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February 27th, 2013:

Guest post: A response to Sen. Patrick on school choice

Note: The following is a guest post, by Aboubacar Ndiaye. It was sent to me unsolicited. I liked it and agreed to print it, so here it is.

Aboubacar Ndiaye

In an editorial published last Wednesday in the Houston Chronicle, State Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston) again argued for what he sees as education reform. In the article, he proposed increasing the use of online learning, course credit testing, and vocational training programs. He also pushed for removing the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. Glaringly absent was any mention of the voucher initiatives he has introduced in the State Legislature.

Numerous policy experts and other commentators have shown definitively that vouchers do little to improve the lot of the children they are said to help (i.e. smart kids forced to go to failing public schools). According to a report from Raise Your Hand Texas, an education policy group, voucher programs in other states and in the District of Columbia have shown no discernible increase in performance for voucher students at private schools. They also found that vouchers actually benefited wealthier households by effectively giving them state-funded private school discounts.

In the past, proponents of public education like myself have been backed into a rhetorical corner. Because of the state’s radical (and unconstitutional) underfunding of public schools, we have had to focus on fighting for money to support basic education programs. That focus, unfortunately, has left us open to the charge that we are “defending failure.” Though it is hard to talk about remodeling a house while it’s on fire, we make a mistake by not proposing and supporting broad-based reform of education in Texas.

As a product of HISD schools and as a former Math tutor in HISD schools, I’ve seen first hand the impact that underfunding has had on public education. Whether it is crowded classrooms or insufficient learning materials, the educational well-being of Texas students is drastically below what it should be. But as we argue for more money from the State and from local property taxpayers, we must, in the same breath, argue for sensible reforms at failing schools in the State.

For example, while Sen. Patrick’s online education proposal seeks to replace classroom time with online teaching, web-based and interactive learning and tutoring sources added onto a full school schedule has been proven to have great educational benefits. A New York Times investigative feature in December 2011 showed the pitfalls of over-reliance on online education sources, but supplemental resources can help low-income students who may not be able to afford private tutoring otherwise.

Along with adding online learning, we should argue for giving principals, teachers, and parents at underperforming schools more flexibility in the management of their own campuses. That means letting them make decisions about school day and school year length, funding extra teachers and teacher aides to reduce class sizes, and to let them experiment with different curriculum strategies like Double Dose Math Courses and Cooperative Teaching. Individual schools districts and the Texas Education Agency would still have to sign off on proposed changes, but that process should be swift and transparent.

Another element of school reform, one that is garnering bipartisan support in the wake of the STAAR debacle, is reducing the emphasis on high-stakes testing. Over-dependence on testing as an accountability measure has had a terrible impact on the way kids are taught in the state. At the school where I worked, I remember constant benchmark testing, weekend test practice, lessons on test-taking strategies, all of which impeded our ability to actually teach content and reasoning skills.

Lastly, we should not reflexively dismiss the idea of school choice. Sen. Patrick’s proposals seek mainly to undermine public education, but they call attention to a problem that too many of us either ignore or tolerate. Every day, thousands of kids in this state are going to failing, often unsafe, schools. Private school subsidies are not the answer, but more funding and transportation options are needed to support magnet and school choice options within the public system. School districts in Houston, Dallas, and Austin have done a great job increasing school choice options, but their magnet systems are not large enough to meet the demand from parents and students. We must also make sure that the magnet and school choice options are true improvements over the home school, and not the proliferation of “magnet in name only” programs at some HISD campuses.

Many of the proposals I have mentioned require buy-in from communities, parents, teachers, and government officials. None of these reforms are easily implemented or cheap for that matter, but they are necessary. If Texas continues on its current educational trajectory, it will create an undereducated low-skill and low-wage workforce that will force companies to either import its skilled labor from other states or move to those states. As the legislature debates restoring the lost funding from the past legislative session, it should also consider the sensible reforms above.

Aboubacar “Asn” Ndiaye was a Field Organizer on the Harris County Democratic Party’s 2012 Coordinated Campaign, and is currently an independent policy professional.

Battlegound Texas officially launches

You have probably heard by now that Battleground Texas has officially launched.

Spearheaded by organizers of Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 — when Republican nominee Mitt Romney handily carried the Lone Star State — a new push, called “Battleground Texas,” officially launched Tuesday with the goal of seizing shifting demographics to make the state eventually winnable for a Democratic presidential candidate.

Organizers are not, however, projecting when that might happen. Nor are they saying how much money they will need to raise and spend to give Democrats a fighting chance in Texas, where the party hasn’t won a statewide office since 1994.

“With its size and diversity, Texas ought to be a place where local races are hotly contested and anyone who wants to be president has to compete,” said Jeremy Bird, a senior adviser to Battleground Texas who served as field director of Obama’s re-election bid.

Lynda Tran, a spokeswoman for 270 Strategies, the firm behind Battleground Texas, said the group is registered with the Federal Election Commission and the Texas Ethics Commission.

About 70 percent of Hispanics nationwide voted for Obama over Romney in November. The booming Texas population is being driven by Hispanic growth — minorities accounted for nearly 9 of every 10 new residents in the past decade— and Democratic organizers believe the changing face of the state will boost their chances.

I’m just going to point you to some other coverage of this – the Chron, the Trib, Trail Blazers, Politico, BOR, EoW, Jason Stanford, and via PDiddie, some skepticism. There really isn’t that much for me to say here. If these folks do what they way they want to do, they’ll be doing what should have been done starting 20 years ago and has been done successfully of late in several other states. We just won’t know if it’s real or if it’s just more talk until we’ve had a few more elections.

There’s no question that this will be a long-term project, and everyone involved seems to see it that way. As long as the funding is there for that, it’s all good. But recognizing that we’re in for a long, hard slog doesn’t mean that we can’t have some short term goals, too.

But Perry, for one, isn’t buying that Texas will cease to be a Republican stronghold.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last weekend during the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, Perry said the University of Texas would adopt the rival maroon-and-white colors of Texas A&M before the state ever goes blue.

“Democrats are about government getting bigger and bigger and government providing more and more,” Perry told the newspaper. “Texans have never been for that, and Texans never will.”

Never, to paraphrase Prince, is a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else: The 2014 elections. The stated goal of Battleground Texas is to make Texas a swing state in Presidential elections. I’m totally down with that, but we shouldn’t have to wait till 2016 to see a meaningful progress report. While Democrats made a huge stride in turnout from 2004 to 2008 – they backslid a bit in 2012 but were still a good half million votes ahead of 2004 last year – turnout in non-Presidential years has essentially been flat this past decade. Since 2002, only two Democrats have gotten as many as two million votes in an off-year election: John Sharp in 2002 (2,082,081) and Bill White in 2010 (2,106,395). Everyone else has generally been stuck in the 1.6 million to 1.8 million range. Republicans, outside of Rick Perry in the four-way 2006 gubernatorial race, have never been below 2.1 million since 2002. If Battleground Texas wants to show it’s got some game going into 2016, I’d like for them to have a goal of helping every statewide Democrat get at least two million votes next year, with a stretch goal of 2.5 million at the top of the ticket. That’s still unlikely to be enough to win, though it could happen in a 2006 turnout year for Republicans, but it would be close and it would be a loud announcement that they’re very much headed in the right direction. Hand in hand with that would be goals of generally winning races in counties like Harris, Fort Bend, and Hays, winning legislative seats in Dallas and Williamson, and winning seats on the First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals. Making some headway in the suburbs and boosting turnout along the Rio Grande would be nice, too.

Am I asking too much? Maybe, but I don’t really think so. I presume that whatever steps Battleground Texas will take will begin well before the 2014 elections, and I’m sure they’d like to at least have some proof of concept before the 2016 season begins. The good thing about an off-year election is that you already know about a lot of the voters you’d like to target. You just have to persuade them to show up. I don’t know if Battleground Texas plans to make public any goals for 2014, and if they do I won’t blame them if they have a more modest set of targets in mind. But if it were up to me, this is where I’d like the starting point to be.

Harris Health System plans to serve more patients via Medicaid waiver

The story about what they’re going to do leaves a few details out, however.

Harris Health System leaders plan to serve 100,000 new patients in the next three years. That is a 37 percent increase from today, and is particularly ambitious when you consider how many patients the system added in the last year: about 500.

To bridge the enormous gap by the end of 2016, the county hospital district is counting on state and federal approval of a $1.2 billion plan that represents the ambitions of health care providers throughout the region. The plan grows out of the federal government’s decision to grant Texas a waiver from Medicaid rules, allowing it to reimburse providers for charity care and for delivering care in new ways.

The plan, awaiting approval in May, envisions unprecedented cooperation between the district and local private and nonprofit providers.

“That’s a major undertaking. We’re very committed to it. We feel it’s very doable,” Harris Health CEO David Lopez said. “We cannot do it all by ourselves. We need partners with us to help us address the needs of our community.”

[…]

Among the district’s proposals awaiting approval: Build nine new primary care clinics during the next three years, build “quick” clinics next to its emergency rooms where patients who are not in crisis can be seen, outsource more primary care visits to private clinics, and leverage federal funds to support Memorial Hermann and Texas Children’s Hospital’s expansion of primary care services.

Members of Harris County Commissioners Court, which appoints the hospital district’s board, say the waiver plans are too slow in cutting the backlog of patients who cannot get primary care appointments. That waiting list, first identified in fall 2011, is estimated between 91,000 and 104,000 a year.

Commissioner El Franco Lee last week issued a memo with the phrases “reduce waiting lists” and “get patients moving through the system” underlined, calling on Lopez to cut the backlog by outsourcing more doctor visits.

I had a few questions about this after I read the story, so I sent some inquiries to the Harris Health System’s media relations email address. Here are the questions I sent, along with the answers I got:

1. The article says that “the county hospital district is counting on state and federal approval of a $1.2 billion plan”. Where is the money for this coming from? Are there new funding sources being sought, or is this a repurposing of existing funds?

Answer: The $1.2 billion plan in the article refers to the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payments (DSRIP) projects available under the 1115 Medicaid Transformational Waiver Program. Harris Health System serves as the anchor entity for the regional planning for several counties in SE Texas. The Waiver primarily does two things: 1) expands Medicaid managed care to the entire state 2) replaces the Upper Payment Limit (UPL) program with two new pools of funding, The Uncompensated Care Pool and the DSRIP Pool. Detailed information about the proposed local regional health plan may be found at www.SETexasRHP.com.

2. What entities are being asked to approve this plan? What exactly are they being asked to approve? What happens if they reject some or all of it?

Answer: The state of Texas and U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will approve all plans.

3. The story says that this plan is unrelated to the Affordable Care Act. How will the plan be affected if the state changes course and decides to pursue Medicaid expansion, or a law is passed that grants counties the authority to pursue it on their own?

Answer: The 1115 Medicaid Transformational Waiver Program should not be affected by Medicaid expansion since it is unrelated. Detailed information about the 1115 Medicaid Transformational Waiver at-large, may also be found at the state’s Web site.

4. Are details of this plan available on the HHS website? If not, is there a document you could send to me with plan details?

Answer: Detailed information about the proposed local regional health plan may be found at www.SETexasRHP.com.

In other words, if you want to know more, you’re going to need to get your wonk on. State Rep. Garnet Coleman has discussed the 1115 waiver before – see here and here for two examples – and there’s some further discussion here. Basically, this is about delivering health care services via public hospitals and their partners more effectively and efficiently, with some extra federal funds available. It’s not fully clear how this will all work out, and there won’t be a decision on the waiver request until May, but this is what’s coming. Let’s hope it lives up to its promise.

Early voting ends in SD06

Early voting ended in the SD06 runoff yesterday. As of when I went to bed, the final daily totals had not been sent out – the daily totals as of Monday, which are here, hit my inbox at 9:30 AM Tuesday, so I don’t really expect them till some time today. I’ll update this post after they arrive. As a reminder, here’s the final report from the first round. My guess is that Campos is right and the final total for the runoff will be at or slightly above that of Round One.

Election Day is this Saturday, March 2, from 7 AM to 7 PM. You can see a list of polling places here. The accompanying email from the County Clerk’s office emphasized that this was not final and could change, so be sure to doublecheck before you head out.

In other news, Sylvia Garcia got a late endorsement from the Texas Federation of Teachers. One never knows how much of an effect endorsements will have, but my general rule, especially for a low-turnout affair, is better to have them than not. Both candidates made appearances on KUHF this week, Garcia on Monday morning and Carol Alvarado on Tuesday. You can hear Garcia’s segment here, and Alvarado’s here. Both are very much on the attack – see PDiddie and this Chron story from today for the latest, if that sort of thing interests you. I for one will be glad when all of the nasty ads are done running on TV, in particular all the ads during basketball games on ESPN and CSN Houston. That’s the problem with live sporting events, you can’t zap the commercials. Be that as it may, the SD06 vacancy will be filled on Monday, when the victor is sworn in. Depending on the outcome, we may then have a vacancy in HD145 to deal with, but I’m quite certain that election, if one is needed, won’t be until November. Feel free to post your prediction in the comments.

UPDATE: Here are the final early vote totals for the runoff. So far, 8,780 ballots have been cast, which is a bit more than 500 higher than Round One. Given that some 2,500 mail ballots are still out, I’ll estimate that the ultimate early total will be about 9,000 by Saturday, also about 500 higher than before. We’ll see if that translates to a slightly higher final turnout.