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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Headlines

Local News
College Station School District Group Boosts Teachers

According to an article in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, College Station School District employees managed to raise $20,003 in just one month for teacher scholarships. The funds, which will help teachers employ innovative lessons in their classrooms, were raised through the Education Foundation's employee giving campaign, conducted last month. Foundation director Teresa Benden said the campaign was an effort to make giving as easy as possible. Foundation members encourage participation over amounts donated. Departments that had the highest participation rate were given tokens of appreciation. Timber Academy had 100 percent participation.

Local Politics
District 14 Field Split on School Vouchers

Two Republicans, a Democrat and a Libertarian took the stage this week night at the first Bryan-College Station Tea Party debate for the District 14 state House seat vacated by Fred Brown. The Bryan-College Station reports that all the candidates in the special election, except Republican Rebecca Boenigk, who called organizers before the event to inform them she wouldn't be able to attend, fielded questions from moderator Mark Gillar on topics ranging from education reform to border security and property rights. Often during the debate at the College Station Conference Center, all the candidates were in agreement on their answers. When the questions dealt with limiting federal oversight, all agreed that limiting the role and scope of the federal government would be key in an economic recovery. But some questions drew out differences among the contenders, like the use of education vouchers, which are certificates issued by the government that parents of private school children can use to help pay tuition. Joshua Baker, the Libertarian candidate, said he did support the use of vouchers. Republican John Raney said he wouldn't take a stance on the matter, but thought the use of vouchers could be good free-market competition and might motivate public schools to perform better. Bob Yancy, also running as a Republican, said he would not support the use of voucher programs as they exist now, but would be in favor of a small pilot program testing them. Judy LeUnes, the lone Democrat in the race and a long-time school teacher, said she could never support a voucher program.

Texas A&M News
Report Finds 570 Jobs Slashed at A&M

According to an article in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, in the last year, Texas A&M's budget reductions claimed 570 faculty and staff positions even as enrollment increased by 925 students, according to a report provided recently to A&M System Chancellor John Sharp. The one-page summary was to give Sharp, who just began as chief of the 11-university System last month, a glance at the impact of recent state budget reductions on the flagship College Station campus. Texas A&M University Provost Karan Watson also provided an update last week to the Faculty Senate. From fall 2010 to fall 2011, Texas A&M has seen a reduction of 253 faculty positions, including 141 tenured or tenure-track faculty members. That includes 105 faculty members who took a buyout from the Voluntary Separation Program, a $16 million effort to offer one-time payments to save on recurring salary costs and provide flexibility in the budget. The cuts also took a toll on staff. The university cut 317 budgeted staff positions, in addition to reductions in part-time student worker positions and graduate assistantships. With fewer faculty members and more students, course sections have decreased by 1.5 percent and class sizes have increased by 3.5 percent.

National News
Poverty Rates Up in Most US States and Cities

The ranks of the poor rose in almost all U.S. states and cities in 2010, despite the end of the longest and deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression the year before, U.S. Census data released on this week showed. The Chicago Tribune reports that Mississippi and New Mexico had the highest poverty rates, with more than one out of every five people in each state living in poverty. Mississippi's poverty rate led, at 22.4 percent, followed by New Mexico at 20.4 percent. New Hampshire had the lowest poverty rate, at 8.3 percent, making it the only state with a poverty rate below 10 percent. Twelve states had poverty rates above 17 percent, up from five in 2009, while poverty rates in 10 metropolitan areas topped 18 percent, the data showed. The U.S. recession that began in 2007 took a steep toll across the country, sparing only a few places from rising joblessness and crashing incomes. More than a year after the recession officially ended in 2009, the U.S. unemployment rate remains above 9 percent; the poverty rate rose to 15.3 percent in 2010 from 14.3 percent in 2009.

National Politics
Lawmakers Grill Texas University Regents on Low Student Diversity

University of Texas and Texas A&M officials faced criticism from lawmakers for their systems’ lack of diversity Monday, at a marathon hearing by of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence. State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) raised the issue of diversity in the student population, calling UT and A&M’s rates of minority enrollment “an embarrassment,” given that Texas is less than 50 percent white. At A&M, Latino enrollment is 15.2 percent and black enrollment is 3.4%, while at UT, Latino enrollment is 20 percent and black enrollment is 4.6 percent. The committee also addressed the controversial reform proposals that have dogged the state’s public universities for the last few years — a subject that occupied it for most of its first meeting last month, too. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) asked current regents from the University of Houston, University of North Texas, Texas Tech University, and Texas State University about actions taken to implement the so-called “seven breakthrough solutions,” reform proposals backed by Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Regents responded with vague answers, saying that the solutions are in the background, but don’t drive policy. Richard Box, Chair of the A&M System Board of Regents, called the solutions a “moot point,” saying that A&M has moved past them, as has the TPPF.

Domestic Policy
Legislation Would Encourage Foreigners to Buy US Homes

American consumers and the federal government haven't been able to bail out the sinking U.S. real estate market. Now wealthy Chinese, Canadians and other foreign buyers could get their chance. Two U.S. senators have introduced a bill that would allow foreigners who spend at least $500,000 on residential property to obtain visas allowing them to live in the United States. The plan could be a boon to California, which has become a popular real estate market for foreigners, particularly those from China. Nationwide, residential sales to foreigners and recent immigrants totaled $82 billion in the 12-month period ended March 31, up from $66 billion the previous year, according to the National Assn. of Realtors. California accounted for 12% of those sales, second only to Florida. The bipartisan proposal, part of a package that also would make it easier for international tourists to visit the U.S., is similar to an existing program that puts foreigners on a fast track to a green card if they invest at least $500,000 in an American business that creates at least 10 jobs.

Education
Community College Dropouts Costing Texas

Taxpayers spend more than $74 million a year educating Texas community college students who drop out within a year. The national tab reached nearly $1 billion for the 2008-09 school year, according to a study released this week by the American Institutes for Research. The study looked only at students enrolled for the first time, as full-time students, and considered state and local tax appropriations for those students, as well as the state and federal financial aid they received. The cost of educating first-time HCC students who later dropped out was estimated at $4.1 million in 2008-09, including $3.1 million in state appropriations and local property taxes and $772,136 in financial aid grants made directly to students. For Lone Star College, it was $3.8 million, and for San Jacinto College, $3.6 million. About 12 percent of Texas community college students earn a degree within three years, although about one-third do so within six years. By comparison, about half of Texas students attending a four-year university earn a degree within six years.

Environment
New Federal Forecast Says Drought to Worsen Over Winter

While already-sodden northern regions of the United States can expect above-average rains this winter, the worst one-year drought in Texas history looks set to persist in the coming months, federal forecasters said this week. It is "most likely that severe drought will persist through the winter" in the Southern Plains, said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA's Climate Predictions Center, speaking on a press call timed with the release of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Winter Outlook, which covers the months of December through February. Southern parts of the United States, including Texas, are likely to be warmer and dryer than normal during the winter, Halpert said. The main reason is that La Nina — an intermittent Pacific Ocean phenomenon that was the chief cause of the drought — has returned, and while it is "weaker than what was experienced during this time last year," Halpert said, it has potential for strengthening. La Nina does not always bring warmer and drier conditions to the South, Halpert said, but typically it does — though a climate "curveball" that would scramble the usual patterns is always possible.

Immigrant Rights
Texas ACLU Files Lawsuit Against ICE

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas filed a lawsuit in federal district court this week seeking damages for three women who were allegedly sexually assaulted at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center in Taylor, and several others who experienced similar trauma. Among others, the ACLU sued three ICE officials, the Corrections Corporation of America, which manages the Hutto facility, the former facility administrator, and Donald Dunn, a former guard at the Hutto facility. Dunn pleaded guilty in state court to three counts of official oppression and two counts of unlawful restraint based on alleged assaults of five women, according to the ACLU. Separately, Dunn has been charged with four other federal counts of criminal violation of civil rights, and he is awaiting sentencing on two of them. The three plaintiffs in the lawsuit are identified as Sarah Doe, 24, from Africa, Kimberly Doe, a 37-year-old mother of three from South America, and Raquel Doe, a 34-year-old mother of four from Central America. All three women were seeking asylum in the United States, fleeing violence in their home countries, according to an ACLU press release.

Reproductive Rights
Oklahoma Judge Halts Law Barring Drug-Induced Abortions

A judge blocked a new Oklahoma law on Wednesday that would have prohibited women in the state from having medication-induced abortions to end unwanted early-term pregnancies. The law had been scheduled to go into effect on November 1, but state District Judge Dan Owens issued a temporary restraining order in a victory for abortion rights advocates. Nova Health Systems, which operates a clinic in Tulsa, and the nonprofit Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice had filed a lawsuit to block the law. They will ask Owens to issue a permanent injunction to kill the law, said attorney Michelle Mohaved of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the plaintiffs. She said she was "thrilled" by the ruling. Oklahoma lawmakers approved the law barring drug-induced abortions earlier this year, saying they were seeking to protect women's health. A similar law in North Dakota has also been blocked in the courts and remains under review.

GLBT Issues
Gay Divorce Cases Before Texas Supreme Court

Nearly three years after the gay Dallas resident known as J.B. filed an uncontested petition for a divorce from his husband, H.B., the couple’s matrimonial fate rests in the hands of the state’s highest court. The Texas Supreme Court recently requested briefs from both sides as justices decide if they’ll review the issue of whether same-sex couples legally married elsewhere can divorce in Texas. J.B. and H.B. were married in Massachusetts in 2006 before moving to Dallas. After J.B. filed his petition for divorce in January 2009, Democratic State District Judge Tena Callahan of Dallas ruled in October of that year that she had jurisdiction to hear the case — and in doing so declared Texas’ bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott immediately intervened and appealed Callahan’s decision, which the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas overturned last year, ruling that Texas judges cannot grant same-sex divorces because the state doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage. In February, J.B.’s attorneys at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld filed their petition for review to the Texas Supreme Court. J.B. and H.B.’s is one of two same-sex divorce cases currently pending before the Texas Supreme Court. The panel has also requested briefs in State of Texas v. Angelique Naylor and Sabrina Daly.

Race & Racism
US Rights Watchdog Accuses FBI of Racial Profiling

A leading U.S. civil liberties group on Thursday accused the Federal Bureau of Investigation of engaging in unconstitutional racial profiling of Muslims and other minorities, citing internal documents. The American Civil Liberties Union said memoranda it received under Freedom of Information requests and lawsuits showed the FBI was associating criminal acts with racial and ethnic groups and then using census data and other information to profile entire communities. The group pointed to 2009 memos from FBI offices in Detroit, Atlanta and San Francisco, among others, that discussed potential criminal activities in Muslim, black and Asian communities, respectively. The ACLU accused the FBI of exploiting a loophole in federal guidelines issued by its parent organization, the U.S. Justice Department, meant to limit such targeting to terrorism and border security investigations.

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