IDEA Plans to Grow its Texas Charter Schools as Critics Call for More Spending Oversight

By Isobella Harkrider

The IDEA charter chain has its eyes set on immense growth, with goals to gain an enrollment of 100,000 students nationwide in the next two years. But the charter champion is receiving major backlash over its extravagant spending and Texas’ lack of oversight.

IDEA Public Schools had planned to spend nearly $2 million per year to lease a luxury jet and has been in the habit of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on luxury box San Antonio Spurs tickets each season, the San Antonio Express-News reported. More than 1,000 employees have used the tickets, which were given as rewards.

While it’s understandable that IDEA would want to sincerely celebrate its teachers’ hard work, critics such as two education professors — David DeMatthews of the University of Texas at Austin and David S. Knight of the University of Washington — are concerned about whether spending at privately run educational systems in Texas is monitored well enough. Some believe state officials should address this issue of spending and ethics.

Clay Robison, Texas State Teachers Association spokesperson, wrote on the TSTA blog about this topic a few weeks ago.

“The Spurs box and tickets supposedly were used to reward IDEA employees for reaching employment goals and reward students for good academic work, but you will have a difficult time convincing me that state legislators and other public officials also weren’t invited to enjoy the amenities of the luxury suite.”

When asked about the recent backlash, Robison wrote in an email to Reform Austin, “such extravagance from a so-called public school is out of control. It demonstrates how poorly Texas regulates corporate-style charter chains, which are ‘public’ mainly in the sense that they take public tax dollars. Often, it seems the state education commissioner would rather promote charters than regulate them.”

Autumn A. Arnett, vice president of communications at the Texas Public Charter Schools Association also expressed concern over IDEA’s spending but has a different takeaway.

“While IDEA technically did nothing wrong, because the money for both of these expenditures came from private funding and not taxpayer dollars, both decisions were bad calls,” she wrote in an email to Reform Austin.

“However, an equally bad call would be pushing for stronger oversight of charter schools in Texas, which are already subject to really strong financial accountability measures,” Arnett said. “While IDEA is the biggest network in the state, they are far from a representation of the financial capacity of all charter schools, in terms of the resources available to them.”

One reason watching spending is crucial for charter schools is the students they serve. IDEA has a significant enrollment of students with disabilities, which can involve more financial investment.

Charter schools have more flexibility when it comes to structure and curriculum than traditional public schools, although charters are funded by the state.

The Texas Public Charter Schools Association’s website states that there are now nearly 300,000 students attending public charter schools. There are also 141,000 student names on waiting lists. The number of students attending as well as their program participation determine the amount of funding for each charter, according to the Texas Education Agency website. A charter that provides transportation to students receives additional state funds. Charters are not required to participate in the Instructional Facilities Allotment program.

During the 2018–2019 school year, House Bill 21 became effective and according to the TEA website, created a new funding per student in average daily attendance, known as the Charter School Facilities Entitlement.

Arnett encourages Texans to not forget who charter schools serve.

“Missing from the scrutiny is a recognition of the incredible work charter school leaders, teachers, and staff members put in every day to move the needle for some of the state’s most vulnerable students.”

Whether you agree or not, more transparency for charter schools is needed. In the 86th Texas Legislature, there were multiple bills to increase accountability for charter schools at the same level of traditional public schools, but most did not receive any traction. It remains to be seen how much this scandal will affect new attempts for transparency next legislative session.

Despite Conflicts of Interest, Todd Hunter Appointed to Windstorm Insurer Oversight Board

Last month, Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) made appointments for two boards tasked with oversight of the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA), the insurer of last resort for hail and windstorm damage for property owners in 14 Gulf Coast counties. The appointments include one prominent critic of TWIA, State Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), who was appointed to the Windstorm Insurance Legislative Funding and Funding Structure Oversight Board.

The Funding Structure Oversight Board is made up of four members each from the Texas Senate and the Texas House of Representatives. According to Hunter’s press release, the board is “tasked with gathering information on TWIA’s funding, determining how states operate catastrophic risk pools, and holding public meetings to hear testimony on funding for the organization.”

The oversight board will be required to deliver a report on its findings and any legislative recommendations by Nov. 15.

History of Conflict of Interest

Hunter is both an expected and a curious appointment. He has spent the interim and the previous legislative session railing against TWIA and its rate hikes; however, at the same time, he has profited from lawsuits against TWIA. According to a KPRC report, Hunter teamed up with big storm attorneys to sue TWIA over claims. 

One coastal property owner interviewed by KPRC said “it appears to be that he is working for himself and not us.”

The director of the Legislative Lawyering Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law, Hugh Brady, told KPRC that Hunter’s dual roles sounded like a “fox guarding the henhouse.” When questioned again about whether there were any conflicts in both having oversight over TWIA while having business before the agency, Hunter claimed there was nothing wrong.

This is not Hunter’s first scrape with ethical issues as it relates to allegations of profiting off the same state agency he oversees. The Houston Chronicle reported in 2011, “[Hunter] got $65,000 as a mediator in the so-called ‘slab’ class-action settlement in 2010 and $8,750 for other windstorm-related cases” while he was a member of the House Insurance Committee and the legislature’s special windstorm oversight committee. 

The Texas Watchdog reported that Hunter received a $25,000 contribution from a plaintiff’s lawyer within days of being appointed to mediate a TWIA claims case.

Prior to his second stint as a state lawmaker, Hunter was a lobbyist for TWIA in 2003-2007, earning up to $200,000 a year.

Funding Issues Facing TWIA

The Legislature sets the basic funding structure for TWIA for paying claims in case of a catastrophe (hurricane, etc.), and it resets every year. The complex layer cake of funding for the quasi-governmental agency is as follows: TWIA premiums; the Catastrophe Reserve Trust Fund (CRTF), an account held by the comptroller containing the net gains from TWIA operations from prior years; debt financing repaid by policyholder premiums, and if premiums are insufficient, policyholder surcharges authorized by the Insurance Commissioner; assessments of member companies; and reinsurance to achieve total funding not less than a 100-year hurricane season.

The issue of funding for TWIA began initially after Texas was hit by back to back hurricanes, Dolly in 2008 and Ike in 2009. The public insurer was slow in its claims response. After which, the Legislature began reshaping the funding structure. In 2013, TWIA was facing $2.5 billion in losses and litigation over how it handled claims.

Hurricane Harvey was the first true test for the Legislature’s overhaul, and a 2018 Sunset report suggested while they improved in many ways, problems inherent to the design of the funding structure persisted. It also said TWIA is “broke, in debt and facing a shrinking revenue pool.” 

They pointed out the financial quandary TWIA is in: 

“TWIA’s revenue from premiums is not enough to pay future claims, meaning TWIA will likely have to go into more debt if there is another hurricane — further increasing costs to policyholders. At the same time, the Legislature designed TWIA to provide insurance for those who cannot purchase it elsewhere. If TWIA were to regain financial stability through raising premiums, TWIA may become too expensive for coastal residents.” 

The Sunset Report made no recommendation on this issue, deferring to the Legislature. Last session, little change was done to the funding structure beyond allowing TWIA to assess member companies for some of its reinsurance costs.

Critics argue that if the premiums are not raised or the funding structure is not significantly changed, the wider public will be at risk of picking up the tab for TWIA. 

Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) was behind the provision creating the funding structure oversight board. On the Senate floor, Taylor said a similar study was done in 2015, the last time the funding structure of TWIA was changed. “There are questions about whether TWIA is funded to an adequate level.” In particular, the Senator pointed out TWIA had been buying more reinsurance than necessary, and that cost was passed on to the policyholders. TWIA maintains it was “the necessary amount to ensure not only that we have an amount of money equal to potential claims, but also the money required to process those claims.”

Other House members appointed to the funding structure oversight board include State Reps. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), Alex Dominguez (D-Brownsville), and Chairman of the House Insurance Committee Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville). 

The Speaker also appointed State Reps. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown), Ed Thompson (R-Pearland), J.M. Lozano (R-Kingsville) and Chairwoman Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria) to the Windstorm Insurance Legislative Oversight Board. The latter oversight board faces a possible merger with the Texas Fair Access to Insurance Requirements Plan, also known as the Texas Fair Plan.

John Polak, General Manager of TWIA, made the following statement to the Speaker’s apppointments to the oversight boards: “We look forward to working with the members appointed by Speaker Bonnen to these two oversight boards as they develop recommendations regarding the operations, funding, and sustainability of the Association.”

T-Mobile and Sprint Are Merging, but 5G May Further Divide Texans

Coverage map courtesy of T-Mobile

By Isobella Harkrider

Verizon’s Super Bowl commercial was about humanity, empathy and compassion holding more importance than 5G networks, and it ended by saying “5G’s going to change a lot of things, but thankfully not everything.” The commercial clearly stated it “was about what 5G will never do.”

There are things the upcoming networks will do and not do, and they may make the digital divide worse. 

T-Mobile is rebranding itself as The New T-Mobile, and it had a field day over Verizon mentioning its 5G network in a commercial and even thanked Verizon in a post on their website which reads,  “after years of ignoring T-Mobile, even leaving us out of coverage map comparisons … they finally had to admit that we’re the real network competition.” 

Perhaps Verizon’s Super Bowl commercial about its 5G network was also an advertising effort around the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint. U.S. Judge Victor Marrero officially approved the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint this month, but there are still numerous steps before the merger goes through.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton dropped the lawsuit with several other state attorneys general against the merger shortly before it went to trial, after a settlement based on wireless service price points for Texans was reached. At the time, Paxton announced that T-Mobile agreed it wouldn’t raise prices through the next five years and would expand wireless coverage into rural areas of Texas, The Dallas Morning News reported

Not much will change for current T-Mobile subscribers, and Sprint customers will eventually transfer to T-Mobile plans. Prepaid Sprint plans will transfer as customers of the Dish Network.

Changes to the telecom industry and its technology are sure to have wide effects. The Pew Research Center found that last year 96 percent of Americans had a cellphone or smartphone. The center’s data states that 81 percent own smartphones. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults now own desktop or laptop computers, and half own tablet computers or e-reader devices.

Another report from Pew published a year ago found close to two-thirds of rural Americans, 63 percent, say they have a broadband internet connection at home. This number is up from about 35 percent in 2007. Even though rural Americans are less likely than Americans overall to have home broadband, times are changing and usage among rural adults has increased at a rapid pace.

Paxton wrote a piece for the San Antonio Express-News this month saying that the settlement with The New T-Mobile will benefit all Texans and will support the growing economy, but some are concerned about 5G’s affordability.

Will 5G Expansion Be for All?

You may have noticed the wireless network nodes, or black poles, being placed in your neighborhood, near your workplace in Texas, or co-located on existing poles. Texas Public Radio reported that 5G requires more connection points and small-cell nodes across the area, thousands of them throughout city rights-of-ways and on city-owned poles

Back in 2017, the Texas legislature changed the rules for right-of-way permits with Senate Bill 1004, which prevented any Texas city from denying wireless network providers use of its public right-of-way.  In an ironic twist, now the bill that made it easier to roll out technology while keeping up with demand is on the table again, and 57 cities across Texas are suing the state. The cities are challenging the law over the rates providers pay the cities to use public property and the permit fees for each network node that the cities are losing out on.

However, more nodes doesn’t exactly mean more access for all. 

Angela Siefer, executive director at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, told Reform Austin that 5G may not be deployed equitably across the U.S. 

“The areas that will be last on the schedule to receive 5G (if it all) are rural areas and low-income urban areas. The providers do not dispute this. In the U.S., broadband is a commercial service, not a utility,” she said.

Siefer explained how the digital divide could actually expand with 5G.

“If the reality of 5G turns out to be as transformative as some claim, residents of rural and low-income areas will be left out of those applications. At a minimum, will have a lesser service of health care and education, plus fewer economic opportunities.”

In an era of connectivity, the more of us who are digitally connected the more, Seifer said, “the power of the internet comes from the massive volume of people using it. When certain groups have more access to opportunity than others, the divisions in our country (and in any state) are exacerbated.”

If it’s a digital “survival of the fittest“ against bandwidth speed and what an individual can afford, then it’s not a digital revolution going on but a digital divide.

Smaller cities, most likely in economically deprived areas in Texas, have been offering discounts on wireless network permits to get some of the action, if not with 5G then with any access to WiFi they can get, TPR reported.

Based on a national 5G coverage map on T-Mobile’s website, 5G is clearly present in major Texas cities, but the surrounding areas lack coverage. At the time of this story, areas such as Fredericksburg, College Station, parts of Fort Worth, McAllen, and Pearland don’t have 5G coverage. A lot of Texas is still the same old 4G LTE service.

5G-Capable Comes With a Hefty Price

Even if there were access in lower-income neighborhoods, the cost of accessing 5G would be a factor that some believe creates a digital divide. To use 5G, you need a compatible smartphone, which isn’t cheap. 

In a press release announcing the Samsung Galaxy S20 line of 5G smartphones and all the advancements they tap into, T-Mobile’s chief executive boasted about already launching the country’s biggest 5G network, and then announced this is only the foundation layer of the rollout. If you are able to afford it, these phones range in price from $1,000 to over $1,500, close to the cost of rent in a modest apartment in Texas, although the Houston Chronicle reported in early December 2019, that there are “a variety of deals cut down on those costs.” 

What about rural areas or cities such as San Antonio? There the median annual income is $28,000 and nearly one-third of its residents are in poverty, according to the census, TPR reported. While advertising is booming, it could be many years before Texas is truly 5G accessible.

How Rodeos Go Big in Texas

By Christopher Adams

Rodeos are well-tethered to Texas, unabashedly and proudly reflecting its identity, heritage, historical economic viability and steadfast resolve. Rodeo in general serves as a cultural bond in many states, but stock shows, cowboys and cowgirls are arguably most associated with Texas.

“With the beginning of the cattle drives to market in the 1800s to now, Texas has been synonymous with the word cowboy,” wrote Scott Dorenkamp, livestock program and government relations manager with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), in an email to Reform Austin. “It is not uncommon to be asked if you are from Texas if you wear a cowboy hat in a venue such as an airport.”

He wrote that Stephenville, Texas claims the title of “Cowboy Capital of the World.” The Stephenville, Texas Chamber of Commerce reports that it possesses more professional cowboys and cowgirls per square foot than any other place around the globe.

“Rodeo has always been a part of American culture, especially deeply rooted in Texas, as rodeo is the official sport of Texas,” wrote Madison Ward, public engagement manager at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, in an email to Reform Austin. 

According to Rodeos USA, there will be a total of 57 rodeo events in the Lone Star State during February and March of 2020.

“The majority of the rodeos that take place in the winter months are in Texas, and cowboys from across the country spend the winter in Texas competing,” Dorenkamp said.

Texas is home to the largest circuit in the PRCA, offering 89 sanctioned events and consistently producing the greatest number of representatives at the National Finals Rodeo, he wrote. 

“So, yes, Texas plays a vital role in the industry – from Little Britches, high school, national intercollegiate ranks, through the professional ranks,” Dorenkamp wrote. “Many of the oldest and largest rodeos in the world take place in Texas.” 

Two of those rodeos are strongly connected to the Houston and San Antonio identities.

“The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo shares our culture of rodeo, rich western traditions and agriculture to all patrons,” wrote Lauren Sides, communications and public relations manager at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, in an email to Reform Austin.

The Alamo City’s rodeo is an annual 18-day event that has had a substantial economic impact on the local economy, amassing more than $250 million, according to a study by Trinity University.

But it has also had a profound effect on agriculture and education in the state. The mission of the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo is to use agriculture and education to develop the youth of Texas. 

“Since inception, the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo has committed more than $210 million to support our mission,’ Sides wrote. “In 2019 alone, we have educationally impacted the lives of over 21, 200 Texas students.”

The mother of all rodeos, however, is the 20-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. This signature fixture for the Houston area is the largest rodeo entertainment event in the world, explained an email from officials with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Financially, its impact is pretty obvious. A 2019 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo economic impact study found that the event attracted more than 1 million people, with 27 percent attending from points beyond Greater Houston. In dollars, it had a direct impact of $133 million and in a greater economic sense, $227 million. Additionally, it specifically generated 3,694 jobs while supporting a total of 5,133 in the Houston area.

From a cultural standpoint, Houston’s rodeo has proven to be very dynamic by including most segments of the city’s population.

“As the nation’s fourth largest city, Houston is home to a diverse range of cultures and demographics,” Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo officials stated. “The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo celebrates what makes the city of Houston unique with several special days throughout the Rodeo, including Go Tejano Day, which recognizes the Hispanic culture that is rich in Texas’ heritage as well as Black Heritage Day, where visitors learn how vital the African American cowboy was in shaping today’s Western culture.”

And rodeo is seemingly thought of as specialist cowboys plying their skill set in a rugged sport. But in Texas, women have played a role in the sport’s dynamic evolution, too.

In 2020, the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo (FWSSR) was the first PRCA rodeo to introduce the breakaway roping event for women to its lineup, Ward wrote.   

“Women’s involvement in rodeo has evolved somewhat parallel to the evolvement of women’s rights,” Ward said. “Women in rodeo have served a number of roles to advance the sport of rodeo such as a competitors, contract personnel, rodeo queens, entertainment acts, commentators, stock contractors, and more as they have and continue to break the gender norms.”  

Perhaps Dorenkamp distilled the essence of rodeo and its influence on the people of the Lone Star State. 

“Texas embodies the individualism, perseverance, competitiveness, and sense of fair play when it comes to rodeo. It also embodies the willingness to stand up for oneself and offer a hand up that pervades the cowboy and rodeo life.”