Editorial Roundup: Texas

Dallas Morning News. September 25, 2022.

Editorial: Fatal I-35W crash: Did TxDot ignore previous federal safety recommendations?

Pileup has eerie similarities to deadly prison bus accident 7 years ago

Who could forget the videos of the horrific chain-reaction accident on ice-covered Interstate 35W in February 2021?

Four men and two women were killed and at least 65 injured when more than 130 cars, trucks and semis crashed into each other, unable to control their vehicles on the slick, two-lane North Tarrant Express in Fort Worth. The resulting pileup of mangled metal spanned more than three football fields.

But could it have all been prevented?

Did the Texas Department of Transportation fail to follow anti-icing highway safety recommendations previously issued by federal investigators stemming from a deadly 2015 prison bus crash in West Texas?

We’re concerned that may be the case. Further, our look into the investigation of this heartbreaking event justifies further scrutiny of the complicated partnership between TxDOT and foreign companies to build, maintain and receive fees from toll-generating express lanes.

We should note up front that TxDOT did not answer our questions about the case. And a spokesman for NTE Mobility Partners Segments 3, a public-private consortium headed by the giant Spanish firm Cintra, denied any wrongdoing in connection with the accident.

But the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating whether the concerns we raise here are justified.

Within just three months of launching its probe, the NTSB released a preliminary report on its factual findings, and said it was focusing on “road treatment strategies used to address the freezing conditions.”

The report noted that two days before the 6 a.m., Feb. 11, 2021, accident, NTE Mobility pre-treated the express lanes with a brine solution. At about 2 a.m. a weather station three miles away reported freezing rain, and an ice-related crash was reported about five miles away just an hour later. NTE Mobility displayed a digital message on the southbound lanes of the North Tarrant Express advising caution because “icy conditions exist,” the NTSB said. There was no further treatment of the roads.

Among the six people who were killed, two were struck after they exited their cars. Witnesses reported hearing screams and cries for help from drivers and passengers pinned in their vehicles. First responders struggled for hours to rescue victims, some of them injuring themselves on the icy pavement doing so.

The NTSB said it could not answer our questions about its inquiry. But its chief of highway investigations told us, through a spokesperson, that “you might be interested” in the agency’s investigation of one of the worst traffic accidents in Texas history.

In January 2015, a prison bus traveling along an icy Interstate 20 outside Odessa flew off an embankment and into a Union Pacific freight train below traveling underneath the overpass. Ten people died, including 8 handcuffed inmates and two correctional officers. Five others were injured.

The NTSB’s final report in May 2016 included a safety recommendation to TxDOT that the agency “revise your policies” to be in line with National Cooperative Highway Research Program guidelines “to include spot treatment of interstate highway bridge decks, use of abrasives, and proper application rates for liquid anti-icing chemicals to account for long cycle times.”

The NTSB said at the time it was “vitally interested in these recommendations because they are designed to prevent accidents and save lives.”

TxDot did not respond to our questions. But it eventually reported to the NTSB in April 2020 that it had included the guidelines in its training program, agency records show. The NTSB found that response acceptable and officially closed its investigation.

NTE Mobility‘s corporate affairs director Robert Hinkle said, “We review and revise our processes for treating our roadways on an ongoing basis.” Officials there “continually provide updated training for our technicians,” and “have always taken the safety of our roadways very seriously.” It remains unclear if NTE Mobility, which is responsible for maintaining the North Tarrant Express, was aware of the NTSB’s previous recommendations to TxDOT.

Asked about the relationship between the partners who make up the consortium, Hinkle directed us to the TxDOT website. It says that it is led by Austin-based Cintra US, the American arm of Cintra, which is a subsidiary of Madrid-based Ferrovial. That global “powerhouse” owns and manages major infrastructure assets, including London’s Heathrow Airport, the website says.

That concerns Beaumont lawyer J. Keith Hyde, who is representing the family of Aaron Watson, one of those killed in the I-35 crash, in a lawsuit against TxDOT, NTE Mobility and numerous other defendants.

Hyde told us he’s still waiting to take depositions, but his early investigation has raised questions about the profits earned by the consortium from the toll roads. He’s concerned the consortium is more interested in collecting money generated by the roads than properly maintaining them.

Hyde said his suit is focused “on the total lack of treatment of the road” in advance of the forecast icy weather. The toll lanes, restricted on both sides by concrete barriers, should have been shut down, particularly after the earlier accident was reported, he said.

The Watson family’s lawsuit is one of ten already filed across the state, and many more are expected. So far the cases have been consolidated in a multidistrict litigation pre-trial court in Tarrant County to handle proceedings common to the cases. This means a full discovery of the facts surrounding this terrible event is likely years away.

In the meantime, we eagerly anticipate the NTSB’s final report. Will it show that the roads traveled by those unsuspecting, early morning commuters were improperly anti-iced? Should they have been re-treated or shut down altogether? That’s what NTE Mobility this past winter did when ice once again hit the area.

These are the questions that trouble us, and should trouble all road travelers until we have the answers.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. September 21, 2022.

Editorial: Ken Paxton once again sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong on behalf of Donald Trump

Attorney General Ken Paxton doesn’t always do right by Texas, but never question his loyalty to one man: Donald Trump.

Paxton showed it again Tuesday, rushing to weigh in on Trump’s battle over classified documents seized at his Florida home, Mar-a-Lago. The former president is fighting the Justice Department over whether an independent “special master” should review the documents at issue.

In a certain sense, it’s a classic Paxton case — there’s no interest or standing for the state of Texas and no particular insight or argument Paxton can bring to it. And the 21-page submission to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reads like it.

The state’s brief reads like a greatest hits list of diversions, distractions and irrelevancies. Paxton, writing on behalf of 10 other states who should also examine whether their AGs have enough real work to do, blasts the Biden administration on everything from immigration to the attempt to impose a COVID vaccine mandate on employers.

If you’re looking for a sharp takedown of Vice President Kamala Harris for her statement that the southern border is secure, you’ll find it in Paxton’s op-ed — er, sorry, legal brief. But if you’re interested in substantive discussion of the matter at hand, move on.

But then, sharp legal thinking isn’t the hallmark of Paxton’s tenure. His most obsequious effort on Trump’s behalf came after the 2020 election, when the Texan petitioned the Supreme Court to hear a lawsuit over other states’ election results. That one, handily rejected by the justices, was remarkable for its brazen attempt to both overturn an election and upend federalism. The new filing is, mercifully, not that consequential. But it’s just as flawed.

The list of Paxton’s contempt for the law, official and personal, is getting too long to recap here. Suffice is to say that he shares Trump’s view of following the rules — no problem, as long as it suits his purposes.

The Trump documents fight is important, and it raises complicated constitutional issues. Trump has every right to vigorously press his case, particularly when he might face indictment over his handling of classified material.

But he doesn’t need Texas taxpayers’ help. There’s plenty of work for Paxton’s office to do guarding the state’s interests and pursuing justice. Texans need an AG focused on that, not enhancing his status as Trump’s lickspittle.

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Houston Chronicle. September 22, 2022.

Editorial: Are school closures to blame for big decline in test results?

Amid the usual school supply shopping, classroom decorating and meet the teacher nights, this year’s return to school has been marked by uncertainty and anxiety. Scores of unfilled jobs and more than three-quarters of teachers seriously considering quitting have undercut the usual excitement after more than two tough years since the start of the pandemic.

So, when this year’s results from a national assessment of 9-year-olds’ reading and math performance showed markedly lower scores than decades past, it was yet another demoralizing indicator of how the pandemic has affected our education system.

School closures immediately took the blame.

The commissioner of the test administrator, the National Center for Education Statistics, called the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress “sobering.” Math scores declined seven points while reading scores fell by five points.

“National test results reveal the damage from school closures,” declared the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, blaming teachers’ unions. The slightly more sympathetic Washington Post editorial board wrote, “Two decades of academic progress have been erased.”

Summing up the impact of two years of disruption is not as simple as the term “learning loss” suggests.

While the results confirm fears that students did indeed experience some truly disruptive circumstances, it isn’t clear that virtual learning deserves all the blame.

School closures were far from uniform. And our educational landscape certainly isn’t. Many of the same challenges facing schools before the pandemic are still here, now amplified by trauma and disruption. Addressing that requires thoughtful approaches, funding and communities as invested in schools as they were in those early days when they realized just how important schools are.

Some 70 percent of the students that took the NAEP assessment said they had some virtual learning in the 2020-2021 school year but the NAEP cautioned against oversimplifications of the data: “(T)hese results cannot be used to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the characteristics or experiences and student achievement.”

The results show that there isn’t an easy narrative behind them, with drops in rural, suburban and urban school districts. Urban school districts remained relatively flat in reading despite drops in math. “We know that those rural districts went back much earlier, yet they still dropped,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers.

That’s partly because there were indications that virtual learning was far from a universal experience, constrained by preexisting inequalities that have long shaped the educational landscape.

Only 58 percent of lower-performing students said they had a desktop computer, laptop or tablet available all the time compared to 83 percent of higher-performing students. Likewise only 26 percent of lower-performing students had access to high-speed internet at least some of the time and only 30 percent had a quiet place to work some of the time, compared to 43 and 45 percent respectively for higher-performing students.

In Houston ISD, 21 percent of families said they had limited or no internet access in a survey conducted, it should be noted, online and early in the pandemic. Most had wifi or high-speed internet but for those that didn’t, the district’s Sanctuaries of Learning program partnered with churches to offer students a place to learn and work, particularly for those with working parents.

Virtual learning was not the only change many families experienced during the pandemic. That same survey found that more than a third of families were earning less money and more than 1 in 10 lost their jobs and an additional 1 in 10 had to take time off work without pay. These hardships spilled over into emotional well being, too, where more than a third of families said they felt overwhelmed.

“It’s multi-faceted, it’s not just ‘loss,’” Sara Hall, a high school English teacher in Houston said, considering the confluence of complications she’s seeing in her classroom now.

The view from her classroom is a bit different than the narratives she often hears repeated outside.

“I have the same issues I had pre-pandemic,” she said. Though going virtual was a challenge, she said it gave her a chance to work one-on-one with students and find new ways for the students to work together, too. All in all, her students this year are just as capable. The struggle has been in helping everyone get reacclimated to the school environment and addressing social and emotional needs that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“There was already trauma in schools,” Hall said, “but now we’re dealing with these kids and we have a very high number of kids who lost immediate members of their family.”

An estimated 209,700 children across the country lost one or both parents due to COVID. That’s more than every single student in Houston ISD.

“What is the metric we’re comparing them to? Kids that didn’t go through a pandemic? That didn’t have their lives turned upside down?” Hall asked.

School closures were disruptive. No doubt. Parents were justified in their concern for their students. For those parents, who care deeply about learning and equity, the work is not finished just because the school doors are open again.

There is additional federal funding coming to schools and some have suggested using it to add those extra supports now for students, including considering longer school years, something Capo said should be on the table with the right structure.

The challenges of the pandemic — just like the pandemic itself — are not over and we will only meet them if we work together in the best interests of learning. Getting back in the classroom is good but it’s not enough.

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