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Snake Oil

Beaumont ISD students outside the Travis County courthouse, where lawyers for BISD and the state fight over the district's future.
Patrick Michels
Beaumont ISD students (from left) Hope Flores, Alex Treviño, Escarly Candelaria and Roberto Castillo, outside the Travis County courthouse where lawyers for BISD and the state argued Tuesday over the district's future.

The slow-motion trainwreck called Beaumont ISD continued this week in Austin, as lawyers representing a faction of the school board fought to prevent the state from taking control of the troubled district. On Monday, they failed in a last-ditch appeal to the Texas Education Agency. Today, the district’s lawyers took on the state in a Travis County district court.

And as the lawyers kept the board members’ increasingly desperate-looking power struggle alive, a group of middle and high school students, seated in the courtroom, looked on with more immediate concerns on their minds: saving their teachers, and their schools’ fine arts programs, from the chopping block.

“Fraud, waste and abuse” has become something of a mantra for state and federal investigators looking into Beaumont ISD over the last few years, but the most recent trouble came with an email from Superintendent Timothy Chargois to his staff, announcing that the district had overspent its budget from last school year, and would have to cut about $25 million from next year’s budget. (The district will have to return $1.5 million to the state because it over-reported its attendance.) That news was followed shortly by a proposed list of 231 jobs to cut, including 162 teachers—among them, all four orchestra teachers in the district, three choir teachers, three art teachers, three drama teachers and plenty of others, including in math and science.

Hope Flores, who’ll be a junior at Ozen High School this fall, learned about the planned layoffs from her school’s drama teacher, Gina Martin, whose job is on the list.

“It really hit home for me because theater is a passion for me,” says Flores. Laying off Martin would effectively end the entire theater program at the school, Flores says, because she’s the only drama teacher they’ve got.

Flores says students were generally aware of the district’s troubles—the embezzlement trial in federal court, the FBI raids, the brutal audits and moves toward state takeover—but felt compelled to help once they saw their teachers’ livelihoods were at risk.

Meeting in a library, the students have combed the district’s finances for alternatives to staff layoffs. Options they’ve come up with so far include selling off some of the district’s property, or selling the naming rights to the district’s $47 million football stadium. The latter might be an especially popular move: at present the stadium, which opened in 2010, is named for Carrol Thomas, the longtime superintendent who stepped down in 2012 and is often blamed for landing the district in its present mire.

Other students have gradually rallied around Flores—”I guess you could kind of say I’ve been appointed leader,” she says—while other students have helped by running Twitter or Facebook accounts for their cause. One student has been helping the social media efforts and calling legislators while he’s away at summer camp.

The students have lined up not just from Ozen, but all around the district, even from rival high schools. Flores says their unity has surprised a lot of people, at a time when so many adults have made the district the center of pitched battles—between the state and the school board, between rival factions on the school board, or between the city’s white and black communities.

“They’ve really united the city, which has historically been really divided,” says Sarah Sanders, a 2010 Beaumont ISD graduate who’s chaperoned the students’ Austin trip. “The entire city is just flooding us with money to help these kids.” When Sanders posted a notice that the students were eating ramen noodles Monday night to keep their budget low, she says, she got a call from a woman who follows their cause on Facebook, promising to send money for their expenses.

Of course, the students’ cause also aligns them with one of the many competing factions around the district: teachers hoping to keep their jobs, who’d probably rather see administrators laid off instead.

Travis County District Judge Stephen Yelenosky hasn’t ruled yet on the BISD board members’ case. Back in Beaumont, the school board has delayed its vote on the proposed job cuts. Fred Shafer, the state-appointed conservator over Beaumont ISD, has urged the school board not to delay its voting on the cuts, but students like Flores are holding onto faith that a quick state takeover could save at least some of the teachers’ jobs.

Saving any of those jobs may still be a long shot, but in a school district plagued by adults’ greed, distrust and ambition, a few students going to such lengths to defend their teachers is an uplifting turn.


Correction at 10:20 p.m.: This post has been corrected to reflect that Beaumont ISD’s looming $25 million budget cut is due only in part to its over-estimated attendance last year.

Scene from the floor of the 2014 Texas Republican convention in Fort Worth.
Christopher Hooks
OK wait, run that by me one more time.

This time last week, the Texas GOP convention was just heating up in Fort Worth, and before any of our elected thought leaders even opened their mouths, we found ample material in a draft of the party’s platform: ex-gay reparative therapy (good, apparently); a women’s [sic] right to choose to devote her life to her family and children” (oh, clever); the United Nations Agenda 21 (bad); and socialism (extra-double-bad times a million).

But what of the oratory we’ve come to expect from our leadership at great moments like these?

As the debate over the party platform turned, somewhat surprisingly, to net neutrality—which keeps Internet providers from choosing which sites’ content gets delivered faster or slower—Mineola state Rep. Bryan Hughes let fly a logic bomb of stunning density:


The convention was also electrified by the appearance of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, first in cardboard, and then in real life. As Politico reported, Paul went topical to win the crowd:

“Mr. President, you love to trade people,” the Kentucky Republican and likely 2016 contender said to laughs, a reference to the deal made for the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

“Why don’t we set up a trade? But this time, instead of five Taliban, how about five Democrats? I’m thinking John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, couldn’t we send them to Mexico?”

Later, Paul explained he was just funnin':

“It was a joke. Except for Nancy Pelosi, I was serious about her.” When pressed, he added: “Well, I mean, it’s humor, and I hope there’s room for humor. I thought it was funny. It was meant to be humorous.”

Ah yes… humor.

evil laughing cat


The other half of Paul’s proposed trade with Mexico? U.S. Marine Andrew Tahmooressi, who has been jailed awaiting trial since April, when he drove into Tijuana carrying guns that are banned in Mexico.

And speaking of the threats down south…

Phoenix's ABC15 reports on the latest border threat.
Phoenix’s ABC15 reports on the latest border threat.

Reporting from McAllen, Phoenix’s ABC15 warned this week that undocumented immigrants are infecting South Texas with their contagious foreign ailments: scabies, fever, and apparently a raging case of the “immigration dumps.”

Meanwhile, now that the huge influx of Central American children into Texas is getting serious attention, the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers—a virulent super-strain of paranoia achieved by combining the Border Patrol and retirees—offered a peek at what’s really happening here. Or do you honestly believe these children made it to Texas without a little help?

This is not a humanitarian crisis. It is a predictable, orchestrated and contrived assault on the compassionate side of Americans by her political leaders that knowingly puts minor Illegal Alien children at risk for purely political purposes.

Certainly, we are not gullible enough to believe that thousands of unaccompanied minor Central American children came to America without the encouragement, aid and assistance of the United States Government.

Anyone that has taken two six to seven year old children to an amusement park can only imagine the problems associated with bringing thousands of unaccompanied children that age up through Mexico and into the United States.

I doubt even the Cartels would undertake that chore at any price.


President Obama
President Obama executes a textbook Cloward-Piven maneuver.

On Wednesday, Steve Stockman even lent that theory a touch of congressional gravitas, dishing for a WorldNetDaily exclusive headlined, “CONGRESSMEN: OBAMA USING ‘CLOWARD-PIVEN MANEUVER'”:

Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, agreed that Obama – who studied the chaos strategy at Columbia, according to a classmate – “is trying to do a Cloward-Piven thing with the border.”

“Cloward-Piven” is a reference to an obscure 1966 proposal to drown the U.S. welfare system in need, ushering in an era of nationalized care.

“Obama follows all the far-left, Leninist, socialist-type stuff,” Stockman told WND.

Meanwhile in Congress, Louie “Go-Go-Go-To-Hell-If-You-Don’t-Accept-Jesus” Gohmert shined at a Tuesday hearing on religious liberty—specifically, liberty for the Christian right.

Barry Lynn, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, testified before the committee, Gohmert wondered if Lynn—a minister in the United Church of Christ—might be enjoying a little too much liberty in his religion:

Louie Gohmert: “Do you believe in sharing the good news that will keep people from going to Hell, consistent with Christian beliefs?” the Texas Republican wondered.

Barry Lynn: “I wouldn’t agree with your construction of what hell is like or how one gets there.”


LG: “So the christian belief as you see it is whatever you choose to believe about Christ?”

BL: “We could have a very interesting conversation sometime, probably not in a congressional hearing, about those scriptural passages.”

What Compounding Pharmacies Want From Greg Abbott

Compounding pharmacies' interests run far deeper than secrecy over the lethal injection drug supply.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott

For years, when lawyers, activists and reporters asked for details about Texas’ lethal injection drug supply—where the state buys its drugs, or the size of its drug stockpile—prison officials have fought to keep the information secret.

In 2012, Texas Department of Criminal Justice lawyers warned that outing the source would create “a substantial risk of physical harm to the supplier,” specifically from an anti-death penalty group it compared to a violent prison gang.

But over the last few years, Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office has repeatedly ruled that those details should, indeed, be public, noting a prior ruling by the Texas Supreme Court that “vague assertions of risk will not carry the day.” In the 2012 case, Abbott didn’t buy TDCJ’s risk assessment, forcing the agency to name Houston’s Physician Sales & Services as its supplier at the time.

As his office put it in a ruling that year, “while we acknowledge the department’s concerns, we find you have not established disclosure of the information at issue would create a substantial threat of physical harm to any individual.”

But in late May, Abbott’s office did an about-face, denying a request to name Texas’ latest supplier because this time, it said, the “assertions of risk” were no longer so vague.

As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, like so many others, has wondered: “What exactly has changed? Texans are left to guess.”

The ruling from Abbott’s office cites threats last year against The Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy, whose owner was horrified to learn he’d been outed as the drugs’ source, apparently after TDCJ assured him anonymity. When his pharmacy’s name got out, he asked for the drugs back. TDCJ refused, and activists spoiled his suburban forest peace with protests outside the pharmacy. The owner says he lost business and received violent threats.

To protect its latest supplier from a similar fate, TDCJ asked Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw to vet the threats made last year. McCraw—who lent an air of seriousness to last year’s ludicrous “poopgate” incident at the Capitol, and who’s outfitted DPS patrols on the Rio Grande capable of withstanding an onslaught from the British Navy—agreed the threats against The Woodlands pharmacy were very real. “Pharmacies by design are easily accessible to the public and present a soft target to violent attacks,” he wrote, ably describing pretty much any retail business.

The state has also refused to release details of those threats, save this thrilling peek behind the curtain McCraw gave The Texas Tribune: “It was information provided to us and that we looked at.”

Surely that settles it, right?

Not quite. What McCraw’s threat-down leaves out is the national trend toward keeping lethal injection drug suppliers anonymous. After European drug manufacturers quit selling drugs for lethal injections, states turned to domestic compounding pharmacies instead, where the drugs can be ordered in small amounts and made on-demand. One by one, states have passed laws or made rules keeping their sources secret (prompting challenges in some states, like Oklahoma and Missouri), but in Texas—where the Legislature won’t reconvene till next January—there was nothing to protect an innocent pharmacy from profiting off the death of a guilty man. Nothing, that is, until Abbott’s latest ruling.

And then there’s the money.

A week before Abbott’s ruling, the Austin-based watchdog Texans for Public Justice released a report on Abbott’s fourth-most-generous donor in the last year, Conroe compounding pharmacist Richie Ray. As TPJ notes, Ray catapulted into the top tier of Abbott-backers with a $250,000 donation in January—a few months after the mess in The Woodlands, and days after the first of this year’s wave of botched executions.

Because Ray’s pharmacy isn’t certified as a “sterile” facility that can produce drugs for injection, his pharmacy couldn’t be Texas’ latest source. And, in a statement provided to the Observer, Ray is unequivocal that his business has nothing to do with lethal injections: “Richie’s Specialty Pharmacy has never compounded drugs that were used for executions, and we never will. Furthermore, in my 17 years as a licensed pharmacist, I have never compounded drugs that were used for executions, and I never will.”

But as a national leader in pharmacy trade groups, and a major donor to pharmacists’ political allies, he’s taken an active role on behalf of the entire industry. So was Ray hoping to buy Texas’ secrecy, and protect a fellow compounder?

Mother Jones suggested as much in a piece that ran May 28, one day before Abbott’s office ruled to keep Texas’ drug source anonymous. And sure, any time a compounding pharmacy is outed as a source for death row, it’s bad press for the whole industry—but Ray’s political agenda is surely bigger and more complex than the death penalty drugs.

Compounding pharmacies are already locked in a bigger fight—one that more directly affects their bottom line—over how they’ll be regulated by the FDA. That fight involves lawmakers and lobbyists at the state and federal levels, and Ray and his staff have been instrumental in bankrolling compounders’ interests.

Until now, the FDA had oversight of big drug manufacturers, but compounding pharmacies—which had long been little mom-and-pop shops that made drugs for pets or lollipop medications for kids—were left to state regulation. As compounders have grown, so have horror stories about tainted drug batches shipped from compounders to customers nationwide. In its report TPJ recalled the case of Dallas-based ApotheCure, whose drugs killed three patients in Oregon in 2007. Cedar Park-based Specialty Compounding was linked to infections last year in more than a dozen patients. And most notoriously, tainted drugs from the New England Compounding Center killed at least 64 people and infected more than 700 more with meningitis.

That outbreak prompted a quick response from Congress: for the first time, large-scale compounding pharmacies are set for federal regulation, with standards similar to drug manufacturers. But which businesses will fall under federal watch as “outsourcing pharmacies,” and how much that’ll cost them, is all up to rule makers at the FDA.

“That’s kind of the issue that is still unresolved,” says Robert Floyd, an Austin lobbyist for the Alliance of Independent Pharmacists. “At what level does a compound pharmacist have to make a decision to be an outsourcing facility and meet federal licensing, pay federal fees … where is that line going to be drawn?”

That may explain why so many on Ray’s pharmacy staff bet so generously on support from U.S. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming in 2012, or why Ray has employed top lobbyists like Craig Chick, a former adviser to House Speaker Joe Straus, and David Marwitz, who also lobbies for the Texas Pharmacy Association. In his statement to the Observer, Ray said he’s worked for years to educate the public, and lawmakers, “about what appropriate quality evidence-based compounding services should look like and how they can best serve the public safely.”

Richie’s Specialty Pharmacy, isn’t a high-volume producer likely to be caught up in the outsourcing regulation—one of its specialties is a pain cream—but it’d be important to Ray to spread a message about compounding that’s less about meningitis outbreaks or lethal injections.

Floyd provided the Observer with a statement he says “reflects the position of most compounding pharmacies” on execution drugs. In brief, this is one fight the industry wants to be left out of:

While we have no formal position on compounding pharmacies’ preparation of drugs used in executions, the pharmacy profession recognizes an individual practitioner’s right to refuse to dispense a medication based upon his or her personal, ethical and religious beliefs. In a very few cases, compounding pharmacies have been asked by a state government to prepare drugs used in executions because pharmaceutical manufacturers have unilaterally restricted distribution. We believe state corrections agencies should work first with the pharmacy services providers—the companies that provide medications to prisoners within their systems—to source or compound drugs for executions before soliciting a traditional compounding pharmacy.

Before the twin controversies over some compounding pharmacies’ dangerous products—whether accidentally or intentionally lethal—the industry got little attention and light federal regulation. What the industry likely wants, most of all, is to keep it that way.

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State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant)
State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant)

Dr. David Fuller earns $125,000 a year as superintendent of the new C.O.R.E. Academy charter school in Houston. His school has 74 students this year. Do the math: He makes $1,689 per student.

Fuller’s former business partner, Kevin Hicks, earns $248,000 as superintendent of Houston’s Accelerated Intermediate Academy. The charter school, which Fuller and Hicks founded together in 2001, now serves 250 students. $992 per student.

Ollie Hilliard, superintendent of Jamie’s House Charter School in Houston, earns $123,000 to run a school of 131 students—though she may not for much longer. Hers is one of six charters now slated for closure after years of poor performance. In 2001, the state closed another Hilliard project—a residential facility for foster children, also called Jamie’s House—due to health and safety risks. Today, Hilliard makes $939 per student.

Per student, they are the three best-paid charter school superintendents in the state. And though he won’t single them out by name, State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff says some Texas charters pay their leaders far too much, with little public input to hold them accountable.

Earlier this month, he laid out his concerns in a letter to fellow board members, noting that the 10 best-paid charter school leaders earned $79.74 per student, while the top 10 superintendents at traditional public schools earned  $6.39 per student. Ratliff called on the Legislature or the commissioner of education to rein in the top salaries at charter schools:

“I find it ironic that charter schools were supposed to bring free market principals into the education marketplace but they are obviously paying way above free market rates for their superintendents. I would also like to point out that these entities are supposed to be non-profit organizations, but at these salary levels, some people are clearly doing quite well.”

A little more irony: Ratliff’s father, former state Sen. Bill Ratliff, wrote the law that first allowed charter schools in Texas in the mid-’90s.

“I’m not anti-charter,” the younger Ratliff tells the Observer this week. “There are some very good charters and I think there are some kids’ lives that have been saved because of some good charters. But I think the majority of charters are mediocre at best, and they graft off the good press and goodwill from a lot of the best ones.”

Ratliff says what he wants is an honest accounting of how much charter schools spend on their students, and a more open process for setting top administrators’ pay. Each charter school has a board that sets salaries, just like any traditional school district. But most charter board meetings aren’t well publicized or attended, so much of their business happens quietly. Ratliff suggests requiring that half the seats on a charter school board go to parents. “If I’m a parent of a kid in the charter school,” Ratliff says, “and I have a vote on whether to pay our superintendent $250,000 a year for 250 kids, I know how I’m gonna vote every time.”

Partly because charters’ operations can be so opaque, most debate about charter schools tends to treat them like a monolithic group. But the differences from one charter to the next run far deeper than between traditional school districts.

Three more examples:

  • Tom Torkelson makes $299,000 a year running the well-respected and growing IDEA Public Schools network, with 15 schools serving 15,535 students. IDEA supplements its state funding with major foundation grants.
  • Honors Academy superintendent John Dodd makes $250,000 a year heading a single school in Dallas with 759 students. The state is closing his school for poor performance.
  • Westlake Academy Charter School—one of the best schools in the state—serves some of Texas’ poshest neighborhoods, doesn’t provide bus transportation from outside, and supplements its state funding with a $2,000 recommended annual donation from parents. But the school doesn’t pay its superintendent Tom Brymer at all, because he makes his salary as Westlake’s town manager.

As part of the big charter school reforms the Legislature passed last year, charters are now required to post their superintendents’ salaries on their websites. A quick look around shows that many still haven’t done that—but most report their salaries to the Texas Education Agency. An Observer analysis of that data, with some extra reporting to fill in a few gaps, shows that charter superintendents do tend to make more, per student, than their traditional district counterparts:

Distribution of superintendent salaries, as a percentage of total charter or traditional school districts.
Source: Texas Education Agency/Texas Observer
Distribution of superintendent salaries, as a percentage of total charter or traditional school districts.

The Texas Charter Schools Association made a similar analysis of charter superintendent salaries, charting the total number of districts in each salary range. Comparing charters to ISDs that way, says the group’s executive director David Dunn, you’ll see “the distribution among salaries is very similar. … Rather than overreacting to specific cases, you really do need to look at the patterns that are established.”

Overall, charter schools get less money per student than ISDs because they don’t get money for school buildings (a group of charter schools has sued to change that). And, Dunn notes, the state holds charter schools to financial accountability measures that ISDs don’t have.

State Board of Education member Dana Bahorich replied to Ratliff’s note about salaries earlier this month with one of her own, noting that some traditional school districts pay far more than others per student, too. Comparing the median salaries in charter and traditional districts of under 5,000 students, she finds the two sectors aren’t so far off: “about $9,000 for charters and $103,000 for ISDs.”

“There are some variances and outliers in both sectors, but I just don’t see a problem necessitating government regulation over superintendents’ salaries,” she writes, in either charters or traditional schools.

Anyway, says Dunn, nobody’s salary ought to matter as much as whether the schools are helping students. “The key here is outcomes: Are we delivering outcomes for kids, and [do] parents have an opportunity to make choices so they can get he best educational program for their student?”

But Ratliff—who has since fired a second volley of criticism focused on charters’ overall money management—says if more people knew how some charter schools were spending public money, there’d be more of an outcry to fix the system. “I don’t think anybody realizes what kind of money folks are pulling in in these so-called nonprofits,” he says.

Texans for Education Reform and Democrats for Education Reform

For 20 years, Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) has been protecting our hospitals and business leaders from meddling trial lawyers, convincing the Texas Legislature to cap damage awards and closing the courthouse doors to some potential plaintiffs. For two decades, TLR has been wildly successful, perhaps the most successful special interest in Texas. Having conquered the civil justice system, TLR is moving on—to education.

Texans for Education Reform launched midway through the 2013 legislative session, and shares lobbyists, board members and a spokeswoman with TLR. (TLR president Dick Trabulsi, for example, sits on the school reform group’s board.) The two groups also share a few of the same deep-pocketed donors, wealthy individuals like Dick Weekley, Ray Hunt and Doug Foshee who helped the education group raise nearly $1 million for its new political action committee. Just under $200,000 was distributed to candidates ahead of the March primary.

It might seem strange that Texas’ preeminent tort reform advocates have taken a keen interest in public schools, of all things. But TLR’s move into education mirrors a nationwide trend over roughly the last decade: Advocacy groups and business leaders have spent big money trying to apply business principles to schools, a particular brand of school reform built around school choice and fewer job protections for teachers.

In the past few years, as other states tried bold school reform experiments, Texas—despite being generally friendly to charter schools and a free-market laboratory in so many other ways—has done little. But that could be changing fast.

Texans for Education Reform emerged last year to make up for lost time and to shake schools from the status quo. “Most of the other interest groups in this space weren’t advancing agendas; they were restricting bills,” Texans for Education Reform consultant Anthony Holm told the Texas Tribune last year. The group dispatched 19 lobbyists to the Texas Capitol, many of them highly paid, pushing charter school expansion, online learning and state takeover of low-performing schools. Texans for Public Justice noted the group was the 2013 session’s most formidable newcomer, debuting by spending as much as $1.2 million on lobbyists like former Senate education chairwoman Florence Shapiro, Rick Perry’s old friend Mike Toomey, and Adam Jones, a former deputy education commissioner.

The group’s spokeswoman, Sherry Sylvester, declined to discuss what the group will go after next session, offering only that it will advocate “research-proven reforms that empower parents, reinforce local control and provide pathways for intervention in chronically failing schools within a morally responsible timeline.”

Whatever that means, Texans for Education Reform will likely find itself in agreement with Democrats for Education Reform, which recently launched a chapter in Texas. That group—through a spinoff group called Education Reform Now Advocacy—has already distinguished itself as Texas’ No. 2 “dark money” spender in this year’s elections. Dark money is cash culled from undisclosed, usually corporate, contributors. In a flurry this spring, Democrats for Education Reform dropped $114,000 in anonymous cash on phone banks and mailers supporting four candidates: El Paso Reps. Marisa Marquez and Naomi Gonzalez; Ramon Romero, who upset longtime Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam in March; and Erika Beltran, a Teach for America alum who’s worked on school reform in Dallas, in a race for the State Board of Education.

For the campaign mailers, Democrats for Education Reform hired SDKnickerbocker, a Washington-based communications firm that, as The Nation described it in 2012, is “led by a team of former Democratic operatives and key White House figures.” According to an accounting by Texans for Public Justice, those contributions amounted to 13 percent of all the direct political expenditures in Texas from January 2013 to late April 2014.

Democrats for Education Reform has been around for years, with support from multi-billion dollar hedge fund managers. But its Texas branch is just getting started, led by Jennifer Koppel, whose past titles include vice president for growth at the IDEA charter school chain. Koppel says she’s still forming the group’s Texas-specific strategy. “We are definitely still trying to think about where we’ll get involved legislatively,” she tells the Observer, but that they’ll support candidates who’ve been engaged with school reform issues and aren’t “beholden to the old way of doing things.”

Texans for Education Reform may have the power of the Texas GOP establishment behind it, but Democrats for Education Reform’s national scope gives the group a different sort of strength. Koppel speculates her group might take Texas lawmakers to see school reforms in action in other states.

“For Democrats there is this constant questioning to say, ‘Are we doing the right thing?'” she says. “And they’re asking these questions. It’s hard in a vacuum to build that confidence.”

While conservative groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation have embraced school choice from a free-market perspective, Koppel says there’s a simple reason Democrats should be enthusiastic about reform: “You’re looking at the places where these failing schools are, and they’re overwhelmingly places that are represented by Democrats. And you wonder where the disconnect is.”

Across the country, and now in Texas, this flavor of school reform has been a bipartisan effort, happily blending progressive urges to aid poor communities’ troubled schools with the conservative promise of better, cheaper education with a little private sector know-how. It’s a potent combination that leaves little legislative muscle behind populist ideals like strong neighborhood schools and teacher unionization. The money behind school reform is party-blind, and it’s just starting to flow into Texas’ elections.

As Joe Williams, who heads DFER, told the San Antonio Express-News in April, “My hope is we’re talking two years from now about being involved in a lot more than just a handful of races in Texas.”

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has kept charter schools on a tight leash.

Texas’ charter school system, which hasn’t grown too much since 2000, is suddenly poised for a massive expansion, after major reforms in the Legislature last year. All that’s missing now are the new schools—and don’t expect them any time soon.

The 100,000 families on charter school waiting lists made for a powerful talking point among lawmakers who wanted to lift the limit of 215 charter operators under state law. With the new law in place, that cap will rise to 225 this fall—in time for the next round of charter school approvals—and will keep growing each year till it reaches 305 schools in 2019.

But in this first year of charter expansion, with so much extra room provided by the new law, the state received just 27 applications for new charter schools—the lowest number since Texas began awarding charters in 1996.

“We’re struggling a little bit with why the number of applications dipped this year,” says David Dunn, who heads the Texas Charter School Association. One theory: Texas’ charter cap left so little room—about 10 open slots each year—the odds have just been too daunting for too long. With a little more room, he figures, Texas may not scare away so many would-be superintendents. “We think [raising the cap] is going to create much broader interest from folks out there,” Dunn says.

At the same time, though, the state is getting more selective with its charter approvals. Last year’s new charter school law took much of the authority to approve new charters away from the State Board of Education, and placed it with Education Commissioner Michael Williams and the Texas Education Agency. The result? An approval rate under 10 percent, the third-lowest ever.

In fact, some of this year’s 27 charter applications have already been rejected because the TEA decided they’re incomplete. (The agency won’t yet say how many, but in recent years it’s rejected around half the applications as incomplete.)

Here’s a look at total applications received and the approval rate over time:

If charter school advocates hope to cut into that 100,000-student waiting list, they’ll need to find a lot more schools with impressive applications.

“Back in the ’90s, the [State Board of Education] pretty much used the ‘thousand flowers blooming’ approach. There was not really enough vetting,” Dunn says. In 1999, the board approved 109 charter schools specifically geared toward at-risk students; today, 63 of them are closed. Last year’s law also made it easier for the state to shut down charter schools that don’t perform. In late 2013, Commissioner Williams recommended closing six schools that missed the new minimum standards.

As Dunn recently explained to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, TCSA has three strategies for growing the charter school system: working with local community groups, helping out-of-state charter networks move in to Texas and building partnerships between charters and local school districts (a district might, for example, contract with a charter school to run its alternative campus).

Dunn says they’re only advising, not recruiting, would-be charters. But local groups like San Antonio’s “Choose to Succeed” have already bankrolled out-of-state charter chains like Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies’ expansion into Texas.

This year, just one charter school application came from an outside chain: California’s Rocketship Education, which made a failed bid last year to bring its computer-heavy model to San Antonio. The rest are locally grown.

With a wide-open invitation for so many new schools in the next few years, TCSA communications director Tracy Young says plenty more charter operators are looking to move in soon. Operators from other states see a few particular benefits in Texas—for one, while it’s hard to get your first campus approved, the state makes it fairly easy to expand to more campuses after that. Some charters run on grant funding that requires them to serve a minority population; Texas’ huge Hispanic population makes it a ripe market for them.

“Texas is viewed nationally as a good opportunity to grow,” Young says, because “the overall climate is supportive of charters, and generally supportive of school choice.”

Congressional candidate Allan Levene's plan for an Israeli territory in South Texas

As Christopher Hooks mentioned last WTF Friday, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s political stock has taken a bit of a dive since video of his rumination on “The Negro” made the rounds.

Here in Texas, though, politicians are still having fun bashing the subject of Bundy’s well-armed resistance: the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Bundy is fighting the government’s claim to land where he’d been grazing his cows, but the Texas land in dispute serves an even more critical purpose: separating us from Oklahoma.

The BLM has decided that around 90,000 acres along the Red River—the subject of court battles going back decades—belong to the federal government, and what had been a quiet effort to sort out the boundaries has lately become a popular talking point for Texas Republicans. State Sen. Donna Campbell was among the lawmakers who sent a strongly worded letters on the issue, sounding skeptical of BLM’s “recent attempts to ‘ascertain the boundary'” between Texas and Oklahoma.

On Monday, a meeting near the border with land-owner Tommy Henderson became Texas’ hottest destination for conservative lawmakers. The Houston Chronicle reported that Jonathan Stickland, a House member from the Fort Worth suburb of Bedford, called out his colleagues for grandstanding:

“Some people were only interested in helping him (Henderson) when the cameras were on,” Stickland said after the three-hour meeting Monday. “I intended it to be an education deal, not a press deal.” He added Dewhurst showed up and acted “like this was an issue he was leading on” when Henderson told him he’d been trying to reach the lieutenant governor and land commissioners “for years” without a response.

In response, Patterson called Stickland’s reaction “horsesh–,” saying lawmakers who represent the Red River area, like state Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, were likely asking themselves, “What was Jonathan Stickland doing there?”

But if Texas ag commissioner candidate Sid Miller has his way, we’d send every lawmaker we’ve got to protect that precious northern border—and they’d be packing.

In an unrelated border dispute, it’s been a bad week for peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine—but one candidate for Congress is shopping a novel solution to the crisis. From the Jewish Journal:

Congressional candidate Allan Levene is proposing to cut the Gordian Knot of Middle East peace by creating a second State of Israel on the eastern coast of Texas, which he would call New Israel. The idea, briefly, is to take (through eminent domain) roughly 8,000 square miles of sparsely populated land bordering the Gulf of Mexico and give it to Israel as a second, non-contiguous part of the State of Israel. Israel would get the land only if it agrees to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders.

Israel wins because it would gain a new, peaceful territory far from the strife of the Middle East, in a place where, as Levene suggests, “the climate is similar,” and Israel could “have access to the Gulf of Mexico for international trade.” The U.S. wins because it would no longer need to send Israel billions of dollars a year in foreign aid. Texas wins because of all the construction jobs from building an entirely new state within its borders.

Texas already has two dead towns named “Jerusalem,” so why not a third? I’m sure the King Ranch would gladly welcome some Jewish cowboys, other than, say, Kinky Friedman. We may not take kindly to land-grabby outsiders, unless it’s our good friends in Israel doing the grabbing.

Best of all: just imagine the slam-dunk presidential campaign Rick Perry would run if he can lure Toyota, Sriracha and Israel to Texas.

Training for Waco ISD's "Safe Schools Ambassadors" program, to encourage kids to defuse conflicts between other students.
Training for Waco ISD's "Safe Schools Ambassadors" program, to encourage kids to defuse conflicts between other students.

A few years ago, Waco ISD had a serious discipline problem. More specifically, it had a problem with dispensing discipline. School police were giving out far too many tickets—in 2006-07, the district of fewer than 17,000 students handed out 1,070 tickets—principals were booting too many kids into alternative classes or suspending them, and African-American students were more harshly punished.

In 2012, the district won a $600,000 grant from the governor’s office to create a model program that could turn those trends around. Texas Watchdog‘s Curt Olson featured the “Suspending Kids to School” initiative in a story that year:

Under Suspend Kids to School, teachers receive training to better manage their classrooms, and leaders among students receive training in peer mediation and campus teen courts. The district also has a Saturday course to help parents address student behavior.

In the program’s first year, the district sharply reduced its ticketing, and principals started sending far fewer students into the alternative classroom. The timing coincided with the Legislature’s realization that school discipline was turning draconian all over Texas, funneling too many kids into a school-to-prison pipeline. Last year, the Legislature barred school police from ticketing students for minor misdemeanors. Waco ISD, as Texas Watchdog put it, became “ground zero for Texas student discipline reform.”

In a reminder, maybe, of just how long that reform can take, Waco ISD’s board heard recently that the district had been flagged by state regulators for some troubling discipline practices in the last school year. As the Waco Tribune-Herald reported:

[T]he district expelled 20 students for actions that are not considered expellable under the Texas Education Code, such as fighting and persistent misbehavior. Expellable offenses include possessing a weapon and selling drugs, among other misconduct.

The district also assigned a 5-year-old to the DAEP even though the minimum age is 6, the report said.

And the most systemic issue noted in the Texas Education Agency’s review, according to the paper: “About 60 percent of discretionary DAEP placements were black students, even though they make up about 30 percent of the student body.” Some things—like assault, drinking on campus or huffing glue—mean automatic removal to a disciplinary program. But in cases where administrators had some leeway in discipline, African-American students in Waco were pulled into disciplinary programs at more than three times the student average.

The report from TEA came from a routine check of school district data, designed to spot typos and faulty record-keeping. If Waco ISD confirms that its stats are correct, the state could ask to see new policies to fix the problems—but TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said it’s too soon to speculate as to what they might be.

“As far as we understand, those numbers are accurate,” Waco ISD’s director of student services, Rick Hartley, told the Observer—though some of the improper expulsions were due to an accounting issue. “Removing a child under 6, there’s no excuse for that. And that principal’s no longer with us.”

Nationwide, it’s well established that African-American students are more likely to face tough discipline at school, but Hartley says Waco ISD hands out discipline evenly, based on the offending behavior, not the student. “We apply the consequence to that behavior. When that happens we don’t look at the ethnicity of the child,” he says. “Our challenge is to prevent the behavior from happening in the first place.”

That focus on early intervention—defusing tension between students and catching signs of bullying early—has become a hallmark of the district’s two-year-old “Suspending Kids to School” program. And Charlene Hamilton, who came from the governor’s office to run the initiative, says their approach is working.

Hamilton trains student “ambassadors” in each high school to watch out for potential problems, and peer mediation and student-run courts to settle scores without school administration getting involved. For students who still seem like they’re headed to an alternative school assignment, Hamilton runs a two-day weekend intervention for students and their parents, which she calls a “very strong diversion tool.”

Every year, more than 100 students have graduated from the Saturday program and avoided disciplinary removal. Around the district, she says, they’re focused on keeping kids in their regular classrooms and reducing alternative school referrals, in-school suspension or expulsion. Which is great, but it doesn’t address the over-representation of black students in those disciplinary decisions.

Though she’d heard about the report from TEA, Hamilton says her program doesn’t see a disproportionate number of African-American students, which may mean principals are just sending more of them straight to alternative school. Though she’s been at it for two years, Hamilton says some administrators need a little more coaxing to change their habits.

“We do really good education here, but we lived in a very punitive culture here in Waco ISD and we’re trying to change that culture,” she says. “We’re constantly, from year to year, educating and re-educating them on what we’re trying to achieve. We’re making headway but it’s baby steps.”

Greg Abbott Proposes Statewide District for Struggling Schools

In other states, the school turnaround strategy has meant major charter school expansion
Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Texas gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott

One of the Texas Legislature’s more entertaining moments in 2013—before, well, you know—was the late-session fight in the House over a bill creating the “Texas Achievement School District,” to centralize school turnaround efforts across Texas under a single superintendent.

Sen. Royce West and Rep. Harold Dutton, both Democrats, authored the bill, which would create a sort of intervention program for struggling elementary schools. Elementary schools with a track record of low performance would be temporarily removed from their local districts, and placed under a state superintendent, who’d have broad authority to replace staff, begin new programs or hand control over to someone else. Or, as Dutton explained on the House floor in late May, “We let a school get so sick we basically take it to the cemetery. … Let’s take it to the emergency room, where we can diagnose it and then fix it.”

The bill had already passed the Senate at that point, but it was killed by a procedural move that night in the House. What made the debate so interesting, as the Tribune‘s Morgan Smith pointed out at the time, was that Dutton’s effort was stymied by a group from within his own party, led by Houston Democrat Armando Walle.

The concern, voiced by teacher groups as well, was that schools placed in the Achievement School District—though they’d remain nominally under state control—would be handed off to charter school operators; that the “emergency room” Dutton alluded to would be staffed by “doctors” from KIPP, Harmony or some other big charter chain, while elected school trustees and public employees at the school district were pushed aside.

That’s exactly what happened in Tennessee, which has its own achievement school district, and Louisiana, where a “recovery school district” covered New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In both cases, school “recovery” has been accomplished with sweeping charter-school takeovers. Michigan and Virginia have their own versions now, too.

West and Dutton’s bill anticipated that possibility in Texas, naming the conditions a charter operator would have to meet before assuming control of a public school in the achievement school district.

Though clock ran out on their effort last year, today Greg Abbott has revived the proposal, by including the Texas Achievement School District in the second half of his campaign’s education platform. As governor, he says, he’d embrace the “innovative reform” laid out in the bill last session—West and Dutton must be gratified to hear that!—with a provision that any reforms, like new teachers or charter school operations, could remain in place even after the school is returned to its home district.

(Sen. Wendy Davis, Abbott’s Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, voted for West’s bill in the Senate last session.)

Abbott credits the recovery district in New Orleans with raising that city’s graduation rate, and says the Tennessee district “has had a profound effect on the public school system, particularly in Memphis,” going on to quote from a 2013 story in the Atlantic. He does not quote that story’s sub-hed: “Tennessee’s new Achievement District gives control of some public schools over to charter networks, with mixed results.”

Get ready to hear a lot more about the Achievement School District idea here in Texas. It’s already been a banner week for the idea, after it came up Tuesday in an interim House committee hearing on school turnaround ideas. Representatives from Texans for Education Reform—the new group with deep pockets and close ties to the better-known Texans for Lawsuit Reform—turned up to make the case for an achievement school district there, too. As the Dallas Morning NewsTerrence Stutz reported:

“We have to think about morally responsible timelines for intervention at low-performing schools,” the group’s executive director, Julie Linn, told the panel. “We want to create opportunities rather than close down these schools.”

As Stutz notes in his story, Texans for Education Reform spent almost $650,000 on lobbyists last session, and has spread around nearly $1 million in campaign contributions this cycle. West and Dutton each got $10,000 of that.

The Latest Fad in Education Reform: Testing 4-Year-Olds

Greg Abbott's plan would bring Texas in line with federal policy and big business plans.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Outside Greg Abbott's campaign, standardized testing for 4-year-olds isn't just a right-wing policy idea.

Since the very first No. 2 pencil bubbled in the very first answer key, school testing in Texas has probably never been so unpopular.

State lawmakers have lately thought better of the test-everything approach they’d embraced till just last year. In their dramatic conversion last legislative session, they cut high school testing by two-thirds and tried to cut elementary testing, though the federal government put the kibosh on that effort. A vocal bunch of activist parents, longing for the days before high-pressure drills and test prep ruled classrooms, now keep their kids home on testing day as a sort of civil disobedience. Even in Texas, the breeding ground for No Child Left Behind, “testing” has become widely scorned.

So it was a bold move when Greg Abbott announced in March that, as governor, he’d improve education in Texas by standardized-testing 4-year-olds.

The idea was part of his campaign’s 26-page plan for Texas schools, which included intensive new training for reading and math teachers, and what he characterized as a responsible expansion of pre-kindergarten.

Nothing in American education policy has the clout that pre-K does today. There’s a long history of research suggesting that good early childhood education improves students’ performance later on. From the Obama administration on down, expanding pre-K has become the single most popular idea in education around the country.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro wisely capitalized on the momentum in 2012 by championing a local tax increase to build new pre-K centers, after state lawmakers cut funding. Similar efforts have since popped up in Houston and Fort Worth.

To get in on the pre-K craze without looking like some kind of free-spending liberal, Abbott came up with a $59 million-a-year pre-K expansion with grants to programs that proved themselves worthy. He proposed a few ways to pick the best programs, one of which includes, of course, “direct assessment.” One form those “direct assessments” might take: “norm-referenced standardized tests.” The plan explains, “A typical question on a direct assessment might ask the child to identify the letter B and provide three options.”

Maybe it sounds absurd to test 4-year-olds and grade their pre-K classrooms based on their progress. Abbott’s Democratic challenger, Wendy Davis, sure thinks so. “Greg Abbott wants to subject 4-year-olds to another intrusive, state mandated requirement,” she said in a statement. (Her own plan calls for universal full-day pre-K at a cost of $750 million a year.)

Abbott’s spokesman Matt Hirsch has countered by denying the campaign ever endorsed standardized tests for 4-year-olds, calling the accusation “absurd,” apparently because “norm referenced standardized test[ing]” is just one of three options.

Texas’ new anti-testing climate may have Abbott on the defensive, but testing kids in pre-K is well underway in other states, and big business is getting on board. President Obama’s Race to the Top program has encouraged new “kindergarten readiness testing” ideas. Amplify, Rupert Murdoch’s education technology outfit, has developed pre-K tests for its tablet computers and—as the Austin-based Democratic consultant and columnist Jason Stanford wrote in February—its newest lobbyist in Texas is the Bush-era school testing evangelist Sandy Kress.

Texas already has a home-grown solution to evaluating pre-K programs. Texas School Ready is a certification program that schools can opt in to. Built by the UT Health Science Center in Houston, the program is meant to help parents pick a quality program Its pre-K testing algorithm, as the Observer reported last year, is handled by the company with perhaps the creepiest name in the education business: Arlington-based Optimization Zorn.

Still, Texas’ pre-K quality controls are pretty mild. (Mississippi measures attendance by scanning parents’ fingerprints.) As National Institute for Early Education Research director W. Steven Barnett told the San Antonio Express-News, “Texas has some of the weakest pre-K quality standards in the country with no limits to class size and [student-to-teacher] ratio.”

David Anderson, a former top official with the Texas Education Agency who’s now a HillCo Partners lobbyist, says some quality control is crucial to convince skeptical lawmakers to spend money on pre-K.

“How do you combat that notion that it’s just glorified babysitting and they’re just better off at home rockin’ on mama’s knee?” Anderson asks. Pre-K is both daycare and early education, but only the education piece will convince tight-fisted conservatives to fund it. The key, Anderson says, is to strike the right balance between ensuring quality and knowing when to stop testing.

But history suggests that on school testing, Texas lawmakers have a hard time knowing when to quit.

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