Editorial Roundup: Texas

Dallas Morning News. November 29, 2023.

Editorial: Texas DPS needs to rein in high-speed chases through border towns

New study showing rise in deaths and injuries should prompt policy review

An alarming increase in the number of deadly high-speed chases by Texas law enforcement since the beginning of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star program should warrant some attention in Austin.

Human Rights Watch, in a study published this week, found that not only have more of these dangerous chases happened along border communities since the program was launched, but the number of chases ending in death or injury to drivers, passengers and innocent bystanders has also spiked.

After reviewing Texas Department of Safety data obtained through records requests between March 2021 and July 2023, the nonprofit found at least 74 people were killed, including a 7-year-old girl, and another 189 were injured as a result of vehicle pursuits. That’s a 45% increase from before the border protection program began.

The DPS should review its policies on high-speed chases and determine if it’s time to implement restrictions on when its state troopers engage in them, a practice other agencies have implemented nationwide.

DPS officials have said they leave the decision of when to start and end a high-speed chase to the discretion of troopers working in the heat of the moment. DPS director Col. Steve McCraw recently told The New York Times that without the chases, “All you’re doing is rewarding the Mexican cartels.”

But with the chases, people are dying. Earlier this month, eight people died when a car believed to be carrying undocumented migrants crashed into another vehicle during a high speed chase in Zavala County.

The nonprofit found that of the roughly 5,200 vehicle pursuits DPS troopers engaged in statewide during the study period, 3,600 of them occurred in the 60 counties covered by Operation Lone Star. About 81% of those chases began because of a traffic violation, and the average speed was 91 mph. A third of them surpassed 100 mph.

Not surprisingly, the group also found a sharp increase in the amount of property damage caused by chases. Texas Public Radio recently reported that residents in El Paso County and other border communities who endure regular chases through their neighborhoods fear not only for their lives, but also for their homes and businesses.

We don’t support the end goal of Human Rights Watch, which is to see Operation Lone Star abolished. Texas has a border crisis and the governor and law enforcement have been left to deal with the failure of the federal government to secure the border and pass meaningful immigration reform.

But we do think that DPS should reconsider its high-speed chase policy. Social media posts depicting television-like chases ending in the bad guys being cuffed and taken away to face justice aren’t telling the whole story.

Too many people are being killed and injured, and too many other people are facing significant property loss, for the problem to be ignored.

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Fort Worth Star Telegram. December 2, 2023.

Editorial: Smartphones hurt kids’ education, mental health. Time for Texas schools to ban them

Smartphones are ubiquitous, and not just among adults. Many kids have them now, even at elementary school ages — and they’re not just on TikTok at home, they’re distracted during school hours, too.

Given what we know now about the dangers phones pose to educational and social development, public schools should clamp down on kids’ use during school hours, at the elementary, middle and even high school levels. Stricter policies could facilitate learning, encourage focus and order in class, help teachers, and strengthen social interactions among students. School districts in other states, including Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania, are already doing this. Texas should be next.

It’s been 16 years since Apple released the first iPhone and even less time since social media boomed. This acceleration of technology has been a boon to society in many ways, enabling people to find information anywhere at any time at lightning-fast speed.

Although phones are convenient tools that make communication easier, even many adults struggle to put them aside to focus on work, relationships, hobbies, or rest. The effect on kids is even more profound: A study from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group in San Francisco, found that among kids ages 11-17, smartphones are a “constant companion” and that 97% of kids use their phones during school hours.

The correlation between kids’ smartphone use and depression and anxiety is strong. From 2010 to 2016, the number of kids experiencing depression jumped 60%, according to a survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Suicide rates have risen among teens, and especially spiking among girls.

Many teacher-implemented classroom policies have kids using cell phones to supplement education. But the effectiveness is overrated. According to the 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report that included 14 countries, just having phones nearby distracted students from learning, causing a 20-minute delay until they can refocus again. That’s half a class period.

Data is clear: Kids are on their phones all the time, and it isn’t good for them. Since they spend three-quarters of the year in school, it’s time schools play hard ball.

Most districts in North Texas have cell phone policies for students but they vary widely. While most elementary schools have banned cell phone use, only some middle schools have. At one middle school in Keller, Fossil Hill, cell phone use is permitted for academic purposes only and teachers have a say whether kids use phones or not. Some middle schools have policies that suggest students can use phones at lunch or in class as the teacher permits, but not in bathrooms or locker rooms.

Fort Worth ISD has a district-wide policy that permits students to have cell phones, but they have to be turned off during the day unless they’re being used in class. Districts allow different campuses to create their own campus-specific policies for students and at many FWISD high schools, policies permit phone use during class as long as teachers agree and it doesn’t disrupt learning.

Arlington High School allows students “to use personally-owned mobile devices such as laptops, netbooks, tablets, iPads, iPod Touches, smartphones and eReaders, during the school day for educational purposes.”

Districts should have control over these issues, and while teachers should have leeway to run their classrooms as they see fit, this like too large an issue to leave up to individual educators. Teachers have enough work to do to enforce good behavior; if schools can take a big step toward focusing more on on facilitating learning, they should.

Mansfield ISD is one of the only, if not the only school district in Tarrant County that’s taken a hard stance on cell phone use during school hours. In July, the Mansfield board President Courtney Lackey Wilson described new guidelines to “limit distractions and disruptions to the learning process, which can frequently be caused by cell phone usage” and said outlining clear consequences for use would “empower our employees.”

This is a bold stance and a good one. By making it non-negotiable, it ends the discussions in classrooms, among teachers, and most of all, among students and parents.

Districts need firm policies that essentially ban cell phone use during the day, even at lunch and recess, so that kids continue to learn the art of social cues, create friendships, and maintain healthy interactions with others. All students, even up to high school, should keep their phones in their backpacks on silent mode.

If kids need to communicate logistics to their parents or other family members about car rides home or after school activities, the time to do it is immediately after school. In an emergency, parents should contact school officials or come to the campus. It’s a significant trade-off to make in terms of families’ scramble to get through work, school and kids’ activities, but they somehow functioned before cellphones, and devices in classrooms are just too big a problem.

There is no statewide policy about cell phones in schools, and there need not be. But there’s no reason districts and specific campuses couldn’t end this debate once and for all by getting tough on cell phones, just like they do with other potential distractions and harmful things.

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Houston Chronicle. December 3, 2023.

Editorial: Abbott, let the Lege go home! Special sessions on vouchers are un-Texan.

GO HOME!

That would be the advice, we’re guessing, that the ghosts of Texas lawmakers past would impart to their present-day counterparts. Sequestered for a fourth and perhaps fifth special legislative session by a petulant, albeit persistent governor, the current crop of lawmakers is probably inclined to take the advice.

Indeed, on a crisp fall afternoon last week, it looked to one editorial board member at the Capitol like most lawmakers had decamped already. A few Capitol visitors meandered through the majestic marble halls. A gaggle of Austin elementary school kids tested out the superb echoic qualities of the 218-foot-high interior dome. Outside the massive wooden doors of the south entrance, workers repairing the Capitol roof jostled clanging pipes as they repositioned scaffolding. Inside the building and out, Department of Public Safety troopers cradling their black AR-15s outnumbered state officials.

Most lawmakers, no doubt, realize they’re wasting their time and our money hanging around the Capitol while Gov. Greg Abbott tries to figure out how to wangle enough rural Republicans to support a school voucher scheme that would make him the golden boy for ardent voucher supporters nationwide. (A hard-fought voucher victory might even make him a plausible vice-presidential candidate for the former president he endorsed during their recent joint visit to South Texas.)

It’s ironic that Abbott, heir to the Republican Party’s traditional allegiance to small, unobtrusive government, has kept lawmakers for five months and possibly more in Austin, a blue city the governor and many of his fellow Republicans profess to hate. That’s not the Republican way. It’s not the Texas way, where the resolutely anti-government, post-Reconstruction state Constitution of 1876 still holds sway.

“It was a document drafted by people who preferred to be left alone, to keep their affairs close at hand and their government at arm’s length,” Stephen Harrigan has written in “Big, Wonderful Thing,” his 2019 history of Texas.

Suspicion of government, whether state or federal, is why the drafters of the 1876 constitution reduced the governor’s term from four years to two (since restored by amendment to four); it’s why the governor’s appointment power is limited compared to other states. It’s also why our judges are elected, not appointed. It’s why we insist on stingy salaries for lawmakers, who meet in regular session every other year, not annually. The late T.R. Fehrenbach, writing in “Lone Star,” his 1968 history of the state, quoted a typical Texan of the post-Reconstruction era, explaining that biennial sessions were better, not only to save money, but also because “the more the damn legislature meets, the more Goddamned bills and taxes it passes.”

Here, here!

Abbott, subject in this one-party state to only the most minimal checks and balances on his power, has found that he enjoys wielding the cudgel of big, intrusive government. He jumped at the chance to expand his authority during the pandemic, clinging to a public health disaster declaration that afforded him unprecedented power long after the COVID-era became past tense. Whether it’s state government imposing the nation’s most stringent restrictions on women’s bodily autonomy, usurping federal responsibilities for border enforcement, overriding local control (particularly in blue cities) or seeking to impose a voucher system that would rob public schools of desperately needed revenue, he’s decided in his third term as governor that minimalist government is for wimps.

Now that 21 of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature, as well as most Texans, have told the governor over and over they’re not interested in vouchers, he has a decision to make: Does he call lawmakers back for a fifth special session, hoping he can pressure, threaten, cajole and browbeat enough rebellious Republicans to switch their vote on vouchers? Or does he transition to campaign mode, recruiting GOP candidates willing to challenge anti-voucher lawmakers next year? (Of course, he could do both.) He’s already endorsed House members who supported vouchers and one primary challenger to an incumbent: Hillary Hickland, a voucher enthusiast from Belton, is running against state Rep. Hugh Shine, a Republican voucher opponent from Temple. Hickland, who home-schools her three children, has also launched crusades against sexually explicit books in school libraries.

Another special session or not? It’s a tricky decision for the governor. On the one hand, he risks getting slapped down again on the voucher issue, making him look ineffectual.

Perhaps to take his mind off his dilemma, Abbott went sky-diving last week in tandem with a 106-year-old World War II veteran named Al Blaschke. The Georgetown resident told reporters afterward he was singing Frank Sinatra’s “When You’re Smiling” as he floated 8,000 feet down to earth. He even sang to Abbott once the two were on the ground, reminding the governor that “when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”

A governor who has done his best during the Trump era to reinforce our state’s image as selfish, cold-hearted and cruel probably ignored the message. A governor who seems to prefer stoking culture-war panic and pushing divisive social issues has shown little interest in addressing some of the big things that would make most Texans smile. You know, like funding for public schools that keeps up with inflation and raises for teachers.

Abbott governs under a constitution that for all its limited government appeal is inadequate, even for an overwhelmingly rural state like 19th-century Texas. We’re not going to get a replacement that reflects the challenges of a large, urban, increasingly diverse state, a state that could do so much more with its bountiful blessings.

We don’t have to settle, though, for a myopic governor. Voters in a fast-growing, rapidly changing Texas could insist on statewide officeholders whose combined perspectives really did reflect the view from 8,000 feet up. That expanded horizon would include public schools that meet the needs of all our children, access to health care for every Texan, constructive solutions in tandem with Washington to ease border challenges, innovations in the nation’s most important energy state to address climate change, among other challenges within our reach.

We applaud the audacity of the governor, a wheelchair user since a tragic accident left him paralyzed, to dive from an airplane. We wish he were just as audacious on behalf of his fellow Texans. We’d love to see a governor whose vision is as big and wide as Texas itself.

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San Antonio Express-News. November 29, 2023.

Editorial: Ted Cruz is the Senate’s master of misinformation

Terrorists aim to eliminate any sense of security among those they attack by revealing vulnerabilities and forcing people to live in fear of the next threat.

For many Americans, one effect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is that any breaking news of a plane crash, shooting or abnormal vehicular accident anywhere in the nation raises immediate concern and speculation of a terrorist attack. This is especially so at a time of great international tension.

Most such incidents are not terrorist attacks, but even in the fast-moving digital world, it can take time for credible news sites and social media posts from responsible officials to elevate facts above fears and rumors.

Too often, though, we have noticed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is not one of those credible and responsible voices. The junior senator from Texas, who is more prolific in crafting social media posts than meaningful legislation, is often a fount of misinformation on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.

Last week, in response to a horrible and deadly car crash at the Rainbow Bridge, which connects the U.S. and Canada near Niagara Falls, Cruz was especially irresponsible and cynical, posting as if it were a terrorist attack.

It was, in fact, a horrific accident.

In the late morning of Nov. 22, a married New York couple died after their Bentley, traveling at a high rate of speed, went airborne, crashed and exploded on the U.S. side of the border.

With no evidence, Fox News reported it was a terrorist attack. Less than two hours after the accident, in retweeting an equally uninformed post by a right-wing commentator, Cruz wrote: “This confirms our worst fear: the explosion at Rainbow Bridge was a terrorist attack. Both attackers are dead, and one law enforcement officer was injured. I am praying that officer makes a full recovery and is able to spend Thanksgiving surrounded by family and loved ones.”

By that evening, law enforcement authorities were saying the explosion was not a terrorist attack. Still, it took several days for Cruz to delete the post, giving credence to misinformation.

Cruz was not alone. Election denier Kari Lake, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, posted that if this was a terrorist attack, President Joe Biden was to blame.

“If so, our worse fears are being realized,” she posted.

Terrorism is a legitimate fear, but concerns about terrorism should be grounded in fact. Senators, or those seeking such an office, regardless of political party, should be careful and precise in their language about threats and security.

In the past, Cruz has shared, among other things, a fake story made to look like it was from the Atlantic magazine; supposed footage of the Taliban hanging a man from an American Blackhawk helicopter that wasn’t true; and a hoax photo of a shark swimming on the flooded Interstate 405 in Los Angeles.

He also lashed out at Democrats as “power-drunk authoritarian kill-joys” after he saw a tweet posted by the “WA Government” about extending COVID protections. Cruz assumed “WA Government” was the state of Washington, but it was Western Australia.

Few Americans have better access to accurate information than a U.S. senator, especially one who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. But Cruz repeatedly uses his fingertips to tap out false information rather than seek the truth.

All this is more glaring given the tenuous political moment Cruz participates in. A very real threat came on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of fellow Americans stormed the U.S. Capitol, assaulting police officers and threatening to murder elected officials in a violent attempt to overthrow an election, an insurrection fueled by the Big Lie of voter fraud.

Cruz accelerated those false claims of voter fraud and sought to delay the certification of the election. A credible and responsible senator would have shown fidelity to the basic truths of the election.

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