5 Texas State Parks to Visit in 2020

By Emma Balter

We’re almost a week into the new year, meaning you’ve probably already abandoned a third of your many resolutions. What you need is a fun goal that you’ll want to stick to. How about one that will keep you active, get you out in nature, and make you see more of our beautiful state? Here are five state parks all over Texas to visit in 2020.

1. Big Bend Ranch State Park

At more than 310,000 acres, Big Bend Ranch is Texas’ largest state park, bordering Mexico and the Rio Grande. People typically overlook it in favor of Big Bend National Park, its neighbor to the east. But there’s plenty to see in this patch of beautiful desert, from mountains and canyons to creeks and arroyos. Big Bend Ranch is especially good for stargazing. In fact, it’s the only state park in Texas with a “1” rating on the Bortle Scale, which measures how dark skies are. Darker skies mean clearer views of celestial objects.

2. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

In the midst of beautiful Hill Country, Enchanted Rock is one of the most visited parks in Texas. It’s popular for rock climbing because of its rock formations, which include several giant domes of pink granite with names like Enchanted Rock, Little Dome or Turkey Peak. The domes are the result of magma pushing through rock a billion years ago, which eventually cooled and hardened into rock. There are more than 400 protected archaeological sites here. The rocks sometimes emit creaking noises, which geologists say is because of temperature change, but the Tonkowa Indians who lived here believed Enchanted Rock was haunted.

3. Palo Duro Canyon State Park

This jewel of the Panhandle is the second largest canyon in the entire country (after the Grand Canyon, that is). It covers 28,000 acres, is 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and up to 800 feet deep. The gorgeous colorful rock formations are a big draw, including the canyon wall’s four distinct geological layers, which formed over 250 million years. Many cultures lived here in the past; rock art and bedrock mortars, used for grinding food, remain as traces of their lives. In the summer, enjoy the Texas Outdoor Musical, an entertaining show about early settlers.

4. Lost Maples State Natural Area

Just two hours northwest of San Antonio, Lost Maples is particularly popular in the fall when its plentiful maple tree leaves change color. The park features Uvalde bigtooth maple trees, which are native to the Edwards Plateau. But Lost Maples is worth a visit year-round; in the spring, come for the wildflowers. The Sabinal River and its tributary, Can Creek, flow through it, both of which you can fish from. There are 10 miles of hiking trails that will take you through diverse terrain, such as canyons, springs, streams, plateaus and wooded areas.

5. Brazos Bend State Park

A 45-mile drive from downtown Houston will take you to a park famous for its wildlife. The most renowned inhabitant of Brazos Bend is the American alligator, but the park also features about 20 other species of reptiles and amphibians, and 25 species of mammals, including white-tailed deer, feral pigs, bobcats and more. There are also more than 300 types of birds, making Brazos Bend an ideal getaway for bird watchers. Beautiful landscapes host these animals, like woodlands, wetlands, and tallgrass prairies with vegetation between 2 and 6 feet tall.

Age Requirements for Public School in Texas: a Primer

By Isobella Harkrider

When is the “right” time to enroll a child in kindergarten? According to Texas law, if a child turns five before September 1 in a given school year, he or she is eligible to begin kindergarten that year. 

Of course, public education is not one-size-fits-all for every student, and some Texas parents will want to know which options are available based on their child’s specific circumstances. 

To help, we’ve created a primer on the state’s public school age requirements:

What if your child isn’t age five or older on or before September 1?

Let’s say your child’s fifth birthday falls after the September 1 cut-off date, but you feel they are mature or academically advanced enough to attend kindergarten. If you are wondering about an age exemption test to advance your child into kindergarten early, there is a test, but it’s more complicated than one might assume.

According to the Texas Education Agency, a student younger than five years of age could be admitted into kindergarten “…if the student performs satisfactorily on the appropriate, third grade assessment instrument and the district has adopted a policy for admitting students younger than five years of age.” Read that again—a third grade assessment for a child that is five, to get into kindergarten. Even the parents of the brightest of minds may find that requirement puzzling.

If you can afford it, there’s private childcare and private school until first grade but make sure it’s an accredited school. Spring Branch ISD’s website states, “new students after first grade will be placed initially at grade level reached elsewhere. Final grade placement will be based on observations and testing made by District personnel.”

There is also Credit By Exam, offered to kindergarten through fifth grade students, in which a student could test out by scoring “80% on a criterion-referenced test for the grade level he or she wants to skip in each of the following areas: language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.”

For families who are looking for a lower cost pre-K option (or another year of it), Reform Austin recently reported that Texas now offers full-day pre-K, but “Eligibility is limited to students that turned four years old before September 1 and are either economically disadvantaged, an English language learner, homeless, part of a military family or in the foster care system.” In addition, some districts have waiting lists

School districts across Texas, such as Houston ISD and Dallas ISD, also have a low-cost tuition-based enrollment for families who do not meet the requirements but still want to enroll their child into the program for Pre-K. This might be helpful for families who relocate to Texas during the summer months and may be scrambling to align other pre-K options that are already completely full.

Families moving to Texas from a state that has a cut-off date after September 1 should consider how this will affect them. If your child has completed kindergarten and first grade in another state, they may enter the appropriate grade level. 

Does September 1 cut-off date mean better test scores? 

In an age of “kindergarten readiness” and programs encouraging early learning, such as ABCmouse and Homer, many families start early as well, preparing their two year-olds to hold books, introduce phonics, share and count. Some parents enroll their children in progressive preschool programs with the first day of kindergarten in mind.

As part of the massive education bill passed by the 86th Texas Legislature in 2019, legislators extended a typical pre-K day for four year olds from a half day to a full day.

The New York Times states, “The 2018 Staar tests found that 58 percent of Texas third graders are not reading at grade level…More than half of the state’s public school students are Hispanic and nearly 60 percent come from low-income families. About a fifth are still learning English.”

On the other hand, the Texas Education Agency shared with Reform Austin, “A recent analysis of eligible Texas students who participated in public Pre-K in 1999 showed them today persisting in college at a 6.8 percent higher rate than their peers who were eligible, but did not attend public Pre-K.”

The Violence Against Women Act and the “Boyfriend Loophole”

Passed in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act supports and protects survivors of domestic crimes. Since its enaction, it has dramatically shifted the response to violence against women. 

But what had previously proven a firmly bipartisan bill now faces partisan delineation. 

Nearly one year ago, on February 15, the Violence Against Women Act expired and reauthorization has been halted as Democrats seek expansion on several tenets seen as vital to ensuring the bill’s future success. 

The most controversial tenet surrounds the ownership of guns with those who have been accused of violent offences against women.

Though the Violence Against Women Act already specifies a law to keep guns out of the hands of convicted violent offenders whose crimes were against their spouses, several legislators have pointed to a gap in the legislation that would allow some people convicted of domestic violence charges to still own a firearm.

Known as the “boyfriend loophole,” the law only extends to violent actions taken against a spouse, a person they have lived with or a person with whom they share a child, leaving more casual romantic partners vulnerable and unprotected.

And in Texas, we have already seen the very real impact the loophole can have on the lives of Texans.

Art Acevedo

On December 7, 2019, Houston Police Sergeant Christopher Brewster was shot and killed in the line of duty by Arturo Solis. Leaving behind a wife and extended family, Brewster is a fresh and tragic example of what can happen when convicted domestic violence criminals still have access to guns.

While his death wasn’t directly related to the loophole, HPD Sgt. Chris Brewster was recently killed in response to a repeat domestic violence offender, reminding us just how dangerous these criminals are to women and first responders. A loophole just makes it easier for additional incidents like this tragedy from last month.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Solis was previously convicted of domestic violence in 2015 for assault of his ex-girlfriend. After pleading guilty, the conviction led to a 70-day jail sentence.

And on the night the officer was shot, it was another incident of domestic violence that brought him there.

If Solis had been married to the woman back in 2015 or if they’d had a child together, under the Violence Against Women Act he would have never been legally allowed to purchase a firearm. But due to the informal nature of this partnership, the same rules did not extend to Solis. 

Closing the “boyfriend loophole” could have made all the difference, at least that is what Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo suggested moments before escorting the body of Sgt. Brewter to a funeral home.

In his speech, Police Chief Acedo called out Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, from halting legislation due to the conflict it would have with powerful interests:

“We all know in law enforcement that one of the biggest reasons that the Senate and Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are not … getting the Violence Against Women Act [reauthorized] is because the NRA doesn’t like the fact that we want to take firearms out of the hands of boyfriends who abuse their girlfriends,” said Chief Acevedo.

“And who killed our sergeant? A boyfriend abusing his girlfriend,” Acevedo added.

Moving Forward

The gun Solis carried was illegally obtained, but only just.

Under federal law, persons with a misdemeanor conviction are prevented from ever owning a firearm. Texas law, however, restores people’s access to gun ownership five years after they complete the terms of their sentence.

This means that Arturo Solis may have been one year away from legally being able purchase a gun in Texas under the “boyfriend loophole.”

Despite domestic violence being a unanimously agreed-upon issue when it comes to importance, legislation both nationally and in-state continues to stagnate.

Earlier in the 86th Legislative Session, Texas had the opportunity to pass a bill that would protect the survivors of domestic violence across the state.

Senate Bill 1804, would have required construction of a centralized database for perpetrators of domestic violence.

If the bill had been passed it would have allowed authorities to track domestic violence suspects as they went through the bond process as well as notify victims when their abuser had been released.

Despite unanimous support in both the House and the Senate, a poison pill amendment caused the entire bill to collapse.

With measures still stalled in the Senate, it is important to look at where the state can be effective moving forward.

It is important for our state to pick up the slack where our country cannot.