in Houston, Texas
Waco ISD ground zero for Texas student discipline reform
Tuesday, Oct 30, 2012, 02:38PM CST
By Curt Olson
Waco school bus

A new student discipline program that emphasizes handling bad behavior in schools rather than courts has taken hold in Waco ISD.

Advocates believe that if the program improves academic outcomes for teens, it could become a model for a broader shift away from criminalizing student behavior in a state where students have been ticketed for horseplay, cursing or putting on perfume. The pilot, initiated by the the governor’s office, is in its second year.

Charlene Hamilton is among the believers.

“We’re living in a culture of zero tolerance. We got away from classroom management,” said Hamilton, who oversees the project for the Waco Independent School District. “We are remedying that here.”

The students she works with used to be slapped with police citations and sent before a judge. Now, teachers and students are trying to address situations on campus through a program called Suspend Kids to School. The program is aimed at preventing students teetering on the edge of suspension or expulsion from landing in alternative education programs.

Gov. Rick Perry’s Criminal Justice Division picked Waco ISD for the $600,000 pilot project because it has its own police department, officers were ticketing students for behavior issues and Waco has close proximity to Austin. If Perry likes what he sees when a report on the program emerges from Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute, state leaders may reform zero tolerance laws adopted in the mid-1990s.

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.

The early signs have proven positive.

The number of students referred to alternative school has dropped dramatically. The district referred 104 students to Challenge Academy, the county’s alternative education program, last school year, Waco ISD spokesman Dale Caffey said. So far this year Waco ISD has referred three students and estimates that with the reforms the district will refer 22 students total this year.

The number of citations for Class C misdemeanors dropped 42 percent in 2011-12 compared to a year earlier, Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said.

These strategies could bite into the estimated $600 million spent per year statewide on campus policing and on-campus and off-campus alternative education programs. The 11 biggest school districts in Texas spent $140 million last school year on disciplinary and juvenile justice programs for suspended and expelled students, on top of some $87 million spent on campus security efforts, according to a report released this week by Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based social justice think tank.

There are costs to families, too.

discipline in texas schools

Ticketed students typically land before a local justice of the peace, where they can be fined $500 for fighting or other disruptions. Throw in lost time from work for a parent to take a child to court and pay the fine, and the cost climbs higher.

At least in Waco ISD, the reforms don’t mean a reduction in costs from staffing the police department of about 30 people. A district spokesman said that responsibilities would shift, turning police who write citations now into truancy officers.

“The objective of the program is not to decrease the size of the WISD police force. However, the program is enabling police officers to be spend less time handling disciplinary related matters that are more appropriate for school administrators to handle,” Caffey said via e-mail to Texas Watchdog. “Police officers ... security guards and crossing guards, all of whom make up the Waco ISD police department, are still needed to keep our schools safe.”

Campus police for school districts write some 275,000 tickets a year for disrupting class, disorderly conduct, truancy and other conduct violations, according to a 2010 study by Texas Appleseed. Study authors say it’s likely the number of tickets written “grossly exceeds that number,” based on low reporting of data to the Texas Office of Court Administration.

Many students are repeatedly ticketed, with fines of $50 to $500 for each offense.

“One municipal court providing data to Texas Appleseed indicated a youth had received as many as 11 tickets. In the same court, more than 350 youth had received multiple tickets, with some receiving six or more,” the study states. (See page 69.)

Officers in Waco ISD issued 1,070 tickets in 2006-07, when the district had more than 15,400 students, the Texas Appleseed study found.

A separate report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center suggests all that ticketing is associated with poorer academic outcomes.

Researchers for the Council of State Governments followed every Texas seventh-grader in 2000, 2001 and 2002 — about 930,000 students — for six years. The study found that almost a third of students disciplined ended up repeating at least one grade, and that African-American and special education students were disproportionately disciplined.

“This report demonstrates that if we want our kids to do better in school and reduce their involvement in the juvenile justice system, we in the legislature need to continue looking into how teachers can be better supported and how the school discipline system can be improved,” State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and chairman of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said via a Council news release when the report was published.

A spokeswoman for the Council said officials nationwide started examining different aspects of school discipline earlier this month, though their findings are more than a year away.

“The policy recommendations will focus on both state and local efforts that can be tailored to the distinct needs of jurisdictions, and we hope that the report will have utility for lawmakers” and others dealing with juvenile justice, Council spokeswoman Martha Plotkin said via email.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of bus by flickr user ErnestBludger, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Former El Paso ISD superintendent Lorenzo Garcia sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison, ordered to pay $236K in restitution, fines
Friday, Oct 05, 2012, 04:00PM CST
By Curt Olson
scales of justice

Former El Paso Independent School District Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for his role in a scheme to manipulate test scores.

Garcia, who pleaded guilty in June to two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, will also pay $180,000 in restitution and a $56,500 fine, the El Paso Times reports. Garcia steered a $450,000 district contract to a mistress and rigged the testing system to boost scores and meet federal accountability students.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, who made the first accusations in 2010 that ultimately proved true, called on Senior U.S. District Court Judge David Briones to give Garcia a harsher sentence.

Garcia’s sentencing ends only a part of the sordid story that has plagued EPISD. The district, under the guidance of trustees who have failed to lead, is under state oversight.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of scales of justice by flickr user mikecogh, used via a Creative Commons license.

Public schools in Texas ban fewer books, ACLU report shows
Friday, Oct 05, 2012, 10:38AM CST
By Steve Miller
bookshelf

The number of books banned by public schools in Texas dropped in the past year dropped to the lowest in a decade, with the subjects of cursing, teen and race issues, illustrations and sexuality being the sticking points for parents, teachers and administrators.

The annual banned books report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas reports the drop, based on a mass open records request to more than 1,000 school districts. Both bans and challenges have dropped since 2007.

Most objections to book begin with a parent. From there the matter is referred to a review committee – 59 percent of them in 2011-2012 school year. The previous year, 50 percent of districts said the issue went before administration or the vague “administration or other.”

The annual report hits during Banned Books Week, which wraps up tomorrow.

Best-selling author Dean Koontz is among those whose books were banned. Books by Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger and Thomas Hardy were on the list of restricted books, titles where access was limited by age or parent request.

The Michael Moore movie “Sicko”, which promoted the national health care policies in Europe and Cuba, was challenged in the Edna Independent School District in South Texas by parents who felt the liberal political view was presented without debate. The issue was resolved when the teacher “also planned to show alternative side of issue,” the ACLU report states.

The school district in Allen north of Dallas banned “The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To,” by D.C. Pierson,  for middle schoolers, a book that was in the news recently when a student sought help in its meaning on the Internet and received a note from the author instead.

It seems a little tame in comparison to the unintended marking of Banned Books Week in 2010, when Texas developer Hiram Walker Royall sued an author for an unflattering portrayal of his use of eminent domain.

Royall was defeated in his effort to ban the the book by a state appeals court.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feed in your newsreader. We're also on MySpaceDiggFriendFeedNewsVine and tumblr.

Photo of bookshelf by flickr user zetson, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Tornillo ISD chief Paul Vranish gets more time to respond to audit of expenses; new attorney to district has ties to Vranish
Friday, Mar 30, 2012, 12:17PM CST
By Steve Miller
clock

The besieged superintendent of the Tornillo Independent School District, accused of possible criminal activity in a preliminary audit by the Texas Education Agency, said he has received an extension for his response to the investigation, according to a story by El Paso ABC affiliate KVIA.

Paul Vranish, who denied the charges in the TEA audit in an interview this week, had told Texas Watchdog that he had filed the response by the March 27 deadline. When asked for a copy of that response, Vranish refused.

It turns out that he did not have a response. His answer to the audit is now due April 30.

The TEA audit accused Vranish of double-billing the district for travel expenses, buying electronic equipment without proper authorization and a number of other infractions. Vranish's wife, Marla, a counselor in the district, was also named in the TEA audit, though she was not accused of wrongdoing and the findings largely centered on her husband. The audit found that she used a personal card instead of a district-issued card to pay for expenses and that the district reimbursed her and her husband more than $117,000 last fiscal year.

The TEA ordered the school district to hire a forensic auditor to perform an audit on the reimbursements of Vranish and his wife for the years 2006 to 2011. It also ordered the district to more closely monitor the reimbursements and expenses of Vranish.

In a meeting Thursday, the board approved the hiring of legal counsel outside that of the district's regular law firm. El Paso attorney S. Anthony Safi was formally approved and addressed the TEA audit.

Safi defended Vranish in a string of small claims cases that were dismissed in 2006, records show.

Marla Vranish is currently fighting a misdemeanor assault charge in an El Paso county court, records show. Her next hearing is April 3. Her attorney, Jim Darnell, did not return a call placed Friday morning.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of clock by flickr user simpologist, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Nonprofit group sees ‘no real financial accountability’ in Texas public schools
Wednesday, Mar 28, 2012, 01:35PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
cash register

If you don’t think there is a deeply rooted ideological battle going on between your public education system and the rest of the world, we recommend you take this little test.

But first, a little background. The Texas Education Accountability Project issued a report it titled No Financial Accountability, the result of two years of trying to make head or tail of the spending of tax dollars on and by Texas public schools.

“What we found was startling – namely, there is no real financial accountability for K-12 public education in Texas,” the report’s executive summary says. “In a system of public education that in aggregate spent nearly $55 billion in the 2008-2009 school year and which increased spending per student by nearly 63% over (the) preceding decade (almost twice the rate of inflation), it is almost impossible for any average citizen who does not work for a school district to have any idea of how taxpayer funds are used.”

Mark Hurley, founder of the nonprofit project he says is also nonpartisan, expressed a finely calibrated exasperation in the report and in his comments to the San Antonio Express-News.

The Legislature and public have no real way of knowing what is appropriate spending because no measurable objectives and no metrics to test the public school system exist, Hurley says.

How are the Texas courts to decide the lawsuits covering more than 500 school districts complaining that they have been chronically underfunded?

“We call this the uninformed being evaluated by the equally uninformed,” Hurley, CEO of a private equity investment firm in Dallas, told the Express-News. “No one outside the school district actually can understand where the money is going. This is not a fault of the school districts. This is a structural failure.”

The phrase “impossible for any average citizen,” from the executive summary is key. Impenetrable enough for those who have tried to unlock the secrets of public school finance, how districts decide what are the right number of teachers or administrators, or hack their way through the Texas Education Agency data thicket.

Now here’s the challenge, as recommended by TexasISD.com, the Web page for Texas school officials. Joe Smith, executive director of the site and a retired Hudson ISD school superintendent, suggests first reading the comments of Gwen Santiago, executive director of the Texas Association of School Business Officials, in a story about the Accountability Project report by the Austin American-Statesman.

When asked to read the report and offer her opinion, Santiago pronounced the financial dealings of the school districts readily apparent for all to see.

“They didn’t do their research very well,” Santiago told the Statesman.

How can this be when the schools and the state invest so much time and money in a labyrinthine tunnel pouring out to the Texas Education Agency? Lori Taylor, a public policy professor at Texas A&M University, told the Statesman an expert might understand.

“However, for the concerned citizen with less computing power, the flood of data is not very informative,” Taylor says.

As Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, spokesperson for the Texas Association of School Administrators, offered to the Express-News:

“The current system of tracking education funds is no doubt complicated, but no more complicated than the school finance system itself,” she said.

Now that you’ve finished, do you understand public school finance any better? If not, ask yourself which experts you believe.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo 'Old Cash Register' by flickr user Jo Jakeman, used via a Creative Commons license.

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