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Texas has another battle over textbooks

Nov 25, 2014

Texas is no stranger to controversy in the classroom. Throughout modern history, battles over what is taught in science and history classrooms have been commonplace in the South. For one, more conservative ideals generally hold sway in the region, and are usually at odds with the liberal bias of teachers and administrators in science and schools.

The battle is typically fought over religion and morals. While the U.S. is often considered a Christian nation, rates of defection amongst church members continue to creep upward. At the same time, those identifying as atheist, agnostic, and/or of some other religious affiliation are becoming slightly larger segments of the population.

Next fall, as a result of long and heated discussions amongst the state’s Board of Education, 89 new textbooks and software packages intended for teaching will hit the state’s schools. These materials, which will be shown to the states roughly five million students, are already stirring up some trouble with academics.

Among some of the questionable sticking points in the textbooks is the assertion that Moses – a biblical figure – had a large influence on the thought of the founding fathers, and thus by extension the U.S. government structure and constitution. Another problem was the portrayal of Muslims, with some arguing it was too sympathetic and others saying that the final version was degrading or inaccurate. It is unclear exactly what was said about Muslims and what caused people to come to those conclusions.

It is perhaps this very uncertainty of content that is causing the biggest uproar, however, with some calling the way in which textbooks are assigned to the Texas curriculum “a sham.” Apparently, last minute revisions were made as publishers were coerced into including or redacting certain information. With a lucrative contract on the line, many publishers may have been inclined to acquiesce regardless of the historical accuracy. When some of these changes were made, a vote that would have given more time for board members and for the public to review the changes was denied, and the books were moved into approval.

When some of the edits had to do with such previously hotly debated topics, some say that the vote closed out the very public whose children would be educated with the new books from having a voice or participating at all. In their defense, lawmakers have stated that making textbooks that satisfy everyone isn’t just difficult, it’s impossible.

One Republican lawmaker, Geraldine Miller, said that the decision was also a message to textbook publishers fighting for government wide contracts: If you’re unwilling to make timely edits, you’re unlikely to end up with the job. This sentiment may satisfy the review process, but it’s far from making everyone happy. Already, some academics have called for a re-evaluation of the textbook choosing process, and that this most recent decision should be examined more closely before heading to print for hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies. There’s a definite danger, many warn, in teaching textbooks to children that portray what many view as logical fallacies. Another problem, they say, is lawmakers with political, personal, and even religious agendas being put in charge of the process rather than professors and other qualified faculty in the subject areas. Of course, the liberal bias of professors and faculty also poses a risk when it comes to the historical accuracy of textbooks. As such, it is pretty much guaranteed that Texas will remain a battleground for textbooks for many years to come.

Texas job creation program results are difficult to measure

Nov 18, 2014

Throughout the past decade, the national and global economies have been bombarded with tough times. In response, everyone from the municipal/city level all the way up to country heads have been working on solutions that can help to create jobs and ease unemployment. As a state, one way that Texas responded to this crisis, way back in 2003, was to fund the creation of the Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF).

The fund is an allocation of government money which can be distributed to businesses and enterprises deemed deserving within the state. The idea behind the TEF (as it’s known) was twofold: First, Texas lawmakers wanted to make sure that businesses within the state didn’t fail and were able to actually keep growing during tough economic times. The TEF was also thought to be a way to bring in entrepreneurial talent from other states and tap into bright minds across the country.

The trouble, it’s turned out, with the TEF, is that monitoring the exact results of the awarded funds is proving quite difficult. Just last year, Senator Wendy Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, asked that the program be audited so that lawmakers could gain a better understanding of how those funds were being used. Apparently born out of both sides of the political ticket admitting they had little idea exactly what was going on with their money, the report (unfortunately) provided little in the way of answers.

The report concluded that there was really no way, given the present system, to get an accurate idea of how many jobs had been created by the program. Even more troubling, was the fact that it appeared there was little tracking done to even monitor where the money went after it was decided that it would be awarded to a certain company.

The report goes on to outline potential legal problems for any lawmakers looking for accountability. Paperwork was said to be somewhat ambiguous in nature, which could in turn make agreements made about the fund’s programs difficult to enforce. Variables, like the criteria over the types and numbers of jobs created, were left unspecified; this kind of ambiguity leaves it no mystery that monitoring outcomes became so difficult.

The road to evil is paved with good intentions, they say, and it would seem Texas lawmakers may have fallen victim to that mantra. That said, it is likely that the program has done good, however tough to measure that good might be. Even if every target wasn’t hit perfectly, there’s a good chance that many of those receiving funding did honor their agreements, which would mean some degree of job growth. However minor or intangible, there are probably more than a handful of Texas families out there whose lives benefited drastically from the TEF, at least indirectly in the form of a created job. This sentiment is borne out in the employment data for the state of Texas which shows that it has created almost one million new jobs since 2007.

Right now, this good idea has turned into a black eye for the Texas government, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be salvaged or turned around. In the future, a look to better management and a clearer stating of terms could help to polish this potential diamond in the rough.

ICE released illegal immigrants with serious criminal histories

Nov 12, 2014

Immigration is a hot-button issue the world over, and especially in the United States. Getting even more specific, Texas has a reputation for being a sort of battlefield for immigration, particularly from Mexico or those traveling from other countries through Mexico to enter the U.S.

In many cases, the issue is political, with both major political parties in the country taking their own unique stance. That said, what went on recently when the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released undocumented immigrants into the public in a bid to save funds, is being denounced largely by both sides.

The department, which works to track down undocumented immigrants and goods coming into the U.S., has detainment facilities which take in and release tens of thousands of detainees each year. Recently, 2,000 immigrants were released, along with a statement that many feel misled people about the danger associated with those being sent back out into the public.

Claiming it would save money by releasing low risk detainees, what ICE actually ended up doing was letting some serious offenders back out onto the streets. Some of those released, it’s now been revealed, had violent criminal charges and convictions including sexual assault, kidnapping, homicide, and more. This all came to light when an Iowa senator, Chuck Grassley, submitted a records request that included details on those released, including the zip codes where they were immediately after release.

In a letter following the uproar, an ICE official, Thomas. J. Winkowski, stated that a new policy had been instated that would require appropriate senior level approval before any detainees with violent criminal histories were allowed to be released.

Of course, it’s a bit strange to many that such a policy wasn’t already in place, given the potential implications of releasing criminals back into society, especially on the premise of saving money.

This does little to help ease racial and immigration tensions in Texas, a sometimes literal battleground for the cause. Unfortunately, the state finds itself often in an interesting conundrum: It’s a place with many conservative, older style social and political views, but also one of the top destinations of immigrants coming to the U.S. This combination sometimes manifests in violence and tension that borders (no pun intended) on racism and bigotry. On the other side of things, many Americans state that it’s about protecting their way of life and the areas in which they raise their children, which they fear, for better or for worse, may be slipping away from traditional Americana.

According to ICE records, these 2,200 detainees actually make up a small portion of the 35,000+ per year who are released from their facilities. In 2013, for example, a total of 36,007 “criminal aliens” were released, with nearly 88,000 convictions between them. Of course, the number of convictions amongst those in a minority can also be suspect, especially given suspicion amongst officers in a border state. Some argue that cases which would be dismissed or never charged in the first place have very different outcomes when the defendant is non-white.

Hospital records being examined to determine how Ebola spread

Oct 20, 2014

Nina Pham, a nurse at Texas Presbyterian Hospital, contracted Ebola after giving care to a dying Liberian man who entered the state by plane before his symptoms worsened. Thomas Eric Duncan died on October 8 from Ebola. A few days later it was revealed that Pham was infected; she was the first in the US to do so in the current outbreak. A day after Pham was diagnosed with Ebola, a second nurse that treated Thomas Eric Duncan, Amber Vinson, was also diagnosed with Ebola. Now, the CDC and hospital workers are piecing together how they can better keep workers safe by examining the hospital’s records.

Records show that Pham entered the room repeatedly, even up until the day before he died, to help clean and perform medical duties. Her and her coworkers wore protective gear, including masks, gloves, disposable gowns, and full face shields. Even that wasn’t enough. Ebola is primarily spread through contact with bodily fluids. In Duncan’s intensive care unit, nurses and attendants repeatedly cleaned up saliva, diarrhea, inserted tubes into his throat, and wiped saliva from his lips, and collected urine for testing. It is likely that it was through one of these activities that Pham and Vinson contracted the disease.

Even so, they were the only ones of about 70 hospital workers who had some form of contact with Duncan throughout his stay to contract Ebola. Right now, the hospital and its professional organizations are trying to determine if some sort of breach in protocol was responsible for the contraction, as the barriers to be worn should have been enough to prevent spread to the workers (or at least it is believed).

Currently, Pham and Vinson are in isolated units that specialize in treating Ebola. Pham recently received a blood transfusion from an aid worker, Kent Brantly, who had previously contracted and then survived the disease.

One concern could be the amount of time that logs indicate staff spent in contact with the patient. While wearing protective gear, prolonged exposure shouldn’t have been a problem, but obviously something happened along the way. Pham has said that some on staff also helped with emotional support, keeping the patient company through such a terrifying and isolating experience.

It is currently believed that Pham and Vinson are the only aid workers to have contracted Ebola during treatment. Even so, these cases are more than enough to get the CDC concerned and into action. They have announced that they are monitoring continuously all hospital workers who had contact with Duncan, and additionally will be looking into revised protocols to try and shore up any potential loopholes.

Additionally, they have stated that they plan to revise their training procedures and also start re-training or offering refresher courses for hospital staff on handling contagious diseases during an outbreak and more.

Currently, the top suspect for how Pham caught the disease is through improper removal of safety gear. After a worker exits immediate danger, they have to shed their protective clothing and masks. Accidentally touching the wrong part of any of said gear during this time can lead to exposure, which may have been the case at Texas Presbyterian. The CDC reminds everyone that the risk of a full-fledged outbreak of Ebola in the U.S. are miniscule to non-existent, due to modern hygiene habits.

Texas mugshot websites must comply with requests for removal

Mar 7, 2014

Rep. Steve Stockman recently got a taste of what it means to have one’s mugshot and booking report published online. He was a victim of a burgeoning niche of online outlets that republish booking photos, names and other details from government websites regardless whether that individual has ever been convicted of a crime.

Those types of websites are usually privately run. Stockman claims to be the victim of a “pro-John Cornyn superPAC” that illicitly published his records and erroneously claimed that Stockman has been convicted of a crime. In light of this incident it’s almost ironic that the Texas legislature recently passed a new law requiring websites to change or remove incorrect criminal information within 45 days after a request is filed.

The publication of arrest records in Texas varies depending in which city or county the incident took place. Some cities publish mugshots only if the suspect is eventually convicted and some even require a written request to the sheriff’s office. Other cities publish booking photos and names for everyone to see online. As far as criminal records are concerned, they are accessible online for a small fee at the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Consequently, getting criminal information from official sources is not impossible but it takes a little bit of effort and time. But some private websites now take mugshots, names and other details from government pages and republish them for widespread viewing no matter if the individual in questions was ultimately convicted of a crime. Usually, if someone wants their information gone from the website they have to pay a fee.

Two of the most widely known mugshot websites are owned by Citizens Information Associates LLC and operated out of Austin, TX. Individuals from Ohio who claimed that it was illegal to post their information online and to demand a charge for the removal of the mugshots sued them. At the time, Citizens Information Associates LLC decided to cease the practice of charging a fee. What seemed like an act of good will at the time is now required by law.

Within 45 days of a request, any website must remove inaccurate criminal information from their database. Senate Bill No. 1289 only applies to expunged records or those under a nondisclosure agreement. Furthermore, websites are no longer allowed to charge a fee to erase or correct posted information. The websites must also prominently feature contact information where wronged individuals can reach them.

Of course, the operators of such websites claim they offer services for the public good by making information accessible to a large audience that is otherwise difficult to obtain. Critics of the practice invoke the right to privacy, a stance that Rep. Steve Stockman will most likely take himself in his own case of online mugshot posting. Unfortunately for him, the mugshot was taken in Michigan and does thus not fall under the new Texas law that would have given him the opportunity to request the removal of the compromising picture.

Texas Speaker calls for less access to public records

Feb 16, 2014

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the cornerstone piece of legislation that keeps the federal government transparent and accountable to its citizens. Every state has similar laws to cover guaranteed public access to government information. However, a certain legislator wants to make it more difficult to access public records in Texas by making some changes to state law.

The Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, Joe Straus, is trying to make it simpler for government agencies to keep the public away from their records. Straus tasked the House Committee on Government Efficiency and Reform chair to look at the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) with the aim to have extended deadlines, more lax procedures, and a lot more space for government agencies to keep their records blacked out.

The interesting part of the story is that journalists have been making his job simpler, by going along with the concept that there’s something off, even criminal, with asking a government agency to respond to numerous public records requests.

Investigative journalism consists largely of asking for a lot of public records and then combing through them for issues. That’s just what Wallace Hall, a University of Texas System regent, has been up to, yet a lot of journalists have been saying that this is a sort of “witch hunt” that merits his impeachment.

A journalist that doesn’t defend government transparency is kind of like an MD who believes Hippocrates was just giving a slight recommendation. You really have to wonder if they are in the right profession. The reporters that are complaining about someone else making too many public records requests are really betraying one of the core principles of journalism.

Journalists have to stick by their ethics, and they have to operate within their core principles. Reporters need to look at why they’re in the profession in the first place, and then they need to work from that. Changes to public records laws that make it more difficult for journalists to access government data is bad for news media.

We are probably going to see a lot of claims in the upcoming year about the price of compliance with the TPIA and how difficult and time consuming it is for the government to respond to so many requests. Some of these arguments have merit as there are certainly those that abuse the public records laws by making so many requests at once that the government can’t comply within the required time limit. They then sue the government for non-compliance with public records laws and hope to make a lot of money in the process. Clearly this is an issue that needs to be dealt with.

Straus is probably trying to solve the problem by introducing changes to the Texas public records laws. The question is can the state strike the right balance between keeping government transparent and keeping costs and abuse down? Clearly the two sides are at odds with each other and Texas is looking to address the costs and abuse side of the equation.

However, making it more difficult for citizens to access public records in Texas will make the state government less transparent and ultimately provides more opportunity for corruption.