Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What is More Important?

Starting with the phrase “20 in 20” and continuing through the Governor’s threats to note all who oppose “his” 20 items, this special session has been particularly galling.  When I say “his” agenda, I think we all know that this is not the Governor’s at all but that of the LG.  Pandering to the LG is a sad way to run the State but, after all, the election cycle has started along with the headline grab!

What I find most troubling is the effort by the LG to push through legislation with somewhat limited discussion.  His moves to quash parliamentary procedures in order to get “his way” do not serve the majority of the citizens in the State despite his statements that he is doing what citizens want to have done.  And, so far at least, that seems to be working for him … but there is still hope that sanity will prevail in the House.

The Speaker has been accused of plodding through the items on the Governor’s call but what is wrong with a thorough vetting and discussion of the issues impacting each area?  In fact, Ross Ramsey of the Texas Tribune wrote an article earlier this week in which he referenced the tortoise (House) and the hare (Senate).  Under the Speaker's leadership and the leadership of Public Education committee Chairman Huberty, I am hopeful that the discussions from the 85th will continue and that the House will continue to hold the line on an anti-voucher (by any name) position as well as focusing on how to adequately fund our public school system.

I doubt seriously that the LG’s goal of “20 in 20” will be achieved although there is certainly a possibility (and increasing probability) that the Senate will pass legislation addressing each of the items on the Governor’s call.  But is that what this is really all about?  Perhaps the only good news is that any shortening of the special session would result in some savings of the monies wasted in calling this session. 

I am not suggesting that the session go the full 30 days but what seems most important is a thorough vetting of ideas and legislation, not just a race to see how quickly the legislature can get to the finish line in addressing each item.  As sanity prevails in the House, regardless of the outcomes and whether decisions align with my personal interests, I hope that the topics will get the attention they deserve and that, rather than a headline grab, the legislature focuses on doing the right thing, not just the politics and bullying driving actions in the Senate.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What Makes a “Great State”?

Gov. Abbott announced his bid for reelection in 2018 at a press conference last week, saying that, “To keep Texas the greatest state in America, I’m running for re-election as Governor of Texas.”  In his term as governor, he has done little to make any of this “vision” (what’s a vision if no one knows about it or acts on it?) become a reality.  In fact, the drop to number 4 in business ranking should cause alarm among all of us and this may just be a precursor to a further drop if the Governor (or is it the LG speaking through the governor?) continues to push the unnecessary and damaging bathroom bill and other questionable legislation.  Perhaps that’s a blog for another day but I got to thinking about some of the factors that make a state a great state.

At the top of any list is the education system in the state and it is clearly under attack on multiple fronts, led by the governor as well as the Lt. Governor.  The LG is clearly an enemy of public education, despite the attempt at a headline grab on July 13, and there are those in the Senate who will follow him wherever he goes.  Whatever happened to the day when those elected to serve us actually listened to us and represented us?

How can our public education system, one whose role is clearly defined in Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution, be continually attacked and underfunded without serious repercussions over the long haul?  And is that fair to the students who have become pawns in the games being played in the Senate?   When is enough enough?

Governor, this “vision” rings very hollow with me.  How do your repeated challenges to public education, including the suggestion (without merit and evidence) that administrative expense is too high, help to support our public education system?  On what basis can you make the comments?  If you have evidence to support your claims, please share it with us; it’s time for the headline grab to stop.  If you are truly interested and focused on making Texas “the greatest state in America”, actions and not words are in order.  Can we count on you actually performing the office to which you were elected? 

Our students and teachers deserve better.  The continual challenges to the role of teachers, the ongoing underfunding of a school finance system that “meets minimum constitutional requirements” and the push for vouchers (by any name) are real threats to the long term opportunity to keep Texas a “great state”.  With the special session opening tomorrow, it’s time to make education a priority, not just a headline for political gain.

The Threat (and Opportunity) of a Special Session

As we anticipate the opening of the special session on July 18, I don’t know that any of us has an understanding of how it might progress over the next 30 days.  With the posturing by the governor, LG and Speaker, it’s difficult for me to believe that there will be any real resolution of the items on the Governor’s list … and that would be a good thing.

Sadly, this list reflects the list of the LG’s priorities, not necessarily those of citizens across the State.  Sure, there are groups that support each of the items but I have a hard time believing that these groups are anything other than a minority (but well-funded) voice.  And it’s the dollars that seem to be doing the talking.

Whether the issue relates to teacher raises (suggesting that this be funded by moving dollars within an existing budget is an insult to all educators), retention bonuses (again, moving dollars around without increasing funding), or vouchers (by any name), the governor and LG have made it very clear that they would like to orchestrate a dismantling of public education in Texas.  And that is one of the tenets that will make Texas a “great state”?

I really am very hopeful that the Speaker and Chairman Huberty will be able to hold the line on the work that they accomplished during the 85th session.  Under the leadership of both, the House has made it very clear that public education is a priority, whether in the form of true increased funding (not the charade of moving dollars around) or a continued rejection of vouchers (by any name).  All of us as public education advocates need to make our voices heard and to constantly reinforce and express support for the work in the House.

A great starting point is the Texans for Public Education rally in Austin this afternoon.  A rally by itself will not necessarily make a huge impact but it does start to send a signal that there is overwhelming support for our public education system.  The challenge will be to build on this and to keep building for at least the next 30 days or until the special session ends.  Those with the money who are backing the anti-public education sentiment can only achieve so much if those supporting public education continue to make education a priority.

Game on!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Headlines and Texas “Leadership”

The 85th regular session proved to be an opportunity lost for public education despite the best efforts of House leaders and some in the Senate.  What should have included a focus on addressing the “minimum constitutional requirements” of the school finance system turned into a bartering endeavor by “leadership” in the Senate.  To suggest that either the Lt. Governor or chair of the Senate Education Committee were even remotely interested in solving the school finance challenges would be a stretch; their interests lie much more in trying to garner headlines that tug at the emotions of people, especially parents of children with special needs.  What a sad day when headlines are more important than the well-being of more than 5.3 million students.

And now the governor, largely missing during the 85th, has decided to weigh in on what he sees as critical items to address during the upcoming special session.  To me, this is largely another headline grab largely fueled by being outflanked by Senate “leadership”; he had to do something and the easiest (and seemingly least risky) thing for him to do was to align with the LG and committee Chair.  But if things go as they should given the level of dissatisfaction and angst in the public education community, perhaps the governor’s plot to “steal” back the headlines will backfire; candidly, shame on all of us if it doesn’t!

While certainly disappointed but not surprised that the LG chose to hold school finance hostage for a voucher (by any name) program, what is even more galling right now is the inclusion of a $1000 teacher raise as one of the priorities of the special session.  But it sure does make a good headline!  After all, who wouldn’t agree that teachers are due more than the current salary structure in Texas public schools?  But to suggest that this raise must be funded not by the state but by district budgets is not only shortsighted but an insult to districts and teachers themselves. 

With the percent of funding by the state falling each year, where does the governor think districts can find the funds to provide these raises?  Does he have any concept of what goes on in a public school district and how districts are challenged to manage enrollment growth?  Speaking of enrollment growth, statements that the legislature is funding enrollment growth also make for a great headline.  But do we want to tread water and not provide enhanced programs and other offerings to all students?  Why do we focus on sub-groups such as kids with special needs or kids new to the system?  Oh, yeah, great headlines.

What the governor and LG are doing is to basically divert attention from the issues that they are unwilling to address.  And they are using headlines to move the ball down the field.  So now the hard part begins, not for them but for the kids and all of us who support public education.  Public education advocates have to speak out (and vote) by letting all stakeholders (and that’s all of us whether we have kids in schools or not) know that public education is at risk if nothing changes.  Imagine the headline when schools close or districts consolidate; the state will take no responsibility but the LG will use it to reinforce his support of vouchers (by any name).

It’s truly a sad day when headlines are more important than kids, when responsibility for funding public education continues to shift more and more to the districts themselves.  All of this while the argument is made that we need property tax reform, another great headline.  Let’s pull together as we are starting to do to make education a priority in the State of Texas.  Our kids deserve better.  Now that makes a great headline!


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Redefining “Compromise”

In early June, I wrote a blog entitled "The Lost Art of Compromise" (click here to read that post) in which I lamented the inability or unwillingness of many in the legislature to try to work toward solutions that, while not perfect for everyone, would at least provide some balance in addressing the needs of a broad base of constituents.  Of course, since I am writing about public education, my focus is on the failures of the legislature, despite the best efforts of Chairman Hubertry, most in the House and some in the Senate, to come to a consensus on how to address the school finance issue defined in the Texas Supreme Court ruling.

I had a couple of people comment to me that compromise had become a four letter word and that moving off of a hard line position could be viewed as a sign of weakness by those who concede.  So what we found in the end was that, as I defined in the post, absolute winners create absolute losers.  While there really were no winners other than the headline grab by the LG and others, it’s clear that Texas public education students are the losers in this debate.

So I got to thinking about a better word or phrase to define what should be a process to come to some consensus that benefits a broad cross section of the populace.   Still struggling with that, I posed the question to a House representative who suggested to me that a better way to look at this is “to find common ground”.  I agree that this does seem to have a much more positive connotation since it suggests that there are ways for each faction to gain something in the discussion.

Would that have made any impact on the 11th hour discussions about vouchers (by any name) and school finance?  Perhaps not since, after all, both sides had put a stake in the ground and seemed unwilling to move off of their position.  Is it an opportunity to effect some movement in the discussion (regardless of topic) in the upcoming special session?  Perhaps but I don’t know if there is a willingness on either side to move toward common ground.

I certainly like “finding common ground” a whole lot better than the word “compromise”.  The intent might be the same but the outcome seems to be a much more positive focus.  Without the effort to find common ground, there will be no outcome focused on making education a priority for more than 5.3 million public education students.  If that happens, we are all losers!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Policy Over Party

I met last week with a former TX legislator who has tremendous passion for our kids and for the well-being of all citizens in the State of Texas (unlike some of those in Austin).  We were discussing the mess that is Austin, primarily in the Senate, when it comes to discussions about our public schools and she mentioned the phrase, "policy over party"; what a great way to think about how we vote.

I grew up in a strong Republican household and my dad was involved in politics at both the state and federal level.  So it was pretty easy for me to conclude that voting for Republicans was the right (no pun intended) thing to do.  And to be honest, that is pretty much how I have voted my entire life.  If an individual had an "R" behind their name, that made them a candidate of choice for me, with very few exceptions.

But the movement of some of the Republican Party from a more moderate position to the extreme right embodied by the Tea Party certainly has shifted the way in which I cast my vote each election.  However, I have to admit that not wanting to vote for a Tea Party candidate didn't necessarily mean that I cast a vote for a Democrat.  In fact, in the last race for Lt. Governor, I voted for neither candidate.  I also didn't cast a vote for a gubernatorial candidate, largely because I thought that there was no good Republican candidate.  In both races, sadly, it looks like I was right.  Of course, not casting a vote for any candidate is no different than not voting although I did cast a ballot for all other positions. 

So back to "policy over party".  Over the past 3-4 years, and increasingly since the beginning of the 85th session in January, I have started to look at where candidates stand relative to public education before peeling back the onion to see where they stand on other issues facing all of us.  What I have found is that doing so by eliminating the D, R, I or other party affiliation causes me to really look at the candidate and their policy perspectives.

Not surprisingly, on social issues, I now find myself as somewhat of a centrist.  Whether it's the extreme politics of the LG or the tactics of the president, I no longer look at the party affiliation but where the individual stands relative to my personal beliefs and attitudes.  The House Republicans certainly are worthy of support but I am hard pressed to find more than 3 or 4 R's in the Senate whose beliefs align very well with mine.  The bottom line is that there are some who are willing to make education a priority and party affiliation is not necessarily the attribute that defines their beliefs (and votes).  For me, it is now a perspective of policy over party!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Perfect Storm

I don't get it!  I understand (I think) why the governor felt a need to call a special session but have to wonder why he chose to include 19 specific items (other than sunset legislation) in his call.  Legislators in the 85th proved incapable of coming to any sort of an agreement on many issues, thus the need according to the governor for a special session.  But 19 separate items?  How in the heck does he expect the legislature to be able to address these in the maximum 30 day time frame?  I guess we'll see.

But what are most troubling and confusing to me are the items that are focused on public education, including special education vouchers and a desired $1000 raise for each teacher in the state.  While a noble cause, who is going to pay for it?  During the just concluded session, there was an attempt to attach fiscal notes to legislation but that is apparently not even a consideration here, let alone a discussion topic.  And all of this is to be done on the backs of an already Supreme Court-defined underfunded school finance system.  Does "minimum constitutional requirements" not resonate with those supposedly elected to serve us?

I saw a quick analysis today that was a real eye opener for me.  Providing a $1000 raise per teacher (while certainly deserved) will cost districts upwards of $700M over the biennium and that's before adding the loadings that are incurred.  When you consider the additional costs to be incurred, that number likely goes north of $1B.  So I tried to figure the logic here, acknowledging that that may be my big mistake since there has been little logic in what has come out of the Senate as it relates to public education.  Many districts are losing their hold harmless funding and are now being asked to absorb the cost of these salary increases, and that's before even figuring the impact of what a special education voucher might mean financially to districts.

Talk about a perfect storm that plays right into the hands of the Lt. Governor.  He has not supported public education and now has a foundation as defined in the governor's call that validates his personal agenda.  It's truly sad that nowhere in all of this have the needs of more than 5 million public education students been considered.  When do we reach a point when legislators are focused on making education, the engine of a productive economy, a priority?  This should be a call to all of us to engage and start to think about how we change the makeup of the legislature in the next general election.  We need to make ourselves part of the solution to the perfect storm before it's too late.