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Harris County School Readiness Corp

AG opines against Early To Rise

This kind of snuck in there.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion Monday saying a court would likely have found a petition effort last year to send a 1-cent property tax hike to voters to buoy local preschools to be illegal.

[…]

On Monday, Abbott wrote in a 4-page opinion addressed to state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who requested it, saying: “Because the Legislature has not authorized an election for the purpose of increasing a tax rate of a (countywide school district), a court would likely conclude that” the law does “not authorize a CSD to hold a petition-initiative election to increase the county equalization tax.”

Read the opinion here.

“I am grateful for the attorney general’s clear opinion today confirming the illegality of the Early To Rise initiative,” Emmett said in a statement. “Despite numerous threats of lawsuits, it was clear to me that this bizarre proposal was illegal and wrong-headed. It’s gratifying to have the confirmation of both the appellate court and the state of Texas.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Basically, the Early To Rise campaign submitted petition signatures on behalf of the Harris County School Readiness Corp, but County Judge Ed Emmett refused to put the measure on the ballot, a decision that was allowed to stand when the 14th Court of Appeals declined to hear HCSRC’s appeal. County Attorney Vince Ryan also submitted a request for an opinion on Emmett’s behalf, not that it makes much difference. As we know, AG opinions aren’t binding but they do have an effect, and as such I don’t see how the same process, with a differently worded petition, would be viable again. I do think we haven’t heard the last of this, however. The question is where they go from here. Neither the webpage nor the Facebook page has any reaction to the AG opinion. I sure hope there is a way forward of some kind, because there are lots of benefits to universal pre-K. Judge Emmett opposed the petition process but supports the idea. Surely there is a way to work this out and have another go in a way everyone agrees is legally acceptable.

Early to Rise appeal denied

That pretty much wraps it up, for now at least.

A controversial 1-cent property tax to buoy local preschools will not be on the November ballot following a Houston appeals court ruling.

The 14th Court of Appeals, in an opinion issued late Thursday, rejected the Harris County School Readiness Corp.’s lawsuit to force County Judge Ed Emmett to put the tax before voters this fall. The three-judge panel dismissed the lawsuit.

[…]

“In the petition, relators ask this court to compel the Honorable Ed Emmett, Harris County Judge, to order an election in accordance with the ‘Petition to Authorize a One Cent Tax for Early Childhood Education,'” a three-judge panel wrote in the opinion.

The panel said the group failed to prove it was entitled to a writ of mandamus forcing Emmett to put the measure on the ballot. It did not elaborate in its two-page opinion.

The order is here. It’s pretty much “They asked us to do something, and our answer is No”.

The School Readiness Corp. said in a statement Friday that it “respectfully accepts the opinion,” but is “deeply saddened by the impact this decision will have on thousands of preschool children in Harris County.”

[…]

However, the group’s lawyer, Richard Mithoff, said he has told his clients “it would be very difficult if not impossible to get the matter on the ballot this time for the November election.”

As for future ballots, Mithoff said, the group “will assess all options.”

“What the campaign has clearly learned from this, what the leadership has clearly learned, is that there’s overwhelming support for funding early childhood education,” he said.

A copy of their full statement is beneath the fold. See here for the last update and here for most of my other posts on this. It seems clear to me that they should try again next year. They had no trouble getting the signatures, they got support from school and law enforcement leaders, and even Judge Emmett admitted that if the language on their referendum had been a little different he would have had to put it on the ballot. That’s a fixable problem, and so is the fractious relationship between the School Readiness Corp and the County Judge, who would normally be inclined to support a pre-K expansion effort. If the School Readiness Corp can engage with Judge Emmett to the point where he’s at least neutral on their efforts rather than actively opposed, and they can improve and strengthen their model for oversight, I see no reason why they can’t be successful with this in 2014. I know they aimed for this year because their polling suggested that the electorate would be more favorable to them because the city of Houston and its Mayoral election would be the biggest component of it, but I’m sure they did their poll before the Astrodome referendum was on the radar, and who knows how that might wind up skewing things. The idea behind Early to Rise is compelling and worthwhile. They just need to work on the details. I would like to see them try again next year.

(more…)

Finally, the Early To Rise plan

This is what we’ve got after their presentation to the HCDE Board of Trustees on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, the Harris County School Readiness Corp. pitched its plan to expand early education at a five-hour gathering with wary trustees for the Harris County Department of Education. The corporation’s proposal suggests that if voters approve a ballot initiative expanding the education department’s taxing authority by 1 cent per $100 of assessed value, the public agency should contract with the nonprofit to administer the estimated $25 million collected each year.

“Help is not on the way,” said Jonathan Day, a member of the corporation’s board, about the need to improve early childhood education programs in Harris County. “We’re not going to get help from the federal government, or the state government. We believe this needs to start here on a local level.”

Responding to public and trustee concerns about accountability, the proposed 10-year contract would allow the department to appoint half of the agency’s governing board, to approve rules for spending tax dollars and to review 14 areas of performance.

A three-member staff of the corporation would contract with existing education groups to expand training for teachers and buy school supplies for child care centers serving children up to age 5.

See here for the previous update. The bit about allowing HCDE to appoint half of the governing board is a step in the right direction. Even better news is that at long last we have some firm details. Here’s a draft services agreement, and the Harris County School Readiness Corporation policies on accountability and conflicts of interests. Both came in late Wednesday via Houston Politics. I haven’t had the chance to read through them, but there they are.

There’s another wrinkle in all this, as noted by this story from before the presentation.

Before the department’s board can vote on any agreement, it must go through a state-mandated request for proposals, according to education department officials.

“We presume we’ll get at least one,” chuckled Superintendent John Sawyer, who represented the department in initial negotiations.

Jonathan Day, a member of the corporation’s board and a former Houston city attorney, said he is confident the request for proposals will not slow down the group’s reaching an agreement in the narrow window before the November election.

“We think this kind of structure we have proposed is the right one. We hope the board will agree,” he said. “But look, we’d be happy if somebody else could do this better than we can.”

I rather doubt there’s another group out there in position to submit a bid, but you never know. It’s not clear what happens if the measure passes but the Harris County School Readiness Corporation fails to reach an agreement with the HCDE. Does that mean that the HCDE board can choose not to implement the tax increase, thus essentially nullifying the election, or does it mean another round of RFPs?

Of course, first this has to make it to the ballot.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan has until Monday to verify at least 78,000 of the 150,000 petitions submitted by the group, which could trigger the proposal’s appearance on the ballot. The county attorney and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, have asked the attorney general’s office to clarify what Judge Ed Emmett must do if the minimum level of signatures are verified, arguing the initiative process used may not still be in effect.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that enough petition signatures were collected. The AG opinion is still the big unknown, but as I’ve said all along, I expect this to eventually be settled in court. How long that might take, and whether it affects the ballot this year or not, I have no clue. KUHF has more.

Time for more information about Early To Rise

What Lisa Falkenberg says.

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.

Early To Rise submits its petitions

From here it gets real.

The Harris County School Readiness Corp., a new nonprofit led by business and civic leaders, is calling for a ballot intiative to levy a 1-cent-per-$100 tax through the Harris County Department of Education to generate about $25 million a year for training teachers and buying school supplies for child care centers serving children up to age 5.

Chairman James Calaway touted the proposal Tuesday as he stood ready to roll a dolly stacked with five boxes filled with more than 150,000 signatures into the office of one of the plan’s most vocal critics, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

“Let’s deliver these to the county judge so he can begin his five days of verification to get it on the ballot,” he said.

Here’s their press release. There’s already a dispute over how quickly the signatures must be certified. Calaway says Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan has five days to randomly verify a subsample of the signatures. Sullivan and County Judge Ed Emmett say he has until the deadline for putting items on the ballot, which is August 26. That’s also the deadline for the Attorney General to render an opinion that would be relevant and timely. At the behest of Judge Emmett, County Attorney Vince Ryan has submitted a request for an AG opinion that asks “whether the Harris County Judge is authorized to deny a petition to order an election to levy and collect an equalization tax for the Harris County Department of Education and related questions”. (Sen. Dan Patrick has also requested an opinion.) You can hear all the attorneys limbering up in the background as they prepare for the inevitable lawsuit. I presume the fact that Ryan submitted the request means that Judge Emmett was told he couldn’t do it himself, a fact that Lisa Falkenberg pointed out awhile back. So at least this is known to be kosher.

I don’t know what will happen next, but if I had to guess I’d say this makes it to the ballot. Barring a ruling that the law being used is invalid, I’m not sure what the pretext would be for stopping it. Doesn’t mean Abbott couldn’t come up with a reason if he wants to, of course. But let’s say it does make it onto the ballot. I’m wondering now if the Harris County School Readiness Corporation has had any second thoughts about its reasons for pushing this in 2013 instead of waiting till 2014. As I understand it, they thought that they’d have a better shot in 2013, when voters from the city would be a disproportionately large share of the electorate. While I don’t think that support or opposition to the Early To Rise plan will cleave exactly along partisan lines, I do think it’s reasonable to think the Democrats are more likely to support it and Republicans are more likely to oppose it, and given that, you’d like for the mostly-Democratic city to be the bulk of the voters. Of course, in our generally low-turnout city elections, the voters who show up aren’t necessarily representative of what a high-turnout electorate would be. With the addition of the Astrodome referendum, it’s impossible to say what the county electorate will look like, and it’s no longer a guarantee that city of Houston voters will be the bulk of it. If the key to getting this passed is a Democratic electorate, then maybe it would have been better to wait till next year and the hoped-for Wendy Davis Express to serve as a tailwind. Of course, no one could have known all this six months ago, or whenever the Harris County School Readiness Corporation first geared up. They picked their target, now we’ll see how wise they were to do so.

That’s getting ahead of ourselves, because we still don’t quite know exactly what we’d be voting for.

For months, corporation members have been negotiating with the Harris County Department of Education on a governance agreement.

“We’ve been working to find the right balance of public oversight,” Calaway said, declining to talk specifically about details until the proposal is presented publicly to the department’s board of trustees Tuesday.

Wishing to dispel myths that the nonprofit simply would be cut a check for the tax dollars and left free to spend it on its own operations, Calaway said much of the finance and accounting work would be handled by the Department of Education.

The nonprofit’s three-person staff would coordinate with existing early education providers to spend the money, he said.

The challenge is sorting out how much public oversight to mandate for a private entity spending public dollars, Calaway and education department Superintendent John Sawyer agreed.

Sawyer said the proposal is unlike any other private-public partnership he has seen.

“Elected officials would allow the operations to be overseen by a board different from themselves,” he said. “My board has got to come to grips with that. Or not.”

The suggestion of having HCDE name a board member has been dropped by agreement. I suspect they’ll get the details hammered out, but I’m wondering what happens if they don’t. Does it make sense for the Harris County School Readiness Corporation to push a proposal that the HCDE hates? The whole reason why the Harris County School Readiness Corporation was able to mount this petition drive is because the HCDE still exists, unlike most other county school boards. It’s HCDE’s tax rate that we’re being asked to increase. Being harmonious with them would seem to be the first order of business. We’ll see what they come up with by Tuesday. Campos, who thinks the “right balance of public oversight” is “100%”, has more.

Petitioning for Early To Rise

This arrived in my inbox a couple of days ago:

With only two weeks to go, we really need your help! We are working to get an initiative on the ballot in November 2013 to fund the Early to Rise Program.

The Early to Rise is a program designed to help young children up to age 5 get ready for Kindergarten through increasing the quality of early childhood education in Harris County. Here’s how you can help:

1. Get the petition, sign it, complete it and MAIL it back or CALL US (713-614-8812) and we’ll pick it up!

–OR–

2. Get the petition, sign it, complete it and pass it around among your friends and coworkers who are registered voters in Harris County. Then  MAIL it back or CALL US (713-614-8812) and we’ll pick it up!

3  Vote for the program on November 5th, 2013.

Early to Rise Flyer (more Information on the program)

Early to Rise Petition (the Petition itself)

Petition Instructions (more instructions on the petition)

Please call Eva Calvillo at Texans Together at 713-782-8833 or email Eva Calvillo If you have any questions about these materials or need help in getting started.

You can mail signed petitions to:

Texans Together Educational Fund
P.O. Box 1296
Houston, Texas    77251

It’s time to stand up for toddlers in Harris County and we can on the November ballot!

See here and here for the background, and here for more on the petition effort. Lisa Falkenberg notes the rather convoluted politics of all this.

Ed Emmett should have been one of the first people to find out about a petition drive seeking to put a penny tax on the November ballot to improve early childhood education and teacher training in Harris County.

After all, as county judge, he’s the guy the petition directs to place the tax increase generating $25 million a year on the ballot.

But Emmett got the news from another source: “Gwen, my wife, comes in and says ‘I just got an e-mail asking me to sign a petition to the county judge.’ And I’m going ‘what?’ Obviously, I didn’t know anything about it.”

While the lack of heads-up signaled disorganization to Emmett, it was the petition’s reliance on an antiquated state law, the unchecked administrative role of a private nonprofit, and the requirement that the tax be collected by the politically controversial Harris County Department of Education that led Emmett to brand the initiative a “fiasco.”

“This has been handled politically about as poorly as any issue I’ve ever seen in my life,” he told me a few weeks ago in a phone interview.

I followed up this week to see if this thinking had “evolved” since he’s been able to talk with interested parties.

Yes, he told me. He’d gone from being “bemused and bewildered” to a point where he now says unflinchingly: “What they’re trying to do is just nutty. I can’t put it any other way. And I totally support doing everything we can for early childhood education. It’s put me in a real awkward situation.”

Falkenberg noted that there was going to be an open house by Early To Rise, the group behind this effort, on Friday. The Chron covered that as well, including an appearance by Judge Emmett, attending on his own.

The newly formed nonprofit Harris County School Readiness Corp., with the help of a variety of organizations and paid canvassers, has gathered about 40,000 of the 78,000 petition signatures it says it needs to require Emmett to put a 1-cent property tax hike on the upcoming election ballot. The increase would generate $25 million a year for a program called “Early to Rise,” designed to improve child-care centers in the county serving children up to age 5 by training teachers and buying school supplies.

“There’s been an outpouring of support,” said Jonathan Day, a member of the corporation’s board and a former Houston city attorney, expressing optimism the group will meet its mid-August deadline.

[…]

The statutes say Emmett would have to call an election to increase the property tax rate of the Harris County Department of Education if he receives a petition with a sufficient number of signatures.

Emmett said he has asked the county attorney’s office for an opinion on the petitioning laws and plans to ask the state attorney general for the same. First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office has concluded that the laws are “still applicable” but that the final opinion may not reflect that “in light of a whole lot of statutes that apply to this situation.”

Day conceded the laws no longer are codified but says they still apply.

“We hope that he’ll reconsider,” said Day, who criticized Emmett for not offering an alternative to the proposal on Friday when his group, whose membership includes former Houston first lady Andrea White, held its first formal information session at the United Way of Greater Houston, which co-hosted the event with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and the Center for Houston’s Future.

“I think we have to come up with a better answer,” said Emmett, who went to the session to share his position with the dozens of attendees.

I really don’t know what to make of all this. I support doing everything we can for early childhood education, too, but I understand Judge Emmett’s concerns. The likelihood of a lawsuit, whatever County Attorney Vince Ryan and AG Greg Abbott say about the law in question, is basically 100%. There are still questions about governance of this program, if it comes to be; HCDE Board of Trustees Chair Angie Chesnut has said she can’t support it if HCDE doesn’t get to name at least one member of the corporation. Judge Emmett has pointed out that the one penny tax increase in the plan would make what HCDE levies exceed its statutory maximum, which will likely be another lawsuit magnet. There’s just so many questions to be answered. The goal of universal early learning programs is laudable and worthwhile. The path to get there has been strange, to say the least.

All questions about this aside, the fact remains that as with the New Dome Experience plan, petitions would have to be collected and certified in time for the item to be placed on the November ballot. They have a bit more time since Commissioners Court won’t be involved, but the signatures still need to be verified, and that takes time. The information is there if you want to participate, or go to the Early To Rise Facebook page for more. If this gets to the ballot, will you vote for it? Leave a comment and let me know.

More on the HCDE pre-k proposal

Some more details on that pre-k proposal being pitched to the HCDE. It raises more questions than it answers.

pre-k

Members applauded the effort by the recently formed Harris County School Readiness Corp., a non-profit group whose membership includes business, philanthropic and community leaders, including former Houston first lady Andrea White. At the end of the meeting, they voted 6-1 to allow Superintendent John Sawyer, who was absent Tuesday, to further study the plan and bring back a recommendation for how to proceed.

The tone of the discussion, however, took a drastic turn during a question-and-answer session after a member of the corporation, former Houston city attorney Jonathan Day, presented the plan to the board with Carol Shattuck, president and CEO of partner group Collaborative for Children.

New trustee Howard Jefferson, who had just been sworn in, asked Day to describe the proposed terms of any agreement between the department and the corporation, and what responsibilities the department may have.

Explaining “work will be done by non-profit service providers,” Day told him “the control of the program in terms of allocation to various providers would be in the hands of the non-profit,” not the agency.

He went onto explain, admitting his bluntness, that the group wanted to avoid having the education department board handle the program because of its reputation as a stepping stone for higher political office. He also alluded to recent criticism the agency has faced for hiring lobbyists, including former county commissioner Jerry Eversole, who resigned in October 2011 after being accused of taking cash bribes in exchange for contracts.

“I think this kind of a structure will really work well,” Day said. “I’ll be very blunt with you, we are aware of the criticism about the structure of this board… But we thought that a nonprofit is a way to provide stability and to provide the assurance of the public that this is going to be mired down in partisan controversy.”

[…]

Board President Angie Chesnut and Board Vice President Debra Kerner, alluding to an earlier discussion, then asked Day, whether the the trustees would be able to appoint a member to the corporation’s board.

“Is that something we were still considering?” Kerner asked.

“That’s a matter we need to discuss,” Day replied. “It’s something that we are open to, but to be very blunt… we would like to avoid to the maximum extent possible the problems and perceptions of the partisanship and disagreements, we do not want to import that into our board.”

Chesnut then told Day: “I have to be honest with you, also. I will not support this process without having participation on your board.”

A clarification: In my previous post, I said that the HCDE approved the plan. As you can see from the first paragraph quoted above, all they approved was for Superintendent Sawyer to study the plan. I just misread the story on which I based that statement. My apologies for the confusion.

From this post, and from Big Jolly’s account of the HCDE meeting, it sounds like this idea isn’t fully formed yet. It would certainly help if the Harris County School Readiness Corporation would get their website and Facebook pages up so we can examine their plan in more detail, and give them feedback directly. I do think the HCDE Board needs to appoint at least one member to the School Readiness Corp’s board – at least two would be better. But really, just getting all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed would go a long way. I think this is fated to wind up in court one way or another, so while Judge Emmett is soliciting opinions from the County Attorney and the Attorney General about the legalities of all this, it would be wise for the HCSRC to get and publish its own opinion. Who knows, maybe there’s a less dicey way to make this happen. But let’s get some more information, no matter what else. Stace has more.

Would you pay more for pre-K in Harris County?

You might get the chance to vote on it.

pre-k

The recently formed Harris County School Readiness Corp., a group whose membership includes former Houston first lady Andrea White, is circulating a petition calling for the placement of an item on the next election ballot that would increase the county property tax rate by 1 cent, generating about $25 million a year to train teachers and buy school supplies for child-care centers serving children up to age 5.

“All the recent brain science development has indicated that early childhood education is absolutely pivotal,” said Jonathan Day, a member of the corporation’s board and a former Houston city attorney. “The business community and academics, everybody’s of the single mind that, if there is a single point of investment for leverage to improve children’s education, it’s at early childhood.”

The initiative stems from a recommendation made in an April report commissioned by the Greater Houston Partnership and the Collaborative for Children. It is similar to one launched by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, which ended in voters last year approving a modest sales tax hike to build new pre-kindergarten centers.

The corporation, however, faces several big hurdles before voters have a say.

Chief among them: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who says he believes the state law dictating the petition process the group is following is no longer valid.

While most county-related matters require the approval of the five-member Harris County Commissioners Court, the corporation is going by a process laid out in a state law that technically no longer is on the books that says county judges must call elections to increase the tax rates of county education departments if enough signatures are collected on a petition. The corporation will have to gather at least 78,000.

While conceding that the group’s legal interpretation “may be right” and describing childhood education as “a great need,” Emmett said he believes that portion of the education code no longer applies, and has asked the county attorney’s office to review it.

“I’m going to ask probably even the attorney general if I have to,” Emmett said, expressing a declining lack of confidence in the education department for hiring lobbyists to visit court members and state lawmakers. “They didn’t recodify these sections and you can’t find these anywhere in state statutes today.”

The issue here is that only two counties, Harris and Dallas, still have education departments. As is often the case, the laws on the books don’t quite line up with current reality, and as such there’s an ambiguity. Judge Emmett will seek counsel about that, as he should, but it’s a lead pipe cinch that if this election goes forward and the proponents of raising the tax rate win, someone will file a lawsuit to invalidate it. I can already hear Paul Bettencourt and the Hotze brothers cracking their knuckles in anticipation. Hell, there will probably be a lawsuit even before the election if enough petition signatures are collected to require one. At least then we’ll have a more definitive answer to the Judge’s question, though it might be quicker to just wait till 2015 and try to get a bill passed to clarify matters then.

Be that as it may, getting to the point of having an election is no sure thing. As Campos calculates, it’ll take about 78,000 signatures to clear that bar. I’m not exactly sure what that is based on – it’s always some percentage of the turnout of the previous election, but what that percentage is and which election it’s derived from are unknown to me. It’s also not clear to me that this would pass if it made it onto the ballot. The San Antonio pre-k initiative that Mayor Julian Castro championed passed with 53.56% of the vote, which is solid but not overwhelming and it happened in a city rather than a county in a high-turnout election. It’s easy to visualize the campaign against this initiative, no matter how good it sounds on paper. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea, I’m just saying it’s far from a slam-dunk.

There’s not a lot of information out there about the Harris County School Readiness Corporation right now – no webpage or Facebook presence, though I am told both will be up soon. I did get this press release yesterday, which fills in a few blanks.

Houston: Citizens for School Readiness made a presentation today to the Harris County Board of Education on the importance of early childhood education. The Board received a report commissioned by the Houston Endowment and conducted by the Greater Houston Partnership and Collaborative for Children, demonstrating the need for improved early education. Also presented to the Board was a plan to place a ballot measure before the voters this November that would create a dedicated revenue stream for early childhood education.

The additional revenues will be overseen by the Harris County School Readiness Corporation, a public/private partnership board headed by Mr. James Calaway, Chairman of the Board of the Center for Houston’s Future. Also serving on the board is Houston’s Former First Lady, Mrs. Andrea White, as well as Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village United Methodist Church, Mr. Jonathan Day former Houston City Attorney and civic leader, leading Houston businessman Mr. Lupe Fraga, Ms. Y. Ping Sun, and Ms. Laura Jaramillo, Senior Vice President of Wells Fargo.

A poll conducted by Dr. Richard Murray of the University of Houston found strong support for the proposed measure. Dr. Murray’s survey showed, “Nearly 70% of county voters said a local effort to improve early childhood education in Harris County should be a priority.”

“People from every sector of this city recognize the critical importance of strengthening early childhood education for our youngest children. Kindergarten is the new first grade, and children need to enter kindergarten already knowing their ABCs and with their skill sets already developed.” said Mr. Jonathan Day, referencing numerous studies that tout the long-term social benefits of early childhood education programs.

There’s more, so click over and read the rest. Like I said, I think the hill is a lot steeper than Dr. Murray’s poll suggests, but I daresay the pro-pre-K group won’t be outspent. What do you think about this?

UPDATE: HCDE trustees approve the plan, which has a wrinkle I didn’t catch the first time around.

The Harris County Department of Education board of trustees voted 6-1 Tuesday to allow its superintendent to review a proposal calling for a 1-cent increase to the agency’s tax rate to fund early childhood education programs. Board members, however, expressed concern about the lack of oversight they may have under the proposal, pitched by recently formed nonprofit Harris County School Readiness Corp.

The group’s plan, which it presented to the board on Tuesday, involves collecting at least 78,000 signatures on a petition, which would – according to a 1937 state law – require the county judge to place the tax hike on the next election ballot.

The increase would generate an additional $25 million a year, which would be used in part to train teachers to staff child-care centers in the county serving children up to age 5. If voters were to approve the hike, the nonprofit’s plan says its own board would administer the new revenue.

The item approved by the board Tuesday allows the superintendent to review the plan and later bring a recommendation back to the board.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the funds being administered by the unelected board of a nonprofit. See CPRIT for the reasons why. I’d still like to see pre-k funding happen, but I’d like to know more about how these funds would be administered.