Naked City

Off the Desk

The derailers are mounting a final campaign to kill what is clearly the best solution to the city's growing traffic crisis. Mike Levy is circulating a letter, "not written in my capacity as founder and publisher of Texas Monthly, but as a very concerned citizen of Austin," advancing the same argument as former City Council member Max Nofziger, a consultant for light rail opponents. Both compare the rail proposal on Tuesday's ballot to the South Texas Nuclear Project, or "the Nuke." A stretch, at best, if not quite as disingenuous as Nofziger's lifting a line from a decidedly pro-light rail article in this publication and using it in his anti-light rail op-ed in this issue.

The anti-rail fight puts Levy and Nofziger in bed with one of the more interesting multimillionaires in the state: tort reformer and Christian right zealot James Leininger of San Antonio. Leininger is pro-voucher, pro-school prayer, anti-abortion, and anti-tax -- in a state that is 50th in per capita government spending. He defines the extreme Christian right of the Republican Party and is the founding funding father of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing think tank in San Antonio. TPPF's studies are anything but objective. Yet TPPF's light rail study provides much of the grist for the anti-light rail propaganda mill. The movement has attracted so many conservative gadflies that they even have Paul Weyrich -- Ronald Reagan's mailman, who did much of the direct mail for the Republican extreme right -- on board. "It's the fluoridated water of the 21st century," observes Chronicle light-rail writer Mike Clark-Madison.

Austin water is fluoridated, but for more on light rail, City Council Member Daryl Slusher goes up against former council member Nofziger in a one-hour debate on Cable Channel 6. The debate, broadcast live on Wednesday, Nov. 1, will run again at 6pm, Saturday, Nov. 4; 6pm, Sunday, Nov. 5; and 5pm, Monday, Nov. 6. As moderator of the debate, I will set aside my opinion on light rail and ask questions submitted by pro- and anti-light rail organizations.

Another odd mix of local politicians had Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, and City Council Members Jackie Goodman and Danny Thomas joining Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, at an Oct. 28 open house at the McCullough Academy of Excellence charter school in Krusee's district -- a PR event for the school and charter schools in general. Krusee's support of charter school legislation has drawn criticism during past legislative sessions -- most recently from Samantha Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network, a coalition of religious and secular leaders that monitors the work of the extreme right in Texas. Krusee sits on the board of the Advantage charter school chain that operates schools in Dallas, Houston, Midland, and San Antonio. Charter schools are operated by nonprofit foundations (often religious), but funded with tax dollars. So Krusee promotes the shift of tax dollars to charter schools while he serves on a charter school board. And Smoot questioned the "nonprofit" nature of the Advantage schools, observing that tax dollars pass through Advantage and into the account of the for-profit Massachusetts company that operates the schools.

Moreover, "there's no evidence that these things are working," Smoot said, citing TAAS results that have 39% of charter students passing the standard state test, compared to 80% of public school students. "The public schools' economically disadvantaged children are passing the TAAS at 69% rate," Smoot added.

There are also problems with fly-by-night charters, as Dukes knows. Last year, the Academy of Austin, in Dukes' East Austin district, quietly packed up and left town with no notice to parents -- who showed up to drop children off at an locked, empty building. Dukes protested, but the U-Hauls were gone and most of the kids went back to the public schools that remain in operation when charters fold.

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