Even with the latest window dressing, the current version of Senate Bill 4 does not change the fact that the Senate's plan for tax-credit funded "scholarships" would leave Texas public schools in tatters and harm the same populations lawmakers claim to want to help. The Texas House has shown less of an appetite for vouchers, but earlier in the session passed up an opportunity to make their opposition clear.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, have spoken with passion about trying to save inner city children "trapped" in failing public schools. But this new bill, especially with its special education provisions, only highlights how little voucher supporters understand about the educational and economic decisions that low- and middle- income families have to make, especially with regard to special education.
SB 4 would set aside up to $100 million in credits to incentivize businesses to donate money for private school scholarships. In turn, families in the state's more populous counties that earn up to 250 percent of the threshold to receive free or reduced price lunches at school — or $112,157 for a family of four — would receive a scholarship worth up to 50 percent of the average amount that the state currently pays per public school student, or about $4,000. Families that make less than $78,510 would be eligible for up to $6,000, as would families whose children qualify for special education services.
For starters, let's do the math. Even at the most generous tier, the scholarships would not cover the full cost of private school — which includes tuition, fees, books, uniforms and transportation. The average private school tuition in Texas is about $6,800 for elementary schools, and even that is heavily influenced by the state's large number of parochial schools which tend to be cheaper because they are subsidized by religious institutions. Average high school tuition is more than $9,000. Finding a spare $3,000 to $5,000 to cover the difference might be possible for those in the higher income brackets, but is unlikely for those students whose families don't have money to pay for breakfast and lunch. And the price difference will be higher for families who object to religious education.
And then there is the issue of special education.
Texas has more than 430,000 students with identified special education needs, and more than 200,000 of those either have a diagnosed learning disability or autism. While private schools serve some special needs students, they are certainly not required to and have great latitude in deciding which students they will admit. Finding seats for even 5 percent of the special education students in the state's existing private schools would be a tall order, indeed.
But even if parents and students gain admission, there is much they would have to give up. Many of these students need special education services for 20 percent or less of the school day, and those services can take the form of speech therapy or specialized interventions to help the students cope with their disabilities in an educational setting. As public school students they are guaranteed those supports free of charge; as private school students they either have to pay out of pocket or compete for a federal pool of money set aside for that purpose under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Since 1973, IDEA has guaranteed all children a "free and appropriate education." Those four words mean that public schools must provide educational services for students with disabilities that affect their education. The list of qualifying conditions is long, and in some cases services may begin at birth. Conditions include: autism, auditory impairment, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, speech or language impairment and traumatic brain injury. The effects may be severe or relatively mild.
Here's the rub: Public school students are guaranteed these services if they affect their educational experience. Private school students only receive "proportionate" services based on a federal formula. When the federal money for a district runs out, services are denied.
Consider that a single session of private speech therapy can cost anywhere from $65 to more than $100. The cost of using school district therapists and providers is considerably less, but even so, the weekly cost of those services adds up over the course of a school year. And few private schools have the resources or enrollment to justify providing those services in-house. The Austin school district spent the $430,000 it receives in federal money for special education services for just 61 private school students, in what amounts to a first-come, first-served system.
In the end, vouchers under any name use taxpayer money to undermine public schools, which remain legally obligated to educate all students, regardless of income, ability or ethnicity. Diminishing state investment in public schools will eliminate many of the educational supports that are costly to provide and necessary to ensure that all students have a chance at success, whether the goal is college or independent living.
SB 4 only serves to subsidize the flight of middle income families to private schools and will create, not cure, failing public schools. And the destruction will be on the taxpayers' dime, and at great cost to the state's families and economic future.
Corpus Christi Caller-Times. April 12, 2015.
Finally, serious questioning of border surge
According to Governors Rick Perry and Greg Abbott, Texas had to secure its border with Mexico at great expense because the federal government wouldn't do it. Perry dispatched the Texas National Guard and Department of Public Safety troopers to the border last summer, Abbott didn't call them home when he took over for Perry, and it worked. So the next logical step is to pump more money into the DPS for troopers and training.
Surely neither Perry nor Abbott would waste money on a big saber-rattling show just to embarrass President Obama. Their mutual Republican virtue of not wanting to waste tax money is more dear to them than the Republican vice of embarrassing Obama by any means necessary, isn't it?
Like the great Ronald Reagan said, trust but verify. When the DPS claimed that the surge produced the desired result, state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, asked for verification. The DPS responded with a load of statistics about apprehensions — 77,130 between June and February.
Wow. Case closed, right?
Not so fast. The DPS neglected to point out who was doing all that apprehending. The Guard? The DPS? Local police, sheriff's deputies and constables? Those lazy feds?
Blanco, in a follow-up, asked for specifics. The DPS's actual effectiveness on the border would be helpful to know so that he could make an informed decision on whether the DPS needs and deserves 500 more troopers and the $123 million in the DPS' overall $2.2 billion budget request that would be dedicated to border security.
The DPS response was that "we do not delineate" who did what because this is a big ol' multiagency team effort. The DPS can delineate how many traffic citations were given and how much dope was seized, to the hundredth of a pound. But it can't delineate how many of those 77,130 apprehensions were by DPS. Incidentally, none of those apprehensions involved traffic citations, a primary function of the DPS.
But if, for sake of discussion, the DPS had made 77,129 of those 77,130 apprehensions, what are the chances that the DPS 1.) wouldn't have known and 2.) wouldn't have disclosed it by now?
"Either they're refusing to give me the data," Blanco told his hometown newspaper, the El Paso Times, "or they're just using Border Patrol numbers."
Many astute, skeptical readers probably noted that this blankety-blank Blanco is a Democrat from a border town — especially readers who tend not to waste their astute skepticism on trustworthy Republicans like Perry and Abbott. We would caution that they not get too hung up on Blanco's party affiliation and district. He's a former military intelligence analyst. Also, he made the following statement, which, minus attribution to him, might have been assumed to have been said by a Republican:
"Government agencies should be accountable and transparent. The state should not write blank checks, especially when basic performance measures are unreported."
On that, Republicans and Democrats should agree.
If the DPS could refute Blanco's assertion that it's using Border Patrol statistics, why wouldn't it? Probably because the DPS will get what it wants from the Legislature, signed by Abbott, regardless. Blanco is swimming against a strong tide of uncritical support for the DPS.
Americans like truth with their justice. It's the American way, and should be Texas' way as well. Blanco should continue his quest, the DPS should come clean and the Legislature should make an informed, intelligent, unemotional, apolitical decision about DPS funding and staffing for border security.
Waco Tribune-Herald. April 12, 2015.
Elected officials can honor West dead through reforms to prevent other deaths
Judging from the proverbial perspective of 30,000 feet, many state lawmakers have been making merry, wasting the 84th legislative session on such dubious issues as constitutional carry, sanctuary cities, quashing grassroots initiatives, threatening teacher pay and pushing our god-given constitutional right to discriminate against those of whom we disapprove. It's one for the history books.
Meanwhile, preventing another explosion such as the deadly blast that changed life forever in nearby West gets second billing. As state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, correctly remarked at a House Committee on Environmental Regulation hearing, now that the second anniversary of the West explosion has passed into history, expect calls for reform to dwindle amid special interest worries.
Not everyone has been negligent. State Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-Bryan, whose district covers West, has pushed worthy legislation that, while tip-toeing around serious regulation, at least offers the merit of requiring local or state fire marshals to inspect ammonium nitrate storage facilities. State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, has filed similar legislation.
This legislation also demands ammonium nitrate be stored 30 feet from combustible materials. Perhaps the strongest thing going for it is the support of Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen Texas who, during the recent hearing, pressed hard to ensure Texans can readily find out about facilities storing dangerous chemicals in their communities.
We like Pickett's bill, the product of hours of testimony during his chairmanship of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. It gives rule-making authority to the state fire marshal — something the agri-business sector understandably fears. Several firefighters were killed in the West blast; heavens forbid that we let a firefighter set safety rules.
"We want these businesses in Texas," Pickett said of agri-businesses that deal in ammonium nitrate used as decidedly potent fertilizers. "They're extremely important. Ammonium nitrate is an inexpensive form of fertilizer that can be manufactured, but I think we need to be balanced about it. And if you're going to get in this, especially at these levels, you should have some responsibility."
Our philosophy on regulation is pretty simple. Leave industry alone to police itself till one of its number abuses this privilege. And when an accident kills 15 people, injures hundreds more, levels houses, damages schools and, coincidentally, forces the rest of us to pay for many of the repairs through our tax dollars and increased insurance premiums, regulations are needed to safeguard everybody.
Reforms are overdue and the state fire marshal is the place to start. But regardless of which bill is considered, time runs short. This legislative session has been an embarrassment full of grandstanding and chicanery — and if it can't even make good on the soaring memorials of the dead in West, then state leaders deserve nothing less than condemnation.
Houston Chronicle, April 20, 2015.
Sad state: Time, neglect are taking a toll on Texas' historic sites
No other state can boast of such a proud history including a stint as an independent nation. We celebrated that independence — and the sacrifices made to obtain it — on the anniversary of the battle of San Jacinto, 179 years ago.
Even in the midst of the Great Depression, Texas had the willpower to commemorate those who fought in its war of independence by building the San Jacinto Monument. The observation deck on top of the 567-foot monument provides a spectacular view of the Houston Ship Channel and the Battleship Texas.
Now, though Texas is more prosperous than ever, state leaders seem to lack the will to maintain that monument.
The monument's elevator — installed years ago — is often broken, according to former Gov. Mark White, a trustee on the board of the San Jacinto Museum of History Association.
Our state can do a better job of preserving our historic sites. Battleship Texas and the Alamo also are deteriorating. The Battleship Texas is the last remaining battleship deployed in both world wars. Each year state government delays completing repairs, the hull corrodes more and the cost of repair increases.
Last month, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush fired the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, longtime managers of the Alamo. Perhaps with a fresh start, the Alamo can live up to its potential as an engaging historical site where history comes alive.
The most recent battle at the Alamo between Bush and the Daughters raises a broader issue. It's true that our treasures from the Texas Revolution need enhanced and consistent funding, but the different agencies managing these sites need to better coordinate their efforts.
White suggested, and we agree, that Gov. Greg Abbott should appoint a citizen's committee in which all of the relevant agencies can play a role in coming up with a plan to take better care of our historical treasures. With better coordination and marketing, and maybe a mobile app or two, our treasure trove of history could generate significantly more tourist dollars for our state and could do a better job of engaging our youth in our state's history as well.
Each Legislature gives other issues — such as this year's tax cut — a higher priority than historic preservation. Yet, had short-run priorities taken precedence 179 years ago, Sam Houston never would have raised an army at San Jacinto. The first generation of Texans made sacrifices for the future of Texas. We need to make sacrifices to preserve the memory of what they accomplished for us.
El Paso Times. April 19, 2015.
Phony story hurts border, aids terrorists
Border residents have long been accustomed to seeing our communities misrepresented for political gain. We're living through it again with thinly sourced reports about Islamic State terrorists setting up camp in the Mexican village of Anapra.
The latest silliness comes from Judicial Watch, the same right-wing outfit that breathlessly — and falsely — announced last summer that the terrorists were in Juarez and an attack on Fort Bliss was "imminent." In each case, their "reporting" is based on unnamed sources and can't be replicated by anyone else.
Even the Texas Department of Public Safety, which has been used by politicians to hype supposed border threats, said there was "no credible evidence" to support the latest tale.
There's no real accountability for false reports, so when a new round of drivel came out last week, it was widely promoted on social media.
Republican Congressman Ken Buck of Colorado presented ISIS in Mexico as fact to his 979 Twitter followers. Radio talk show host Sean Hannity passed it along uncritically on his nationally syndicated show, and his El Paso radio home station, KTSM-AM, has repeatedly promoted the clip as if it were true, even after the story was widely debunked.
If Hannity, Buck and others really believed that a terrorist camp was set up on the U.S. border, they would be talking about nothing else, not settling for hit-and-run jobs. But truth isn't particularly important when you have an agenda to promote.
We've written previously about the damage done to the border region by the false narrative of this area as a war zone.
But this version of border paranoia also perversely benefits the Islamic State, according to Charlie Winter, a researcher with the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam. Like others who closely study the Islamic State, he finds it extremely unlikely that they would set up shop in Mexico.
"This is exactly the kind of coverage ISIS wants, for others to project and exaggerate its menace for it," he said in an interview with The Independent newspaper in Great Britain.
After a string of setbacks in Iraq, the Islamic State is being seen less and less as "invincible," he said. "I think it's very important that we dismantle the menace of ISIS rather than add to it."
Our nation, including the U.S.-Mexico border region, faces real threats. False or exaggerated threats can divert attention and resources from real concerns.
Being repeatedly wrong won't deter the spreaders of misinformation.
They will continue to prey on the fears of some people for their own benefit — to raise money, build audiences, gain votes.
We who live on the border will continue to work to make our region more prosperous.
We must do better at sharing the message that our success in that mission is vital to the future for both the United States and Mexico.
The frequent canards don't help us on that journey, but they also can't be allowed to deter us.