They’ve turned over more than 150,000 signatures in favor of putting an early education tax on the Harris County ballot in November. Now the folks behind the Early to Rise campaign need to turn over the details.
Actually, they should have turned them over a while ago. The well-meaning folks who signed the petition did so with only the vaguest notion that, somehow, they’d be helping kids, and our community. But some of us need a little more information.
The petition said only that it was authorizing the Harris County Department of Education to levy a tax of one penny per $100 of assessed home value “for early childhood education purposes to improve success of children in kindergarten and beyond.”
A fact sheet called the effort a “public/private partnership” that will provide training, assistance and equipment to preschool programs and parents. Clicking on “take a deeper look at the Early to Rise Plan” on the group’s website won’t get you any deeper. It gives the basics and a list of board members who would lead a newly formed nonprofit to administer the tax funds.
Those board members include respected community leaders such as James Calaway of the Center for Houston’s Future, former Houston first lady Andrea White and the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell. But their good names aren’t enough. We need a detailed proposal, in writing, that spells out how money will be distributed, to what kinds of operations, under what criteria? How many families will be helped? How many children? At what age?
Not to mention how will the board members be chosen, what kind of oversight will they be subject to, what kind of disclosures will they have to make to ensure that any conflicts of interest can come to light, what is the process to remove a board member that needs to be removed, etc etc etc. We know these answers for elected officials, and we know these answers for boards and whatnot that are appointed by elected officials. We know none of that for Early To Rise and the Harris County School Readiness Corporation. The American Prospect, which has a nice overview of Early To Rise and the story so far, suggests that they don’t really have a good answer to these questions.
The obvious concerns over handing the revenues to an unelected nonprofit board are not lost on the leaders of Early to Rise. However Jonathan Day, a former city councilman and one of the Early to Rise board members, argues this is much better than the alternative of letting the Harris County Department of Education administer the program, which would politicize the process. The Department of Education has had its share of political drama, including hiring a former county commissioner and convicted felon as its lobbyist. Day worries that by giving the Department of Education control over the process, childcare centers would get selected for the program based on political advantage rather than need. He says that’s already become a problem with charter schools. “We have some bad charter schools. Are we able to close ‘em down?” he says. “Every one of those charter schools has a bunch of defenders, [including] the state representative.” By putting the money in the hands of an unelected body, Day believes the program will avoid many of the same political problems. “You can to a very significant extent, avoid those kinds of results which are very damaging,” he says, and notes that the Department of Education would still have oversight.
Day was a City Attorney, not a City Council member, but never mind that. I don’t get making HCDE out to be nefarious, especially since this proposal isn’t going to go anywhere without HCDE’s support. I agree that the hiring of Jerry Eversole was a forehead-slapping move, but he was hired for the purpose of lobbying Commissioners Court to back off its efforts to get a bill passed to kill the HCDE. I personally wouldn’t touch Eversole with a ten-foot pole, but that is a role for which he is qualified. Most of the actual political drama on HCDE had to do with a faction that never numbered more than one or two that was on board with the kill-HCDE agenda. The biggest, and possibly sole, protagonist of this was Michael Wolfe, who was defeated in 2012. Outside of Wolfe, the drama level at HCDE has been remarkably low. Bringing up charter schools is a distraction, since they have nothing to do with any of this, and besides, the Lege passed a bill this past session that among other things will – in theory, at least – make it easier to shut down substandard charters. Finally, I can’t believe that Jonathan Day is naive enough to think that an unelected and not-selected-by-electeds board would be less subject to political pressure or less tempted by favoritism than any other board. This goes right back to the question of oversight and what the consequences are for misbehavior. We need to have some assurances that our tax dollars are being used appropriately. That is not too much to ask.
Back to Falkenberg:
Bob Sanborn, CEO of the nonprofit watchdog organization Children at Risk, says he shares many of [County Judge Ed] Emmett’s worries: “I don’t really trust the governing structure. I don’t trust the taxing entity it’s going through, and that becomes a little problematic. This whole idea of unelected boards – what happens when they change membership?”
At the same time, he said he told Emmett in a conversation a while back, “you know, in the end, if this is on the ballot, it’s pro-children and I have to support it.”
I think that’s where many of our hearts are. Now the folks at Early to Rise just have to persuade our minds.
Yeah, that’s where I am, too. But it’s a huge leap of faith, and it’s one none of us should have to make. We’ll know on Tuesday what the plan is for HCDE. I sure hope these concerns get addressed.