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pre-kindergarten

Where we begin with school finance

A nice overview from the Trib on school finance, where the problems are many and the budget situation is non-optimal.

The current system is held together by a number of short-term fixes that have not been updated or reformed in decades. The Texas Supreme Court upheld the funding system as constitutional in May, and at the same time put the onus on state lawmakers to reform it — but few believe a major overhaul will come without a court order.

Even if legislators decided to tackle an overhaul of the whole system, experts say there is not enough money in state coffers to increase state spending, lower local spending and relieve Texans upset about rising property taxes. For now, some lawmakers are backing a simple plan to increase money to all school districts through the general appropriations bill, instead of taking apart the complex school finance system. Others have filed bills to tweak individual weights in the system, which provide additional money for disadvantaged student populations.

[…]

Legislators will also have to decide this year whether to re-up a program that provides extra funding for fewer than 200 districts that would otherwise have lost money in previous school finance rewrites. When the Legislature reduced property taxes by a third in 2006, it guaranteed school districts at least the same state funding they received for the 2005-06 school year by creating the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction initiative.

That aid expires Sept. 1, but the districts still receiving the money are clamoring for an extension. “At some point, it does need to go away for the sake of more equity. But it can’t fall off a cliff at this point in time,” said Guy Sconzo, executive director of the Fast Growth School Coalition, which represents the fastest-growing districts in the state. “It does the entire system no good if any part of the system effectively goes bankrupt.”

So far, five legislators have filed bills to extend the funding program. State Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, filed House Bill 811, which would extend funding through 2020-21. Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, proposed an extension through 2022-23. Both lawmakers were members of their chambers’ public education committees last session.

King, who is on the short list to chair the House Public Education Committee this session, said some districts are still getting a large chunk of their overall funding through this program and that they cannot be cut off immediately. “I’m going to put a mechanism in place for school districts to roll off of the aid in 2021 and hopefully replace the dollars with another school funding system,” he said.

Other school finance advocates oppose the extension, calling it a “Band-Aid” that exacerbates the inequity among districts.

“It maintains an already inefficient portion of the system,” said Ray Freeman, deputy executive director of the Equity Center, which represents property-poor districts. Instead, he said, legislators should reform the base formulas so districts have access to a stable source of funds.

The Houston Independent School District will be a major focus this session because its voters in November rejected sending $165 million in local property taxes to poorer school districts. In the Texas finance system, districts with a wealthier tax base spend local money to help educate students in districts with less property tax money, as part of the “Robin Hood” or “recapture” system.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has warned that the state will probably move commercial properties from Houston ISD tax rolls to those of a nearby district. Houston legislators will be under pressure to find a way to ease the burden, as those property owners could face higher tax rates in their newly assigned districts.

David Thompson, an attorney representing Houston ISD, said a legislative win for Houston on school finance could also mean a win for other districts. “There are particular issues that would address some of the concerns in Houston and at the same time be helpful for schools across the state,” he said.

The state should update its formulas for determining which districts get transportation funding, and the state should also provide full-day pre-K funding for all districts, Thompson said.

“Everybody starts by saying, ‘There’s no money.’ There is,” he said. The state should allow the local dollars people are already paying to stay in education, instead of “siphoning local property taxes” for non-education purposes, he said.

But some legislators are saying Houston ISD voters dug themselves deeper into a school funding hole and should live with the repercussions. “I don’t think the Legislature has a lot of appetite to let Harris County out of recapture when everybody else is paying it,” King said.

[…]

School finance experts agree that increasing the basic allotment, the base funding each district receives per student, is likely to be the most popular way of changing the system. The House Public Education Committee recommended this approach in its interim report.

“The amount we set for the basic allotment drives the entire school finance system and, given our current system, increasing that amount would be a prudent move to help all districts,” said State Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin. “It’s important to note, this method can also be achieved through the General Appropriations Act alone, so it may also be the most realistic thing the Legislature can do this session without having to pass a stand-alone bill.”

It’s likely to be a favored proposal in the House, Ashby said. But like many other plans, it requires more dollars to public education, a difficult challenge this session, given that lawmakers have less money to spend than they did when they last met in 2015.

There’s also vouchers, the A-F grading system for accountability ratings, continued discontent with STAAR, curriculum and graduation requirements, etc etc etc. It’s important to remember that the local property tax boom that helped lead HISD and other districts into recapture is also a huge boon for the state budget, and not something legislators will give up easily. I think the best case scenario is some more money from general revenue, adjustments to the funding formula for transportation and pre-K as David Thompson noted, and a temporary extension of the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction initiative with a plan to fix it next session. HISD will still owe recapture money even if all that is done, but I for one would feel a lot less aggrieved by recapture if these things happened, and would support a recapture re-vote to take place before detachment could begin. We’ll see how it goes.

Abbott pre-K plan falls short

Well, duh.

pre-k

In Texas, where pre-K is scorned by some conservative activists as “godless,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s major education initiative is giving classrooms far less money than many once thought, causing even the district of the governor’s high school alma mater to now rebuff his plan.

Texas handed out $116 million in pre-K grants to nearly half the state’s school districts this week, delivering on one of Abbott’s biggest pledges when he took office last year — that classrooms willing to implement tougher pre-K standards would be rewarded with as much as $1,500 extra per student.

But in reality, those schools are getting less — way less.

Districts will instead receive $734 per student, state education officials confirm. That’s less than half of the potential maximum dangled in front of financially struggling school administrators and reluctant lawmakers in 2015, when the typically bipartisan idea of improving pre-K confronted pushback from influential tea party activists who called preschool something “historically promoted in socialistic countries.”

So diminished was the ultimate amount of funding offered that even the Duncanville school district that claims Abbott as one of its most famous alumni — he lent the governor’s mansion in April to host his high school’s 40th class reunion — was among more than 20 districts that applied for but ultimately passed on the money.

“It kind of became diminishing returns,” Duncanville school district spokeswoman Lari Barager said Wednesday of the decision to reject the funds.

[…]

Five weeks after being sworn into office, Abbott declared early education the first emergency item of his new administration, enticing schools with more money if classrooms adopt more rigorous pre-K benchmarks such as enhanced teacher training. “Our children and their future have no time for delay,” he said then.

Texas gutted classrooms of $5.4 billion in 2011, and schools cheered a new governor putting more education dollars on the table. Yet the $130 million that Abbott proposed still wouldn’t restore what the Republican-controlled Legislature cut from preschools four years earlier, nor would the money let districts enroll more pre-K students.

The plan also fell short of what education groups say are truly meaningful pre-K reforms such as low teacher-to-student ratios.

Meanwhile, conservative activists close to Texas’ powerful lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, tried derailing the legislation with a letter scolding incentives to remove children from “half-day religious preschools” to a “Godless environment” that didn’t produce results.

The grants were announced earlier in the week. We already knew that the total amount allocated fell well short of what was cut in 2011, this is just a vivid demonstration of what that means. If Abbott really cares about expanding access to pre-K, he’s going to have to push back against the radical nihilists in his own party to make it happen. He has no trouble fighting for his own priorities when his opponents are mostly Democrats. Does he have the political will and leadership in him to overcome members of his own party, or does he not actually care about this enough to publicly disagree with Dan Patrick? It’s not like Abbott would be on his own, or wholly dependent on Democratic support for this – the business community would be right behind him. His actions will make it clear if he meant what he said about pre-K or not.

TAB says it wants better pre-K in Texas

I have three things to say about this.

pre-k

The Texas Association of Business wants the state to offer a full school day of taxpayer-funded pre-K and plans to push lawmakers in that direction next year, the group announced this week.

TAB board members voted unanimously in favor of expanding its policy platform to include full-day pre-K at its national affairs conference in Washington, D.C., in May, adding to its agenda of increasing the quality of pre-K programs.

“It will be a difficult issue, but it doesn’t lessen its importance,” said Bill Hammond, the group’s CEO. “The cost of remediation is enormous and can be a detriment to the other children who come to kindergarten prepared to do that level of work. Ensuring that every child, who is currently eligible for public Pre-K, is enrolled in a high quality, full-day program will help close that gap.”

[…]

While Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is a supporter of pre-K, his focus is on boosting the quality of programs rather than lengthening the school day. Democrats have urged lawmakers to expand the state’s program to a full day, but that issue has been a non-starter in the Republican-led Legislature.

“The problem we face is, there’s a lot of mediocre pre-K out there today,” Hammond said.

The strategy to selling hesitant lawmakers on extending the pre-K school day and approving the money to fund it requires proving to legislators that quality pre-K works, said Hammond whose association is philosophically aligned with Republicans on many other issues.

1. I want to preface things by applauding the TAB for taking this position. I give them a lot of well-earned grief for their often half-assed support of issues where they disagree with their Republican buddies, but at least they do disagree with them on some key topics. Kudos to them for that.

2. Of course, they make things a lot harder for themselves by also supporting so many Republican officeholders who oppose the things they say they support. I get the value of friendly incumbents, but it would be so much easier if their alleged allies weren’t so often their opponents.

3. We ($) all know ($$) what it’s going to take ($$$) to achieve their stated goals here ($$$$), right? Let’s start with the fact that pre-school teachers are ridiculously underpaid. You want better quality pre-K, you’re going to need to pay salaries that are far more competitive if you want to attract high-quality teachers. The median salary for pre-K teachers in Texas is just under $31K. The median salary for kindergarten teachers is just under $51K. Why would anyone choose to be the former if they could be the latter? When pre-K teachers make roughly the same salaries as their elementary-ed counterparts, I guarantee the quality issue will largely solve itself. So be prepared to pay up if this is what you say you want.

We’re still lousy at funding schools

In case you were wondering.

BagOfMoney

Texas still ranks in the bottom third of states in spending per pupil in the U.S., with essentially no change in either amount or standing, a new study shows.

The finding doesn’t help, and could undercut, the state’s position in a long-running school finance case.

Figures compiled by the National Education Association and released Friday show that Texas schools are spending an average $9,561 per student in the current school year. That is well under the national average of $12,251 and ranks Texas 38th among the 50 states and District of Columbia.

Of neighboring states, only Oklahoma spends less, said Clay Robison, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, the state NEA affiliate.

Last year, Texas also was 38th in the comparisons, based on numbers furnished to the NEA by state education agencies. In the 2014-15 school year, Texas spent $9,559 per student in grades K-12, based on average daily attendance. The national average was $12,061.

In recent years, Texas has fallen about $1,000 per child further below the national average, said Noel Candelaria, president of the state NEA affiliate. This school year, Texas is $2,690 below the national average. Five years earlier, in 2010-11, it was $1,685 behind, he noted. Back then, Texas spent $9,462 per child. The 2010-11 academic year was the last one before the Legislature whacked $5.3 billion from public schools.

“At a time when the Texas Supreme Court is considering a lower court ruling that found the state’s school finance system unconstitutional, these figures tell a shameful story,” Candelaria said in a statement.

[…]

Combining budget writers’ decisions in the past two legislative sessions, the Legislature put an additional $6 billion into public schools, Solicitor General Scott Keller noted.

But former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who appeared as a private lawyer for Dallas, Fort Worth and dozens of other districts suing the state, said lawmakers have put the districts in a straitjacket by raising expectations of student performance while lowering the state’s share of the total tab.

Meanwhile, the Legislature effectively has imposed an unconstitutional statewide property tax because “once again local districts are without meaningful discretion over their rates,” he said.

Even if one accepts Keller at his word, that barely takes Texas back to where it was before the 2011 cuts, and that’s without accounting for enrollment growth or stricter accountability standards. I don’t expect Texas to be at the top of a list like this, but we do have an awful lot of students who live in poverty, and an awful lot of students who come from homes where English is not the primary language spoken. We also don’t do much in terms of pre-kindergarten, meaning that not only do we have a lot of high-need students to educate, we let them fall farther behind by not preparing them for school ahead of time. Yet we demand more of our districts and our students. It makes no sense.

The argument stated by former Justice Jefferson is basically what the Supreme Court found in the last school finance lawsuit, in 2005. That led to the 50-cent cut in local property tax rates, which was supposed to be made up by the state in the form of the business margins tax and other sources. We all know how that has gone. Having the state pay a higher share of the public education budget is the right idea – local districts have been shouldering an ever-increasing about of the burden in recent years – but it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t allow the state to shirk its responsibilities. I hope that’s what this Court has in mind, and if so I wish them luck in writing an opinion that will get the Lege to do what it needs to do.

More focus on inequality

Good to see.

As Houston’s mayoral candidates spar over the city’s largely agreed upon top issues – finances, infrastructure and public safety – a fourth policy concern is percolating: economic inequality.

Concerns about disparity underpin discussions about the city’s revenue cap, development incentives, education, even which roads to repair and when.

Yet, when it comes to policy solutions, candidates have offered few concrete proposals.

Only state Rep. Sylvester Turner has placed inequality front-and-center in his campaign, though his suggestions come with few implementation details.

“We cannot create or allow to be created two cities in one, of haves and have-nots,” Turner said in a recent interview. “You have to build a city for the middle class.”

Among the 50 largest U.S. cities, Houston ranks 15th for income inequality, with the top 5 percent of earners making 11.8 times that of the bottom 20 percent, according to a recent Brookings Institution study.

Census data also shows about 22 percent of city residents lived below the poverty level in 2014.

“We’re under this illusion in Houston that because people are working, that they’re not in poverty, which is simply not true,” said Ginny Goldman, executive director of the advocacy group Texas Organizing Project.

Nationwide, big city mayors have sought to address economic inequality with initiatives ranging from raising the local minimum wage to implementing universal pre-kindergarten.

In Texas, however, state law prevents cities from increasing their own minimum wages, leaving local governments to pursue such strategies as raising municipal workers’ salaries or creating special taxing districts for neighborhood development.

See here for some background. This is about making sure Houston stays an affordable, livable city for all of its residents. There are things a Mayor can do about that – to encourage and incentivize affordable housing, for instance. Pursuing a local pre-k program, as was done in San Antonio and as has been discussed in Harris County, is another. The problem has to be part of the discussion before any solutions can be. I’m glad to see that happening.

A little trouble in paradise

It’s that time of the biennium, y’all.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s tea party advisory panel on Tuesday blasted Gov. Greg Abbott’s quality pre-K legislation as “socialistic” and “a threat to parental rights,” contributing friction to the already tense balancing act between the state’s top Republican leaders.

“We are experimenting at great cost to taxpayers with a program that removes our young children from homes and half-day religious preschools and mothers’ day out programs to a Godless environment with only evidence showing absolutely NO LONG-TERM BENEFITS beyond the 1st grade,” read the letter sent to the state Senate on Tuesday.

It was signed by all 20 members of the lieutenant governor’s “Grassroots Advisory Board,” a group of Tea Party leaders Patrick chose soon after taking office to meet regularly and discuss public policy, especially as it related to border security, education reform, and tax relief legislation.

“This interference by the State tramples up our parental rights,” the letter added. “The early removal of children from parents’ care is historically promoted in socialistic countries, not free societies which respect parental rights.”

[…]

While Patrick quickly distanced himself from the letter Tuesday, saying it was “unsolicited” and expressed “the individual viewpoints of Texas citizens,” House Bill 4 has not yet been approved by the chamber he oversees. It passed easily in the lower chamber earlier this month but has stalled in the Senate.

The letter – and any further delay in the Senate hearing Abbott’s pre-K bill – is sure to create friction between the state’s two most powerful elected officials, said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

“The language of the letter is certainly inflammatory in a way that is likely to exacerbate the expected tensions,” said Henson. “It’s hard not to look at this without concluding that we’re in for a pretty fractious end of session.”

Who knew that inviting a bunch of nihilistic prevaricators into your inner circle would be such an ill-advised move? No one could have seen that coming. As the Observer notes, there’s no love lost between the House (read: Joe Straus) and the Senate (Danno, of course) over the border surge bills, among other things. Some of this is just the way things are at this point in the session. It’s like going on a long road trip with your family – no matter how much you may love them, after enough time together without a break, tensions can get a little high. Some of it is ego and the kind of inside baseball that no one outside of the Capitol hothouse cares about. And some of it is genuine differences, not all of which will get resolved. How big a mess it becomes, and how much gets salvaged and smoothed over, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I hope we hear a lot more of stuff like this.

Food fight!

The weekly kumbaya breakfast between the big three Texas lawmakers broke down today into a round-robin of recriminations that concluded with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick declaring he was tired of Governor Greg Abbott and Speaker Joe Straus “picking on me.”

The blow-up, confirmed by multiple sources, represents the boiling point of long-simmering disputes. The House has been upset that Patrick declared his inauguration marked a “New Day” in Texas and that he pushed a conservative agenda quickly through the Senate with expectations that the House would just pass his legislation. But, instead, most of the Senate’s bills on tax cuts, licensed open carry of handguns and moving the Public Integrity Unit have languished in the House without even being referred to committee by Straus.

The House instead has passed its own version of the same legislation, putting the Senate in a take-it-or-leave-it position. To pass the Senate bills now, the House would have to have an entirely new debate on controversial measures it already has approved.

So the Senate, in what looked like retaliation on Tuesday, ignored a House-approved border security bill to vote on its own measure, putting the House into a take-it-or-leave-it position on border security – a measure that House Ways and Means Chair Dennis Bonnen had crafted to win support of border Democrats.

This may be Patrick’s New Day, but Straus’ Old Guard still runs the House.

[…]

Once in the breakfast, Patrick and Straus began arguing over the House not moving on Patrick’s agenda bills, while Straus was critical of the Senate action on the border security bill. At that point, Abbott interjected his displeasure with the letter attacking the pre-k bill that he supported.

With Abbott and Straus coming at him, Patrick declared that he was tired of them “picking on me.”

LEAVE DAN PATRICK ALOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONE!!!

(The Trib and Juanita have more.

Budget passes House as most amendments get pulled

It was a long day in the House on Tuesday and Wednesday but not a terribly bloody one as many of the budget amendments and riders that had been queued up got withdrawn. A brief recap of the action:

Border “security”:

BagOfMoney

House Democrats tried — and mostly failed — to divert funds allotted for border security and the Texas Department of Public Safety to other departments during Tuesday’s marathon budget debate.

But the rancor over immigration enforcement that many expected didn’t materialize after lawmakers agreed to pull down amendments that, if debated, would have aired ideological differences over the contentious issue.

After predicting a “bloody day” on the House floor, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, pulled an amendment that would have reduced the appropriations for a public college or university by the same amount that it awarded in grants or financial aid to undocumented students.

Last month, Stickland expressed frustration over the lack of traction for a bill he filed to eliminate a 2001 provision that allows undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.

But on Tuesday, Stickland, with little attention or fanfare, withdrew the amendment after discussions with lawmakers.

“We did some negotiations,” he said.

An amendment by state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, that would have defunded the state’s Border Faculty Loan Repayment Program, which was created to help keep doctoral students on the border to teach, was also withdrawn with little attention.

On the funding, Democrats made good on their promises to try and take money from border security operations, which was at about $565 million when the day began, to local entities or other state departments.

[…]

One border lawmaker had tentative success in transferring money from DPS to his district for local law enforcement grants. An amendment by state Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, would take $10 million from the agency for that effort. But it’s contingent upon another measure — Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s House Bill 11, an omnibus border security bill — making it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk and getting signed.

Republicans had a bit more success in shifting money.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, was able to direct money into the state’s military forces for paid training for Texas’ 2,300 members of the reserve unit.

“Most of them reside in most of our districts, and we have zeroed out money for training,” he said.

But the success came after a lengthy back and forth between Huberty and members upset at where the funds would be taken from. Huberty offered one amendment that would have taken $2.2 million from the Texas Agriculture Department. That didn’t sit well with Democrat Tracy King, D-Batesville, the chairman of the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee. Huberty eventually pulled that amendment and instead took $2.2 million from the Texas Facilities Commission.

Huberty specified on Monday that the money is not intended to extend the Texas National Guard’s deployment on the Texas-Mexico border.

The Senate wants to spend even more money on the ridiculous border surge, so this fight is far from over. The fact that this is a complete boondoggle that makes the rest of the state less safe, it’s one of the few things that certain legislators actually want to spend money on.

The voucher fight was similarly deferred.

A potentially contentious vote on a measure that would have banned spending public money on school vouchers was avoided after its author withdrew the amendment.

Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) said he pulled the amendment because it wasn’t necessary.

“Given the commitment of the House to supporting public education, I felt this amendment was duplicative,” Herrero said. It also would have forced some lawmakers to take a difficult vote, caught between turning their backs on their district’s public schools and potentially earning the ire of conservative interest groups.

A coalition of Democrats and rural Republican lawmakers has coalesced during the past two decades to defeat voucher legislation. Herrero said the anti-voucher coalition is still strong.

“The coalition is solid,” Herrero said, “Vouchers for all intents and purposes are dead in the House.”

The coalition may be strong, but Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Mechler is working to weaken it. Mechler sent a letter to GOP legislators Tuesday pushing them to vote against Herrero’s amendment.

If you followed the budget action on Twitter, this was the first major amendment to get pulled, and it was a sign of things to come. Attention will shift to Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock when that loser of a bill passes the Senate.

Finally, you knew there had to be a moment that would be worthy of the Daily Show and the kind of viral mockery that makes us all heave deep sighs. Sure enough:

Seven hours into Tuesday’s debate on the House’s $210 billion two-year budget, things got first heated and then uncomfortable as state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, successfully pushed an amendment to move $3 million from HIV and STD prevention programs to pay for abstinence education.

A line of opponents gathered behind the podium as Spitzer laid out his amendment and proceeded to grill, quiz and challenge the lawmaker on his motives.

“Is it not significant that Texas has the third-highest number of HIV cases in the country?” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, asked. “Does it bother you to know there are people walking around with HIV, undiagnosed?”

Turner and Spitzer also had an exchange over how Spitzer had arrived at his price tag. “If we gave you a billion dollars for abstinence, would that be enough?” Turner asked. “Or would you need two?”

[…]

Texas allows school districts to decide whether and how to approach sex education, as long as they teach more about abstinence than any other preventive method, like condoms and birth control. But a number of representatives questioned the effectiveness of this program.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, pointed out that the state currently has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country, and the single-highest rate of repeat teen pregnancy.

“It may not be working well,” said Spitzer, in reference to the current abstinence education program. “But abstinence education is HIV prevention. They are essentially the same thing.”

State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, took to the podium and asked Spitzer, “Were you taught abstinence education? Did it work?”

Spitzer replied that he was a virgin when he married at age 29. “I’ve only had sex with one woman in my life, and that’s my wife,” Spitzer said.

Dutton continued. “And since you brought it up, is that the first woman you asked?”

“I’m not sure that’s an appropriate question,” Spitzer responded.

The House was called to order, and Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, took the microphone. “Earlier you stated that you could not get STDs without having sex,” she said.

“It depends on what your definition of sex is,” said Spitzer. “I can go through of all of this if you want to.”

“If you still think you can’t get an STD without having sex, then maybe we need to educate you,” Collier added.

Spitzer’s amendment ultimately passed 97 to 47.

Spitzer is a medical doctor, because having one Donna Campbell in the Lege just wasn’t enough. He must have been absent the day they went over how intravenous drug use is a frequent means of transmission for HIV. This is another lesson the state of Indiana could teach us if we cared to pay attention. The Observer, Nonsequiteuse, RG Ratcliffe, Trail Blazers, and Newsdesk have more.

Let the budgetary games begin

The House takes up the budget today, with over 300 amendments and riders queued up for votes. A couple of things to watch for as the debate goes on:

Killing vouchers.

BagOfMoney

Lawmakers in the Texas House will have a chance to draw a line in the sand over private school vouchers during the upcoming battle over the budget Tuesday.

An amendment filed by state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, would ban the use of state dollars to fund private education for students in elementary through high schools, including through so-called tax credit scholarships.

If passed, the measure — one of more than 350 budget amendments covering topics from border security to abortion up for House consideration — would deliver a blow to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

[…]

If Herrero’s amendment fails, it would represent a dramatic change in sentiment for the chamber, which overwhelmingly passed a similar budget amendment during the 2013 legislative session. Patrick, a Houston Republican who served as state senator before taking office as lieutenant governor in January, led that chamber’s education panel at the time.

Rep. Herrero’s amendment from 2013 passed by a 103-43 vote. Neither Speaker Straus nor Public Ed Chair Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock is any more pro-voucher than they were last year, and neither is Dan Patrick any more beloved, so you have to feel pretty good about the chances this time, though it’s best not to count your amendments till they pass. If it does, that won’t fully drive a stake through vouchers’ cold, greedy heart for the session, but it’ll be a solid blow against them.

“Alternatives To Abortion”

As the Texas House prepares for a floor fight Tuesday over its budget, a flurry of amendments filed by Democrats seeks to defund the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program.

A group of Democratic lawmakers filed more than a dozen amendments to either reduce or eliminate funding for the program, which provides “pregnancy and parenting information” to low-income women. Under the program, the state contracts with the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, a nonprofit charity organization with a network of crisis pregnancy resource centers that provide counseling and adoption assistance.

Since September 2006, the program has served roughly 110,000 clients. The network features 60 provider locations, including crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes and adoption agencies.

State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, said she filed an amendment to defund the entire program because the state is giving more money to “coerce women” into a “political ideology instead of providing information and services” at a time when Texas women’s access to health services is being reduced.

The proposed House budget allocates $9.15 million a year to the program in 2016 and 2017 — up from $5.15 million in the last budget.

“I think it’s troublesome that here we are going to almost double funding for a program that has not proven to be successful in any way,” said Farrar, chairwoman of the Women’s Health Caucus in the House. An additional amendment by Farrar would require an audit of the program.

Several House Democrats filed similar amendments, including Borris Miles of Houston, Celia Israel of Austin and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, whose amendments would transfer more than $8 million from the Alternatives to Abortion program to family planning services and programs for people with disabilities.

“These facilities have very little regulation, no accountability and no requirement to offer actual medical services,” Turner said, adding that funding could be used for other medical programs. “My amendments are an attempt to address our state’s real priorities and needs.”

Two Republicans, meanwhile, filed measures to boost the program’s funding.

I don’t expect Dems to win this fight, but it’s a fight worth having.

Other women’s health funding issues

The state currently administers three similar women’s health programs that cover things like annual well woman exams, birth control and cancer screenings for low-income women.

The newest program, the Expanded Primary Health Care Program, created in 2013, is slated to get the funding bump, bringing the total for women’s health services in the House version of the budget to about $130 million per year.

Here is the breakdown of funding for each program:

  • Texas Women’s Health Program: $34.9 million in 2016, $35.1 million in 2017
  • Expanded Primary Health Care Program: $73.4 million in 2016, $73.4 million in 2017
  • Family planning program administered by Department of State Health Services: $21.4 million in 2016, $21.4 million in 2017

In 2011, motivated by a never-ending quest to defund Planned Parenthood, the Texas Legislature slashed family planning funding by nearly $70 million, leaving about $40 million for preventive and contraceptive services for low-income women. A recent study by the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project, a research group that studies the effects of family planning budget cuts, found that more than 100,000 women lost services after the 2011 cuts and 82 family planning clinics closed. In 2013, the Legislature restored the $70 million and put it into the newly created Expanded Primary Health Care Program, which became a separate item in the state budget. Still, advocates and providers have consistently fought for more money, arguing that the state is only serving one-third of women eligible to receive services.

[…]

Here is a list of other women’s health amendments and riders to watch for:

  • State Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) filed an amendment that would allow teenagers who are 15 to 17 years old and already mothers to get contraception without their parents’ consent. Right now, state law requires that all teenagers under the age of 18 get their parent’s permission for birth control. The amendment mirrors Gonzalez’s House Bill 468, which she presented to the House State Affairs Committee in mid-March.
  • State Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) has proposed a rider that would ensure sex education programs teach “medically accurate” information to public school students.
  • State Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) proposes adding even more money to the Alternatives to Abortion program by taking almost $7 million from the Commission on Environmental Quality.
  • A House budget rider by state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston) protects the state’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Services program that provides breast and cervical cancer screenings for uninsured women, under attack this session by conservative lawmakers hell bent on, you guessed it, defunding Planned Parenthood.

Some possible winners in there – in a decent world, Rep. Gonzalez’s bill would be a no-brainer – but again, fights worth having. Rep. Sarah Davis has received some liberal adulation this session for trying to do good on women’s health issues. That budget rider will be a test of whether she can actually move some of her colleagues or not.

Public education

An amendment by the House’s lead budget writer, Appropriations Committee Chairman John Otto would allocate $800 million more to certain public schools as part of a plan announced last week to diminish the inequities that exist among districts under the current funding scheme.

[…]

At the news conference Monday, Austin state Rep. Donna Howard said at least 20 percent of public schools still will receive less per-student funding than they did in 2011 under the proposal. That year, state lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from public education, restoring about $3.4 billion two years later.

“We aren’t keeping up as it is,” Howard said.

She also noted the plan also does not include the $130 million that had been earmarked for a bill containing Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to bolster pre-K programs — an amount she described as insufficient considering it does fully restore funding to a pre-K grant program gutted in 2011.

Howard has filed a budget amendment that would allocate $300 million for pre-K.

Pre-K is one of Greg Abbott’s priorities this session, but his proposal is small ball. Rep. Howard’s amendment has a chance, but we’ll see if Abbott’s office gets involved.

And finally, same sex benefits, because of course there is.

Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) is again trying to bar Texas school districts from offering benefits to the same-sex partners of employees.

Springer has introduced a budget amendment that would eliminate state funding for districts that violate the Texas Constitution, which prohibits recognition of same-sex partnerships.

The amendment is similar to a bill Springer authored two years ago, which cleared committee but was never considered on the floor. Under Springer’s budget amendment, the education commissioner, in consultation with the attorney general, would decide whether districts have violated the Constitution. Districts would have 60 days to correct the problem.

According to Equality Texas, Springer’s amendment is aimed at the Austin, Pflugerville and San Antonio school districts, which offer “plus-one” benefits that are inclusive of same-sex partners. But the group says those benefits are in line with a 2013 opinion from former Attorney General Greg Abbott, which found that such programs are only illegal if they create or recognize a status similar to marriage.

Yes, as noted, Rep. Springer has tried to meddle in this area before. I admit, I’m more worried about a budget amendment this year than a bill in 2013. Keep a close eye on that one.

More pre-K bills filed

The Observer has the best reporting on the latest pre-k bills that have been filed in the Lege.

pre-k

There’s widespread support around the Capitol for more state spending on pre-kindergarten programs, and much less agreement about how to do it.

State Reps. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) have proposed a $300-million-a-year plan to fund full-day pre-K for some children in districts that agree to meet new quality standards. Meanwhile, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has introduced a more ambitious plan: universal, full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the state.

On the campaign trail last year, Gov. Greg Abbott also proposed more pre-K spending, but more cautiously. Rather than a blanket pre-K expansion, Abbott suggested rewarding districts with $1,500 per student if they meet new standards for program quality.

That’s the plan outlined in House Bill 4, filed [Thursday] by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston). The bill creates a framework for defining the “high quality prekindergarten programs” eligible for extra state funding, but remains vague on how much each school district would get and how their programs would be evaluated. Under HB 4, those decisions would all be left up to the education commissioner.

[…]

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas and a former superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, says HB 4 includes some important elements—encouraging districts to use the state pre-K standards, and rewarding districts for using qualified teachers—but the bill is a missed opportunity if it doesn’t fund full-day learning.

Our research shows students achieve the greatest gains when enrolled in high-quality, full-day pre-K,” Anthony says, with an emphasis on “full-day.” “We have seen first-hand in the research and talking with teachers that they can accomplish so much more in a full-day program than with the half-day.”

See here for more on Raise Your Hand Texas’s research, and here for more on the Johnson/Farney bill. The Zaffirini bill is basically what Wendy Davis proposed, so you can guess what its likely outcome will be. The main problem with Abbott’s approach of course is that the $100 million appropriated in Rep. Huberty’s bill is still less than what was cut in 2011. The Chron story doesn’t mention any of this, though it does give a nice report on that public announcement event Abbott held, since that’s what really matters.

There are more reasons to prefer the full-day pre-k options that Johnson/Farney and Zaffirini are proposing:

“Right now it looks like the governor’s proposal [as written in HB 4] is basically recreating a similar grant program,” [Center for Public Policy Priorities analyst Chandra Villanueva] says. “This program just isn’t going far enough and meeting the needs that we really have.”

Villanueva, like many other early education advocates, says the Legislature should fund any pre-K expansion through the same funding formulas it uses to pay for K-12 education. Grant programs like the one cut in 2011, or the one proposed under HB 4, are much more susceptible to cuts from one session to the next.

Funding pre-K through the formulas, she says, would also help ensure students get more equal funding. HB 4, on the other hand, could reward wealthy districts that already have the money to meet new requirements for, say, class size or teacher qualifications.

“The governor’s bill that’s outside the formulas, it’s really increasing inequity in the system,” Villanueva says. “I think we need a systemic approach to dealing with pre-K, and increase the equity in the system.”

You know what that sounds like to me? A future school finance lawsuit. Good to know some things never change, isn’t it?

Abbott-style pre-k bill filed

From the inbox:

pre-k

State Representatives Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) today filed a bill to provide incentive payments to school districts to provide full-day, quality pre-kindergarten. To receive the incentives, districts would be required to adopt best practices identified through research as delivering the best return on educational investment. Texas’ current system funds only a half-day of pre-k and does not ask school districts to meet any substantial quality standards. The Johnson-Farney bill builds on a framework proposed by Governor Abbott last year.

“The research is in, and it shows that full-day pre-k is one of the best investments we can make in education. It can cut the achievement gap for children in poverty in half and will reduce future spending on remedial education, special education and the criminal justice system. If we’re serious about improving public education, we’ve got to get serious about full-day pre-k,” said Rep. Johnson.

The bill contains several transparency and accountability measures designed to ensure that taxpayer dollars are invested wisely. Participating districts will report much more information on student achievement, teacher performance, program design and parental involvement to the state under the new plan. The plan expressly prohibits any new standardized, high-stakes tests, but uses existing assessments to measure program effectiveness when students enter kindergarten and the 3rd grade.

The proposal has the general support of a wide array of stakeholders, including business associations, school districts, children’s advocacy groups, private schools and municipal leaders, including the Dallas Regional Chamber, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, Dallas Independent School District, the Commit Partnership, the Dallas Early Education Alliance, the ChildCareGroup (Dallas), Texas Association of Business, Children at Risk, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, and Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

The bill in question is HB 1100. The full press release, which contains a list of supporters, is here. Reps. Johnson and Farney first announced their intent to file such a bill last week – here’s the fact sheet and framework that came with the earlier announcement. As you know, I am skeptical of Abbott’s approach, which would still leave funding for pre-k well below 2011 levels, when it was decimated along with most everything else in the hysteria budget of that cycle. This is better than nothing, and given a choice between it and nothing, I’ll take this. Best case scenario, it works well enough to be a springboard for something more, assuming we have any funds left over after Dan Patrick finishes giving out tax cuts to the wealthy. That counts for progress these days. The Trib has more.

What will happen with pre-K this session?

They say it’s a priority, though I would advise tempering one’s expectations.

Currently, Texas funds a half day of preschool for 4-year-olds whose first language is not English, whose families have low incomes, whose parents are active duty military or who are in foster care.

Texas has some of the weakest quality standards for preschool, with no limits on student-to-teacher ratios or class sizes, according to reports from the National Institute for Early Education.

A Republican-led Legislature cut about $5.4 billion from public education funding in 2011, including $200 million for a pre-K grant program that helped some school districts offer full-day classes.

Lawmakers restored a portion of the funding in 2013, including about $30 million for the grant program.

[…]

Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, said that while there’s more bipartisanship support for pre-K this year, Democrats and Republicans likely will split on whether to make it a funding priority.

“I think we’re getting past the point where we have to convince folks of the importance of pre-K,” he said.

But even though more people “are recognizing and acknowledging the importance of that early investment, it’s still going to be determined by the action of the folks in charge and whether they’ll put money behind their assertions that there is a value,” he said.

Greg Abbott put forth a pre-k plan during the campaign, though it didn’t get a lot of discussion and he was vague about details and cost. Even at the high end of his proposal, the amount the state would spend on pre-k would still be down from 2011. With other priorities likely to take precedence and little to no room for growth, my expectation is that we may get some new standards and maybe some incentive money, but nothing beyond that. So again, to sum up in three words, don’t expect much.

How Texas can improve its pre-k programs

From Raise Your Hand Texas:

How Texas stacks up on pre-k

Raise Your Hand Texas recently released a report highlighting research-driven practices proven effective in public pre-kindergarten programs across the country, and comparing how Texas’ pre-k program stacks up. “Pre-Kindergarten for the Modern Age: A scalable, affordable, high-quality plan for Texas” was prepared by Dr. Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and a leading expert on early childhood education.

The report shows that Texas currently has in place few of the elements of high-quality public pre-k programs and collects very little data on program quality. With regards to statewide policy and funding, Texas only partially meets three of the eight elements of effective pre-k programs. The report recommends a series of policy changes to improve the quality and impact of the state’s pre-k program, starting with the need to expand our statewide commitment from half-day to full-day for at-risk children currently eligible for public pre-k.

“The current, rigorous research is clear – there is no longer any question that publicly funded, high-quality pre-k programs play a critical role in closing the achievement gap, both in the short and long-term, and that states are getting these results in a cost-sustainable manner” said Dr. Pianta.

The report’s recommendations include:

  1. Fund high-quality, targeted full-day pre-k for currently eligible students
  2. Implement structural quality elements such as:
    • required standards and curricula
    • pre-k specific preparation and professional development for teachers
    • effective adult-child ratios to promote learning
  3. Require uniform measurement, data collection and oversight
    • require participation in Texas Student Data System
    • require districts to collect and report data regarding children’s learning and teachers’ skills
    • provide sufficient staff to ensure effective program management and oversight

According to the report, multi-state evaluations demonstrate “academic gains can be maintained at least through third grade and in many instances, beyond.” To achieve those types of gains, the report says Texas must commit additional staff resources: “No state with a pre-k program has less state-level capacity (in terms of absolute numbers of staff) to monitor and oversee pre-k than does Texas – even states as small as Delaware.”1

“Providing currently eligible populations with access to high-quality, full-day pre-kindergarten probably represents the single most powerful reform tool at our disposal to give every Texas child a fair shot at success in school and in life, and to improve performance in public schools across the state,” said Dr. David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas.

To learn more, and to download the full research report or executive summary, please visit www.RaiseYourHandTexas.org/prek.

The full report is here. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

As an example of the new wave of programs with results, an analysis of the impact of five state-funded preschool programs on young children’s school readiness in Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia showed 31% more annual growth in vocabulary skills for children enrolled in pre-k when compared to those who did not attend preschool.1 Increases in math and early literacy skills were also pronounced, showing 44% and 85% more annual growth, respectively.2

And a recent analysis combining results from 123 early childhood program evaluation studies estimated the short-term (one-year) impact of early learning programs to be about half the poverty achievement gap* , the equivalent of a four-year-old jumping from the 30th percentile to the 50th percentile on achievement tests.3

Notably, recent evaluations have demonstrated that gains can be sustained through elementary school and beyond. Although fade-out of program effects had been cited previously as evidence of preschool’s limited effectiveness, it is now clear that fade-out is far more likely a function of the stunning variation in quality of programs than in the value of pre-k per se.

Recent and rigorous research evaluations from multiple states, including studies of Texas programs, demonstrate that academic gains can be maintained at least through third grade and in many instances, beyond. Of note, in some evaluations the benefits of pre-k extend into early adulthood, with improved outcomes such as educational attainment and cognitive performance.4

In other words, the most current research indicates that high-quality pre-k programs can lead to significant and sustained gains for young children. Based on recent programs and rigorous research, there is no longer any question that publicly funded pre-k programs hold enormous potential for closing skills gaps, both in the short and long-term.

Notably, the contemporary statewide programs that show the impacts noted above are all funded at levels considered sustainable by state legislators. In other words, these programs are not “Cadillac” or boutique models with excessive costs that exceed state allocations or are offered to small select groups of children. Rather, they typically operate at per-pupil costs no greater than those of the K-12 system and still achieve these benefits.

What’s more, these investments in early education return financial benefits downstream. Analyses of various statewide and experimental studies estimate a total return on investment between $3-7 saved per child for each dollar spent on pre-k.5

Findings consistently show that the benefits of high-quality programs significantly exceed the costs by producing immediate improvements in school readiness, cuts in school spending related to retention and special education, and long-term impacts related to reduced delinquency and increased productivity.6

These benefits over the lifetime have been estimated to lead to savings of $9,901 per participant taking into account short, middle, and long-term outcomes, making pre-k a highly cost-effective intervention.7

Moreover, the rate of return on investments in quality pre-k is larger than other well-known educational expenditures, such as class size reduction.8

And although pre-k helps all children, it seems particularly beneficial for children who are low-income or dual language learners,9 which is a significant and growing percentage of the
Texas student population. So not only does pre-k work, the most recent research also makes it clear that quality preschool, especially for those children most at-risk for school failure, is a wise investment.10

Sounds pretty good, wouldn’t you say? Too bad we’re not going to get anything like this in Texas. But at least now the Early Matters folks have a blueprint for what they might want to achieve in Harris County.

Texas asks for federal funding for pre-k vouchers

Not sure how I feel about this.

BagOfMoney

Teacher groups are up in arms as Texas seeks millions from the federal government to fund a new pre-K voucher program that would begin next fall.

Last month, the Texas Education Agency applied for $30 million in prekindergarten grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education, its share of the $160 million federal Preschool Development Grants Program. If approved, officials plan to use 25 percent of that money to pay for full-day, high-quality preschool for eligible children in Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.

Currently, the state funds half-day public preschool for children from low-income, educationally disadvantaged, non-English speaking and military families. Under the proposed program, parents with eligible kids would sign up for the public or private pre-K program of their choice through a lottery system. If the program meets the grant’s quality requirements, the full cost of the child’s preschool would be paid for using the grant money. At around $8,000 a year per child, the grant could add an additional 17,900 additional pre-K slots, a 25 percent increase, to the existing system.

According to the grant application, the proposal would be one of four ways the TEA would use the $30 million to “expand” and “enhance” access to full-day, high-quality preschool in Texas. Critics of the proposal, however, said it would amount to little more than the creation of a pre-K school voucher program.

[…]

While the proposal is unpopular among educators, it could find friends in the state’s newly-elected leaders. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott campaigned on smarter and more accountable funding for pre-K programs, while Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick long has been a vouchers champion.

The idea also is likely to find favor with Early Matters, a coalition organized by the Greater Houston Partnership to seek ways to expand local pre-K and child-care programs. A previous effort failed to get off the ground in 2013, when organizers unsuccessfully sought to force a referendum on a 1-cent property tax to fund expanded pre-K programs locally.

The main critic cited in the story is the Coalition for Public Schools, which sent a letter to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on October 30 outlining their issues. The Coalition’s super-minimalist website is here, and they don’t appear to have a Facebook presence, so I have been unable to find a copy of their letter and learn what their specific beefs are. Fortunately, Lisa Falkenberg was on the job and did some digging to find out more and fill in some of the gaps.

I was initially skeptical of the criticisms. After all, the Texas Workforce Commission has administered a federal subsidy system since the 1990s that essentially provides very low-income parents a voucher to pay for private child care so they can go back to work or school. A Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said this program would serve as a model for the proposed one.

And isn’t it a bit early for complaints anyway? Shouldn’t we all still be singing “Kumbaya” about Texas applying for any program near and dear to President Barack Obama’s heart? After snubbing Common Core and Race to the Top – in part, for good reason, I might add – Texas announced in September that it would apply for the federal grant. Much of it would benefit Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.

[…]

We need money. The grant proposal, written with the help of the folks at The Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center here in Houston, offers some good ideas.

“I guess I was kind of shocked to see the article this morning with the outcry … all about the voucher system,” said April Crawford, the institute’s director of state initiatives. “Certainly, 75 percent of it is not about a voucher approach at all. Twenty-five percent, they might go to a private program, but they also might go to a school near work that they know as a high-quality program. It just gives them more flexibility to pick and choose.”

So, what’s the problem?

For starters, a little reporting revealed I was wrong in thinking Texas had been there, done that with the Workforce Commission program. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. The Workforce program is about private child care. It has nothing to do with the public education system. So, there’s no risk of a private entity siphoning off dollars intended for public schools.

Then, there’s the Greater Houston Partnership’s beef. The business group, which considers pre-K its No. 1 legislative priority, has been working with Early Matters to expand and improve pre-K in Texas. A critical part of its effort is to create partnerships between school districts and private providers with extra classroom space.

“A voucher system really complicates that and gets in the way of that partnership,” said Jim Postl, former CEO of Pennzoil-Quaker State Company who heads the Partnership’s early childhood committee and is chairman of Early Matters. “The voucher system would bypass the ISDs and potentially go directly to the private providers. So, there’s less incentive for the two groups to work together.”

And then there’s the political taint of the V-word.

“I’m always suspicious when vouchers seem to come out of nowhere,” says Anthony, of Raise Your Hand.

Indeed, no one I talked to could tell me who insisted on including the voucher component. No one could really explain the purpose of it, either.

I basically agree with Falkenberg, and that leaves me back where I started. The v-word, as she puts it, is automatically suspicious, and in this case has a mysterious origin. Until that has been explained, and the concerns raised in her column have been addressed, I will be suspicious. There’s plenty of reason to not give any benefit of the doubt here. As we saw during the gubernatorial campaign, Greg Abbott isn’t interested in fully funding pre-k, so for better or worse we should continue to push for it locally.

More on the initial bill filings

From the Trib, a sampling:

As of Monday afternoon, a bill repealing the Texas Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state college tuition rates, had yet to emerge. Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick promised while campaigning that he would work to repeal the act. The bill could part of legislation that is reserved for priorities set by the lieutenant governor.

All bills can be seen on the Texas Legislature site. Here’s a list of other noteworthy legislation filed Monday: 

Guns

State Reps. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, and James White, R-Woodville, filed legislation, House Bill 106 and House Bill 164, respectively, that would allow Texans to openly carry handheld guns. 

House Bill 176, filed by Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, would create the “Second Amendment Preservation Act,” which would say a federal law “that infringes on a law-abiding citizen’s right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 23, Article I, Texas Constitution, is invalid and not enforceable in this state.” 

Transportation

Senate Joint Resolution 12 and Senate Bill 139, filed by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would eliminate diversions from the state highway fund to the Department of Public Safety to ensure those funds are only used on road construction. Currently, part of the state highway fund is paying for state highway police. 

Health

Senate Bill 66, filed by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would require schools to stock EpiPens, and that employees are trained in how to use the medical devices that combat serious allergic reactions.

Senate Bill 96 and Senate Bill 97, also filed by Hinojosa, would introduce regulations of vapor products, or  e-cigarettes, in Texas. SB 96 prohibits the use of vapor products on school property, while SB 97 would apply many of the regulations on cigarettes to vapor products.

House Bill 113, filed by Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, would make it illegal to perform an abortion based on the sex of the child.

House Bill 116, filed by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, would expand Medicaid eligibility in the state. 

Education

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed several higher education related bills. Senate Bill 24 would increase the orientation training for university system regents, while Senate Bill 42 would prevent the governor from appointing a student regent if that person did not submit an application to the university or its student government. Senate Bill 23, also filed by Zaffirini, would make pre-kindergarten available to all 4-year-olds in Texas and make half-day pre-K available to 3-year olds who meet certain at-risk measures.

Senate Bill 150, filed by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would fund 64 construction and renovation projects at higher education institutions across the state. It would cost $2.86 billion.

House Bill 138, filed by Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, would stop independent school districts from banning schools from posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms. 

Voting

House Bill 76, filed by Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, would allow citizens to register to vote online. 

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, filed three bills in an attempt to increase civic engagement in Texas. Senate Bill 141 would create a voter education program in Texas high schools, Senate Bill 142 would allow deputy registrars to receive their training online, and Senate Bill 143 would notify voters who were rejected while registering of what mistakes they made on their registration forms. 

House Bill 111, filed by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, would create same-day voter registration. 

Energy and Environment

Senate Bill 109, filed by Sen.-elect Van Taylor, R-Plano, establishes new deadlines for processing water rights permits in Texas. In a statement on Monday, Taylor said the bill was aimed at bureaucracy that is preventing parts of North Texas from accessing water.

House Bill 224, filed by Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, would change the name of the Railroad Commission of Texas to the “Texas Energy Resources Commission.” Similar legislation has failed in the past.

Other

House Bill 55, filed by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, would allow money from the Texas Enterprise Fund to go to veterans hospitals in the state. The Texas Enterprise Fund became embroiled in controversy this past election season, when it was revealed that several recipients of the fund never formally submitted applications.

House Bill 92, filed by Rep. James White, R-Woodville, would change the legal definition of an “illegal knife.” 

House Bill 150, filed by Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, would nix daylight savings time in Texas.

House Bill 161, filed by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, would allow counties to house prisoners in tents.  

There’s plenty more, some good, some bad, some bat$#!+ crazy, some blatantly unconstitutional, many with no hope of ever getting a committee hearing. As always, I’ll do what I can to keep track of ’em as we go. The Chron, Stace, Grits, Juanita, Newsdesk, and the Observer have more.

Early Matters presents its case

They’ve got a good coalition. Let’s see where they can go with it.

Access to preschool programs – and their quality – varies widely across Texas. A broad coalition of Houston-area executives, educators and nonprofit groups assembled by Houston’s premier business organization is working to change that, though a major hurdle remains: securing funding in a state that ranks toward the bottom in pre-K spending per pupil.

The coalition’s 10-year plan, to be released Friday, calls for full-day pre-K classes for all disadvantaged 4-year-olds, with tuition required for wealthier families; lower student-to-teacher ratios; higher standards for private child care providers; and parent education to help ready their toddlers for school.

Leaders of the local group, called Early Matters, say they plan to lobby the state for more money – an estimated $700 million to extend full-day pre-K to the hundreds of thousands of 4-year-olds from disadvantaged families in Texas.

“This is really going to be the job of the Legislature, to really understand that this early investment has a big return,” said Jim Postl, chairman of the coalition, organized by the Greater Houston Partnership.

Both gubernatorial candidates, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, have declared preschool education a priority, though they differ on the details. Abbott has focused on improving quality; Davis has championed expansion.

[…]

The Early Matters report calls for no more than 20 students in a class – with one teacher and one aide. Like Alief, several local districts assign one aide to work with two or three teachers to save money.

Postl, the retired chief executive of Pennzoil-Quaker State Co., said he expects the Early Matters group will gain more traction than a smaller effort last year – made up of some of the same members – that tried unsuccessfully to get a 1-cent tax hike on the Harris County ballot to increase funding for early childhood education.

In the short term, Postl said, the group does not expect to seek city or county funding for its effort.

See here and here for the background, and here for the Early Matters page on the GHP website. I’ll say again, I think Davis’ plan is the better, but even if you think Abbott’s plan has merit, I see no reason to believe that it’s something he really cares about. There’s nothing in his rhetoric or his record to suggest to me this is a priority for him.

A followup story on Saturday showed some more support for Early Matters.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, in short speeches, expressed general support for the early childhood effort.

“Money is not sufficient, but it is necessary,” Parker said. “So we’re going to have to have hard conversations about how we fund what we need to do.”

Leaders of Early Matters, a group organized by the Greater Houston Partnership, have said they don’t plan to turn to the city or county for significant funding in the short term. An effort last year to get a 1-cent tax increase on the Harris County ballot under an obscure law failed after Emmett said that approach wasn’t legal.

“Early Matters is a program worthy of all our support,” Emmett said Friday about the new initiative, “and we need to make sure that it bears fruit and actually becomes a reality.”

It’s going to take all the voices we can get for that to happen, and if we want the Legislature to take action, we’re going to need to talk to them, and to the Governor. We can make that conversation easier or harder depending on how we vote this year.

More on Early Matters

Scott McClelland, president of H-E-B Houston and also the chair of the Greater Houston Partnership Education Advisory Committee, pens an op-ed about the importance of pre-kindergarten and the latest effort to provide for it.

It’s hard to believe, but more than 60 percent of children in Houston start kindergarten lacking basic letter identification skills and almost 80 percent are challenged with number recognition. Additional research shows that a student who can’t read at grade level by the end of the third grade is four times more likely to drop out of school.

Those facts are concerning in and of themselves. But here’s why we all need to pay attention: Our job market is booming. But 60 percent of new jobs coming to Texas will require education beyond a high school diploma, and our state ranks last in high school graduation rates. Only 1 in 5 Texas children will earn a post-high school credential.

Quite simply, our region’s growth and expansion will be stifled if we cannot supply quality candidates to fill these jobs over the longterm.

Because the challenge is so great, local business leaders, educators and nonprofit organizations formed a broad-based coalition called “Early Matters.” The group has a singular focus: ensuring that our children are reading at grade level by the end of the third grade.

The group has set a 10-year vision that is predicated on being collaborative and inclusive – both of people and ideas.

Our approach is necessarily broad – all phases of child development leading to third grade need to be addressed. And while some of our plan calls for innovation that could pool existing resources, or make them work more efficiently, yes, achieving the goal will take money. A good plan that can’t be funded won’t make a difference.

See here for the background. Early Matters doesn’t appear to have its own webpage yet, but there is this page off the Greater Houston Partnership website, which contains a fact sheet and the press release of their announcement that they exist. I’m sure there will be more to come. This is all still very much at the high level stage, with most of what they’re talking about being the need for early childhood education solutions and not much yet about what those solutions will be. I’m glad they’re making the need to pay for something that will be effective and make a difference a key component of their early push, because that will be the greatest challenge. But how bug that challenge ultimately will be is not set in stone.

In the 2011 legislative session, $200 million was cut from pre-K programs. $30 million in funding was restored in 2013, but full restoration of these cuts is needed.

The ultimate goal of the Early Matters coalition is expanding to statewide, full-day pre-K. However, we know this will require substantial funding and additional time to ensure effective planning and implementation.

Just as a reminder, Greg Abbott’s big idea for pre-k comes with a $118 million price tag, which is to say that his fully funded plan for the 2016-2017 biennium would represent at most sixty percent of what the Legislature cut from pre-k spending in 2011. Wendy Davis, on the other hand, is proposing that school districts across the state offer full-day pre-K programs, which is to say exactly what this effort is pushing for. I recognize that an effort like Early Matters needs to be bipartisan, and I recognize that there are plenty of Republicans that support fully funded, quality pre-kindergarten programs. I just hope that the people that support Early Matters recognize that they can make their jobs easier if they want to or they can make their jobs harder. It’s their choice.

Interview with Debra Kerner

Debra Kerner

Debra Kerner

We round out the county races this year with the Harris County Department of Education, a seven-member board that handles federal grants and provides various programs for the many independent school districts in Harris County. It’s hard to believe, but six years ago today there wasn’t a single Democrat on the HCDE. That started to change in 2008, when two Democrats won races for At Large seats against right-wing Republicans that had defeated more moderate incumbents in their primary. (One of those successful primary challengers was our current County Clerk, Stan Stanart.) Debra Kerner was one of those two Democrats, and now she’s running for re-election to Place 5, At Large on the HCDE Board. Kerner is a speech pathologist who has run her own consulting firm for over 30 years, and she has brought a wealth of experience and empathy to her job on the HCDE. With pre-kindergarten being so much in the news lately, from the recent efforts to fund a pre-k program in Harris County to the competing proposals from Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott, there was plenty for us to talk about:

I will have more interviews in the coming weeks.

Trying again with pre-K

Different approach, hopefully a different result will follow.

On the first day of school for most Houston-area children, a coalition called “Early Matters” organized by the Greater Houston Partnership announced Monday it would release a 10-year “game plan” at a summit next month to expand pre-kindergarten and child care programs and assist parents so they can “become the best parents they can be for their growing child.”

Coalition members, including Chair Jim Postl, the retired president and CEO of Pennzoil-Quaker State Co., also made clear they would be looking to the Texas Legislature, which gutted state funding for full-day pre-K in 2011, saying restoring that money would be “a very important first step” to carrying out a plan they say will increase the likelihood that kids will stay in school and be prepared to join the workforce or go to college when they graduate.

[…]

The Partnership, Houston’s most influential chamber of commerce group, helped commission a study in 2012 that found that the vast majority of brain development occurs before age five and that greater investment in early childhood programs would be crucial to the region’s future economic success. The resulting report inspired the formation of another coalition of local business and community leaders called Early to Rise that launched a petition drive last year to place a 1-cent property tax hike on the November ballot to generate funding for these types of programs. The effort was based on an obscure, decades-old law that said the county judge must call an election to raise the tax rate of the Harris County Department of Education if enough valid signatures are gathered.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett refused to place on the item on the ballot, however, saying he supported improving early childhood education but that the petition language the group had used did not comply with the law. He and others also did not like that the proposal would have diverted the tax dollars to the coffers of a private group.

The group sued, but an appeals court backed Emmett’s decision.

Harvey said he and other GHP committee members convened a few months later and decided to launch another effort with “more active involvement of the business community” and “a much broader coalition.” In addition to business leaders, the coalition was joined Monday by a half-dozen local school superintendents, including Houston ISD’s Terry Grier.

“I think there was a lot of answered questions in a lot of people’s minds” about last year’s proposal, including “how you raise the money and how you have a countywide tax rate, who is going to be in charge of those dollars,” Grier said. “I think that this has the full support of the Greater Houston Partnership and it’s a wide coalition, a much broader coalition than it was a year ago. I’ve seen both programs. This is not the same program repackaged. This is totally different.”

Clearly, going for a statewide plan is the optimal path, but it’s also the heavier lift politically since it would involve spending money. I know the GHP and their partners in this effort would like to be nice and bipartisan and all, but there are some fairly significant differences between the two major candidates on the issue of pre-K. If you don’t feel like clicking those links, just ask yourself who as the next Governor will be more amenable to fully funding a statewide pre-K program. The question answers itself. The Early Matters coalition, who have County Judge Ed Emmett on board with the idea, haven’t zeroed in on how they would fund this, and still have a lot of blanks to fill in policy-wise, but it’s the goal that matters. I personally would have no problems with the Lege doing this via appropriation, but we should certainly take advantage of whatever federal and private grants exist, too. Let’s make this happen, and let’s make it happen in a lot less than that ten-year time frame.

Abbott’s appellate brief on same sex marriage is a complete loser

How weak does your case have to be to have to rely on this?

RedEquality

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed an appeal with the U.S. 5th Circuit Monday regarding the state’s same-sex marriage ban, which was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in February.

According to the brief, Abbott said Texas can ban same-sex marriage based on the State’s interest in procreation.

The State contends that marriage between a man and a woman “increases the likelihood” that they will produce and raise their children in “stable, lasting relationships.”

“Because same-sex relationships do not naturally produce children, recognizing same-sex marriage does not further these goals to the same extent that recognizing opposite-sex marriage does,” the brief reads. “That is enough to supply a rational basis for Texas’s marriage laws.”

You can see the brief at the Trail Blazers link above. I mean, seriously, they needed how many delays to come up with that? I guess after nearly 30 courts in a row have ruled against you there are only so many arguments one can reach for, but seriously? Procreation? As many people have been snarking on Facebook and elsewhere, lots of procreation takes place outside of marriage, and lots of marriages do not include procreation. Some people choose not to have children, others are unable to for whatever the reason. Some people get married after having had a vasectomy, or a hysterectomy, or some other permanent form of contraception (often, it should be noted, for reasons having nothing to do with procreation). Some people get married after reaching an age where having children is no longer possible. And on the flip side, not to put too fine a point on it but plenty of same-sex couples, including two of the litigants in the Texas case, are raising children. Some are their own biological children, which as we know has way more obstacles for them to overcome than we straight folks have to deal with, some have adopted, and some have children from previous relationships and marriages. There’s nothing about Abbott’s argument that wouldn’t deserve to be laughed out of a first-year mock trial court.

And hey, if the state of Texas really did care about “furthering the goals” of reproduction, I can think of plenty of far more effective ways for them to do it. Let’s start with expanding Medicaid, since a significant number of births in Texas are already paid for by Medicaid. Expanding Medicaid would also provide health care for more children and their parents. You could raise the minimum wage, which would make having children more affordable for many people, and you could implement sensible and meaningful family leave policies. Did you know that in the absence of a comprehensive non-discrimination law you can get fired for being pregnant? Did you know that workplaces are not required to make any accommodations to pregnant workers? I’ll bet a law that made those accommodations mandatory would have a salutary effect on our state’s fertility rate. Truly universal pre-K would also be a boon for people who have or want to have children. Oh, and then there are all those obstacles I mentioned earlier for same-sex couples that want to have children. We could maybe do something about those, too. In fact, I’m pretty sure that losing this appeal and having our state’s hurtful and discriminatory ban on same-sex marriage struck down would do more to improve the lives of families in Texas than any bullet point in Greg Abbott’s gubernatorial platform. Lord knows, he doesn’t support any of the things I’ve highlighted here.

Which suggests the conclusion that maybe Abbott tanked the appellate brief because he came to these conclusions himself, but of course can’t bring himself to say any of this out loud. That’s would be a better and more sensible rationale for filing this idiotic brief than sincerely believing it’s a winning argument, even for the sucky Fifth Circuit. Even I have a hard time believing they’d buy something that stupid. It’s also possible that he’s making this argument because there are no other arguments he can make. In which case, too bad for him. The Trib, Lone Star Q, and LGBTQ Insider have more.

Jay Aiyer: Consider a local option for pre-k

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

Pre-K education has emerged as the most hotly debated issue in this year’s race for Governor. Both Senator Davis and Attorney General Abbott have laid out competing proposals to provide pre-k education in Texas, with dueling press conferences and accusations flying back and forth.

What Pre-K seeks to do is to eliminate what education researchers have recognized as the single biggest impediment to improving public education—the literacy gap. For years we have been aware that because of income and parental education disparity, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds begin school at a significant disadvantage. We know that a child that reads at grade level by the end of 3rd grade has over a 95% chance of graduating from high school. When you consider the close correlation between high school graduation and the rate of poverty—you can see that the development of an effective Pre-K program in Texas has the potential of significantly reducing poverty in a generation.

While there are merits to both Davis and Abbott’s respective plans, it’s what they are missing that is most telling.

Funding
You simply can’t have an effective Pre-K system without a funding mechanism in place. Our current K-12 system is itself woefully underfunded and the object of litigation. The idea of proposing an expansion of education without addressing the underlying financial problems that exist in K-12 renders any plan proposed nonsense. You have to get the funding right.

Infrastructure
Private and religious schools largely provide Pre-K in Texas. Several ISDs have a limited Pre-K program, but the vast majority does not. In order to expand Pre-K through the ISD system, it would require a significant capital expenditure on a scale not previously seen. Buildings have to be built and that itself could be billions in additional costs.

Implementation
Every study that has been done on Pre-K recognizes that its impact is only significant if the program is comprehensive and structured educationally. State government has repeatedly shown that when it comes to the development and implementation of specific educational programs, they have done more harm than good. Rather than a large state program—local governments are better suited to making Pre-K work.

So what should we do?

The most effective Pre-K systems nationally, have been locally driven and locally controlled. Tulsa, Oklahoma is the national leader in Pre-K and has had the most effective program. San Antonio’s local initiative has also been widely praised for its approach. While applauding Davis and Abbott for their focus on Pre-K, I would argue that if they really wanted a program to be successful—develop a funding system through a local authorization process, and let city/county governments lead the way. Austin has repeatedly proven it is unable to solve big problems. It’s time to try a different approach.

Jay K. Aiyer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs. He served on the Board of Trustees for the Houston Community College System from 2000-2008 and served as Chief of Staff to Mayor Lee P. Brown from 1998-2000.

On improving literacy

I have three things to say about this story.

In Houston, a city known for its brilliant doctors and energy executives, adults are waiting in line for classes that teach basic literacy skills – reading, writing and speaking clearly. They can’t land jobs or promotions, can’t help their kids with homework.

At the same time, tens of thousands of students in local public school districts are failing to meet the state’s minimum academic standards, fighting to comprehend texts and straining to write essays.

Houston, educators and civic leaders say, has far too many citizens who can’t read well, the subject of a report scheduled for release Thursday by the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, “Houston’s Literacy Crisis: A Blueprint for Community Action.”

The plan calls for educating parents of infants, making pre-kindergarten classes available to all youngsters, deploying reading specialists to low-performing schools and expanding adult education programs.

The foundation has not put a price on its ideas, but executive director Julie Baker Finck said she hopes the report serves as a rallying cry to turn more attention, volunteer support and funding toward literacy work.

“If we don’t in part solve low literacy levels for adults, then they will never be able to support their own child’s development and prepare them to enter kindergarten ready to learn how to read,” she said.

[…]

The Bush Foundation’s work dovetails with HISD’s latest campaign to improve literacy instruction. In a draft plan presented to the school board this month, Superintendent Terry Grier and his academic chief, Dan Gohl, set a goal that 100 percent of third-graders would meet the state’s reading standards by 2019.

Last year, 37 percent of HISD third-graders hit the recommended level, slightly lower than the Texas average.

“This is our profound crisis,” Gohl told the school board, “and we must do something dramatically different.”

The district’s plan calls for placing a trained “literacy leader” on campuses, increasing scrutiny of individual school programs, and trying to outfit classrooms with books for different reading levels.

Gohl said he plans to ask the board to approve $4 million next school year, largely to fund training. That doesn’t include the classroom libraries for kindergarten through second grade, which could cost another $9 million.

Let me preface this by saying that there’s no question that HISD needs to do a better job on reading and literacy. By every measure, HISD students perform poorly overall in reading, and this does have profound consequences for graduation rates, college achievement, and ultimately earning potential. Improving reading performance, at HISD and in many other school districts in Texas, would go a long way towards making a brighter future for many, many people.

Having said that, here are my concerns with this story.

1. More than half of this story is spent on the personal struggles of two people who dealt with dyslexia as children. One might conclude from this that dyslexia is a big part of the problem, but the story doesn’t actually make that connection. Dyslexia is something we’ve known about for a long time, and according to Wikipedia, it affects about five percent of children. The article uses dyslexia for narrative purposes, so I am unclear whether it is trying to say that dyslexia is a significant part of the problem and/or if local school districts do an inadequate job in dealing with dyslexic children. My guess is that this was for informational purposes only, as they say, and not really something that needs to be better addressed via policy.

2. More broadly, there’s nothing in the story about how these recommendations fit (or don’t fit) with what area school districts are already doing or planning to do, and there’s no reaction from any local school officials or other stakeholders like Gayle Fallon. Perhaps that’s because this story was in advance of the Foundation actually releasing their report – as of this publication, I still don’t see anything on their website about it – so I guess there isn’t anything for them to react to. Maybe this was just supposed to be a puff piece, but someone funded this study and someone took the time to write it, and from what little we see in this story they have some decent ideas – I particularly like the bit about educating parents of infants – so let’s take it seriously and see if it’s worthwhile. Otherwise, what’s the point?

3. That said, and bearing in mind that I haven’t seen the report myself, I’m disappointed that they didn’t put a price tag on anything. We’re in the middle of a policy debate in the Governor’s race about education and pre-k, mostly about funding but also about how to do it right. I understand it’s not their role to get in the middle of a partisan dispute, but nothing happens in this state without at least some understanding of the cost involved, and how to pay for it. In the absence of adequate state funding for pre-k, thanks to the 2011 budget cuts, some localities have tried to provide pre-k programs on their own; the one in San Antonio was successful, the one in Harris County was not. What approach would the Bush Foundation recommend? I for one would like to know.

Another trip down Demography Lane

From the Sunday Chron op-ed pages:

Texas is headed for the ditch, but few people are aware of the state’s perilous path. The demographers have seen the future, though, because it’s foretold in their numbers. And they’ve been sounding the alarm.

There hasn’t been much of a public-policy response, so far.

Texas could be the pacesetter: It has a young and rapidly growing population. Educate that workforce and Texas becomes a vibrant, thriving state for decades. Unfortunately, that young population is overwhelmingly minority and under-educated, and there appears to be little political interest in addressing the needs of that demographic group.

Increasingly, Texas stands to become poorer and less competitive, according to demographers who study the numbers for a living. Neither state leaders nor the media is paying adequate attention. Few Texans are aware of the state’s rapidly changing population. Hispanics will surpass whites as the largest population group some time before 2020.

By the numbers, here’s what’s been taking place: The state lost 184,486 white children between 2000 and 2010 while gaining 931,012 Hispanic children over that decade, according to the U.S. Census. Stated another way, in 2000, Texas white kids outnumbered Hispanic children by 120,382; Flash forward to 2010 and Hispanic children outnumbered white kids by 995,116.

This gap will continue to widen. Demographer Steve Murdock notes the average white female is 42 years old compared to an average age of 28 for Latinas. And the fertility rate is 1.9 children for the white female compared to 2.7 for the Latina. Demographers say replacement of a population group requires a fertility rate of at least 2.1.

Whites are projected to make up fewer than 4 percent of the state’s population growth between now and 2040, compared to 78 percent for Texas Hispanics.

Here’s the most important figure: All of our K-12 enrollment growth over the past decade comes from low-income children – that is, children whose family income qualifies them for free and reduced-cost school lunches. Those low-income students now make up a little more than 60 percent of our public school enrollment.

Many are way behind when they arrive in the first grade. Too many drop out years later. A whopping 47 percent of low-income high school students from the Class of 2015 were off track to graduate, according to testimony in last year’s public school finance trial.

Why does this matter? Murdock, who served as director of the U.S Census Bureau in the administration of President George W. Bush, projects that three out of 10 Texas workers will not have a high school diploma by 2040. Also, in 25 years, the average Texas household income will be some $6,500 less than it was in the year 2000. The figure is not inflation-adjusted, so it will be worse than it sounds. Basically, today’s children, collectively, stand to be worse off than preceding generations.

How can we address the trend line? The first step is to increase access to high-quality pre-K, Murdock says.

[…]

The demographers are warning us about the not so-rosy future if we fail to act. Education is the answer. Education is the best ticket out of poverty. We simply need state leaders to understand a universal truth: It doesn’t cost to educate a child; it pays to educate a child.

This is a condensed version of a longer piece by former Chron and Express-News reporter Gary Scharrer, which first appeared on Texas To The World. Scharrer was more recently on the staff of now-former Sen. Tommy Williams. Steve Murdock is a familiar name in this blog – he’s been singing this tune for well over a decade now, not that the powers that be have been listening. Here’s an interview I did with him in 2011, just as the Legislature was getting set to cut $5.4 billion from public education and $200 million from pre-k, because they suck like that. As we know, these issues are salient in the election for Governor this fall. You tell me whose pre-k plan, not to mention whose overall vision for education, is a better fit for our future.

Davis keeps up the attack on Abbott over pre-k

She is not letting up.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

While addressing the Texas State Teachers Association’s convention in San Marcos on Saturday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis accused her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, of backing away from his early education policy proposal.

Abbott, the state’s attorney general, recently came under fire from Democrats and education advocates for language in a policy proposal that appears to call for the biannual testing of pre-kindergarten students. Although Abbott’s campaign said earlier this week that his plan does not call for such tests, Davis is keeping up the attacks.

“Under the guise of quality, he calls for putting these tests first — not our kids,” Davis said. “In his plan, his first assessment idea calls for another test for 4-year-olds. And if they don’t pass the mark, they get the rug pulled out from under them.”

Davis bashed Abbott for remarks made by campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch, who told The Texas Tribune earlier this week that assessment methods mentioned in the attorney general’s plan were “there for informational purposes only.”

“They are not part of Greg Abbott’s policy recommendations,” he said.

See here and here for the background. I don’t really have anything to say about this, I’m just using it as an excuse to reproduce beneath the fold an amazingly snarky press release from the Davis campaign that made fun of that “for informational purposes only” disclaimer. I continue to be amazed at the aggressiveness of the Davis campaign lately. As I’ve noted before, she has been setting the terms of the debate for basically the entire campaign. I don’t know how long that will last, and I don’t know how much effect it may have on the outcome, but I do know this is something we are not used to seeing, and I do know I’m enjoying it. Click on for the press release.

(more…)

Abbott denies his pre-k plan means standardized testing for 4-year-olds

Glad we cleared that up.

Still not Greg Abbott

After questions were raised about language in a policy proposal that appears to call for the biannual testing of pre-kindergarten students, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott’s campaign is clarifying his early education plan, saying he is not calling for such tests.

The proposal — the first detailed glimpse at Abbott’s education policy — aims to increase accountability for pre-kindergarten programs in the state by tying their funding to academic outcomes. Announced a little more than a week ago, it asks Texas lawmakers to require school districts with such programs to “administer assessments at the beginning and end of the year.”

After Democrats and education advocates said Abbott’s policy opened the door to standardized testing for pre-K students, the Abbott campaign said Tuesday the language in the attorney general’s proposal would not amount to standardized exams for 4-year-olds.

“Suggestions to the contrary are absurd,” spokesman Matt Hirsch said in a statement.

[…]

Abbott’s proposal would provide an additional $1,500 in state funding for each student enrolled in half-day pre-K programs  — which the state currently funds for children who cannot speak English or are from homeless, low-income, foster or military families — if those programs meet state-set “gold standard” performance requirements. The biannual assessments are necessary, the proposal states, to provide the state with “data necessary to properly evaluate” whether districts would qualify as “gold standard.”

In the section describing how the state should monitor pre-K performance, the proposal cites a 2012 report published by the Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit organization that develops and administers tests worldwide, that details policies related to “assessing preschoolers’ learning outcomes.” It explains that there are three methods of evaluating pre-K students: through “norm referenced standardized tests,” observations based on predetermined checklists and scales, and portfolios of children’s work. Most states use either the first or second approach, and Texas, it notes, is one of four states that do not require any kind of assessment for pre-K programs.

On Tuesday, Hirsch said that the assessment methods mentioned in the plan were “there for informational purposes only.”

“They are not part of Greg Abbott’s policy recommendations,” he said. “As the plan states, TEA should publish a list of approved assessments that districts may use.”

Under the plan, local school districts would chose from a list of approved assessments to be published by the Texas Education Agency, which it states should avoid “granting any one testing organization a monopoly.”

Asked whether the attorney general would call on the TEA to not include standardized testing as an approved assessment, Hirsch said Abbott “would discourage the use of standardized testing for pre-K students.”

See here for the background. The TSTA, no fans of Abbott’s, remain skeptical. All I can say is that when your education-related plan uses words like “assessment”, people are naturally going to think you’re talking about standardized tests. Abbott’s plan may not actually lead to such testing, but if people think it will, he’s going to have a hard time convincing them otherwise. Sucks to be you, dude.

On a related note, Lisa Falkenberg covers the subject of pre-k education with a candidate comparison.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks among Texas gubernatorial candidates about pre-K, and how the state should invest in it. Yes, I said “how,” not “if.” It’s a good thing that both candidates, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, and state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, can agree that early education is a priority. One that deserves time on the campaign trail. One that deserves a pledge of funds in support.

So far, the biggest difference between the candidates’ proposals seems to be that Davis wants to expand access to full day pre-K to all 4-year-olds in Texas, while Abbott wants to channel limited state funds into the highest quality half-day programs that meet what he calls “the gold standard.”

In general, I side with Abbott on spending limited resources on quality programs, as long as they serve the neediest students. Only high-quality pre-school programs have been shown to produce initial academic gains and long-term character and social benefits that make at-risk kids less likely to commit crimes later in life and more likely to graduate from high school and hold down a job.

Davis’ vision of a Texas where “every eligible Texas child has access to quality, full-day pre-K” is noble, as was President Barack Obama’s similar goal. Davis’ idea about a sliding scale that would allow families to pay what they can is tempting. I’d love to stop paying a second mortgage for private tuition.

But let’s face it. Texans, in our current political incarnation, are simply not willing to make that investment. While the state spent about $727 million on pre-K in the 2012 school year, Davis has estimated her plan would cost an additional $750 million per year.

We don’t even adequately fund our current programs.

The Legislature’s decision in 2011 to cut $200 million from a grant program that helped school districts provide full-day pre-K had disastrous effects. Only $30 million was restored, which is one factor in a lawsuit against the state. And state-funded pre-K seems to be dropping in quality.

In its “quality standards checklist” for 2012, the National Institute for Early Education Research found that Texas meets only two out of 10 benchmarks for pre-K. Teacher education and training, class size and staff-to-child ratios were not among those met.

Abbott’s plan to boost good half-day schools, meanwhile, would cost an estimated $118 million for the years 2016 and 2017. That’s far less than the amount the state once provided for expansion. So, while his strategy is smarter, if he really wants us to believe early education is a priority for him, he needs to put his money where his mouth is.

We can easily afford Davis’ plan. The state is awash in revenue right now, with $2.5 billion left unspent from the last biennium on top of rising projections. We have so much revenue that the usual greedhead fat cats are calling for tax cuts, because they don’t care about spending money on the things Texas needs. This isn’t about making hard choices, it’s about making good choices. Davis’ plan, which amounts to less than two percent of the revenue that will be available in 2015 for the biennium, will likely wind up costing less overall, as schools will be able to spend less money on remediation in the early grades. Abbott’s plan, once you get past the Charles Murray issue and the testing questions and the bizarre animus towards Head Start, still at its maximal amounts to a 40% cut from 2009 spending levels. How much clearer a choice do you need?

Abbott’s pre-K plan

It’s about what you’d expect from someone who isn’t particularly interested in improving public education.

Still not Greg Abbott

Announcing the first of his education policy proposals Monday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott called for reforming pre-kindergarten programs before expanding access, saying that additional funding should be tied to academic outcomes.

Abbott’s plan, which was unveiled in Weslaco, proposes providing an additional $1,500 per student on top of the funding the state already provides for half-day pre-K programs if the program meets performance requirements set by the state.

“Expanding the population of students served by existing state-funded programs without addressing the quality of existing prekindergarten instruction or how it is being delivered would be an act of negligence and waste,” Abbott’s policy proposal reads.

Abbott’s proposal comes with a $118 million price tag in the 2016-17 biennium and includes a focus on annual reviews for children beginning school in 2016.

His pre-K proposal flies in the face of state Sen. Wendy Davis’ proposal for increased access to full-day pre-kindergarten programs in February.

The Democratic gubernatorial contender’s plan, which proposes that school districts across the state offer full-day pre-K programs beyond the three hours a day the state already funds, pivots on her push for further restoration of $5.4 billion in spending cuts made by the Legislature in 2011, which included a cut of more than $200 million to the state’s Pre-K Early Start Grant program. The fund, which the Legislature created in 2000, had funded pre-K expansion in schools looking to extend their programs.

While the Legislature restored $30 million in funding for the program in 2013, Davis has called for the restoration of more funds and has called on Abbott to settle an ongoing school finance lawsuit, which was prompted by the cuts.

It’s hard to see how this plan would do anything but benefit the school districts and students that need it the least at the expense of the districts and students that need it the most. Part of the problem is that too many kids start out behind even before they reach pre-k age.

Educators say that many parents, especially among the poor and immigrants, do not know that talking, as well as reading, singing and playing with their young children, is important. “I’ve had young moms say, ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to talk to my baby until they could say words and talk to me,’ ” said Susan Landry, director of the Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas in Houston, which has developed a home visiting program similar to the one here in Providence.

And these are the children who are least likely to measure up under Abbott’s proposal, which would seem to necessitate more standardized testing. That’s just what we need.

From the Chron story, we see that among other things, Abbott’s proposal is based in part on faulty assumptions.

The revamped state program would require pre-K providers that receive state funds to set benchmarks and report data to the Texas Education Agency.

The plan also called for a strategy to steer parents of eligible 4-year-olds away from the federally funded Head Start program to state-funded pre-K programs because of research that has found gains by Head Start alumni were short-lived.

Many public school districts in Texas use both, administering Head Start and state-funded pre-K classes.

Abbott said the quality of state-funded pre-K programs is largely unknown because information regarding these programs is rarely gathered. He called for “greater transparency of pre-K programs” to better “assess the return on taxpayers’ investment.”

That’s a mischaracterization of the research about Head Start. But even if you buy into that idea, why is it better to prefer a system for which there’s no quality research about its outcomes? What if the state-funded pre-k classes aren’t as good? And if they are as good, why is Abbott still defending $200 million in cuts to state-funded pre-k while only proposing at most $118 million in additional funds? Citing an intellectually dishonest race hustler like Charles Murray as a source doesn’t add any confidence, either. This whole thing is a mess, and there’s still the rest of his education plan to come. Don’t expect much. BOR, PDiddie, Jason Stanford, and John Coby have more.

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 referendum probably would have passed

For what it’s worth.

It’s one of those questions we always ask ourselves in love, life and politics: What if?

In this case, what if the Early to Rise campaign had gotten its one penny tax increase for early education on the ballot?

“The good news for them is it was support for this. The bad news, of course, is they’re not on the ballot.”

That’s Bob Stein at Rice University. He conducted the poll. He found about 49 percent of likely voters said they would support it.

“When you tell people would you like to spend money on early childhood, particularly for training the parents and childcare providers skill sets that would help children get ready for first grade, you can probably get close to 50 percent. This would have been a real battle.”

Stein says 35 percent of voters said they opposed it. About 15 percent weren’t sure.

Jonathan Day with the Early to Rise campaign says those numbers are very encouraging.

“There’s no such thing as an inevitable election result. But surely the numbers confirm that the support is available and with strong public support and a strong campaign, we could have won this election.”

But there will be no election.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett refused to put the measure on the ballot.

“When this all came to me, you know, it kind of ties my stomach in a knot because I’m trying to sort all this out and you have people, you know, chewing on you from all sides. But at the end it became just a question of what does the law say.”

Emmett says the campaign was trying to use an outdated law to get it on the ballot.

BOR prints a guest post from Fred Lewis of Texans Together that blames Emmett for the Early To Rise initiative not being on the ballot. I think that’s a bit misguided – ultimately, it was the 14th Court of Appeals that settled the matter. I think it’s highly likely that we’d be in the same position had Emmett accepted the petitions and Early To Rise had been the defendant in the lawsuit that would have certainly followed. Judge Emmett did give a blueprint for what to do next time, and it seems for sure that there will be a next time.

[United Way Bright Beginnings] program manager Mitzi Bartlett says ten years of data show children who come here do better in school later on.

“We’re learning about consequences. We are learning so that when we go into the workplace, we can work well with others, we can problem solve and we know to try again. We’re all right if we make a mistake.”

She says it’s all right to try again.

And that is what early education advocates say they will do.

I see no reason why this wouldn’t pass next year, if the poll from this year is accurate. If you look at the poll data – click “Early Education” to see the details for this question – and you’ll see that Anglos disapproved by a modest amount, Hispanic approved by a larger amount, and African Americans approved by an overwhelming amount. I believe that would make for a successful effort in 2014, and with some potential tailwinds from Wendy Davis at the top of the Democratic ticket, prospects could be even brighter. I hope they work out some of the bugs that should have been worked out this year, get the wording right on the referendum, and take another crack at it next year.

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…)

No Early To Rise on the ballot

Place your bets on the outcome of the litigation.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Monday he would not place a 1-cent property tax on the November ballot intended to buoy area pre-schools, prompting a lawsuit by a local nonprofit that suppliedtens of thousands of signatures on a petition asking him to do so.

Emmett, a critic of the effort since it launched at the beginning of summer, said the ballot language on the petition does not comply with a certain chapter of the Texas Education Code.

[…]

Citing a seven-page legal opinion by a private lawyer, Emmett conceded that the antiquated law still is applicable, because a section of the education code says it is, but said that the ballot language on the petition is too specific about both the nature of the proposed tax – specifically, that it says the tax would be “additional,” on top of the education department’s current 1-cent taxing authority – and how it would be used.

“Describing the requested tax as ‘additional’ is a significant departure from the statute because there is no authority in Chapter 18 for more than one tax,” Emmett said at a news conference on Monday, the last day items could be placed on the Nov. 5 ballot. “If early childhood expenditures can be controlled by the general public through a tax election, then why not vocational educational, agricultural education, adult education, special education or any other source of educational programs that the public imagination might run to?”

Emmett said he could not change the ballot language because it would be different than the language on the petition that people had signed.

His lawyer, William Bednar, who drafted the opinion, confirmed that if the language had been different – meaning less restrictive – Emmett would have had to order the election.

See here for more on the dispute over the law. Judge Emmett’s decision is not a surprise, though honestly neither direction would have been a surprise. One reason why Judge Emmett received legal advice from a private lawyer is that he did not receive an opinion from the AG’s office prior to the announcement. You can search the Attorney General’s opinions and see for yourself if you want. You can get a little peek at the legal advice Judge Emmett got on Chron reporter Kiah Collier’s Twitter feed. It won’t tell you much, but it’s more than what the AG had to say. This too is not a big surprise, since the opinion process is usually measured in months, but in this case it meant Emmett had to go out on his own. For the third non-surprise of the day, the Early To Rise folks announced immediately afterward that they were filing suit. Here’s their press release.

“Because we believe the law requires the county judge to place this issue before the voters, we will be filing a petition for a writ of mandamus in behalf of the registered voters who signed the petition requesting relief from the Court of Appeals,” said attorneys Richard Mithoff and Russell Post, who are representing Jonathan Day in behalf of registered voters who signed the petition seeking to put the issue on the ballot.

“This is not about Judge Emmett. He is a committed and conscientious public official,” Mithoff said. “This is not about the wisdom of the early childhood initiative: voters may disagree about whether revenue should be raised for this project.”

“This is about the law,” he said.

The Texas Legislature has authorized voters to petition for an election to authorize their government to levy and collect taxes for educational purposes. The requirement to invoke this procedure represents a high hurdle–requiring the support of 10% of voters from the last gubernatorial election. We have now validated more than twice that number.

Under these circumstances, the Texas Legislature has mandated that a county judge has no discretion to second-guess the will of the people. Rather, “the county judge . . . shall immediately order an election.” This command is unambiguous and unequivocal; it must be enforced.

Therefore, this initiative should be put before the voters to decide if early childhood education is something they want to invest in.

Emmett is quoted in that Chron story saying he expected to get sued no matter what he decided. As I’ve been saying that this will ultimately be decided in court, I believe him. I will note that I received an advisory about Mithoff’s press conference an hour before Emmett’s presser was scheduled to begin, so I’d say it’s a fair conclusion that Early To Rise knew which way the wind was blowing.

[The lawsuit] implores Emmett to order the election immediately, and requests the court make a decision by Sept. 16 “assuring sufficient time to satisfy the printing deadline for” the election.

I have no idea which way the courts will go. I’m not sure this will be truly settled in time for the election – I suspect that no matter what happens, there will be more to come afterward. What do you think will happen?

The law and the Early To Rise petition process

Much has been made about the obscurity of the state law that allows for the petition process that the Early To Rise folks have followed to put an item on the ballot that would raise money for pre-K education in Harris County. The Chron takes a closer look at the statutes in question and the requests for clarification on them from the Attorney General.

When the campaign first launched earlier this summer, Emmett said he believed the law was not applicable because it no longer was on the books, saying the state “didn’t recodify these sections and you can’t find these anywhere in state statutes today.”

The state law stipulating the petition process – two sections of the Texas Education Code, specifically – was repealed in 1995 when the Legislature reorganized the education code, according to campaign and county lawyers.

The law, which dates to the 1920s, gave county education departments in the state authority to levy a so-called “equalization tax” to raise revenue for “the support of the public schools of the county.” Unlike school districts, whose governing bodies can raise taxes by a vote, the equalization tax can be authorized only by an election called via citizen petition.

Under the education code, a county education department operating under those repealed sections “may continue to operate under” them, meaning those sections stipulating the petition process still apply.

That fact is conceded in two separate requests for a legal opinion sent to the state attorney general this month on the applicability of the law, one from County Attorney Vince Ryan on behalf of [County Judge Ed] Emmett and another by state Sen. Dan Patrick.

However, Patrick wrote, whether the education department could operate under those repealed laws if its tax rate is increased still is in question.

Emmett’s objections recently have come down to whether the ballot language proposed on the petitions is consistent with the repealed sections.

The petition language says the revenue generated is “to be used solely and exclusively for early childhood education purposes,” which does not appear to fit the definition of an equalization tax “to be distributed equally among all school districts” in the county.

One of the leaders of the petition group, Jonathan Day, a former city of Houston attorney, said the law does not say exactly what the ballot language must be. He also pointed to other sections of the law that stipulate broad uses for equalization tax revenue, including “for the advancement of public free schools in such counties.”

The education department is “already spending money on early childhood,” Day noted.

I’m not even going to try to guess what AG Greg Abbott will write in his opinion. I do know that county education departments used to be common in Texas, but as of today there are only two left, in Harris and Dallas, and this is undoubtedly why those statutes were modified or repealed back in 1995. It’s just a muddle, and I will say again, it will ultimately be settled in court. The story also notes that Emmett will announce his decision about whether or not to put this on the ballot on Monday, which is the deadline for making such a decision in time for the election. I presume we will have AG Abbott’s opinion by then as well, but I’m just guessing.

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.

Endorsement watch: Chron for Early To Rise

Technically, this isn’t an endorsement, since there isn’t anything to endorse just yet. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Chron supports the Early To Rise campaign.

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.