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Snake Oil

A House Divided

A generation after Texas legalized home schooling, a new crop of leaders fights for the booming education movement's future.
home schooling
Patrick Michels
Amy Ott, left, and Jill McKeever supervise Fallon Stanislawski during a computer lesson at the Austin Area Home-schoolers Friday Co-op.

 

Until late September, James and Lisa Pennington lived with all nine of their children, ages 6 to 24, in a charming country house outside Kerrville. James ran an accounting practice in town and managed the books for religious and home-school organizations. Lisa handled the children’s education and decorated the house in a modern homespun fashion, with reclaimed wood and glass, freshly painted antiques and inspirational messages—“relax,” “laugh,” “discover & explore”—scattered around the walls. Her blog, “The Pennington Point,” turned a godly, pastel-tinted lens on the lovable chaos of their life. When the chickens started pooping on the Penningtons’ new front deck, Lisa wrote about covering the wood with a new rug, which she then hand-painted with a tiny houndstooth pattern. In a how-to post, she demonstrated how to stencil a wall with quotes from Chapter One of the Book of James. She and her daughters dressed with stylish modesty: high necklines, long skirts, and many-layered sleeves that projected a coffee-shop artsiness. It was the sort of home and family that could inspire other Christian families, which was partially the point; from their home, the Penningtons ran a ministry dedicated to fostering what they called “home-oriented relationships.” Lisa once explained their approach: “It is a little like the desert island challenge. If you were stranded on a desert island with nothing but the Bible as your guide, how different would your life look?” Five years ago, the Texas Home School Coalition named Jim and Lisa “Leaders of the Year.”

Unlike many home-schooling families, their practice is quite public. James once ran as a Constitution Party candidate for state comptroller. Lisa speaks at home-school conferences around the country, giving advice on parenting, education and blogging. Her posts often veer into the personal, covering weight loss and health, and the right way to spank a child—in a since-deleted post, she describes a 30-minute bout with “a little back scratcher that barely stings, but it’s great for babies”—and the relief she finds in the Young Living brand of essential oils she endorses on her site. So last fall, Lisa began writing frankly about her recent pain and struggle, how the family was still reeling from what happened on Sept. 24, when her 18-year-old daughter Alecia Faith ran away from home.

“She gave us no warning, no signs that it was coming. She didn’t try to talk to us about it or work with us. She, with the help of my parents, just left. And with her she took pieces of my heart that had been torn to shreds,” Lisa wrote. “We have been making an effort to find our new normal without her. It has been really hard and we all miss her terribly, but I have learned a lot about how to deal with grief throughout the past month.” She got through it all, she says, with prayer, the love of her children and essential oils.

Lisa’s confessional posts drew hundreds of supportive comments. But the story is better known from Alecia’s perspective, because of a video the runaway daughter recorded in February. In front of a white door and a plain white wall, Alecia, who was by then 19, faces the camera and explains that she can’t get a job, fly on a plane or get a driver’s license because she has no proof of her own identity and her parents won’t help. From someone at the Texas Vital Statistics department, she says, she’s learned there’s no record of her birth. The midwife who delivered her at home apparently never filed a birth certificate. Alecia had no Social Security number. She had no school records, either. “I didn’t pick this situation for myself,” she says in the video. “I just have to deal with the consequences, and I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know how to get out of this.”

Her video spread fast: Within days, it was the top video on Reddit, drawing a massive online community that tended to treat her case as a mystery with her parents as the suspects. As of the date of this posting the video has been played on YouTube nearly 1.4 million times, and as her story spread this spring, Alecia did find herself with a new identity. Back home, she’d been Faith, alongside her sisters Grace and Hope, one of nine kids gathered around the table. But her video introduced her to the world with her full name, and as Alecia Faith Pennington—or often just Alecia—she’s found a place alongside Tim Tebow and the Duggar children of 19 Kids and Counting fame as a public face of home schooling.

It’s been 100 years since Texas, following the lead of all but two other states, made public school compulsory and banned children under 14 from working. The law included exceptions for private and parochial schools, but not home education, so it was as outlaws and radicals that 1970s progressive activists first began home schooling, beginning a grand experiment in American education that has quietly exploded over the last generation. Child-centered “un-schoolers” fleeing the factory of public school bureaucracy were followed shortly by a movement in the Christian right that popularized home schooling as an escape from secular influences. Home schooling is, by nature, difficult to generalize about or quantify; even the count of home-schoolers in the country varies wildly depending on your source. The most recent federal estimates say between 3 and 4 percent of students—about 1.77 million children—were home-schooled in 2012. More than 300,000 kids are home-schooled in Texas, according to home-school advocates, which is even more than attend private schools.

Texas is one of 11 states that doesn’t require parents to register as home-schoolers. Home-school regulations here are some of the weakest in the nation: Unlike their peers in public schools, home-school students don’t have to take standardized tests or submit any proof of their work. Parents aren’t bound by state standards; they can use any curriculum they like, and anyone can be a home-school teacher. This freedom is the result of hard-fought court battles in the 1980s that spawned groups such as the national Home School Legal Defense Association and the Texas Home School Coalition, which work to prevent new home-school regulation.

Today, the first large generation reared in this well-organized and often rigidly patriarchal system is graduating into adulthood, and for the first time, a significant number of home-school alumni are taking on leadership roles in the movement, with differing ideas about where to lead it. Some are fulfilling the dreams of its founders, defending the movement that raised them to fight for parents’ rights above all. Others, such as Alecia Faith Pennington, are calling for change on behalf of the next generation.

 

The origin story for Texas home-schoolers begins in 1981, when a lawyer at the Texas Education Agency looked over the state education code and determined that home education wasn’t legally allowed. Since 1916, Texas has required children to attend public school unless they are disabled, severely ill, or at private school instead. The law said nothing about home schooling, and in 1982 a higher-up TEA lawyer told prospective home-school parents that “all of our legal research concludes that a person may not teach their children at home simply by calling their home a private school.” From 1981 to 1985, local districts charged 150 home-schoolers with truancy violations, taking about 80 of them to trial. When the State Board of Education finally held hearings in 1986 to define qualified home schools, thousands of parents swarmed the hearings in Austin, rallying for what they called the “Austin T.E.A. Party.” Home-schoolers fought back against the state’s attempted regulation with a class-action suit led by Arlington parents Cheryl and Gary Leeper. The court heard testimony from, among others, Rousas Rushdoony, godfather of the Christian Reconstructionist movement, who favored strict biblical justice and trusted in, as he once said, “dedicated minorities who stand unconditionally on their faith” to recover a Christian past. Home schooling was integral to his vision. Rushdoony reminded the state’s lawyers that American education had only recently become a centralized bureaucracy. “Attempts to define a school too precisely are always dangerous because you can define a school and you wind up with a shell, with a building, with so many teachers, with so many hours of instruction, and there is no guarantee that all of these things will provide learning,” Rushdoony explained. “This is the problem of our time.”

The Texas Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that any home-school setting with a curriculum that teaches reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and good citizenship could qualify as a private school. (By then, the state had long since scrapped its anti-home-schooling policy.) Home-schoolers hailed it as a great victory, and still do today. The Texas Home School Coalition’s recent animated history of the Leeper case is called “The Legacy of Freedom.” Many other states require home-schoolers to register, to take tests or submit work portfolios at the end of the year. Some have proposed periodic mental health check-ups for home-school students. Not in Texas. Here, home schools are regulated like private schools—which is to say, not at all.

Former Texas Education Agency General Counsel David Anderson joined the agency just months before the Leeper decision, and here’s how little oversight of private and home schools he had: “If I decide tomorrow morning that I want to be a private school,” Anderson says, “and I just hung up a sign outside my house, I would have some issues with zoning, I think, with the city of Austin, and the health department would probably say my sinks aren’t big enough if I’m serving food to the public. But I would not have to get permission from anybody. A private school can just do that.”

A vision of what the original home-schoolers intended plays out every Friday morning in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood, as about 100 home-school children arrive for class at the Trinity United Methodist Church. For three class periods, in a dozen classrooms, they’ll learn in groups from one another’s parents, as part of one of the many home-school co-ops in town. Almost 3,000 families stay connected on an email list for Austin-area home-schoolers, and co-ops such as this one take place every day of the week.

I visit on a Friday in February, when small children are singing and running in circles with a giant parachute in a small gym, while in another room, older girls with hair dyed in various combinations of pink, purple and blue sit around tables learning to make comic strips on iPads. High-schoolers in the world history class upstairs had just taken a long memorial diversion into Star Trek memories after getting the news of Leonard Nimoy’s death before moving on to the business of the day: presentations on the battles of World War II. Sitting on couches or stretched out on the floor around a giant world map, the five teenagers take turns reading their reports aloud. Shannon Rizzo, the mother of a girl in the class, explains that she’s more facilitator than teacher in this “flipped” classroom. Students handle the lesson prep—in fact, the course offerings each semester are determined by a student vote—and the punishment for showing up to class unprepared is, in the words of one student, “looking like a fool.”

home school
Patrick Michels
Home-school co-op parents lead children in nursery rhymes and parachute games.

“I don’t think we think in terms of consequences,” Rizzo tells me. She says she began home schooling because she didn’t believe 5- and 6-year-olds should be sitting behind desks all day. As they grew, her children enjoyed this informal approach, full of educational road trips and projects built around their evolving interests. “They’ve had the freedom to pursue their own curiosity, and they’re never burnt out on learning,” she tells me.

This 25-year-old home-school co-op is a throwback to the first days of secular home schooling. Students can learn about the Renaissance, parkour, geopolitics and wizardry. A parent here—well, in the parking lot across the street—once taught a class on playing with fire. There are more young children here than high-school-age kids because many enroll in public schools in later grades. Though they recognize their debt to organizations that fought to protect their rights, and still beat back regulation attempts, most parents here seem uninterested in the politics of the home-schooling movement.

That’s left the legal crusades, the seminars and the leadership mostly up to religious home-schoolers, who populate a parallel world of co-ops and sports leagues. (Surveys suggest that well over half, even up to three-quarters, of home-school parents are driven by religious conviction.) To the biggest home-school advocacy groups, home schooling is less about pedagogy than personal rights and freedom from government nannying. The Leeper case allowed for the possibility of regulating home schools—even using test scores to assess students’ learning—but it would be up to the Legislature to create the system. Thanks to home-school defense groups, it’s hard to imagine that happening.

Nicholas Maddox, who was home-schooled in Conroe for his entire childhood, thinks that ought to change. In South Texas Law Review last year, Maddox argued that because education is a right guaranteed by the Texas Constitution, the state is “duty-bound” to ensure that students get at least a basic education. “Currently in Texas,” he writes, “an individual who is a recently convicted felon or partially mentally incapacitated is not allowed to own firearms or even vote, but is allowed to home-school his children for their entire childhood.” Maddox, who now works at the Houston law firm Thompson & Horton, tells the Observer he doesn’t want the state to stand in the way of unconventional home-school learning, but that the state needs to set some basic learning requirement and enforce them. “I think there’s kind of two classes of home-schoolers,” Maddox says. “One is home education, and the other is non-education—the parent who calls up the district one day and says, ‘My child’s being home-schooled, leave me alone.’ Because the state sees these two groups of home-schoolers as one and the same, no one looks into the genuine intent to educate by the parents. … These children are just existing and time is passing.”

“We say that home-schooling parents should have the right to choose how to educate their children, but not the right to choose whether to educate their children,” says Rachel Coleman, who directs the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a new network of home-school alumni. Coleman was home-schooled as a child as well. Now she works to put more legal safeguards in place to prevent abuse in home schools—physical abuse, but also behavior that’s sometimes sanctioned by religious groups, such as wielding overbearing control of grown children or raising young women only for lives as subservient helpmeets to their future husbands. That puts Coleman’s group in direct opposition to the biggest home-schooling groups, which answer to parents, not children. “Home-school children don’t really have a voice. They can’t really step forward and say, ‘Hey, I’m 14 and I can’t read,’” she says. “What’s in the best interests of the parents is not necessarily in the best interests of the kids.”

  • Jennifer Stahl Home school alumni speaking out

    Jennifer Stahl grew up in a military family, and began home-schooling in Europe before her family moved to Ingleside. It was there, in their home near Corpus Christi Bay, that she says her education took a sharp turn, swayed by the newsletters and teaching resources her mother acquired in her home-schooling co-op. Stahl, like many home-school alumni, says the home-schooling culture her family joined was built on control of children and wariness of the outside world. In eighth grade, she asked to enroll in public school, but says her mother refused. She says her parents took the door off her bedroom and controlled her food to encourage obedience. Her father would discipline her with his leather belt until she was 17. She never dated outside of one carefully supervised courtship, a practice many Christian home-schooling leaders embrace as an acceptable prelude to marriage.

    She was 26 when she left home, married a man she met online, and moved to his home country of Germany. Only then, looking back on her childhood, did she realize how different her upbringing had been. “The first year here was really weird,” she says. “I felt like I had to keep telling my husband what I was doing or where I was going.” In the last year, she began looking for stories like her own and found Homeschoolers Anonymous. “The first thing I said was, ‘Oh my God, I’m not crazy!’” Stahl says. “I’m not the only one who did this, and I’m not the only person who kept questioning it.”

  • Eleanor Skelton Home school alumni speaking out

    Eleanor Skelton grew up in Texas and Colorado, and says her parents began home-schooling her because they worried public school was a dangerous environment. From there, her education followed a path that’s common among home-school alumni who are now calling for reform. Home-schooling support groups and newsletters instilled conservative Christian values in her mother, and religion became central to Skelton’s education. As a teenager, she lived near Dallas and attended Rockwall Bible Church, where the pastor decried rock and any other music with chaotic syncopated beats. She learned from her church, and from the popular A Beka home-school curriculum her parents used, that any sin, even wearing a too-tight sweater in public, carried heavy consequences. “I felt very, very personally responsible for the crucifixion. We were told things in bible classes in A Beka that if you even sin a little bit, you're driving nails into Jesus' hands,” she says. In college, her parents tracked her movements with her cell phone’s GPS, and held her to a 7:30 p.m. curfew.

    When she decided to move out at age 22, she says, her parents emptied her savings account and took away her car keys. She only gradually adjusted to life outside. Now she helps other women make the painful split from constrictive families, covertly helping pack their belongings, letting them live for a while in her apartment and staying with them when they’re overwhelmed by the change, in what she describes as a sort of “underground railroad” for former home schoolers.

 

 

The Watchmen are waiting for me underground, one floor below the Capitol rotunda. I’m late, but if they’re upset about it, they’re too polite to say so. Six of them in dark suits, hair all neatly trimmed and styled, they look a bit like one of the a cappella singing groups that sometimes perform here. Friendly, professional and eager, in a rush they extend their hands in greeting, and reaching to shake one hand, I repeatedly bump into another. These are the Texas Home School Coalition’s foot soldiers at the Legislature, all recent home-school graduates, ages 18 to 22, who’ve risen to defend the rights their parents’ generation secured—not only for minimal home-school regulation, but for parental freedom more generally.

At 22, the coalition’s policy director, Jeremy Newman, is the oldest and the only paid Watchman. He embraces the group’s parents-first approach. “You have to be willing to protect the right of the parent to parent,” he tells me. That’s the core of the coalition’s mission, and with the right to home-school secured by Leeper, the Watchmen are on the lookout for other attempts to wedge the state into the family’s business. That’s at the heart of a bill they’re pushing this session, a “Parental Rights Act” to make it harder for other family members to gain custody of children whose home schooling they disapprove of. But it’s also why the coalition opposes mandatory vaccinations and daytime curfews. “Sometimes we get questions or complaints about using resources on [Child Protective Services] issues,” Newman says. “Our response has always been, ‘Your right to home-school only exists because we have the presumption that parental rights exist.’”

home school
Patrick Michels
State Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) talks legislative strategy with Texas Home School Coalition lobbyists, from left, Ryan Parke, Stephen Howsley and Jeremy Newman.

Newman recognizes that some parents make bad decisions about their children’s education, but says the answer isn’t tighter policing by the state: “You cannot fix relationships between people with legislation.” Newman says his group prevents educational malpractice by providing curriculum resources and a community for new home-school parents.

Collectively, the Watchmen seem to comfortably embody what I’d imagined to be an uneasy balance: the precociousness encouraged by a home-school education and the conservative values of home-school politics. One Watchman, 18-year-old Greg Guggenmos, says he first learned to read upside-down. He believes he’s the youngest registered lobbyist ever in Texas, and is now fact-checking his claim with the state. Another, Josh Newman (Jeremy’s brother), tells me he was in eighth grade when he first became concerned about America’s future. They are living together for the session in a house in North Austin. The six seem reasoned and sharp in conversation, confident as any of the power brokers wandering past us. When I ask about their own home-school upbringings, the six laud the power of self-driven education to spark critical thinking and thwart conformity— though they seem to fit in well enough at the Capitol, preaching the gospel of limited government in signet rings and expensive-looking watches.

I follow at their brisk pace through the Capitol’s underground extension, down to the office of sophomore state Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls), so I can see the crew in action. Frank is one of a few home-school parents in the Legislature today, and, together with a growing number of home-schooled staffers, he represents an unprecedented network of home-school sympathizers. But as much as conservative candidates prize a Texas Home School Coalition endorsement, the group still must fight for attention among the competing interests at the Capitol. A serious attempt to regulate home schooling surely would draw an army of home-school parents. (Home-schoolers overloaded the U.S. Capitol’s switchboard in 1994 to beat back a bill that could have threatened home schooling nationwide.) But there’s no such threat in Austin this year. For the second session in a row, the group is trying to give home-schoolers access to public school athletics through a “Tim Tebow bill,” named in honor of the college football star who was home-schooled in Florida by his conservative Christian family but played football with the local public school. More than two dozen states have adopted Tebow bills in recent years, but the measure was never brought up for debate in the last legislative session here.

Frank is working with the Texas Home School Coalition to gather support, and Tim Lambert, the coalition’s president, is down from Lubbock to help. The two are chatting in Frank’s office when I arrive with the Watchmen. Three of them wait in the hall as the rest of us find seats in Frank’s office, a sparsely decorated white room with a big family portrait on one wall and a white board on the other. Frank has good news: He’s heard the Tebow bill is almost certain to get a hearing with the House Public Education Committee—which is just a first step, but more than it got last session. (As of mid-April, no hearing on the bill was yet scheduled.) Frank is rallying support for the bill, and the Watchmen are drafting a set of bullet points to help him, including the high cost of youth sports and the fast growth of Texas’ home-school community. Frank hopes to convince a majority of the education committee to pledge support in writing, which, in turn, could help him convince committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock to get behind the bill. Aycock is a rural Republican and a former Killeen school board member who generally is more interested in traditional public schools. Folks like that—Frank, of course, doesn’t mention Aycock specifically—aren’t usually sympathetic to home-schoolers.

“What’s funny is they’re very concerned with the 5 million kids who are [each] costing $11,000 a year. But the 300,000 kids that are costing the state nothing are not our issue at all,” Frank wonders aloud, perhaps for my benefit. Even worse are the folks who’ve worked in the public school system and see the dropouts and miscreants whose parents only claim to be home schooling. “They’re seeing a very small fraction of home schooling but it’s a very—it’s not indicative of the rest of home schooling,” Frank says. “Most of the ones that are quote ‘good home-schoolers,’ there’s very little engagement between us and the public schools. So they never hear about ‘em.”

 

 

Amateur sleuths on Reddit and Facebook trying to make sense of Alecia Pennington’s case—the runaway Texas woman who can’t prove she exists—were surprised to discover that the Penningtons aren’t recluses holed up in some remote bunker, but public figures active in the home-school community. In his only comment to the press, James Pennington told The Daily Beast he had avoided registering with Social Security for political reasons, but would help his daughter get what she needed. James and Lisa each posted videos on YouTube—since made private—denying they ever tried to hurt or control their daughter. State Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) has filed a bill that would help people in situations like Alecia’s get copies of their birth certificates. Buoyed by the attention, Alecia recently announced she’d secured pro bono legal help and was close to getting her documentation.

But the more surprising revelation in Alecia’s story, to many, is that she’s not an anomaly—it’s just that few in her situation are lucky enough to get such attention. Until a few years ago, their stories might have never been heard. In 2013, four home-school alumni who’d met one another on the Christian debate circuit, including two Texans, organized as Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out (HARO) to give voice to abused and neglected home-schoolers. HARO began publishing stories, including Alecia’s, in which parents maintain control of their grown children by withholding government and school records. The phenomenon is called “identification abuse,” and a survey the group took in February netted many alumni who said their parents did the same thing. “I left due to physical abuse and they refused to give me any documents as punishment,” one respondent wrote. “Withheld Social Security card to control relationships and keep me from getting a job,” wrote another.

Reading stories from other home-schoolers, many alumni are shocked to recognize familiar behaviors, things they thought were quirks of their own upbringing. Texas-raised home-school alumni contacted for this story recalled parents removing the door from their bedroom, controlling their food portions or tracking them outside the house. Seeking reform, these home-school alumni are sharing their stories of abuse, control and neglect in the hopes that leaders in the home-school movement will accept that they allowed these crimes because they defended near-limitless parental rights. There are troubled families at any sort of school, of course, but the reformers point to particular aspects of the home-schooling community today. Home-schooled children may not have anyone outside the home, such as a teacher, to check on their well-being. Some leaders in the Christian patriarchy movement encourage parents to build isolated family empires, require strict obedience from all children, and raise girls to be submissive and not necessarily well-educated wives.

The home-schooling movement began as a celebration of the empowerment of parents, many of whom dreamed of raising an army to fight for America’s Christian future. Michael Farris, a key leader in the movement since the early ’80s, has called these now-grown children the “Joshua Generation.” “Just as Joshua completed Moses’s mission by slaughtering the inhabitants of the Promised Land, ‘GenJ’ would carry the fundamentalist banner forward and redeem America as a Christian nation,” Kathryn Joyce wrote in a 2013 American Prospect story on the “homeschool apostates” who have broken that “GenJ” mold. In the wave of home-schooled children coming of age today, many are less concerned with carrying their parents’ torch than with speaking up on behalf of kids like themselves. Their stories, publicized by HARO and a few other groups, have illuminated patterns of harmful behavior that would otherwise have remained locked away at home. Some old-guard home-school leaders have bristled at the criticism. Kevin Swanson, a leader in the movement’s most conservative wing who was home-schooled in the ’60s and ’70s, has called them “homeschool whiners” and “traitors” to “the cause of freedom.” As founder of the Colorado ministry Generations with Vision, Swanson has built a speaking and writing career on the promise of a Christian awakening that will return America to its Puritan days.

home school
Patrick Michels
Andrew Roblyer, home-schooling accountability activist

Andrew Roblyer, who cofounded HARO with three other former home-schoolers, says Swanson’s unwillingness to engage the new generation’s concerns is a dangerous, but common, approach. “It’s such a core part of the identity that when you challenge home schooling, I think a lot of parents feel like you are accusing them, each individual parent, like everyone is equally part of the problem,” says Roblyer.

Roblyer grew up in a military family, moving often until they reached College Station, where he finished high school and still lives. He was glad to take schoolwork at his own pace, and to avoid the social uprooting he would have faced switching from school to school. Like HARO’s other founders, Roblyer was a devoted competitor on the national Christian debate circuit. Farris encouraged debate as a way to prepare the Joshua Generation for its future in politics. Roblyer’s family weren’t devoted home-schoolers or even conservative Christians; debate was a hobby, not a solemn vocation. But he  debated religion and public policy with students from more fundamentalist backgrounds—a common policy proposal on the circuit was defunding the Department of Education—and he says his debate training taught him to think critically about the institution of home schooling.

“Our parents’ generation really had to fight for the right to home-school, but I think that fight has made them very defensive,” Roblyer says. “What HARO is saying is, we can address these problems without advocating for some widespread policy change. … We sidestep that entire conversation and say, ‘OK, let’s remove the government from the picture and look at what we can do to make the community better.’”

The group is building a set of lessons on LGBT acceptance, recognizing learning disabilities, and how to speak out when parents encounter a child suffering neglect or abuse. HARO repeatedly applies for, and is often denied, space at home-school conferences, including a Great Homeschool Conventions seminar in California last year. Roblyer says the home-school establishment is skeptical of anything that could crowd out a parent’s rights—especially if it involves reporting another parent to the state.

“There have been cases, regardless of how few and far between, where home-schoolers have been discriminated against,” Roblyer says. “And when that happens once, it becomes the rallying cry. So, there’s a lot of fear that if they give any ground, they’re going to end up giving a lot more.”

 

There are signs that home-school leaders are paying attention to concerns about hidden neglect, as Joyce noted in The American Prospect. While the Home School Legal Defense Association may not be interested in touching issues rooted in religion—“Some of the grievances I am reading now against home schooling seem to be merely differences of philosophy in child-rearing,” HSLDA attorney Darren Jones told Joyce—the group has created an online guide to recognizing evidence of abuse and intervening. (Joyce points out that the guide still suggests confronting the parents before alerting Child Protective Services.) Meanwhile, some old gatekeepers of the far-right home-school movement are dying off. The San Antonio-based Vision Forum, which for years propagated the dream of a patriarchal fiefdom in every home, collapsed in 2013 under the weight of founder Doug Phillips’ sex scandal. No comparable organization has stepped in to take its place.

Research on contemporary home-schoolers suggests that growth in the movement isn’t being driven by the Joshua Generation of large Christian families, but by a new group that embraces home schooling as just one option in the broad menu of school-choice possibilities. Historian Milton Gaither describes a shift from “homeschooling” to “home schooling,” where learning happens to take place in the home, perhaps online, or in a community college, a weekly co-op or a seminar on pyrotechnics in an adjacent parking lot. All these options leave parents and students less dependent on the institutions that first secured home-schoolers’ rights.

The Texas Home School Coalition’s Watchmen agree that there’s a growing diversity of thought in the home-school community. Jeremy Newman recalls a phrase Tim Lambert uses to describe parents who want to avoid any engagement with state regulation—he refers to their “free-floating anxiety.” Newman says home-school parents are getting bolder, empowered by their growing numbers and less rooted in a Leeper-era fear of the state. As his brother Josh says, the shift of opinion reflects a recognition that home schooling today, complex, big and diverse, can’t survive on ignorance. “Being forgotten by the government,” Josh says, “doesn’t get you freedom.”

 

Correction: Mental health checks for home-school students have been proposed, but are not currently in place, in states outside Texas.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
Patrick Michels
Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)

School district officials, researchers and education advocates had a week to study the school finance reforms proposed by House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock before bringing their opinions to his committee on Tuesday night.

Most began the way Drew Scheberle, an Austin Chamber of Commerce official, did: “Thank you.” Thanks for the $3 billion more for public schools, they told Aycock, and thanks for tackling the messy school finance system at all. In the past, lawmakers have rarely done so without a court ruling forcing their hands.

Houston ISD trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones appreciated that House Bill 1759 would save her district from a looming $200 million tab owed under the current “Robin Hood” recapture law. Others appreciated that it would begin funding career and technical education sooner, beginning in the eighth grade.

But the biggest change Aycock proposes is the elimination of the Cost of Education Index (CEI), which steers more funding to urban and high-poverty districts to pay for higher teacher salaries. In the last few weeks, Aycock has stressed that the index is hopelessly outdated—it was created in 1991 and hasn’t been updated since—and nobody argued that point Tuesday night. But many weren’t willing to simply let it go.

“The underlying premise of the CEI is undeniably sound,” said Lori Taylor of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, who has conducted a series of studies since 2000 on how the Legislature could update the index to reflect current costs.

Former state Rep. Paul Colbert (D-Houston), a school finance leader in the ‘80s and ‘90s, agreed that while the index is flawed, its purpose—steering more money to urban and high-poverty districts that must pay higher salaries—is still vital. “You can’t just do away with it and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. You’re merely not addressing an uncontrollable cost,” Colbert said. “And that’s not equitable.”

Aycock agreed the change would affect districts unevenly; changing any piece of the school finance system creates winners and losers. Aycock has said he’s trying to minimize the pain of simplifying the system. “The party that gets hit the worst removing the CEI is the Valley area,” he noted at one point last night.

“How do we fix that?” wondered Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston).

“I don’t know that I can,” Aycock told her. “I’ve done everything I think I can to fix that.”

Any talk about making the system more or less equitable conjures the specter of the school finance lawsuit that’s now before the Texas Supreme Court. Should Aycock’s proposal pass, nobody knows how it might affect the case, which hinged on, among other questions, whether the funding system is fair and adequate.

Aycock has suggested his bill would improve equity by moving more districts closer to the state average of per-student funding. But it would also enrich wealthy districts more than poor districts, which some analysts last night noted was basically the opposite of equity. San Antonio’s Edgewood ISD, with 96 percent students are from low-income families, would gain $171 per student under Aycock’s bill, while nearby Alamo Heights—with 22 percent low-income students—would gain $469. In South Texas, Los Fresnos CISD would gain $54 per student while the wealthier Point Isabel ISD. which includes South Padre Island, would gain $289.

Analysts outside the Capitol realm have noted these disparities too. Bellwether Education Partners analyst Jennifer Schiess recently told Education Week that Aycock’s bill “isn’t negative on equity. It just doesn’t move very far.” Schiess wonders whether such modest improvement is truly worth the fight.

Representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Center for Public Policy Priorities and the Intercultural Development Research Association urged the committee to focus on steering money to students who need it most, and to follow Travis County District Judge John Dietz’s suggestion last year by updating the adjustments for poor students and those with limited English. Like the CEI, those weights have been untouched for decades.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso), who has co-authored a bill that would require a “comprehensive review” of those expenses, asked Aycock to run cost estimates of an updated CEI and an increased weight for bilingual education, and how they might fit within his plan. “I do think we want to talk about, in what ways does this bill increase or decrease equity?” she said.

Aycock has described his bill as part of a broad, ongoing conversation about reforming school finance in Texas. But last night, Aycock said he was interested only in how to partition the $3 billion already on the table, without spending any more. As the night went on, lawmakers seemed less interested in a comprehensive school finance debate. Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) cut off CPPP analyst Chandra Villanueva after she raised concerns about the equity issues the bill left unresolved.

She pointed out that the bill’s elimination of the CEI could also have unintended effects on poor and urban districts. Because CEI is also used to calculate a district’s weighted attendance, eliminating CEI would hit some schools twice: once in their per-student allotment, and again in the number of students the state funds.

When lawmakers sounded unswayed, she offered, “I have a chart.”

“Everybody has a chart,” replied Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian). “One thing I know is that whoever wrote it, you can make it say whatever.”

Mike Baldree, superintendent of Leon ISD, a property-rich East Texas district, reflected the ambivalence—if not the mood, exactly—of much of the public testimony. Baldree wasn’t thrilled about everything the bill would do to the system, but he was grateful to have some relief from an old funding mechanism set to expire in 2018 that would cut 34 percent of his district’s funding without some action by the Legislature.

“For me, it’s kinda like kissing my sister,” Baldree said. “It’s wet and it don’t have a whole lot of kick, but it’s good for me.”

As laughter spread through the room, King thanked Baldree: “I want to say I appreciate your comments, because I am not the biggest redneck here.”

The Holy Mother
The Virgin Mary's likeness on a hospitalized boy's arm.

Strangest State is a recurring feature on local news you might have missed from around Texas. From profiles of small-town doctors to monstrous swamp creatures found by local kids, they’re stories that don’t fit… anywhere, really, but we want to be sure don’t go unnoticed. Got a local oddity or some small-town news to share? Tips are welcome at [email protected]

LUFKIN // The new film Fifty Shades of Grey might more aptly be titled “50 Shades of Sin,” according to some East Texas pastors’ recent sermons. “God is not gray, he’s black and white,” Harmony Hill Baptist Church Pastor John Greene told his congregation in late February. “I don’t think anyone can see the movie and leave unscathed.” Fredonia Hill Baptist Church Pastor Pat Kelly sermonized, “It is pornography. It is sickening. It will destroy marriages, OK? Can I just say that?” KTRE-TV’s Blair Ledet explained that the pastors “agree that seeing the film would stir up emotions that shouldn’t be stirred. … Mr. Grey’s version of submission was very different than the Bible’s use of the term.”

GRANBURY // The annual Handsome Hunks of Hood County benefit was a great success, the Hood County News reported, raising $83,000 for Ruth’s Place Clinic by giving some of Granbury’s leading male citizens a catwalk and an audience for suggestive dancing. Firefighter Todd Lane beat out H-E-B manager Pat Wilson and Dr. Romeo Bachand for top honors from the judges. “As the evening wore on at the packed Granbury Resort Conference Center, inhibitions seemed to lower,” the News reported, and emcees were forced to halt one performance after “Granbury City Council member Gary Couch engaged in a 50-Shades-of-Gray-like [sic] dance routine with a woman who seemed to have lost her skirt.”

MIDLAND // Upon waking in a West Texas hospital bed, a boy discovered the likeness of the Virgin Mary imprinted on his arm. Bedsheets had apparently left the mark, either by coincidence or divine intervention, NewsWest9 reported, and though the boy and his family declined to speak with the station, “a friend acknowledges the faith instilled in the family after seeing this image.” Monsignor James Bridges of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Midland testified to the power of personal revelations, even when the rest of the world expresses doubt. “Others may not be convinced even when they see what you’re pointing out,” Bridges said. “They may not get the same impression.”

ROUND TOP // “While many Fayette County residents will spend Holy Week in church seeking spiritual renewal, others might be worshipping at a different altar, reported The Fayette County Record, thanks to a planned show by an “all-male erotic dance troupe calling itself’American Cowboy Las Vegas Revue.'” Round Top resident Stephanie Welch booked the act to help liven up the annual antiques festival, but some locals told KXAN-TV the antiques show was doing just fine without semi-nude country dancing. Innkeeper Kiki Teague complained that the planned performance “just doesn’t fit. … That’s just not really what Round Top’s been about.” The town of about 80 residents is otherwise best known for pie and antiques, and former Gov. Rick Perry is building a house nearby. County Judge Ed Janecka told KXAN that the show’s timing on Easter weekend, and its location across from a church, “really makes it distasteful to me and the vast population.”

GOLIAD // Rev. Darryl Edwards of Fannin Street United Methodist Church was in the midst of eulogizing church member Sally Bland with a “sermon about God’s timing and love, mentioning that anyone, at any time, can be called to heaven,” when he collapsed and died. “He was talking about how you need to be ready for death because you never know the day or hour,” Edwards’ sister Sheila told the Victoria Advocate, “and about then, it happened.” According to family members, Edwards, 55, had spent his adult life ministering to the Goliad community, at nursing homes, traveling on his motorcycle, or by donating meals from his restaurant, Hack’s Backyard Barbecue. “Those who knew him best say Edwards died doing what he loved. And if he had to die, they wouldn’t have wanted to see him go any other way,” the Advocate reported. “He always said you never know when you’re going to go, so you have got to do what’s right, right now,” his sister said. “His life and death is a ministry.”

WEST COLUMBIA // Brazoria County’s The Facts explored young romance at West Columbia Elementary School on Valentine’s Day, finding the students generally ill-equipped to answer questions about the matter. “That’s because they relate more to having a crush than being in love,” reporter Andy Packard learned. According to his report, second-grader Hailey Eulenfeld’s sister Kayla has a crush on someone, and second-grader Rhett Roundtree claims that two girls in his class like him. Though none were planning to attend the fifth-grade Valentine’s Day dance, the children did provide secondhand confirmation that “dancing and kissing” were common. Having satisfied The Facts’ inquiries, the children then returned to class. “It turns out,” Packard concluded, “the one love they already embrace awaited them back in their classroom: Candy.”

From Harlingen's "Treasure Hills STAAR Song"
From Harlingen CISD's "Treasure Hills STAAR Song"

This is where we are in 2015. The school year winding down, the big state test on the line, and teachers all looking for that little special something to kick the kids into beast mode. Last year, it was a new take on Pitbull and Shakira with “STAAR Test (It’s Goin’ Down),” the “Harlem Shake” before that. This year, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and even a ventriloquist lent their talents to the cause.

What’s big this year? Found objects continue to play key roles in the prop department. A few videos this year include a pre-music narrative set-up of the type that’s so popular in Nashville today. And thanks in part to the ubiquity of “Shake It Off,” many of these have an inspiring message of self-assuredeness, not to let the doubt and pressure get you down. And also: eat breakfast.

If you read the comments on these videos, a common response is to lament the way testing has seeped into the bedrock of school culture. Like cave paintings of horses or NASCAR hoods mounted on the barroom wall, these reflect what we cared about in the early 21st century: high scores on the test.

When he talks about testing Education Commissioner Michael Williams likes to say, “You measure what you treasure.” But just think how much you have to care to write a four-minute parody of “All About That Bass,” dance down the hallways singing it and put it on YouTube.

 

Wills Point Middle School: “WPMS is Shaking Off the STAAR”
In the style of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”

The message here: Don’t get distracted by the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world get you down, and do your best.

Cause others like to play, play, play, play, play
laugh at how long we’ll take, take, take, take, take
But we’re just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
Shake it off, we’ll shake it off

 

Denton ISD McMath Middle School: “STAAR Test Funk”
In the style of “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars.

This is the year’s big hit—almost half a million views so far. Great production, impressive choreography and solid lyrical adaptation; it’s funny, with a big finish that actually could fired up for an all-day test.

Denton, get pumped up
Our schools will triumph
STAAR test don’t mop you up
Our scores will measure up

 

Marcus W. Johnson, UT-Austin: “STAAR Test Motivation”

A motivational talk set to epic movie music and clips of epic things like battle scenes, space shuttles and pencils getting sharpened.

It’s always going to be something. It used to be the TAAS test, then it was the TAKS test. Now it’s the STAAR test.

Next thing you know it’s going to be the moon test and the sun test, and the Neptune.

[…]

This is a test of your willpower and your determination. This is an opportunity to prove yourself to yourself.

Right now anything they put in front of you, any test they put in front of you is food.
And it’s time to eat. 

 

Dallas ISD Ebby Halladay Elementary: “I’m Gonna Pass the STAAR”
In the style of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop.”

Extra points for not taking the easy route and riffing on “Shake It Off” or “Uptown Funk” this year. Bold, broad costuming and prop design, and an impressively large cast of teachers.

I’m gonna pass the STAAR
Only got pencils in my pocket

 

Harlingen CISD Treasure Hills Elementary: “STAAR Song”
In the style of One Republic’s “Counting Stars.”

Shocking that this wasn’t a more popular parody choice this year—the song title is a gimme. Wait for the drone-powered aerial shots, and a clever narrative framing device at the end. Also, Principal Roland Ingram really nails the high notes here—that’s school leadership with some serious range.

Lately I been, I been losing sleep
Dreaming about the things that you could be
But students, I know you’ve been working hard
There’s no denying that you will, you will pass the STAAR

 

 

Honorable mention:
La Joya ISD Tabasco Elementary: “TABASCO PASS THE STAAR”
“Say our name, you know who we are. We’re too hot.”

Mesquite ISD: “Shake it off (Take the STAAR)”
The student vocals lend this one an honesty you just can’t produce in a studio.

Katy ISD WoodCreek Elementary: “STAAR Test Video”

Richardson ISD Forest Lane Academy: “Pass the STAAR”

Here’s a playlist with all those and many more.

 

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
Patrick Michels
House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) with House members last month.

Two weeks after announcing that he’d try to fix the school finance system in the current legislative session, House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Ayocck (R-Killeen) unveiled his plan in a committee hearing this afternoon. Aycock had already announced his plan would come with $800 million in new money; today he explained how it would work.

Like most things in school finance, it’s complicated stuff. You can read the details of his plan, and its projected effects on your favorite school district, here.

Generally speaking, Aycock’s proposal involves scrapping a number of outdated or impractical funding tools—the “Cost of Education Index,” for instance, is 24 years old and has never been updated—and putting all of that money into the basic per-student allotment.

“Part of my objective when I began this was to simplify this system that we’re in,” Aycock said as he explained his bill, later adding, “I wish I could make it simpler. It’s not a simple deal.”

Any tweaks to the school finance system would ripple out across Texas’ thousand-plus school districts in different ways. (Aycock said that modeling his possible fixes “literally crashed” a state computer.) To minimize the number of districts losing money under the proposal, the House has passed a budget with $3 billion in new spending for public schools—including $2.2 billion that budget writers agreed upon early in the session, and $800 million more announced as part of Aycock’s plan.

The Senate draft budget includes much less for schools, and Aycock has said his counterparts in the upper chamber haven’t been a part of the House school finance talks. If the Senate doesn’t sign to match the House’s proposal, Aycock said his restructuring must be scuttled too.

Without new money, he said, “the pain of making these changes would be insurmountable.”

But there are new and different sorts of pain in store if the Legislature does nothing.

For one, under the current system, Houston ISD will soon owe the state around $100 million in “Robing Hood” funding—money that wealthy districts pay the state to cover poorer ones. Aycock has mentioned this point repeatedly, saying Houston ISD would either have to cut its services or raise taxes to cover the cost—or both—and get its voters to agree to foot the bill.

For another, many school districts are about to get a whole lot less from the state after September 2017. That’s when a relic of the last school finance “fix” in 2006 will expire, and a whole bunch of districts whose funding has been artificially inflated, by a tool known as ASATR, will watch their funding deflate in a hurry. Aycock conveyed the point with a different image today: “We’re going to hit a cliff at that point, and we’re going to hit it at 100 miles per hour,” he said.

His bill would move all but 2 percent of school districts off that artificial funding mechanism and onto formula funding, which is generally more stable. “Those that do fall in ’18 fall a lot less,” he said. “When they fall off that cliff, they don’t fall as far.”

Since 2006, as Abby Rapoport explained in the Observer a few years back, ASATR has been a finger on the scales that has persistently privileged some districts over others in some weird and unfair ways. Moving all but 2 percent of districts onto formula funding instead makes the system more fair.

That question of equity isn’t just important for students in those districts. It’s a central issue in the ongoing school finance case that the Texas Supreme Court is set to take up months from now. Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) has said that Aycock’s proposal would mean new money for schools, but she doubts it would do enough for poor students or English-language learners to make the system truly equitable.

That was a major issue in District Judge John Dietz’s ruling against the state last year, and Aycock said this afternoon that his bill didn’t touch the funding weights that provide money for those students. But he did call his plan “the most equitable statistical sample that’s been proposed for many years,” and said, “I honestly move it helps the state’s position, moves the ball in the right direction.”

He went even further with reporters after the hearing:

The committee will hear public testimony on the bill next Tuesday.

John Whitmire
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston

Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire has been on an eight-year march to clean up the Texas juvenile justice system, driving a messy process that’s involved the closure of state-run lockups, the restructuring of two state agencies and a reduction in the state’s population of juvenile offenders to one fifth of what it had been.

Not long ago, Texas was a cautionary tale of mismanagement and unchecked abuse; now it’s seen as a national leader in juvenile justice reform.

This session, Whitmire hopes to further reduce the number of youth locked up in remote state facilities, and place more of them in probation and treatment programs closer to their homes and families. A bill to accomplish that, Senate Bill 1630, passed unanimously out of his committee on Tuesday night.

“This is the next huge step to continuing to keep the youth closer to their communities and give them specialized care,” Whitmire explained last night. “Not only will it have better results in terms of recidivism, but it should save millions of dollars.”

Those two selling points neatly sum up the “smart on crime” approach that’s won broad consensus among Texas lawmakers, law enforcement and advocacy groups over the last decade, and continues to drive state policy.

But a competing interest has emerged this session that has split those groups in some surprising ways: a proposal to raise the age of “criminal responsibility” from 17 to 18 years old. For a century, Texas law has treated 17-year-olds as adults, but many reformers want to scrap what they say is an antiquated practice.

Armed with research on the dangers 17-year-olds face in adult jails and prisons, children’s groups and criminal justice advocates have made the cause a top priority this session. Texans Care for Children convened a summit on the issue last fall, and a January report from a House committee has recommended changing the law.

Texas’ law, the committee notes, is out of step with both federal law and all but eight other states. The report notes research that says adolescent brains are still developing, which calls into question whether they should be held as culpable as adults, and suggests they might have a better chance at rehabilitation.

Sheriffs and jailers have supported the idea as well, in part because federal law already requires them to keep 17-year-olds out of “sight and sound” from older inmates, which is an expensive proposition. In practice, especially in smaller county facilities, 17-year-olds are confined alone instead. Juvenile court judges in Bexar and Harris counties have also signed on, editorial boards at the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-NewsAustin American-Statesman have all called for change this year.

With such a drumbeat of support, moving 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system seems like just the sort of research-based, bipartisan idea that a reform-minded Legislature would embrace. On Wednesday afternoon, a House committee will hear a handful of bills to do so.

But for now at least, the proposal is likely headed nowhere in the Senate, where the most visible opposition has come from an unlikely source: Whitmire.

“I personally, philosophically, believe that if a 17-year-old commits a violent act, I see no reason to change that they wouldn’t be [treated] as an adult. I just think that a 17-year-old knows right from wrong,” Whitmire told the Observer. “I just am not of the opinion that it’s a broken system, and I’m not prepared to change the law to assist the sheriffs in the management of their jails.”

Advocates have been heartened to have sheriffs like Lupe Valdez of Dallas County and Adrian Garcia of Harris County as allies in this effort, but Whitmire sees their support as a simple matter of trying to make 17-year-olds somebody else’s problem. “You know Adrian Garcia, any given day he’s got over 8,000 confinees, with 100 of them being 17-year-olds. And if he can’t manage that, then I’m sorry. But that’s not a reason to change the law.”

The change could be an expensive one, which would run counter to the state’s penchant for criminal justice reform in the name of cutting costs. The Legislative Budget Board estimates it would cost around $60 million per year to treat 8,000 extra 17-year-olds in the state’s juvenile probation programs and secure lockups. Counties would have to cover between $100,000 to over $10 million each year, depending on their size. (A 2012 analysis by University of Texas researcher Michele Deitch suggests that, in the long run, the change would actually save $89 million for each cohort of 17-year-olds, considering the economic benefits of rehabilitating youth before they can become serial offenders.)

Whitmire doesn’t mention the cost among his objections, but he sounds wary of adding the additional stress to a juvenile justice system that’s still a work in progress. He even doubt whether 17-year-olds would be any safer in juvenile facilities.

“Currently, the Juvenile Justice Department does not classify or segregate youth by age. I have a real problem with [placing] 14- and 15-year-olds in with the 17-year-olds.” While it may not be ideal to have 17-year-olds in adult facilities, Whitmire says he’s even more concerned with the juvenile lockups where 13-year-olds are housed near others as old as 19.

“In most instances, because the adult systems are better controlled and supervised,” Whitmire says. “If I was a vulnerable 17-year-old, I’d be much safer in the adult [system] because I’m going to be protected and recognized as a 17-year-old, versus going back and placing me in a juvenile facility, which I think certainly at the state level is out of control.”

Still, the vast majority of 17-year-olds in the system didn’t commit the sort of violent offenses that would land them in a state lockup. And state law would still allow courts to certify 17-year-olds as adults for particularly heinous crimes. Placing 17-year-olds in the juvenile system by default would have the greatest impact on low-level offenders who could get extra treatment or even avoid a criminal record.

Illinois is among a handful of states that has made the switch in recent years; it began in 2009 with 17-year-olds who committed misdemeanors, before extending the change to felonies as well. Today, Whitmire says he and his staff are “seriously reviewing” the way Texas handles 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors.

Whitmire says he doesn’t expect the proposal to get a hearing in his committee this session—and as chairman, he should know. But he says the opposition, while it may have been fairly quiet, is much wider than his own.

Some of that concern surfaced during last night’s hearing on Whitmire’s bill. With his signature juvenile justice reform for the session just moments from passing to the full Senate, Whitmire fielded questions from a few generally supportive witnesses including Harris County Juvenile Probation Chief Tom Brooks. Brooks said he was glad to take on more youth from state lockups if he got the funding to cover them, and he talked about the expanded state oversight Whitmire proposed. But before leaving, he couldn’t help but mention the big, looming question hanging over his department.

“There’s a lot of bills out there with the age-of-jurisdiction change, and I think if that happens, I think it would impede the progress of this particular bill,” Brooks said, as awkward laughter spread among the senators surrounding Whitmire. “I think your facilities would fill up, and your commitments would increase to the state.”

“We were doing real good till you brought that up. Now we’re gonna be here a while,” Whitmire joked. “We will discuss that thoroughly in the future.”

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
Patrick Michels
House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) announces plans to pursue school finance reforms this session.

Crowded at a podium by 18 of his fellow representatives from both parties and all over the state, House education chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) announced his intention Wednesday morning to make major improvements to Texas’ school finance system before this legislative session runs out.

A major school finance case still awaits a hearing at the Texas Supreme Court, and many lawmakers have said there’s little incentive to rework the system before the court rules. But a district judge in Austin last year called the funding system uneven and “plainly insufficient to satisfy constitutional standards.” Aycock said he saw no reason to wait for a decision on the lawsuit before making improvements.

“It’s been in court for a long time,” Aycock said. “We need to do this while there’s funds available.”

Growth in property tax revenue has given lawmakers wiggle room to spend more on public schools this session; the House budget headed to a vote next week already includes a $2.2 billion increase in school spending. The plan announced this morning would add an extra $800 million, for a total of $3 billion in new school funding over the next two years.

The plan for distributing that extra $800 million isn’t set, but will eventually be written into a revised version of Aycock’s House Bill 1759.

Aycock said his priority is to correct illogical and outdated features in Texas’ school finance formulas, like adjustments for higher salaries in expensive urban districts or the extra cost of educating students with limited English proficiency, which haven’t been updated in more than 25 years. Tinkering with any of those would upset the delicate equilibrium of a system that, despite its flaws, has been in place since 2006.

“The fact is that when you change these complicated formulas, some people win, some people win more than others, some people lose,” Aycock said. “In order to mitigate that pain politically, you can only do this sort of modification when there’s more money going into the system.”

Some, but not all, members of the crowd around Aycock this morning have been meeting since last fall in an informal working group on school finance reform. The group includes Republicans and Democrats from both urban and rural districts.

In an interview, Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said Aycock’s plan wouldn’t fix what’s wrong with Texas’ school finance system, but to Democrats who’ve been railing against the state’s chronic underfunding of schools, the extra money was welcome. “It was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” she said.

Still, adding more money this session to Aycock’s plan wouldn’t address the system’s basic flaws, or allow for reforms like pre-kindergarten expansion.

“I think it’s a huge step toward addressing what the court said we need to address,” Howard said, but “I take Chairman Aycock at his word that this is not about trying to make the lawsuit go away.”

In his ruling last year, District Judge John Dietz wrote that the state needed to spend an additional $800 per student to deliver the bare minimum education guaranteed by the state constitution—that’d mean an extra $8 billion in a two-year budget, well above what House leaders proposed today.

But a major infusion of money into the system and an update to the state’s formulas could certainly shake up the court case as it heads to the state’s conservative high court. Aycock said he had no idea what impact his plan might have on the case, but he and other members agreed that it ‘s better to act now than to “try to out-guess the lawyers.”

David Thompson, an attorney representing one group of school districts suing the state, told the Observer that without a bill to look at yet, it’s impossible to guess how the case might be affected. “I do very much appreciate the House’s willingness to spend some time to address the issue,” Thompson said, adding that the plans Aycock described include “some very positive features.” Thompson said he’s most interested in seeing a proposal that steers more money to districts that educate the state’s neediest children.

Had lawmakers completely punted on school finance reform—or if the House’s plan eventually falls through—a Supreme Court ruling against the state would likely prompt a special session in 2016 dedicated to fixing the system. If nothing else, the new reform effort could serve as a practice run for new members getting to know the arcane system for the first time.

“This is a House-led initiative,” Aycock said this morning, crafted without input from the governor or the Senate. Choosing to spend so much more on public schools could be a much tougher sell in a Senate that has been running on a very different philosophy than the House; just hours after Aycock’s announcement, the upper chamber agreed to $4.6 billion in tax cuts.

At the press conference, Aycock said he was confident the chambers could find common ground. “I believe there’s adequate funding to accomplish significant tax cuts and do what’s right for the children of the state of Texas at the same time,” he said.

Thomas Lucas Jr. organized land deals in rural North Texas at inflated prices, promising investors prime access to a planned Disney resort that was entirely make-believe.
U.S. Attorney's Office
Thomas Lucas Jr. organized land deals in rural North Texas at inflated prices, promising investors prime access to a planned Disney resort that was entirely make-believe.

Strangest State is a recurring feature on local news you might have missed from around Texas. From profiles of small-town doctors to monstrous swamp creatures found by local kids, they’re stories that don’t fit… anywhere, really, but we want to be sure don’t go unnoticed. Got a local oddity or some small-town news to share? Tips are welcome at [email protected]

CELINA // Investors planning to turn this small North Texas town into the happiest place on earth claim their hopes were dashed by Dallas real estate scion Thomas W. Lucas Jr., who raised millions for a real estate scheme designed around a supposed Disney theme park. Lucas, 40, was convicted in February of bilking more than 100 international investors out of $60 million, using “sophisticated digital architectural plans” and a forged letter from Southwest Airlines regarding a fictional “Frontier Disney Airport.” Initial investors included retired NBA center Jon Koncak and some of his former Southern Methodist University classmates, who, according to The Dallas Morning News, gathered to watch the 2007 Super Bowl around a Mickey Mouse cake, anticipating an announcement from Disney during the game. Lucas promised a huge return on real estate near the resort, claiming advance information supplied by a secret source—a man the Morning News reported was a “Hurricane Katrina transplant with a drug habit who delivered milk and worked other odd jobs before committing suicide in 2012.”

EARTH // Federal authorities say Donald and Karlien Winberg were on the run from the law with their seven children when they were spotted by tourists and arrested in the Bahamas in February, far from their home in West Texas, and even farther from the Denver courtroom where they were supposed to stand trial earlier this year. The Winbergs, authorities say, marketed corn and hay online, gave potential customers tours of fields they didn’t own, and then accepted payment up front for grain they never delivered. The Winbergs apparently made a prior attempt to leave the country in the fall of 2014, paying cash for a sailboat, the Houston Chronicle reported, which they wrecked on their way out of Galveston Bay.

HUNTINGTON // KTRE news reporter Erika Bazaldua peeled back the mystery of the moon’s true nature in a mid-January news report, settling the “controversy” over whether the moon is a planet, a star or a moon. Soliciting opinions from local high-schoolers, fourth-graders, and even quoting an on-air argument broadcast by the shopping network QVC, Bazaldua settled the matter with a visit to a mobile science museum, where retired teacher V.J. Willis explained: “Contrary to common misconception, the moon is not a star or a planet. It is a moon. It orbits a planet.”

CRYSTAL BEACH // Vidor construction worker Larry Nash was working a job near the beach when, he said, a glowing orb in the sky caught his attention. “It was like a bubble,” Nash told the Beaumont Enterprise in late January—a bubble that changed from purple to green as he and co-workers watched. They observed the bubble for 45 minutes, “taking pictures and calling friends,” the Enterprise reported, until their boss told them to get back to work. “That was the last we saw of it,” Nash said.

DEL RIO // A ghost hunt during the town’s annual UFO festival revealed no evidence that the Kress Building downtown is haunted. “But there’s no denying that its dark and empty second and third floors are downright spooky,” Karen Gleason reported in the Del Rio News-Herald. Fifty brave souls joined in the hunt led by Rosa Linda Sanchez, who admitted that she’s “never had any strange experiences inside the Kress.” Amber Street, a San Antonio college student, psychic and “seeker of higher knowledge,” said there were in fact “spirits in the building, but none who wished to make contact with us.”

HOUSTON // Japanese Internet entrepreneur and businessman Takafumi Horie sued Houston attorney Art Dula late last year, alleging that Dula talked him into investing nearly $50 million in a private spaceflight startup called Excalibur Almaz that, Horie said, was never intended to make money. The company announced plans to convert Russian space capsules and space station parts into modern launch vehicles, and even mine asteroids for rare materials—but Horie said the equipment was never fit for anything more strenuous than display in a museum, according to the Houston Chronicle. Another investor made similar allegations in 2012, and in May 2014, the company auctioned off one of its space capsules for $1.39 million, according to the blog Parabolic Arc. In February, Dula denied Horie’s fraud allegations, noting that Horie had signed an agreement not to sue the company—before his own recent imprisonment in Japan for securities fraud.

cupcake amnesty
Reshma Kirpalani / Austin American-Statesman
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller bites into a cupcake during a January press conference in Austin.

In his first big act as Texas agriculture commissioner, with reporters gathered ’round to record the moment, former state Rep. Sid Miller pardoned, and then ate, a pink-frosted cupcake.

Miller’s lighthearted “cupcake amnesty” press conference, a folksy affair with beloved Austin food trailer Hey Cupcake! as a backdrop, was a big hit on the evening news. The story spread fast that, thanks to the intervention of Miller’s nanny-state-bustin’ agriculture department, Texas parents were free at last to send their kids to school with birthday cake for the class. Miller also promised to repeal state bans on deep fryers in cafeteria kitchens and on soda sales at public schools.

“We’ve been raising big, strapping, healthy young kids here in Texas for 200 years,” Miller said, “and we don’t need Washington, D.C., telling us how to do it.”

The whole spectacle was typical Miller. Before losing his state House seat in the 2012 GOP primary, the Stephenville rancher and tree farmer was best known as the author of red-meat fare like Texas’ pre-abortion sonogram law and a bill sanctioning the sporting practice known as “pork-chopping” (shooting feral hogs from a helicopter). Rather than dwell too much on agriculture in his latest campaign, Miller reminded voters of his work defunding the “abortion industry,” named Ted Nugent his campaign treasurer, and even managed to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.”

The cupcake decree was a fitting reminder that Miller—white hat, gleaming grin and all—has returned to taunt Texas liberals again. But as reporters quickly realized, there was little of substance in his announcement. Texas had not, in fact, ever banned cupcakes brought from home to school. And the rule change behind Miller’s announcement took place April 2014, months before Miller was even elected. Last year, under former commissioner Todd Staples, the department repealed the 10-year-old Texas Public School Nutrition Policy because new federal rules for school lunch and food sold at fundraisers had made the state’s policies redundant.

“In other words,” as Houston child nutrition advocate Bettina Elias Siegel wrote in January, “the ‘repeal’ characterized by Mr. Miller as somehow courageously bucking restrictive regulations was actually a show of appropriate deference by our state to the federal government.”

On her blog, “The Lunch Tray,” Siegel struggled to make sense of Miller’s announcement—not only his taking credit for a change he had nothing to do with, but worse, his plans to further peel back nutrition safeguards in the name of local control. “To encourage deep-fat frying and soda and cupcakes is so shockingly backward thinking,” Siegel tells the Observer.

What’s most troubling about Miller’s announcement, Siegel says, is that his department is the one tasked with enforcing those federal regulations he deems so unnecessary. On Miller’s watch, the ag department “could essentially gut [the federal rules] through failure to enforce. And that’s really worrisome to me.”

Spokesman Bryan Black told the Observer that won’t happen; the department, he says, is still “required to comply with all federal regulations.”

But Miller sounds committed to getting around as much of that regulation as possible. Even though 16 percent of Texas’ “big, strapping” high schoolers are obese—a rate that’s higher than the national average, and even worse for low-income, Hispanic and African-American children—Miller takes Texas’ persistent childhood obesity as a sign of government ineptitude.

“These rules were put in 10 years ago, and those figures haven’t gotten any better,” he explained to Tucker Carlson of Fox and Friends. “Government intervention hasn’t worked. But individual responsibility, local control, is what works.”

Following Abbott’s Lead, House Members Propose Pre-K Grants

$100 million program would stop short of funding full-day pre-kindergarten
State Rep. Dan Huberty
State Rep. Dan Huberty

There’s widespread support around the Capitol for more state spending on pre-kindergarten programs, and much less agreement about how to do it.

State Reps. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) have proposed a $300-million-a-year plan to fund full-day pre-K for some children in districts that agree to meet new quality standards. Meanwhile, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has introduced a more ambitious plan: universal, full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the state.

On the campaign trail last year, Gov. Greg Abbott also proposed more pre-K spending, but more cautiously. Rather than a blanket pre-K expansion, Abbott suggested rewarding districts with $1,500 per student if they meet new standards for program quality.

That’s the plan outlined in House Bill 4, filed today by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston). The bill creates a framework for defining the “high quality prekindergarten programs” eligible for extra state funding, but remains vague on how much each school district would get and how their programs would be evaluated. Under HB 4, those decisions would all be left up to the education commissioner.

Huberty formally unveiled his bill at a press conference Thursday morning. Flanked by House budget and education leaders, he said the House budget would include $100 million for the new pre-K program, the Texas Tribune reported. In a statement today, Huberty said many districts would qualify for the extra money with programs they already have in place. The bill, he said, would provide “up to” $1,500 per student on top of the $3,650 the state funds today.

That isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of full-day pre-K, so the bill falls short of what many early education advocates have recently favored. In a statement Thursday afternoon, Rep. Johnson said that high-quality pre-K “is by definition full-day prekindergarten.”

He and Farney will now have to fight to win House members over to a plan that’s more ambitious, and three times as expensive, as the governor’s preferred pre-K plan. Johnson’s office offered a reminder of the advocacy groups and civic leaders around the state that support a full-day program like the one in his bill.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas and a former superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, says HB 4 includes some important elements—encouraging districts to use the state pre-K standards, and rewarding districts for using qualified teachers—but the bill is a missed opportunity if it doesn’t fund full-day learning.

Our research shows students achieve the greatest gains when enrolled in high-quality, full-day pre-K,” Anthony says, with an emphasis on “full-day.” “We have seen first-hand in the research and talking with teachers that they can accomplish so much more in a full-day program than with the half-day.”

Full-day programs tend to fit better around working parents’ schedules. The state doesn’t track how each school district’s pre-K programs run, but a recent survey by the nonprofit Children At Risk found that 47 percent of Texas districts are paying to offer full-day programs beyond what the state covers.

Anthony says he’s worried districts that already fund their full-day programs will be temporarily satisfied with a little extra money from the state. That could relieve the pressure that’s been building lately to create a strong full-day system. “Our concern is they’re gonna see $1,500—that’s better than what they’ve been getting—and thinking that maybe there’s no need for further conversation.”

Until a few years ago, the Legislature offered more than $200 million in grants to help districts expand their pre-K programs. But that money was cut along with more than $5 billion in other education funding in 2011.

Compared to the old program, says Center for Public Policy Priorities analyst Chandra Villanueva, Huberty’s $100 million plan doesn’t look so exciting.

“Right now it looks like the governor’s proposal [as written in HB 4] is basically recreating a similar grant program,” she says. “This program just isn’t going far enough and meeting the needs that we really have.”

Villanueva, like many other early education advocates, says the Legislature should fund any pre-K expansion through the same funding formulas it uses to pay for K-12 education. Grant programs like the one cut in 2011, or the one proposed under HB 4, are much more susceptible to cuts from one session to the next.

Funding pre-K through the formulas, she says, would also help ensure students get more equal funding. HB 4, on the other hand, could reward wealthy districts that already have the money to meet new requirements for, say, class size or teacher qualifications.

“The governor’s bill that’s outside the formulas, it’s really increasing inequity in the system,” Villanueva says. “I think we need a systemic approach to dealing with pre-K, and increase the equity in the system.”

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