Capitol Contentions

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Posted April 4, 2007 by Static in News

Did State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, insult two Fort Worth-area black ministers last week? That’s what the ministers are saying, while Whitmire’s office says it never happened.

Local pastors Kyev Tatum and Tom Franklin are adamant that, when they met with him as part of a delegation of religious leaders supporting school vouchers, Whitmire told them, “Go back to the boys who sent you and tell them I’m not going to support school choice.” Boys who sent you? Said to black men? Tatum and Franklin said it happened as they were leaving.

The accusation is “absolutely incorrect,” Whitmire’s legislative director told Static. “I met with those gentlemen first,” Lara Wendler said, “and I was in the meeting the whole time. At no time did the senator say such a thing.” The veteran legislator’s stand on vouchers, she said, has always been clear: He opposes them because he believes that tax money should be dedicated to improving public school education and not diverted to private or religious schools. Whitmire was unavailable to comment.

Tatum and Franklin stand by their accusation. “I heard him say it to Brother Tatum as we were in the hall, leaving,” Franklin said.

“He was insulting,” Tatum said, “by using the word ‘boys’ and for saying we were carrying the water for others, when we were there as religious leaders who have been in the trenches and have strong convictions that the public schools are failing minority kids.” In defense of vouchers – an item that appears to be dead for this session – Tatum cited the 120,000 predominantly minority kids who drop out of Texas schools each year. He and Franklin and the other black, Jewish, and Hispanic religious leaders who met with Whitmire are part of a statewide coalition called Ministers for Education, which is lobbying for creation of a program to give up to $8,500 to families who want to transfer their kids from poor-performing schools to better ones, public or private. That differs from traditional voucher programs, Tatum said, in that the money would come from a dedicated fund and would not reduce the state or the local tax dollars that now go to public schools. “But we never got to discuss this with Whitmire,” he said.

Distributed Pride

In the last couple of years, Static and its fellow scribes at Fort Worth Weekly have worked with a bunch of college journalists through a project begun by ex-Weekleteer (and Pulitzer Prize-winner) Dan Malone, now teaching at Tarleton State University. Dan calls it “distributed journalism,” and the idea is for students, with professional guidance, to carry out investigations involving lots of open-records requests. The UNT’s Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism (where Dan was then teaching), the Freedom of Information Institute of Texas, and the Weekly were key players.

The first investigation found that many Texas colleges fail to adequately warn students of crime happening around their campuses, as required by federal law. Students under Craig Flournoy, another Pulitzer Prize-winner now teaching at SMU, put together a devastating story in the Dallas Observer about a blighted, crime-ridden dorm at UT-Dallas. The stories won numerous awards and prompted federal and local investigations and policy changes.

The next year, UNT students took a long look at the use of Tasers by Texas law enforcement agencies. With heavy use of open-records requests (fought or illegally ignored by many agencies), the students found case after case in which the “less lethal” weapons were being used, not to save lives or prevent injury, but for things like punishing jail inmates for not moving quickly enough or to stop someone from playing a guitar on the sidewalk. Their findings ran as a cover story in the Weekly (“A Stunning Toll,” March 8, 2006). Fort Worth State Rep. Lon Burnam has filed legislation to correct Taser abuses, based on that and other Weekly reports.

Last week, Static is ecstatic to say, the Investigative Reporters and Editors, one of the most respected national journalism groups in the country, gave “A Stunning Toll” its student achievement award. Not too shabby for an effort that often, because of the sheer volume of information and participants, often seemed like managing a small, fractious country. Sa-lute.


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