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Are Texas Schools Paying The Price Of Rick Perry's Presidential Ambitions?

A leading Republican presidential candidate, Perry boasts about a “Texas miracle” with the economy. A trip to the state finds some strident Democratic critics of his education policy, which they say is victim of his presidential campaign's boasts

Rick Perry (Gage Skidmore)
Rick Perry (Gage Skidmore)
Corine Lesnes

FORT WORTH – At age 14, Senator Wendy Davis was selling fruit juice at a local mall. At 19, she was a single mother living in a trailer park, a collection of caravans reserved for the poor. She escaped these circumstances through the public school system. At a community college, she was allowed to catch up on the high school she had missed. The system worked so well that years later, she was admitted to the prestigious Harvard Law School.

Since then, Davis has been a staunch defender of public schools. In late May, she became a heroine among local Democrats when she single-handedly blocked the passage of the Finance Act, which would have cut $4.5 billion from education spending. Her maneuver forced Texas Governor Rick Perry to call a special session of the state Legislature. Although the plan was eventually voted in, Wendy Davis has not since given up. "Texas Miracle? It's a joke," she said. "We are ranked 47th out of 50 states with respect to public education spending. And we have the largest population of adults who don't have a high school diploma!"

Among the savings proposed by Governor Perry to reduce the Texas deficit by $27 billion, cuts in education elicited the strongest public reaction. Some 30,000 people took to the streets of the state capital, Austin, in one of the largest demonstrations in recent memory. At the "Save Texas Schools' conference held in Fort Worth in late September, local school district officials shared their distress. "We have prepared a survival plan," said Gene Buinger, Superintendent of the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district, who, with a budget of $150 million for 21,000 students, has already cut $8 million -- and needs to cut an additional $12 million before the next school year.

Before dismissing teachers, schools have first taken to laying off educational assistants and security guards. Clean up and maintenance is now only done every other day – by the teachers themselves. "We only have two librarians for the whole the district," said Dan Powell, another school official. "And we can't even guarantee one nurse per school."

A return to segregation?

Newly vacated teacher positions remain empty, while the school system admits 80,000 new students each year due to population growth. Exceptions to a 1984 law that prohibits classes bigger than 22 students have now become standard. "Last year we gave six exemptions. This year, 98," said Buinger, whose HEB School District is near Fort Worth.

Buinger gives the example of text books. Since desegregation, he says, the constitutions of southern states require that they must provide textbooks to ensure equality in education. This year, Republicans have decided that, instead of providing the books, they will send money to schools. Schools are now free to buy e-books instead. "The result? They took the opportunity to reduce funding by 47%."

The Democrats are convinced that education has suffered at the cost of Rick Perry's presidential election campaign. "He refused to take any emergency funds, even though there are $6.5 billion still available," fumes Senator Davis. "That way, he can boast of having balanced the state budget." The Left even suspects that some conservatives are trying to dismantle public education. The proof? A 2006 law that reduced local taxes by a third and prohibits any increase without consulting the voters. But with schools largely funded by local taxes, and the population on the rise, the school system is condemned to sink into an even greater deficit.

"They do not want to pay for black and Latino children," said Allen Weeks, founder of Save Texas Schools. "They are trying to reduce the size of government," explains Gene Buinger. "What they want is to give credits to the middle class in order to reduce the costs of private schools."

The Superintendent John Kuhn is moved when he speaks of his mission: "You can reduce our salaries. We'll still be here! Send us your children with disabilities, your homeless kids, your children who do not speak English! We will continue to teach. I do not want to participate in the system of segregation that we are creating here in America."

Senator Wendy Davis, 48, now faces retaliation by her opponents. Her district has been gerrymandered by Republicans who control the redistricting based on the 2010 census. Blacks and Latinos have been lumped in with middle-class suburbs. Regardless, she has maintained her conviction. Some already see her as a prime candidate for the governor's office.

Read more from Le Monde in French

photo - Gage Skidmore

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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