Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Feb. 22, 2013.

Immigration's fatal path shows need for reform

First, let's get this much out of the way: The civil rights activists at last week's protest in Falfurrias are correct: The remains of all unidentified people discovered in the brush should be DNA-tested to increase the possibility of identification.

Their demand that Brooks County take responsibility for it because state law says it's Brooks County's duty is another matter.

Brooks County has a population around 7,200. Last year, 129 dead people were found there, 47 went unidentified and anyone who knows the terrain suspects that the dead who were found are only a fraction of how many are still out there. Did we mention that Brooks County is 944 square miles?

Its remote brush land happens to be on the immigrant underground highway because of the proximity to Mexico and because crossing the hot, dry land on foot is a way to avoid the Border Patrol checkpoint on U.S. Highway 77.

The increased body count of 129 last year compared with 52 in 2011 is a grim, brutal indicator of the U.S. economic recovery. The recovery hasn't turned Brooks County into a place where undocumented immigrants stop to seek employment. To them it's still just a sparsely populated barrier to be crossed.

And the recovery hasn't caused Brooks County to brim suddenly with unforeseen new tax revenue. The state can mandate DNA testing all it wants and the protesters can point fingers at Brooks County all they want. But as long as the mandate remains unfunded, it'll be unfilled by Brooks County, which has 10 sheriff's deputies and often deploys exactly one to patrol those 944 square miles.

As the Caller-Times reported, a federal grant funds DNA tests at the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. The center will test the samples if Brooks County pays to ship them. We hope county officials explore this option, which they didn't know about until the Texas Civil Rights Project and Collette's reporting called their attention to it.

But that's only part of a solution and may not be permanent. There's also the problem of poorly cataloged, poorly marked graves for the unidentified. Its cause, again, is a lack of resources. There's no federal grant for expanding and managing the county cemetery.

Did we mention that Brooks County has no medical examiner? Family-owned Elizondo Mortuary in Mission handles the remains for Brooks County and does some volunteer detective work trying to identify the deceased based on evidence such as body markings and clues found in clothing.

Elizondo Mortuary is to be commended. And Brooks County is not to be condemned for its limited resources. The protesters did a good thing by calling attention to the problem. And to their further credit, they didn't lay blame on Brooks County — though they have raised the threat of a lawsuit to force the county into DNA testing.

"This is a situation that was dropped on Brooks County by the failure to reform immigration laws," said Maria Jimenez, one of the protesters.

We agree. Congress' recent interest in immigration reform is a hopeful sign. We hope Congress moves uncharacteristically fast because, in the meantime, people continue to die trying to find honest labor at jobs our citizens don't fill. And the task of reuniting their remains with their loved ones is left to a handful of sheriff's deputies and the staff at the mortuary.


Houston Chronicle. Feb. 20, 2013.

UT-Austin President William Powers deserves better

Yes, Virginia, there is a state willing, it seems, to ignore the costly lessons you learned when meddling members of the governing board of your prestigious public university blundered into what one prominent faculty member described as "a PR disaster of national proportions."

It was less than a year ago that the University of Virginia Board of Visitors peremptorily fired and then was forced to rehire a popular and well-regarded president, at great cost and embarrassment to UVA. Now, regents appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to oversee the University of Texas System seem willing to tread the same dangerous path.

They apparently have UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. in their sights, but the damage they're likely to inflict if they run him off goes far beyond one man. Texans of a certain age are well aware that the Lone Star State has a history of such actions.

In the latest skirmish of a long-running battle, at least three of the governor's minions on the nine-member board (all appointed by Perry, of course) recently criticized in unusually personal terms the university's fund-raising efforts under Powers and his failure, in their view, to respond to a directive to reduce UT-Austin's enrollment.

Even worse, some regents seem to have stooped to what Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst termed "character assassination." Dewhurst cited anonymous letters that have circulated among some regents that apparently question Powers' relationship with his wife, who graduated from the UT Law School 30 years ago while Powers was a professor there.

Fortunately, Powers has his defenders, including the lieutenant governor, who — to the surprise of longtime Capitol observers — grew teary-eyed while decrying Powers' treatment.

"This man deserves better. I'm really upset about this," he said Monday on the Senate floor. "This issue is bigger than UT-Austin or President Powers. This is about the reputation of the state of Texas."

We wholeheartedly agree, and we're pleased to see that other lawmakers feel the same way. State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, asked for a legal briefing on whether appointed regents can be impeached or recalled. State Sen. Kel Seliger, the Amarillo Republican who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, characterized leadership under Powers as "extraordinary" and suggested that his Senate committee may begin to investigate conflicts between the president and certain regents.

The expressions of legislative support for Powers come at a time when ever-rising tuition costs, shrinking taxpayer support and knotty questions about the value of a college degree make running a university an extremely challenging task. Powers, in our view, has done a good job in the face of those challenges.

He leads a Tier 1 university that not only ranks among the nation's leading research institutions but also confers 9,000 undergraduate degrees yearly. The school's four-year graduation rate has risen from 48 percent to 52 percent during the past six years. And last year, under Powers' leadership, the university managed to cut $46 million per year in response to the state's economic difficulties.

The governor's problems with Powers seem to originate in the governor's belief that the UT president should have been more enthusiastic about Perry's pet notions on how to increase efficiency and productivity in higher education, notions promulgated by the Austin-based conservative think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Perry also was irked by Powers' expression of disappointment last spring that the UT Board of Regents didn't approve a 2.6 percent increase in tuition.

Policy differences are one thing — in fact, we've had our own differences with Powers over tuition increases — but meddling, micromanagement and political pressure are another. If Perry's appointees force Powers out, the university suffers and so does the state.

Scholars and researchers certainly would have second thoughts about being part of an academic institution subject to those influences.

Fortunately, the Legislature has some leverage of its own to wield. Terms expired Feb. 1 for three of nine UT regents. Their replacements, once Perry appoints them, need to be prepared for probing and pointed questions in their confirmation hearings.

Finally, since we're dealing with issues academic, it's worth noting a couple of basic lessons to be learned from the simmering UT dispute:

One, "those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it" (Santayana). Decades ago, UT's board of regents stepped in and fired President Homer Rainey because he refused to get rid of several alleged Communists on the faculty, actually four professors who supported FDR's New Deal. The American Association of University Professors blacklisted UT, and it took years for the university to recover its academic reputation.

Two, "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" (Lord Acton). The fact that every member of the UT System Board of Regents, as well as every member of every other board and commission in the state, has been appointed by the same man is a sign that Perry has been in office too long. There's a reason why the state's founders were suspicious of concentrated power; the UT Board of Regents is a tangible example.


The Dallas Morning News. Feb. 21, 2013.

Patrick's bill could improve charter schools

Let's make this clear at the outset: There's no magic formula for raising the achievement levels of Texas' 5 million students, but state legislators and school districts can take various steps to give young Texans greater opportunities for a better education. One way is providing enough high-performing charter schools.

Texas has licensed charters to operate as independent public schools since the 1990s. They must comply with Texas' academic standards, like other schools, but they can experiment through such options as longer school hours to improve student learning.

The problem is that the state has lacked sufficient ways to bring in more quality charter operators and to close underachieving charters. GOP Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston rightly wants to change both ends of the equation.

This week, the Texas Senate's education committee chairman introduced SB 2 as a way to give students access to more recognized charter networks. The legislation, which Patrick's committee heard yesterday, also would give the state more authority to rein in less stellar ones.

We embrace those goals and support his call for a new appointed commission to oversee Texas' charter schools. The seven-member panel would authorize charters to operate in the state as well as have the authority to deal with low-performing ones. Taking those functions out of the hands of the state bureaucracy could lead to greater oversight of charters, including weeding out lackluster ones.

We also like that Patrick would help charters locate in buildings that school districts aren't using or are only partially using. Charters get no funding for facilities, and this would help them access existing campuses.

We have concerns about the proposal's stipulation that charters could rent such buildings for no more than $1 a year. School districts should make some money off their facilities, although not more than their fair market value.

Finally, Patrick's measure would eliminate the limit on the number of charter schools the state can approve. (Local districts can authorize their own charters.) The state now can grant up to 215 charter school licenses, although successful charter organizations can operate more than one campus with a single license.

We support lifting the cap since the state only has six licenses left to hand out. More than 100 organizations have expressed interest in opening charters in Texas, including some recognized out-of-state operators. What's more, there is a demand for good charters, as the accompanying chart shows.

The charter commission would need to give a preference for those with a strong academic record, good financial history and engaging curriculum. But Patrick is on to something good for Texas with this new panel and his bill, which would give students across the state access to more quality charter schools.


Austin American-Statesman. Feb. 25, 2013.

Not so fast on charter schools

It was the "say what?" provision in the ambitious bill filed last week by state Sen. Dan Patrick to overhaul Texas' charter school law: require public school districts to lease unused or underused buildings to charter operators for $1. By week's end, Patrick, deflecting the backlash by blaming the provision on a clerical error, promised a rewrite.

The rewritten bill will require public school districts to lease facilities to charter schools at fair-market value, said Patrick, the Houston Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. An improvement, granted, but the leasing requirement at whatever rate remains a taking by the state of public property that local taxpayers have paid to build.

It also, as the provision's critics pointed out, creates a situation in which legislators who desire to expand school choice potentially could make additional spending cuts to public schools and thereby force local districts to close buildings. Once closed, they become "unused" and thus ripe for the picking by the state to give to charter operators.

Patrick's bill — Senate Bill 2 — primarily is concerned with raising the cap on the number of licenses the state grants charter operators. Current law limits the number to 215.

There is no state limit, however on the number of charter campuses. A charter operator can open multiple campuses, and the more successful ones have.

Patrick's bill also creates a bureaucracy to authorize new charter schools, which currently fall under the purview of the State Board of Education and the Texas Education Agency. Under Patrick's proposal, the governor, lieutenant governor and education commissioner would appoint seven members to a new state board. We previously have endorsed stronger state regulation of charter schools, but giving the state's leaders yet another opportunity to appoint the politically connected to yet another state board gives us pause.

We don't object to eventually raising the cap on charters, but legislators should first establish stronger state oversight of charter operators. Let the new authorization board settle into place, if a new authorization board is determined a necessity, and let it prove it can manage effectively the state's charter operators within the existing cap. Then slowly raise the cap over the next few legislative sessions.

Part of effectively managing charter schools is having the authority not only to grant more licenses but also the power and will to change or shut down poorly performing charter schools.

Charters are not a guarantee of academic excellence. Despite the flexibility they've been given since the Legislature first allowed their existence in 1995, their success is mixed. According to ratings posted in November 2011 by the Texas Education Agency, 17 of 199 charter districts, or 8.5 percent, were considered exemplary during the 2010-11 school year, while 35 — 17.6 percent — were academically unacceptable. Of the state's 1,029 public school districts, a lower percentage — 4.4 percent — was rated exemplary but a far lower percentage — 4.9 percent — was considered academically unacceptable.

In terms of individual school campuses, the TEA rated 14.6 percent of the 8,044 public school campuses exemplary and 5.9 percent academically unacceptable. The percentage of the 482 charter campuses in Texas rated exemplary was 11.6 percent. The percentage rated unacceptable was 11.2 percent.

There are more than 5 million students in Texas' public schools. This compares with about 154,000 students enrolled in charter schools, with another 101,000 students on charter waiting lists.

Patrick's bill seeks to establish a bureaucracy and set aside state money to serve about one-half of one percent of the state's growing student population. The number of Texas students seeking to enroll in a charter school might be growing, too, but it will remain a tiny fraction of the total number of students in Texas.

To be clear, we support the concept of charter schools. They can and do offer parents and students a quality alternative to public schools. But let the state prove it can manage and improve the ones we have before lawmakers raise the cap to allow more.


San Antonio Express-News. Feb. 21, 2013.

Hardball can lead Ted Cruz to a hard fall

Ted Cruz is turning heads — as in heads swiveling for a car wreck.

The freshman U.S. senator from Texas, both the Washington Times and New York Times observed earlier this month, had compiled a perfect record — zero for 11. He was on the losing side of every vote he had taken up to that point.

He voted against suspending the debt ceiling, didn't want to change Senate filibuster rules that drive the rest of the nation nuts and was against aid for Hurricane Sandy victims.

OK. We understood Cruz was a conservative when he was elected.

But the harshness of his opposition to Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense has gotten those heads twirling. His behavior drew a rebuke even from a fellow GOP senator who had just grilled the nominee.

In pressing for more financial disclosure from the nominee, Cruz essentially hinted that Hagel might be in bed with "radical groups."

"It is at a minimum relevant to know that if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea," he said.

That line of inquiry prompted Arizona Sen. John McCain to remark, "No one on this committee at any time should impugn his character and integrity."

Cruz was the tea party favorite who beat more mainstream GOP candidate David Dewhurst in the GOP primary for the Senate seat vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison.

True, there was no doubt who or what Texans were voting for at that time. Cruz, in fact, says he is doing only what Texans elected him to do.

But at some point, Texans are going to want Cruz to be for something rather than just against everything. Deal-making for the public good, after all, is a proud tradition among Texas leaders.

Texans might give Cruz the benefit of the doubt. Being new to a job is always tough. Wanting to prove your worth is always understandable. But there are ways of doing a good job — and standing on principle — without pushing the boundaries of civility.

The senator's style certainly will endear him to some. Cruz will be the closing speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, a coveted spot at what is said to be the largest gathering of conservatives in the country.

Previous speakers? Last year, Sarah Palin. Before that Allen West, who lost his House seat in Florida after one term in November, and, the year before, Glenn Beck, who redefined far-out politics.

That's some telling company.

In the long run, Cruz's current style will make him a fringe player in his own party. And Texas needs more than that from its senators.