Bad Bills

Locked Up and Locked Out


What’s Next? Debtors Prison?

HB 204 Rep. Leo Berman (R-Tyler)

Rep. Leo Berman’s HB 204 would criminalize non-payment of rent, effectively helping to create a Texas where Charles Dickens would feel right at home. The bill modifies the “theft of service” section of the Texas Penal Code so that anyone who lets back rent slide or other rental payment for more than ten days after receiving notice demanding payment could get slapped with criminal charges–anything from a misdemeanor to a felony, depending on how much they owe.

Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants Union suggests a grim worst-case scenario of the bill’s effects: Say you get laid off–not exactly a far-fetched possibility for many of us these days. You can’t afford your $500 per month apartment, and your landlord evicts you, terminating the lease.

Oh, and by the way, he’s sticking to the terms of the Texas Apartment Association’s model lease, by which you’re still liable for all the rent you would have paid under the term of your original lease. You can’t pay it, and he decides your defaulting, so now it’s all due at once–let’s see…three months… $500…whoops, that’s $1,500.

Under Berman’s bill, that amount bumps you into the “state jail felony” category, so now you could be looking at up to two years in the lock-up and a fine of up to $10,000. If you want your freedom, you’ve got ten days to pay. (Of course, these new jail sentences will be funded from the pockets of taxpayers.)

Landlords can already sue to recover back rent as part of the eviction process, or seize tenants’ property to make up the difference, Rollins points out. In that light, Berman’s bill seems to do nothing but add another intimidation tactic to the landlord’s arsenal.

“It may scare a person to get a certified letter from a district attorney saying you’ve got ten days to make this good or you’re going to jail,” Berman says.

According to Berman’s staff, the bill was brought to him by a constituent landlord who’d been ripped off time and again when tenants fled without paying their rent. “Most of these people move from apartment to apartment writing bad checks and the landlords never get any restitution,” says Berman. “This is a bill for a victim.”

Before you get all misty-eyed about the rights of property owners, though, it’s interesting to note that Berman got $500 in campaign contributions from the Texas Apartment Association, and another $1,000 from the Texas Association of Realtors.

Jingoism Justified

HB 1212 Rep. Ron Wilson (D-Houston)

Rep. Ron Wilson says there are too many foreigners in Texas’ graduate schools. They’re taking up space and spending taxpayers’ money that should rightly go to Texas graduate students. To remedy this problem, he has proposed a bill that would create a strict 10 percent quota of international students in public graduate and professional degree programs.

The problem is that Texas students aren’t interested. “The notion that a seat is being taken away from American students by an international student is wrong,” says Rick Cherwitz, dean of graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

In science, math, and engineering, international students fill graduate slots that Americans don’t want, says Howard Liljestrand, graduate advisor of civil engineering at UT-Austin, whose program is two-thirds international students. “If we accepted every U.S. student who applied, we’d still need more students to fill the available slots–just to have the numbers we need to carry on our research,” says Liljestrand.

Graduate science and engineering programs at UT and Texas A&M have the resources to attract the limited number of U.S. applicants that do exist, says Liljestrand. However, smaller graduate programs with less money desperately need international students to keep their programs afloat.

“This bill would essentially kill our graduate program,” says Kye Han, director of the graduate program in civil engineering at the University of Houston, which is more than 75 percent international students.

Cutting the number of foreign graduate students won’t miraculously create U.S. applicants, says Han. “This law would simply reduce the number of students in graduate programs,” he says. “It wouldn’t increase the number of American graduate students.”

Wilson’s response to this? “I think it’s bullshit,” he says. “If you open the doors, they will come.” From where, he can’t say.

Wilson is concerned that foreigners are sponging off of Texas taxpayers by paying in-state tuition. But reducing the percentage of international students in Texas public institutions would not save the state money. Instead it might cost Texas. “Almost no money for our international students comes from the state,” says Han. “They are usually funded through professors’ grants or out of their own pockets. Yes, some pay in-state tuition [for example, if they work in a research assistantship through an advisor’s grant]. But if you limit the number of foreign graduate students, the state will get nothing.”

In the 2001-2002 academic year, international students in the UT system alone contributed $738,026,000 net to the state economy, according to a recent UT study. Wilson is having none of this. He rejects evidence that Texans don’t want these slots and that foreign students generate revenue for the state. “I can think,” he says. “I know how things are. We ought to be trying to educate our own. We need to open up more spaces for Texans and put an end to subsidizing foreigners.”

Home Rule = No Rules

HB 859 Rep. Jerry Madden (R-Plano)

While school reformers in the Lege tout the wonders of “accountability,” Rep. Jerry Madden’s HB 859 would allow districts to free themselves of state oversight at will. Madden’s bill is a two-fer: It streamlines the process by which districts declare themselves “home-rule,” while exempting home-rule districts from state education standards on class-size limits, curriculum, and graduation requirements. And teacher certification. And special education. And gifted and talented programs.

The bill’s defenders invoke the familiar rhetoric of local control–the districts know what is best for their own kids, gosh darn it. But with the state’s crushing testing system still dictating what teachers teach and students learn, the only ones reaping the benefits of newfound freedom would be school boards–freedom to save money by expanding class sizes, freezing teacher pay, hiring unqualified staff, and slashing enriched curriculum.

The original home-rule legislation passed with other charter school legislation in 1995 but the process put in place for obtaining a home-rule charter was tortuous enough that none have ever been granted. A bill pushed at the time by Rep. Kent Grusendorf, current chair of the Public Education Committee, would have made the charters easier to obtain. Grusendorf’s bill died in committee. Madden’s bill is a reincarnation of this.

Madden says he believes administrators will do what is best for students and teachers without state oversight.

“There’s some people who do not have the reliance on their local school boards that I have,” Madden says. “I trust that they will do the right thing.”

His faith may be misplaced.

Non-home-rule charter schools have a poor record in Texas. On average, teachers at campus-level charter schools get paid $10,000 less than public school teachers, and turnover rates are nearly three times as high. Standardized test scores for charter school students hover about thirty points lower than public school students’ scores.