The Whole Star

Rep. John Carter
Christopher Hooks
Rep. John Carter at a town hall meeting in Salado.

A month after U.S. Rep. John Carter (R-Round Rock) tried to defend his willingness to consider an immigration reform bill to unhappy constituents, his office released a joint statement on Friday with Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Plano) announcing their departure from a bipartisan immigration reform working group, all but signaling the end of a once-promising avenue for reform. Carter and Johnson were the only white Republican members of the ‘Gang of Seven,’ tasked by House leadership with generating a GOP-friendly approach to the issue.

Their departure from the group, coming several months after Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador’s, leaves only one GOP congressman still with the group. But their exit could signify a bigger problem for immigration reform’s chances in the next few months — some Republicans in Congress who represent majority-white and heavily conservative constituencies find themselves unable to compromise on this core issue. At the August town hall meeting, Carter tried to fend off angry constituents, who had earlier screened the documentary They Come to America II: The Cost of Amnesty, by presenting his own immigration reform plan. The crowd was having none of it.

Lynn Woolley, the local radio host who loudly denounced Carter at the Salado town hall, took partial credit for Carter’s reversal, posting congratulatory messages from his fans on his Facebook page.

“CONGRATULATIONS to you and the Central Texas Tea Party!,” Woolley wrote. “I truly believe all of you had a huge influence on John Carter and Sam Johnson.”

Roy Beck, the executive director of NumbersUSA, one of the leading anti-immigration reform pressure groups, likewise touted the gang’s collapse as a victory.

“I think it’s pretty clear that House Speaker Boehner was the one who talked Johnson and Carter into joining this group, in the hope that it would give some conservative cover to passing amnesty,” he said. “We’ve been getting indications for several months that the pressure on these two at home, among their constituents had been approaching a breaking point. They had been looking for an opportunity to get out.”

But a statement released by America’s Voice, a liberal immigration reform-advocacy organization, put the blame for the Gang of Seven’s collapse squarely on the shoulders of the House Republican leadership — and held out the hope that the departure of Carter and Johnson “opens new possibilities” for the pro-reform movement.

Frank Sharry, the group’s executive director, said he was “glad that a moribund process has been put to rest,” and that “our leading champions for reform are freed up,” while others with the organization pointed to the fact that Carter and Johnson’s statement blamed the administration and not House Democrats — a sign, they say, that the congressmen could come back to the table if the leadership starts to put serious backing behind reform.

Duke Energy's 14-megawatt Blue Wing Solar Project in San Antonio
Duke Energy's 14-megawatt Blue Wing Solar Project in San Antonio.

Major Texas cities are challenging Texas’ rank as one of the least-green states in the union, a new report shows. The report, released by Environment Texas in San Antonio today, ranks Texas’ 10 most populous cities by environmental and energy efforts, and emphasizes the need for improvement statewide.

The cities are rated on a scale of zero to three in five categories that focus on renewable energy and efficiency. Some of the scales compare Texas cities to others in the nation. For example, a city could only score a three in utility-supported solar power if its solar production rivaled that of U.S. cities leading in solar.

rankings

Perhaps not surprisingly, Austin is the greenest city, with San Antonio and Houston (!) tied for the no. 2 spot. Corpus Christi (“The Sparkling City by the Sea”) brought up the rear, with a score of 1 out of a possible 15.

But the scales used to rank cities were limited and narrow—while some important categories like municipal use of renewable energy were included, Environment Texas didn’t consider water use, air quality and public transit.

San Antonio and Austin took the lead in solar power, each earning a 2.5 out of 3. Both cities own their utilities and together comprise 85 percent of Texas’ solar capacity. But the two cities still only produce about a third of what national leaders San Jose and San Diego produce per capita (those cities would have earned a three). Houston earned high marks in all categories, but scored a zero in solar. Despite boasting more solar potential than any other state, Texas still ranks 20th for solar energy production per capita. State leaders have done very little to boost the industry, leaving a handful of big cities and a few utilities to lead the way.

In a state with a booming construction industry—Texas accounted for 16.3 percent of all building permits issued in the U.S. last year—cities’ commitment to energy efficiency and other green measures in new buildings is paramount. Of the 10 cities, only Austin has adopted the latest International Energy Conservation Code‘s efficiency standards for new homes. Only 20 smaller Texas cities have adopted the newest standards, while most still adhere to the 2009 version.

Texas mandates adherence to the 2009 code, but the report says the 2012 code would achieve “approximately 15 percent greater efficiency” than the old one. Houston kept the 2009 code but amended it to require 15 percent more efficiency by 2014, and also requires that all new homes be built solar-ready.

Texas cities did well in other categories: Austin uses 100 percent renewable energy to power municipal activities, while Houston uses 48 percent, making it the largest municipal purchaser of renewable energy in the U.S. Houston also leads in green construction, ranking 5th in the country for the number of LEED-certified buildings. And while six of the ranked cities require all public buildings to earn a LEED-Silver designation, Dallas requires LEED-Gold.

The report found that all major Texas cities have at least one recharge station for electric cars per 100,000 residents. Austin has 19 charging stations per 100,000 residents, while San Antonio has 10 and Houston nine per 100,000.

Don McLeroy
Patrick Michels
Former State Board of Education chairman Don McLeroy delivers a rousing commentary Tuesday afternoon, saying textbooks proposed for Texas schools will be a huge victory for creationism.

It’s not like this is the first time we’ve witnessed right-wing social conservatives actively challenging that questionable “theory” of what so-called “scientists” like to call “evolution.” And I’m sure it won’t be the last, seeing as some, if not all, of the opponents are clearly still, um, evolving. But every time the Texas State Board of Education considers new public school textbooks, instructional materials and related curriculum, we’re forced to listen to the tirades from direct descendants of Adam and Eve about how public schools are failing to adequately reflect Judeo-Christian values. (Not that you can’t learn a lot about the origins of life and the perils of natural selection from the Old Testament. Like, why are there no more unicorns?)

On Tuesday the board of education held the first dramatic public hearing regarding new high school biology books. (First of all, why are we even teaching our children biology? Some textbooks that I’ve seen discuss plant reproduction in full detail. We might as well just pass out condoms.) Science textbooks are inherently controversial due to their reliance on liberal, possibly communist, junk science like evolution, dubious fossil records and climate change. Once approved the books could be used over the next 10 years by states across the country. Not to worry. In 10 years the only people left on this post-apocalyptic planet will be scientists, atheists and Marshall, Will and Holly.

The anti-education board of education appointed so-called volunteer citizen committees to review the textbooks (and, perhaps, burn them in the town square) before the approval process even began. They’re volunteering for this? There must be better ways for them to spend their spare time, like quilting. According to the Texas Freedom Network, at least six reviewers are vocal creationists. One reviewer is a retired Baylor professor, which sounds somewhat promising until you find out that he’s also the co-author of a book on intelligent design. Are you kidding me? Not even God believes in intelligent design. (He considers himself strictly a young-earth creationist.)

Luckily in 2011 the Legislature passed a law that allows school districts to choose their own educational materials without board approval. Basically districts can teach whatever they want on the taxpayer dime. Question: What’s the difference between public school in Texas and homeschooling? Answer: Your mom.

Testifying at Tuesday’s hearing former SBOE chairman Don McLeroy proclaimed that if the board were to adopt new anti-science textbooks, they will effectively “strike the final blow to the teaching of evolution.” I would say this latest crusade is a new low for SBOE except for the fact that a few years ago they proposed that all references to “slave trade” in history texts be replaced by “Atlantic triangular trade.”

Sure, it might make sense to downplay Abraham Lincoln in favor of touting the significant contributions of Newt Gingrich to American history but evolution? How can people argue with science? The very origins of the universe? Humanity itself? This changes everything. It especially gives credence to my personal theory that the world didn’t exist before I was born. How can I be sure? Am I supposed to just blindly accept the fact that the earth was actually here before me?

Prove it.

Deer Park Prairie
Matt Buckingham for Bayou Land Conservancy
Deer Park Prairie.

Update, Sept. 11, 9:50 a.m.:

The Deer Park Prairie is spared from development. Just hours before Tuesday’s deadline, Bayou Land Conservancy raised enough money to buy the land.

In early August, Dean Lawther, a longtime housing developer in the area, agreed to sell the property to conservationists for $4 million. The initial proposal kicked off a campaign to quickly raise the money. On Monday night, a new agreement was reached. Lawther would come down on the price, to $3.8 million, and the prairie would have a longer name: Lawther Deer Park Prairie.

Bayou Land Conservancy will hold the conservation easement, preventing the prairie from ever being developed, but will transfer ownership to the Native Prairies Association of Texas to manage and operate. The remaining donations will be used to maintain the park.

Bayou Land Director Jennifer Lorenz calls the project the “fastest conservation campaign ever completed in Texas.” The group raised nearly $4 million, mostly from individual donors, in a matter of weeks. “Individuals made this happen, this truly is the people’s prairie,” she says.

Original story: In the last three weeks, a Houston-based conservation group has raised nearly $3.4 million to stymie development on what conservationists call one of the last remaining tracts of ancient Cajun prairie in an urban area.

The Bayou Land Conservancy is just short of their $4 million goal and the clock is ticking. The group has until just Tuesday to raise the remaining funds.

The 50-acre prairie in industrial Deer Park, 18 miles east of Houston, has never been plowed, which conservationists say make it the last vestige of land in the area with the same ecological diversity as pre-developed East Texas.

“This land still has some of the same species that were in the area thousands and thousands of years ago,” said Phillip Quast, program director of the Native Prairies Association of Texas. “It’s one of the last postage stamp pieces of ancient prairie left.”

Bayou Land Conservancy Director Jennifer Lorenz says a private landowner bought the land six years ago with plans to eventually sell the tract to a housing developer. For the last year and a half, conservation groups including Katy Prairie Conservancy, Native Prairies Association of Texas and Bayou Land Conservancy have worked to obtain the land, dubbed the Deer Park Prairie, from turning into a 250-home subdivision.

In August, the landowner agreed to sell the prairie to Bayou Land Conservancy for the market price of $4 million, about $200,000 shy of the price offered by developers.

Lorenz says that while the landowner has been patient in working with the groups, the project represents a harsh reality for conservation efforts today: competing in the open market.

“If you’re going to get new green space for Texans, then you’re going to fight in the open market with developers,” Lorenz says. “I have a catch-phrase: Conservation without funding is conversation.”

With little capital and even less time, Bayou Land kicked off a fundraising effort in early August. The initial deadline to raise the $4 million was August 20. The group’s four staff members and an army of volunteers pulled together more than $3 million in a matter of weeks, but still fell short. The landowner, however, agreed to give them more time, extending the deadline to Sept. 10.

Lorenz and other conservationists say the response has been nothing short of amazing. Individuals have been behind most of the donations to date. Aside from a handful of large donations from individuals and families and $200,000 from the Hamman Foundation, many of the donations have come from people on tight budgets, Lorenz said.

“We have letters that say, ‘I’m just a little old lady in tennis shoes and I can do $25. That’s all I can do. I’m on a fixed income and can barely afford it, but I want to save this prairie’,” Lorenz said. “It’s just phenomenal.”

Lorenz thinks the response is a reaction to increased urbanization in Texas. Conservation resonates with people from cities like Houston, Dallas and Austin, she said, where people have watched development stretch farther and farther into the countryside. That’s especially true in Deer Park, home to the sixth largest refinery in the country.

“To find a patch like this in such a heavily industrialized area is shock to the system for people in a positive way,” Lorenz says. “When people say Deer Park, green spaces don’t come to mind.”

In fact, the prairie is located just 3.6 miles from the Shell refinery.

Lorenz says she has been disappointed by the corporate response to this project. Shell and the Baker Hughes Foundation are the only two major corporate entities to donate to the project so far. Shell donated $75,000 and Baker Hughes donated $10,000, according to Lorenz.

“So many individuals in Houston have come forward and the corporate community just hasn’t come forward,” she says. “It’s kind of telling.”

If they raise the $4 million by Sept. 10, the Bayou Land Conservancy will hold the easement but turn the land over to the Native Prairie Association of Texas to manage and operate for public use.

Phillip Quast of Native Prairies Association of Texas says the group would turn the land into an “outdoor classroom,” a place for people to enjoy nature first-hand. With over 300 native plant species, Quast calls the land a “positive teaching tool” and a “gem” in an urban area.

Biologists and conservationists also stress the importance of green space for the environment. Prairies, like forests, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In Deer Park, where flooding is not unheard of, grasslands also act as a “giant sponge.”

“Where water can’t get into the dirt, it builds up and the next thing you know you have street flooding,” Quast says. “Grasslands are permeable, they soak in that water.”

Prairies are also part of the historical Texas landscape.

“What we have special in Houston are the beautiful forested wetlands and these small slices of prairie, and this piece is one of the most special ones left,” Lorenz says.

Tough on Truants

Back to school

The lazy days of summer are over, and about five million Texas students are headed back to school. And if they skip class, Texas law is there to reel them back in. Truancy has been a crime in Texas since 2003, so children and their families risk hefty fines for missing school too often. Fines can run hundreds of dollars, but across the state—and even within a single district—the cost of a ticket and the method of punishment vary greatly.

A civil-rights complaint filed in June and reports by The Dallas Morning News and ProPublica brought fresh attention to the harsh punishment for truancy in North Texas, where state records say nearly half of the state’s truancy cases originate.

Texas Appleseed and two other groups filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of students, accusing Dallas’ truancy courts of ordering excessive punishment. Truant students in Dallas risk being tried as adults and could end up with a criminal record, serve jail time, or be saddled with more than $1,000 in fees after not being provided proper legal counsel. The groups insist that minority students, students from low-income families and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by truancy enforcement, alleging the current system is an unconstitutional form of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Outside North Texas, many other districts report high truancy numbers too. Texas Education Agency records show Fort Bend Independent School District (ISD), Pasadena ISD, Amarillo ISD, San Antonio’s Northside ISD and Ector County ISD all have a higher number of truancy charges than other school districts of the same size. It’s impossible to know from the data how far from the norm they are, though, because the state’s database is woefully incomplete. Texas has more than 1,000 school districts, but only about 250 are listed in TEA’s most recent truancy report. Of those, more than 80 reported no truant students. Conroe ISD, with more than 50,000 students, isn’t listed at all.

“I think [our numbers are high] because we’re one of the few that’s actually enforcing the compulsory attendance laws,” said Ernie Rodriguez with Fort Bend ISD. “I think if other school districts around the state would really examine their attendance information, they would probably find that they’re not filing the mandatory complaints as required by law.”

For example, Ector ISD in West Texas has nearly 30,000 students, and reported more than 1,200 truancy cases during the last school year. Houston ISD, with an enrollment of nearly 200,000, reported only 614 truancy cases. Are students in Odessa skipping school that much more than kids in Houston?

Houston ISD Police Chief Jimmy Dotson said his district has made a point of issuing fewer tickets for truancy.

Following a Texas Appleseed report released a few years ago, he said, the district chose not to criminalize students skipping school. The district leaves it to administrators to work with students who don’t show up.

Texas is one of just two states that criminalize truancy, which ties districts’ hands once they report a truant student, said Brian McGiverin of the Austin Lawyers Guild. He’s helping to defend truant students who get roped into the criminal justice system.

“Honestly, I think truancy issues are criminalized in Texas because we have a hammer, we have one tool in the tool shed, and we like to use it an awful lot,” McGiverin said. “Criminalizing truancy is probably the result of that basic mindset: If there’s something we don’t like, we deal with it by making it a crime.”

MOD-Head_Shot
Photo Courtesy of Mayor Mike Rawlings
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.

After years of Dallas officials playing hot potato with three permits that would allow fracking within city limits for the first time, the City Council finally rejected the permits today. A city commission is still working on a new gas-drilling ordinance, but at least for now, Dallas is closed to fracking.

Dallas residents and environmental groups have been fighting Trinity East Energy, the company that would drill the wells, at City Hall for years. The permits were especially controversial because they would have allowed drilling on city-owned parkland in the floodplain – two places where drilling is currently banned. Things really came to a head when it came to light that City Manager Mary Suhm had struck a secret side-deal with the company, promising Trinity East that it would be able to drill while telling City Council the opposite.

The audience, mostly fracking opponents, greeted today’s vote with prolonged applause. Nine councilmembers voted for granting the permits and six against, but the Council needed a supermajority (12 out of 15).

The City Council didn’t discuss the permits much, but Mayor Mike Rawlings did give a speech with an extended metaphor about poker. Echoing Councilman Jerry Allen’s claim that Trinity East would almost assuredly not actually drill on those sites because of falling natural gas prices, he said the City Council should “call [Trinity’s] bluff” and approve the permits. Rawlings said he’s personally against urban drilling, but argued Dallas residents will lose millions in court costs when Trinity East sues.

Much like they’ve done in the past, Trinity East representatives and other fracking supporters basically implied that all the people who testified against the permits were delusional, emotional children who didn’t have the capacity to comprehend science. One fracking proponent very sarcastically said, “God bless their souls—they’re trying to do the right thing and save the planet.”

Councilman Philip Kingston objected to the implication that drilling opponents were fact-free and emotional.

“I’ve done a year’s worth of research on this, I’ve visited drill sites,” Kingston said. “I’ll be opposing his motion [to approve the permits] out of rational thought,” he added to applause from the audience.

Up next: The City Plan Commission will likely release an updated drilling ordinance in the coming months.

800px-West_Explosion_Aerial
Shane Torgerson/WikiMedia
Aerial photo of the West explosion site taken days after blast.

In the third House committee hearing focusing on the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15, state agencies described resistance from some fertilizer companies in trying to inspect their facilities. The conflicting and overlapping roles of various governmental agencies with responsibility over fertilizer facilities was also underscored once again today.

Though investigations are ongoing, the State Fire Marshal’s Office is undertaking voluntary inspections of other facilities that handle ammonium nitrate – the chemical responsible for the explosion. The Fire Marshal’s Office has identified 153 facilities in the state that are believed to store ammonium nitrate. Since Texas doesn’t have a state fire code, the fire marshal lacks the authority to conduct inspections if the company resists. Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said most facilities have welcomed him and that his office has already inspected 62 sites. Five facilities refused to be inspected, though he couldn’t say why or which facilities they were.

Meanwhile, the Department of Insurance and Department of Public Safety are rolling out two interactive maps that identify facilities with hazardous chemicals across the state.  Julia Rathgeber of the Department of Insurance said the agency’s map, which will be searchable by zip code, will be available to the public by November 1. DPS is launching its own site, also searchable by zip code and geared toward first responders, which will offer some information about the hazardous materials, including the quantities that are present at facilities.

Much of the hearing was dominated by Republican lawmakers worried about burdening fertilizer businesses with new requirements. Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, said while he respected the victims of the West tragedy, the industry has been doing a “pretty good job of policing themselves” and voluntarily submitting reports. “If we’re not careful we could get like the federal government and try to put diapers on cows,” he said.

Connealy stressed that his agency’s inspections were strictly voluntary.

“Bottom line, we’re trying to prevent another West,” he said. “Most businesses welcome us with open arms.”

However, an industry representative testified that some fertilizer companies were unsure how to comply with existing rules. Donnie Dippel, president of Texas Agricultural Industries Association, who testified at the hearing said the association has experienced a spike in calls from operators. Many of them weren’t registered with federal Department of Homeland Security, and others hadn’t filed required reports in years, or ever. Some, he said, didn’t even own a computer.

Most of the discussion Monday centered on how to prevent West-like accidents from occurring again in the absence of new legislation. (The Texas Legislature showed little interest in taking up new measures during the 2013 session and it doesn’t meet again until 2015.) Some of the options discussed were requiring facilities to post signs outside stating that they house hazardous materials; providing better training for first responders; and doing more to educate companies about what guidelines they have to follow.

Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said the “line of duty” investigation into the first responder deaths won’t be released until 2014. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and Kistner mentioned forensic testing by federal labs that will also extend into 2014. He said the Fire Marshal’s Office has recently received new leads relating to a possible criminal act behind the explosion, but couldn’t comment further.

Crowd at the CSCOPE debate at UT Tyler
Olivia Messer
The crowd at UT-Tyler's Ornelas Hall enjoys a Saturday night of brass-tacks policy debate over CSCOPE.

The year’s hottest education policy debate wasn’t about vouchers or school funding or teacher performance pay—it was about CSCOPE, the once-obscure curriculum program built for Texas schools that’s been targeted for destruction by tea party activists.

On a stage at the University of Texas-Tyler on Saturday night, Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and State Board of Education vice chairman Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant) debated the program as the crowd giggled, applauded and occasionally shouted reminders that “This is America!”

CSCOPE has been under fire for almost a year, for a supposed anti-American slant in its sample lessons. Patrick gave CSCOPE’s critics an early boost by grilling the program’s administrators in his first hearing as chair of the Senate Education Committee, drawing attention from Fox News and Glenn Beck. Ratliff is a longtime defender of the program, which he says is an important tool for rural school districts.

As a welcome to Saturday’s debate, CSCOPE critics had signs—and even a car parked outside—urging, “Impeach Ratliff.” But throughout the 90-minute event, Ratliff’s defense of CSCOPE—or at least school districts’ right to choose whether to use the program—drew much of the crowd’s applause.

Shortly into his introduction Patrick boomed, “This should not be a fight about issues between adults. The number one issue should be, regardless of which side you are on in this debate, what’s best for the students.”

A car with "Impeach Ratliff" written on the windows.
Olivia Messer
A car parked outside UT-Tyler’s Ornelas Hall, with a message calling for Thomas Ratliff’s impeachment.

He and Ratliff spent most of the debate clashing on CSCOPE’s financial transparency and its accessibility to parents asking to see lessons.

Ratliff credited Patrick with helping to force CSCOPE’s lesson plans—which were once proprietary documents only available to subscribers—out into the public domain. Now they’re available online.

But Patrick wasn’t satisfied. “You should be concerned that, for six years, CSCOPE was violating the law,” Patrick said. “We cannot turn a blind eye and say ‘It’s alright. We take public taxpayer money, form a private company, we don’t have an address, we don’t have anything.’ You couldn’t find someone who worked at CSCOPE. It didn’t exist,” he said. “It did not exist.”

Patrick stoked vague fears about what more CSCOPE could be hiding. “What don’t we know?” he repeated.

To many of Patrick’s accusations, though, Ratliff had an answer. When Patrick said that the Texas Tribune conducted a study finding that children in CSCOPE schools performed poorly, Ratliff countered that the “study” was actually conducted by a 9th-grade business class using the Tribune’s online data.

“He’s pointing to a 9th-grade spreadsheet. I’m pointing to an email from a superintendent right here in Tyler; the superintendent in Llano that just defended himself against a frivolous lawsuit; and two doctoral theses: one done by a private Christian university known as Baylor University, the other done at Texas Tech University,” Ratliff responded. “The facts are clear, and if you look at the facts, CSCOPE does not impair, but it enhances student performance.”

Thomas Ratliff and Dan Patrick debate CSCOPE
Olivia Messer
Thomas Ratliff and Dan Patrick debate CSCOPE onstage at UT-Tyler’s Ornelas Hall.

Patrick argued that a parent was charged $700 to access CSCOPE lesson plans, but Ratliff explained the charges weren’t for access, but for the paper copies the parent wanted to make. “I personally don’t want a school district giving somebody 10,000 copies for free. I want to educate kids, not be a copy machine for somebody who wants to look at this stuff.”

Ratliff referred often to an online repository of documents about CSCOPE, and encouraged people to fact-check him. (At Dropbox.com, log in as “[email protected]” with the password “CSCOPE”.) Patrick suggested this was just a distraction. “You can have the biggest Dropbox and all the documents you want. You’re just wrong,” he said.

JoAnn Fleming of Grassroots America, a CSCOPE critic and a panelist on Saturday’s debate, expressed concern that “with the NSA issue in the news,” CSCOPE might be making student information available to third party vendors.

“The only people that have usernames and passwords in CSCOPE are teachers. CSCOPE contains zero. Zero student data. … It’s just not true,” Ratliff said. “Any accusations of data mining are false, and it’s fear mongering designed to scare parents,” he continued.

Patrick was not dissuaded. “First of all, I didn’t think the government was eavesdropping on the telephone. I didn’t know the IRS was going after conservative Tea Party groups and citizens. I didn’t know that the government could read my email,” he said. “And so while, Thomas, I agree at this point in time there’s no evidence of that, I’m very concerned about the future.”

CSCOPE critic Alice Linahan
Olivia Messer
CSCOPE critic Alice Linahan, with the conservative group Women On the Wall, outside the debate hall Saturday night.

When Fleming pressed further, Ratliff explained that teachers print out assignments and pass them out to students. “So, unless there’s a Xerox machine in the sky that takes those and mines that data, I can’t tell you.”

The debate marked a high point in the personal rivalry between Patrick and Ratliff, elected officials serving on separate bodies of state government who had, until now, only ribbed at one another over social media.

Patrick chided Ratliff Saturday night for never having reviewed more than a few of CSCOPE’s lesson plans. But when Ratliff asked Patrick how many he’d read, Patrick said he hadn’t read any. It was a surprising moment, highlighting just how far the politics of CSCOPE are removed from its use in the classroom.

After the debate, Patrick said that Ratliff “made some valid points,” but could not remember any of them specifically. “Overall, he could not answer any of the questions that I put forward,” Patrick said. “I was surprised that the educators were cheering on something that they don’t know a lot about, and that they’re not concerned.”

Ratliff said he was confused by Patrick’s persistence in going after the curriculum. “If the issue was transparency, mission accomplished. But he’s not stopping. And the non-CSCOPE schools are next, because as soon as the Tea Party finds something in their curriculum they don’t like, they’re going after them,” Ratliff said.

He said he was disappointed by the political antics Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have used to prolong the CSCOPE controversy. “What this has become is a tug-of-war between two guys who want to be Lieutenant Governor,” Ratliff said. “And they’re using public schools as the rope.”

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams

Kids who speak little or no English represent a fast-growing share of Texas’ public school students, and the schools they attend are increasingly segregated.

According to a study publicized last week by the University of Texas at Austin, the makeup of Texas’ schools tends to compound the challenges those students face, finding “high levels of segregation in schools by race, poverty, and language status.”

UT education professors Julian Vasquez Heilig and Jennifer Holme analyzed Texas Education Agency data and found this “triple segregation” is a significant indicator of how schools performed in the state accountability ratings. Their research revealed that schools segregated by race, language and degree of poverty were overwhelmingly rated as low-performing.

“There’s this big question among school performance which is, does demography determine destiny?” Heilig told the Observer. “We wanted to ask, ‘Has accountability worked, has it delivered those promises?’ What we found was the situation is still the same as it was 20 years ago.” (Heilig wrote more about the study on his blog.)

The population of students known as English language learners, or ELLs, has nearly doubled over the past 25 years, according to their report, and the trend is expected to continue. The researchers found that the majority of ELL students in Texas are in high poverty, high minority schools rated by the state as low-performing.

According to TEA data, 46 percent of urban schools are designated as “intensely segregated,” meaning 90 percent or more of the students are African American or Latino combined. Of schools where the “vast majority” of the students are economically disadvantaged, two-thirds are majority ELL. In triple-segregated schools, 48 percent were less likely to be rated “exemplary” on the state accountability system.

Some policies meant to improve students’ language skills have actually led to increased isolation for English language learners. Schools that pull limited-English students out of regular classes for special programs, end up reducing those students’ exposure to native speakers.

Heilig said the causes of triple segregation need further examination. He said he hopes the study will encourage other researchers to launch their own studies, and inspire policies that consider more than test scores and accountability ratings.

“If we wonder why Texas has barely moved the needle over the last decade in terms of our educational success, it’s because we’re focusing on all the wrong things,” he said.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has said he’s focused on closing the “achievement gap” between white students and Hispanic and African-American students. This year, Texas launched a new school accountability system that rewards schools for improved test scores over previous years.

But Heilig says Texas schools face challenges that can’t be fixed with a new accountability system based on test scores.

“To ensure the vibrancy of our democracy, we have to ensure that all kids are educated, and we cannot continue to ignore certain kids and pretend like we’re paying attention to them by giving them test after test every year,” he said. “Tests do not create equity and accountability.”

Fox News - The Great Food Stamp Binge
Fox News
Screen grab from "Fox News Reporting: The Great Food Stamp Binge."

Given the Republican rumblings in Congress, Celia Cole, the CEO of the Texas Food Bank Network, figured it was only a matter of time before Fox News launched an attack on SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program better known as food stamps.

This summer, House Republicans held up a bipartisan Senate Farm Bill with demands for $40 billion in cuts to the food stamps program, as well as work and drug testing requirements for beneficiaries. (A previous bill with only $20 billion in cuts failed in June because they were deemed not deep enough.) The ethos espoused by House bill backers is that the best way to help the poor and hungry is to let them help themselves. Legislators also cited misuse and fraud as pressing concerns.

Then, on Friday, Fox News aired a special report titled “The Great Food Stamp Binge.” The network inferred that the dramatic rise in food stamp recipients, from 28 million to 47 million since 2008, was a result of the Obama administration’s welfare society and an affront to American self-reliance and mettle. The surge in people on food stamps, the special argued, has nothing to do with our crappy economy and the working poor who need help buying food for their families. Instead Fox posited that it could be a conspiracy to grow the size of government.

Fox interviewed an unemployed beach bum and aspiring rock star in La Jolla, California who bought a lobster with a SNAP card. The special also pointed to a social worker acting on behalf of the USDA who’s allegedly tearing down “mountain pride” in Appalachia—the mindset that families should tighten their belt straps (literally) before relying on government help—by getting residents in Ashe County, North Carolina to use SNAP funds on seeds for their gardens, a sort of gateway drug to wider food stamp usage. The Fox special was catnip for conservative bloggers and live bait for other media outlets.

“Normally we don’t justify these kinds of reports with a response,” Cole told the Observer. But in this case, Cole said, the Texas Food Bank Network felt compelled to address the misinformation. “Too many people judge the poor without ever walking in their shoes,” she said. The Fox special, she added, failed to interview anyone suffering from poverty and lack of access to nutritious food.

“The truth is that one in seven Americans do receive SNAP because one in seven Americans live at or below the poverty level,” Cole stated in a press release on Monday. “SNAP is also one of the most efficient and effective government programs with program error and fraud at historic lows. Less than four percent of benefits are issued in error.”

Moreover, the food stamps program doesn’t serve as a long-term form of dependency for most recipients, Cole said in a follow-up interview. The average participant receives benefits for 19 months, and new applicants typically receive benefits for just nine months. Cole said the program is correlative to people’s income—when it drops, they go on food stamps, and when it rises again, they go off the program.

In the Fox special, libertarian political scientist Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame) argues that the stigma surrounding food stamps is a good thing—or at least a necessarily evil. People should feel self-conscious about going on the dole. But, said Cole, “Having access to nutritious food should be no more stigmatized than Medicaid or Social Security. SNAP participants are taxpayers, too. They’ve paid into the program.”

While states can waive the requirement that participants are either employed or seeking employment, Texas does no such thing. All able-bodied Texas food stamp recipients between 18 and 59 must either work, be looking for work, or be engaged in job training for thirty hours each week. And adults without dependents are barred from the program if they work less than twenty hours a week for longer than three months in any three-year period.

Cole said that the more pressing issue is that the application process is complicated and daunting. One-third of those who qualify don’t seek help from the food stamps program. The Texas Food Bank Network’s partners don’t put money toward marketing food stamps—they’re not allowed to, by law—but, said Cole, “Our partners do try to reach the people who most need assistance, but don’t know how to get it.”