school’s special education program, which found that the school’s services were insufficient. The local board required BASIS to make improvements the following year—but only after 44 of its 443 students, half of them with disabilities, had already dropped out.

Amy Silverman, a parent of a child with Down syndrome, called this trend a new kind of segregation in a Phoenix New Times story earlier this year. Silverman described her desperate search to find a charter middle school for her daughter in Arizona, a state with over 500 charter schools. In a number of conversations with special education teachers at charter schools, Silverman says she was told she’d be better off enrolling her daughter in a traditional school. Silverman claims in the article that even Great Hearts Academies founder Jay Heiler, who she describes as the “godfather of the school choice movement,” dissuaded her from trying to enroll her daughter at a charter. (Great Hearts, like BASIS, is another ambitious charter chain expanding into Texas.) By refusing to address their own lack of special education resources and pushing away students with special needs, Silverman argues, charters are becoming increasingly exclusive.

Heather Cole, a graduate student in special education at the University of Texas and a former education advocate at Disability Rights Texas, said charters make less of an effort to tailor their programs to special education students than traditional schools. Cole told the Observer that funding for special education is an issue both in public schools and charters, but that charter school teachers frequently lack the instructional training to accommodate students with special education needs.

“It’s almost a given that [students with special needs] might be excluded,” Cole said. The danger, she suggests, is that parents seeking schools for their children will eventually get the idea that charters just aren’t an option, without any school ever telling them directly.

Denise Pierce, an attorney at the Texas Charter Schools Association said that all charters should strive to provide the same quality of special education as traditional schools. “Charter schools, just like districts, are required to provide a free and appropriate education to students with special needs,” she said. “Charter schools and school districts alike are always challenged to bring to the appropriate needs to every child, because every child is an individual.”

Pierce said that charters with tight finances could try sharing special education teachers with other schools. But pushing students with disabilities out of school is never the answer.

Still, a case like Bonilla’s—where even a social worker familiar with the education system finds her child cut off from those services—suggests charter schools still have a long way to go.

“Charters are supposed to be the solution to this big system that didn’t work. ‘We’re smaller. We’re tighter. We’ll be responsive to your needs,’” Cole said. “That is not the case. We’re seeing greater exclusion. We’re seeing more of the tracking of kids into alternative educations and juvenile justice programs. They are not the panacea that people hoped.”

Jeremy Schwab, author of the Texas GOP platform's reparative therapy plank
Jeremy Schwab

The man who authored a plank endorsing reparative therapy in the Texas GOP platform is Jeremy Schwab, the founder of an ex-gay ministry called Joel 2:25 International.

Schwab is also an actor who’s appeared in films including “My Father’s Daughter,” “True Romance” and “Zombie Campout,” according to IMDb. (His YouTube acting reel even includes a commercial for Mozilla Firefox that coincidentally features a homophobic shower scene.)

Schwab isn’t using his full name in media interviews about the reparative therapy plank — due to fear of retaliation, according to KRLD. But what about the safety of LGBTQ youth who are harmed by reparative therapy?

Schwab appears to maintain multiple Facebook pages, including one under Jeremy Joel, but on his personal page we find proof that he authored the resolution. On the day it passed, he posted this update thanking Texas Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams and others: Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 10.07.13 AM

In response to a comment seeking details, Schwab wrote this:

Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 10.08.01 AM

Schwab tells the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy that the GOP platform amendment he initially proposed to Adams is being distorted by the media. In a post on his “My Journey” blog on Tuesday, he explains further. “There are many of us who experience Same-Sex Attraction, but do NOT want to embrace the modern ‘Gay’ label and have moral beliefs that mean Gay Relationships are NOT an option for us at all,” Schwab writes. Schwab goes on to argue that reparative therapy isn’t harmful and can be effective—despite the conclusions of the American Psychological Association.

In another post that includes the packet he sent to GOP delegates proposing the platform amendment, Schwab discusses how he became an activist against bans on reparative therapy for minors like those that have passed California and New Jersey.

“Reparative Therapy and this type of ministry work played a significant role in saving my life and I have been blessed to help many others over the past four years,” Schwab writes. “Recently though, this ministry work has been under attack across the country and in some states Republican legislators and Governors have been silent or complicit in passing these laws.” According to an interview posted on YouTube, Schwab lived an active gay life for about six years. He had two long-term relationships and attended a gay church but remained religiously conflicted and dissatisfied.

In 2009, he sought treatment from California psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, a founder and former president of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Nicolisi referred Schwab to an ex-gay retreat called Journey Into Manhood, which he says reduced his same-sex attraction by 50 percent in one weekend.

In the 2012 YouTube interview, Schwab said his same-sex attraction had dropped to 10 percent and he looked forward to the possibility of marrying a woman. “I don’t believe that I was created gay,” Schwab said. “I believe it’s something that developed over time.” Watch the interview below.

Buffalo Bayou Brouhaha

Harris County Flood Control District Map showing showing the spanof Buffalo Bayou slated for the district's proposed "demonstration project."
Courtesy Harris County Flood Control District
Harris County Flood Control District map showing showing the span of Buffalo Bayou slated for the district's proposed "demonstration project."

 

To those unfamiliar with the mysteries of Houston, a visit to Hogg Bird Sanctuary yields surprising results. When you turn at the traffic-choked intersection of Memorial Drive and Westcott, then park in the lot across from Bayou Bend, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston satellite location that was once home to Ima Hogg, you don’t expect that you’re about to enter a wooded wonderland. But once you’ve stepped out of the parking lot and into the sanctuary, carved out of forest and terrain that’s downright hilly by Houston standards, you feel almost completely removed from the roaring city just a few yards away.

With a few more steps you’re at the edge of a steep and unexpectedly tall cliff overlooking an oxbow bend in the bayou below, its graceful arc framed by trees. You’re standing in one of the most dramatic spots, natural or man-made, the city has to offer. Given Houston’s when-in-doubt-pave-it ethos, the thought that you’re on the edge of a highly developed and well-monied neighborhood just minutes from downtown produces a touch of vertigo.

This stretch of Buffalo Bayou might be beautiful, but it is not altogether healthy. Decades of intense development, along with the construction of two rather fragile and frequently flushed upstream dams, have constrained the bayou’s floodplain while increasing the volume it’s expected to carry. As a result, erosion has become a sizeable problem—one that the Harris County Flood Control District is attempting to address with a highly contentious “stream restoration” known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.

According to the HCFCD website, “Erosion in the project area has caused bank failures, loss of public and private land, and a reduction in ecological functions, such as water quality and habitat.” The sheer cliff at the Hogg Bird Sanctuary is, in part, a result of this erosion.

The problem became severe enough that the Bayou Preservation Association, founded in the 1960s by environmental activist Terry Hershey, among others, to protect Buffalo Bayou from the brutal concrete channelizations that other Houston-area bayous suffered at the hands of the HCFCD and the Army Corps of Engineers, undertook a study of how to deal with erosion in 2010.

According to the HCFCD website, “experts in the fields of fluvial geomorphology and natural channel design” were brought in to perform studies and make recommendations. Based in part on the Bayou Preservation Association’s study, the HCFCD is seeking a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to implement its recommendations.

In the HCFCD’s demonstration project, 5,800 feet of the bayou winding through the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood will have its vegetation, including its riparian forest, scraped bare. Then the banks will be graded to a gentle slope, among other steps, to “restore Buffalo Bayou to a natural, stable condition.”

Despite its origins in the Bayou Preservation Association, the plan has provoked a thunderous backlash from environmental and community activists, who say it’s far too drastic. Led by environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, activist Frank Salzhandler, writer Olive Hershey and others, opponents claim that the project will destroy the bayou in its attempt to save it. They point out that even if vegetation eventually grows back on the bayou’s razed banks, hundreds of species of birds and animals now living there will be forced from their habitat. The bayou itself, opponents say, will be transformed into “a drainage ditch,” like Houston’s other channelized bayous, albeit without their concrete lining. They argue that erosion can be addressed through less destructive measures, and that in any event the HCFCD proposal is “not real science,” as more than one activist argued at a recent community meeting.

Crying “follow the money,” some attendees at that meeting expressed outrage that their beloved bayou would be reshaped in part to benefit the River Oaks Country Club, whose golf course has suffered erosion at its riverine edges. (River Oaks Country Club has agreed to pay one-third of the $6 million project’s costs, with the City of Houston and the Harris County Flood Control District paying the rest). Carlos Calbillo, a community activist from the heavily Latino Second Ward, suggested that the project could be a stalking horse for further development of a San Antonio Riverwalk-type development to the stretch of the bayou that runs through the eastside ward.

Proponents, on the other hand, say the plan is necessary, if regrettable. “Our board voted to support the project only after much careful deliberation,” says Shellye Arnold, executive director of the Memorial Park Conservancy (Buffalo Bayou runs through Memorial Park). She says that if erosion is not addressed, “the bayou is going to fall in on itself.”

Due to the intensity of public response, the Army Corps of Engineers recently extended the comment period regarding the HCFCD proposal until June 30. The Corps can ultimately approve the proposal, or reject it based on a number of criteria, including its potential impact on water quality and its cumulative—as opposed to localized—effect on the waterway. Public comments serve as the equivalent of a public hearing in the Corps’ permitting process, and both sides are urging their supporters to weigh in.

Click here for more information on how to make a comment.

Direct Energy
Direct Energy

In Texas’ free-for-all deregulated electricity market, all plans aren’t created equal. There are fixed-rate plans, plans that fluctuate from day to day, 100-percent renewable energy plans, and plans that are sold through multi-level marketing methods. And then there are pre-paid electricity plans, which charge high rates and can frequently fluctuate in price. Consumer group Texas ROSE has been investigating one prepaid product, Direct Energy’s “Power-To-Go.” In a petition to the Texas Public Utility Commission, the advocacy group argues the plan leaves customers at risk of sudden electricity shutoffs during extreme weather events. Texas ROSE, relying in part on a whistleblower account, also accuses Direct Energy of targeting low-income minority customers through deceptive marketing tactics and potentially violating PUC rules protecting consumers.

David Korn, a former Direct Energy employee who worked in an Arizona call center that handled customer service for Power-To-Go, contacted Carol Biedrzycki of Texas ROSE after noticing a pattern of complaints from customers.

“I had been working about a month or so and during my employment I noticed a lot of activities that were questionable and I took notes,” Korn told the Observer.

For Korn, much of his concern has to do with critical care patients, children and families enrolled in the Power-To-Go option. Unlike monthly billing plans, prepaid accounts can be shut off the moment the account balance reaches zero. There are no limits on the number of disconnections. Customers often complain that they didn’t know their balance was approaching zero, the Texas ROSE complaint states.

Because power can be shut off suddenly, the prepaid plans could put people in danger who rely on medical devices and be a health risk, he says. For that reason, PUC rules say that critical-care patients shouldn’t be on prepaid energy plans.

Direct Energy considers its online monitoring feature an advantage that lets customers “see how much energy they’re using on a daily basis, take control of their energy use and potentially save money,” according to a 2012 press release. But Korn states in an affidavit filed with the PUC that many customers don’t have access to a computer or don’t know how to monitor their energy usage. Other customers complained to Korn that they didn’t receive notice before service was cut—a problem that Korn blames on the company’s shoddy messaging system. “Message notification fails on a regular basis,” he said.

In his affidavit, Korn says “on days when below-freezing overnight temperatures were forecasted, I regularly handled calls from panicked mothers who had lost power, sometimes without warning due to messaging failures.”

Korn claims he’d ask his supervisors why the accounts weren’t protected from shutoffs during extreme weather, as required by PUC rules, only to be told “that any account that had already dropped below zero and lost power was simply out of luck.”

The Texas ROSE petition also claims that Direct Energy uses “deceptive marketing tactics” to sign up people for the prepaid plan. The company tells customers that the prepaid plan is “like putting gas in a car,” where you know how long you have between “fill-ups.”

But in reality there’s a one or two-day lag between posting usage amounts, and the company refuses to offer any payment extensions. And the “pay as you go” feature can lead to paying more for electricity. Instead of a monthly bill, people typically end up making several smaller payments each month that end up being more expensive.

“This is a big problem because the price can change daily,” Biedrzycki says. “I like to give the analogy of a prepaid phone card. You can put 20 minutes worth of phone time on your account, but you don’t know how many kilowatt- hours you’re getting for a certain amount.”

Korn stated in his affidavit that some customers had been convinced by collection agents to switch to the prepaid option so they could “pay as often and as much as they’d like.”

Biedrzycki also said that other jurisdictions and states handle prepaid energy plans differently. In Pennsylvania, low-income customers cannot sign up for prepaid accounts. One company in Arizona charges prepaid accounts a tariffed, regulated rate that’s barred from fluctuating.

The complaint alleges that Direct Energy targets low-income, minority and undocumented people with promises of no credit checks, no deposit and no monthly billing.

In a statement, a Direct Energy spokesperson said the company “takes these allegations very seriously” but noted that the company “serve tens of thousands of satisfied Texans on our prepaid Power To Go plan with more customers signing up daily.”

When Texas deregulated more than a decade ago, customers were expected to have more flexibility in choosing their electricity provider, which, proponents argued, would lead to lower costs.

According to several zip code checks on the PUC site PowerToChoose.org, Power-To-Go’s rate of 14.4 cents per kilowatt-hour was the third-most expensive out of 196 plans, just slightly cheaper than two renewable energy plans.

The Texas ROSE petition was filed nearly a month ago, but so far the PUC has taken no action on Direct Energy’s Power-To-Go plan.

“The entire idea of prepaid electricity service is problematic,” Korn says. “It opens the door for discriminatory marketing and subpar service for low-income customers.”

Millennial Hispanics Are Losing Their Religion

A Pew study showing large shifts in Hispanic religious identity could have major implications for Texas politics.
Rally at the Capital marking anniversary of Roe v. Wade, January 25, 2014
Carl Lindemann
Rally at the Capital marking anniversary of Roe v. Wade, January 25, 2014

 

By 2020 or so Texas will become a predominantly Hispanic state. The political implications of this demographic transformation have been widely discussed. Democrats hope to capitalize on the growing clout of Hispanics to reverse the party’s dismal performance of the last two decades. Republicans, at least the smart ones, are banking on appeals to socially conservative Hispanics to hold onto power.

But the Pew Research Center’s new study “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States” shows that the future isn’t simply one where Hispanics will replace Anglos as the demographically-dominant ethnic group. Rather, it’s about a rising generation of young Latinos who are redefining what it means to be “Hispanic.” Born between 1982 and 2004, these millennials—like their white, black and Asian counterparts—look to be an even tougher sell for the GOP than their elders. Still, it’s unclear whether they will show up for Democrats either.

Pew’s survey of more that 5,000 Hispanics nationwide shows that an increasing number of Latinos are leaving Catholicism, their childhood faith. Just 55 percent of those surveyed identify themselves as Catholic, down from 67 percent in the previous comprehensive study in 2006. Now, nearly a quarter of all Hispanics say they are former Catholics. Overall, non-Catholics are nearly evenly divided between evangelical Protestants (16 percent) and those who profess no religious affiliation (18 percent). Mainline Protestants and other Christians round out the remaining 8 percent.

The conversion of some Catholics to evangelicals holds out hope for the GOP. Consider the study’s findings on abortion. Overall, Hispanics tend to be conservative on this issue. Fifty-three percent say that abortion should be completely or mostly illegal, with just 40 percent in favor of abortion rights—a flip of the 40/54 percent split among Americans generally. With Hispanic evangelicals, 70 percent are in favor of making abortion illegal. That’s even more than white (non-Hispanic) evangelicals. Even so, these evangelical Hispanics still mostly identify as Democrats (48 percent vs. 30 percent support for the GOP). That’s progress for Republicans since, overall, Hispanics identify as Democrats 56/21 percent.

But this is little more than a consolation prize when contrasted with how religiously unaffiliated Hispanics are changing the landscape. The unaffiliated, also known as “nones,” include those who think of themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” and those who are neither spiritual nor religious. They are far more pro-choice than Hispanics overall, even more so than the general public. They are also staunchly Democratic, overwhelming Republicans by 4-to-1.

According to the study, the bulk of the “nones” are young. What’s going on with the under-30 crowd? These are millennials, a generation significantly detached from institutions, making its presence felt. In 2010, unaffiliated Hispanics made up 14 percent of the 18-29 category. In 2013, as millennials rapidly came to dominate and define that age group, the unaffiliated more than doubled, rising to 31 percent of the cohort.

Hispanic millennials are a demographic tidal wave, the dominant ethnicity among millennials. Some 800,000 underage Hispanics turn voting age every year. They are the first generation that is mostly U.S.-born and identify closely with their non-Hispanic contemporaries. Their turn toward being “nones” closely matches the national trend, according to a separate Pew study. As the remaining millennial Hispanics come of age over the next decade, “nones” could wipe out whatever modest gains the GOP now enjoys with evangelical Hispanics.

In Texas, this doesn’t portend well for Republicans. As Sen. Ted Cruz prophesied in The New Yorker in 2012,

“If Republicans do not do better in the Hispanic community, in a few short years Republicans will no longer be the majority party in our state….If that happens, no Republican will ever again win the White House….the Electoral College math is simple….you can’t get to two-seventy electoral votes. The Republican Party would cease to exist.

Still, Democrats should pause before counting on votes from a group partially defined as “unaffiliated.” Most Hispanic evangelicals, as the Pew study reveals, reliably turn out for church services, bible study and “say churches should express their views on political and social issues.” Churches have long been a locus for both social and political change on the right.

Their unaffiliated millennial counterparts are largely disengaged from organizations and institutions that traditionally facilitate civic participation. Will they find a vehicle for social change and political participation? Most importantly, will they connect at the ballot box?

What would it take to make these unaffiliated put their faith in politics? Perhaps seeing their progressive proclivities as an opportunity for Democrats is to get it backwards. Here, what may move Hispanic millennials is the opportunity to take ownership of political institutions like the Democratic Party or to find new ones.