It looks like Harris County will vote on the future of the Astrodome this November. If we can get $200 million on the ballot for a convention center, we should be able to get a vote on $25 million for children’s education.
This petition mechanism is admittedly obscure. It relies on sections of the Texas Education Code that were removed in a 1995 overhaul but still govern how the Harris County Department of Education operates. It may not be the best way to expand early childhood education, but it is likely the only way.
We hope County Judge Ed Emmett will work to get this on the ballot. The debate over Early To Rise should be about policy, not procedure.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t the only way to expand early childhood education. There’s nothing stopping the Legislature from funding an expansion of pre-K everywhere in the state. No question that would be an excellent investment in the state and would do more to increase test scores and boost graduation rates in the short term while reducing crime and improving the economy in the longer term. Of course, this is the Legislature we’re talking about – you may recall that they slashed the state’s already meager spending on pre-K in 2011 – so yeah, this is the only likely way to make this happen. If you don’t like the mechanism being used here, go yell at a legislator that doesn’t support increased spending on pre-K statewide.
In the meantime, the Early To Rise campaign sent out a press release announcing that they are turning in 150,000 signatures to County Judge Ed Emmett. Seventy-nine thousand are needed to get the item on the ballot. As we have been made to understand this process, Commissioners Court doesn’t get to vote whether or not to put the item on the ballot, though the exact process and timing remain unclear. I’m not quite sure how this will play out, but we’ll find out soon enough. One thing that the Court will be dealing with is the Astrodome referendum, which they are expected to approve. I’ll have more on both stories tomorrow.
UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story about the petition signatures.
Last week, the county attorney asked the state attorney general on behalf of Emmett to clarify whether the initiative process used by the campaign still is on the books and whether having those signatures verified means anything at all.
“My job is to make sure that I do what is legal and right,” Emmett said, calling the process, never before used in Harris County, “truly bizarre.”
“Somebody’s got to tell me if I’ve got to put it on the ballot and then what it has to say,” he said.
Despite his legal questions and concerns about the governance structure that would funnel tax dollars to the nonprofit without government oversight, Emmett said his office will forward the signatures to Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan for verification.
Early to Rise and Emmett disagree about the timeline Sullivan must follow.
[James Calaway, chair of the Harris County School Readiness Corp.'s Early to Rise Campaign] said the county has five business days to meet a critical ballot deadline. Emmett said his advice from the county attorney differs.
Sullivan said Monday he had not yet received direction from the county attorney, nor talked to Emmett, about whether he has a deadline or when that may be. He said his staff is, nonetheless, ready to begin verification while it is sorted out.
The stage is set. We’ll see how it goes from here.