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Scott Hochberg

Hochberg speaks on recapture

We should listen and at least consider what he’s saying.

Scott Hochberg

Scott Hochberg

HISD loses the recapture money, one way or another, even if it doesn’t actually write a check.

And the state gets its money one way or another, because the taxes from the removed properties will go to a poorer district in Harris County, letting the state reduce its funding to that district.

But here’s the thing: If HISD writes a check to the state, it loses only the amount of the check. But, if the district gives up taxable property, it loses the recapture amount, plus all the bond taxes the district would have collected off that property.

That means the tax rate we all pay for bond payments, now and in the future, has to go up to make up for the taxes lost from the lost property.

And, once the property is gone, it’s gone forever. No take backs or fingers crossed.

State law actually favors districts that send cash. There’s an “early decision” discount available for those districts. A no vote means we pay the full price.

Voting no is like giving away your garage to avoid paying property taxes on your house. That’s why no district in the state has ever chosen the option of having property removed instead of sending a check. It’s a bad deal.

The argument for voting no is that it will “send a message” to the legislature that it needs to fix the school funding system, and the legislature will obey. Maybe, but I served 20 years in the Texas Legislature working on these issues, and I don’t buy it. It’s not a bet I would make, much less risk HISD taxpayers’ money on.

Hochberg isn’t saying anything we haven’t heard before, but because he’s Scott Hochberg, who knows more about school finance than anyone else in the state, we have to take it seriously. To a large degree, this comes down to how much of a chance you think there is that the Lege will take positive action after a No vote. (On that note, a small bit of dissent to what Hochberg says: If you do believe that the Lege could take positive action, you can also believe they’ll do something about how detachment works as well. It may well be crazy to believe this, but if you’re going to believe it you may as well be all in.) I maintain there is no “good” answer on this, and Hochberg is clear about the many shortcomings of the school finance system, which he worked hard and long to improve. It’s a question of what is less bad. Hochbeg’s case for a Yes vote on the recapture referendum is a strong one. Other people whom I respect make a strong case for No. Do what you think is least bad.

Villalba gets defensive about his pro-discrimination bill

I don’t know if Rep. Jason Villalba is willfully dense or just confused, but either way this is a big pile of BS.

RedEquality

State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) remains adamant that a proposed constitutional amendment he filed earlier this month isn’t intended to undermine local ordinances prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

But Villalba also continues to tout the fact that he received input in drafting the amendment from a lawmaker known for his anti-LGBT views and from the Liberty Institute, which is actively fighting a nondiscrimination ordinance in Plano.

Villalba has characterized his HJR 55 as a tamer version of SJR 10, a similar religious freedom amendment introduced in the Senate by Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).

And Villalba has objected to a “license to discriminate” label that was attached to his amendment in an Observer headline and in a fundraising appeal from Progress Texas, denying accusations that the measure is designed to undermine local nondiscrimination ordinances by allowing business owners to claim religious exemptions.

“Not true at all,” Villalba told Breitbart Texas for an article published Sunday. “That was not our intention at all. … I’m not trying to pander to the right, or to offend the LGBT community or to support discrimination.”

Villalba told Breitbart he supports the authority of local governments to pass LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and said HJR 55 is instead designed to protect things like nativity scenes on government property.

But LGBT advocates continue to question Villalba’s motives—particularly since he unveiled HJR 55 on Facebook by posting an Empower Texans article slamming the Plano ordinance shortly after it passed. “We must stand athwart those who seek to eliminate every vestige of our religious heritage from the public square,” Villalba wrote. “Tomorrow, we fight back.”

On Monday morning, Villalba took to Facebook again to post the Breitbart article, writing above it: “Many of you have asked about what HJR 55 actually does. In essence, it protects the free exercise of religion in Texas. Here is an article that spells it out nicely. Special thanks to Matthew Krause and Liberty Institute for their help and insight in putting this together.”

Rep. Krause (R-Arlington) received the lowest score of any lawmaker on LGBT issues from Equality Texas following the 2013 session.

In response to a comment below his Facebook post Monday from this reporter, Villalba sent a chat message referencing Campbell’s resolution.

“Perhaps I should drop HJR 55 and let the alternative version pass,” Villalba wrote. “Is that what you would prefer?”

Asked whether he believes Campbell’s resolution, which has been defeated in three consecutive sessions, would pass in 2015, Villalba referenced an expected shift to the right in the Senate next year thanks to November election results.

“Have you not seen what just happened in the Senate?” Villalba wrote. “It [SJR 10] would easily pass.”

Asked whether he strategically introduced HJR 55 as a more moderate alternative to SJR 10, Villalba said: “My goal is to pass the best bill that advances the cause of religious liberty.”

See here for the background. It’s hard to know where to begin with all this. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in recent years, it’s that when someone who isn’t me says that something will affect them negatively, it’s best for me to at least hear and try to understand their reasons why they say that thing will harm them before I try to explain to them why they’re wrong to feel that way. Perhaps such an approach might benefit Rep. Villalba as well. As for his insistence that his HJR 55 is but a heroic attempt to head off the much worse SJR 10, it might be worthwhile for someone to explain to Rep. Villalba that if he were to vote against SJR 10, the odds are very good that it would not be able to pass out of the House, what with Democrats being in near-unanimous opposition plus the expected No from Rep. Sarah Davis. But really, a little more listening to the people who would be harmed and a little less listening to the people who would harm them would go a long way.

What next for school finance?

That depends on the Attorney General and the Supreme Court, but one way or the other it’s up to the Legislature.

State lawmakers from both parties agreed the responsibility for funding public schools falls on them. But history suggests the Legislature is reluctant to act until its hand is forced.

“I would be surprised if the 2015 Legislature does more than put this issue on hold waiting for a Supreme Court ruling,” said Scott Hochberg, a former Democratic state representative from Houston and one of Texas’ premier public education experts. “Historically, legislatures want to know exactly what it is that is being expected of them before they’ll take on these hard choices.

“Members like to say, ‘I wouldn’t have done this but the court required it,’ ” Hochberg added.

Statements made by incoming leaders in response to Dietz’s ruling seemed to support Hochberg’s predictions. While many Democrats hailed the ruling and urged lawmakers to address the issue immediately when the Legislature convenes in January, Republicans in leadership positions were less eager to promise action addressing the deficiencies identified in Dietz’s ruling.

“It is our job in the Legislature to develop the next education budget, regardless of what happens in the next phase of the legal process, and to address problems in education that go well beyond dollars and cents,” said Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the incoming chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

“As a former teacher, I believe in the power of education. Our budget will prioritize education and prepare our students to succeed in today’s workforce,” Nelson said. She did not take a specific stance on Dietz’s ruling.

She didn’t say much of anything, really. Hochberg is exactly right. The Lege will do what the court tells it to do, more or less. They’ve been told multiple times and still haven’t gotten it right, but I suppose hope springs eternal. The most accurate way to characterize this is that the Lege will do the least they think they have to do in order to comply. Certainly, if they are forced to find more funding for public education, they’ll do the least they can do to clear the bar. It’s hard to believe we won’t be back here again some day.

As for when the Lege gets to work on this, it depends on the Attorney General.

The school finance case could take any number of paths in the courts.

In one scenario, the Legislature takes some action next session – allocating more money to public education, for example – before the Supreme Court hears arguments. This could make the entire case moot, or it could prompt the justices to kick it back to the district court level. By that time, Dietz will have retired. His spot on the bench will be filled by Karin Crump, a Democrat who ran unopposed.

If the Legislature fails to act, or delays, the Supreme Court will take up the case. Arguments would not be heard until late spring or summer of next year at the earliest, just as the Legislature adjourns.

This could signal the need for a special session, either to address just education funding, or even the budget in general. Education accounts for 37 percent of all state funds.

A less likely, but still possible, outcome is that Abbott’s replacement in the attorney general’s office decides not to advance the case.

Sam Houston, the Democratic underdog in the race, said Thursday the ruling was further evidence of Texas’ flawed public education funding model. Signaling he might choose to end the appeal, he added, “School finance issues need to be resolved by the Legislature, not at the courthouse.”

The Lege isn’t going to act without a direct order, so you can throw scenario #1 away. If Sam Houston wins, I think there’s an excellent chance he’ll drop the appeal, just as he’s promised to drop the appeal of the same sex marriage ruling. Wendy Davis has called on Greg Abbott to drop the appeal and let the Lege get to it, but just as that’s not going to happen neither would I expect it to happen if Ken Paxton gets elected, even though the story suggests he might be open to it. There’s nothing in Paxton’s record to support that hypothesis, and I can’t imagine he’d be willing to do anything Abbott wouldn’t have done. To me, the only realistic possibilities are Abbott/Paxton appeal the ruling, either straight to the Supreme Court or to the Third District Court of Appeals first, or Houston wins and drops the appeal. As long as Abbott and Paxton believe that Judge Dietz’s ruling isn’t the final say and thus they may not have to find more money for the schools, I think it gets appealed. Abbott has 30 days to file the paperwork to get it started, so we’ll know soon enough. Burka, the Observer, and the Trib have more.

HPD crime lab update

The man who wrote the report detailing all of the HPD crime lab’s problems was back to give a progress report on how things look now.

Michael Bromwich

Houston police managers at the once-shuttered crime lab have failed to re-examine tests on DNA, blood and most other forensic evidence on a random basis to ensure the results are accurate, according to a follow-up report by the nationally known forensic expert hired to investigate the facility.

The crime lab, under Houston Police Department management, continues to outsource several integral testing services common for the lab, including a type of firearms testing that determines how far a gun was from a target when it was fired, Michael Bromwich’s report noted. That information is crucial in the investigation of officer-involved shootings.

But overall, Bromwich concluded, HPD has done a “responsible job” implementing many recommendations he made in 2007 following an extensive, two-year investigation after the lab was closed due to flawed testing procedures and practices.

“We were very encouraged with what we saw in our review of the crime lab,” Bromwich said this past week. “The most pronounced improvement was the quality of senior managers in the lab.”

Bromwich also said the city’s lab, at the police headquarters building at 1200 Travis, is not big enough for the current workload and needs a “significant” amount of additional space. City leaders said they have no plan to move the facility, although some on City Council favor merging operations with a new forensic center being built by Harris County.

[…]

Bromwich was hired by the board of the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corp. , with the help of a $75,000 grant from a Houston foundation, to determine if changes his team suggested in 2007 have been implemented.

“There is still room for improvement … we think with the right resources devoted to it, and the right leadership, the lab can improve still more,” Bromwich said.

The TL;DR version of this story is “Much better now. Some things still need to be done. More money is needed to get those things done.” The original report is still here, if you’ve never looked at it or want to refresh your memory. Merging the HPD lab with the new Harris County facility would likely help resolve a number of the remaining issues from the Bromwich report. Mayor Parker has been adamant that she wants the Harris County lab to be fully independent of the District Attorney’s office before she will let that happen. I continue to believe there’s room for a solution to be worked out. I’d love to see it happen before her term in office ends.

Meet the new Crime Lab boss

He sounds impressive.

The fuzzy process of shifting the city of Houston’s crime lab from the Houston Police Department to an independent board got a little clearer Wednesday with the hiring of a president and CEO for the new operation.

The appointed board of the city’s year-old forensic science corporation selected Dr. Daniel Garner after a six-month search. Garner, whose hiring was announced at a press conference Wednesday, is coming off a U.S. Department of Justice effort to improve global forensics that took him to labs in 30 countries on five continents. He formerly was president of Cellmark Diagnostics Inc. and managed the forensics lab for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“Dr. Garner is assessing what our needs are. There are areas in the lab that are centers of excellence. There are other areas in forensics that need some work, frankly,” said Scott Hochberg, who chairs the city forensics board. “We need to identify those and appropriate the budget to those. We’re looking forward to moving forward with creating the best municipal crime lab and regional crime lab in the country.”

Next, Hochberg said, Garner will hire three supporting managers and the board will continue figuring out how legally to make the transition from the police department.

See here and here for some background. The Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corporation has been moving in a positive direction since its creation, and this looks like another good step. I’m eager to see how they ultimately operate. In the meantime, we got a little bit more information about the long-discussed but so far not proposed possibility of the city and the county joining forces:

[Mayor Annise] Parker has said the city lab must make more progress before merger talks, and has said the county lab is not sufficiently independent of the Harris County Commissioners Court or the District Attorney’s Office.

Commissioners Court members have said they set the institute’s budget, but that it answers to its accrediting agencies, not the court. The sooner the city expresses an interest in joining, county officials have said, the better; the county is designing its new forensics tower.

“We’re in very fruitful discussions with Harris County about a joint (inmate) processing center; we are working closely on everything from Buffalo Bayou to building new libraries,” Parker said Wednesday. “I don’t think this will be any different. When we determine it makes financial and logistical sense to work together, we will do that, but I can’t give you a timeline.”

Well, at least they’re talking. Relations between the city and the county have never been better, so if this is going to happen, sometime soon would be nice.

Fewer tests in the future

If you’re tired of standardized tests, this will be good news for you.

Under House Bill 866 by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, which passed the Senate on Tuesday night, students who do well on state exams in third and fifth grades could skip exams in fourth, sixth and seventh grades. All students would be tested in math in the third and fifth grades, on reading in third, fifth and eighth grade, on writing and science in fifth and eighth grades, and on social studies in eighth grade.

Senators approved an amendment on Tuesday night adding writing tests back in for fourth and seventh grades, meaning the House will have to sign off before the bill hits the governor’s desk.

Speaking to reporters after the legislation passed, Sen. Kel Seliger, the Amarillo Republican who carried the bill in the Senate, said that the governor was “very open-minded” about the bill when he and Huberty met with him earlier. The upper chamber approved the bill with only two no votes — Sens. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

To avoid losing federal funding, the legislation would require state education officials to request an exemption under the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires 14 exams in grades three through eight.

[…]

Another measure addressing testing in younger grades, HB 2836, also passed the upper chamber Tuesday. But not before the Senate made significant changes to it, including adding SB 1718 to it after the bill died earlier that day in the House. The bill, from Rep. Bennett Ratliff, R-Dallas, originally eliminated fourth- and seventh-grade writing tests and required exams in lower grade levels to be reworked so that most students can complete them within two hours. The Senate version instead orders a study of the state’s curriculum standards and limits the number of benchmark exams school districts can administer locally.

I had previously blogged about HB2836. Looks like the two bills started out as much the same before HB2836 got altered, though the latter now no longer contains SB1718. I suppose Huberty gets the advantage of seniority here. The basic idea of allowing students who tested well one year out of testing for the next was first floated by Scott Hochberg in 2011, and I think it’s sensible. We’ll see if Rick Perry agrees. In the meantime, several other education bills remain works in progress as time runs down. Texpatriate has more.

School stuff

Just a basic roundup of education-related stories, since there’s so much going on.

From the Trib, action in the House on testing in grade school.

Elementary and middle school students currently take a total of 17 state exams before high school. They are tested each year in grades three through eight in reading and math, plus there are additional exams in science or writing or social studies, depending on the grade. At the urging of some parents and educators, several lawmakers have proposed either eliminating testing in lower grades altogether or to dropping the number of tests to as few as 10. To avoid the risk of losing federal funding, both proposals would require a waiver under No Child Left Behind’s accountability requirements.

[Rep. Bennett] Ratliff’s House Bill 2836 would address an issue specific to younger test-takers — the amount of time they must spend sitting still to complete their state exams, which now have four-hour time limits. Ratliff said that teachers, test developers and administrators told him that “four hours is just entirely too long for a third-, fourth-, fifth-grader to sit and concentrate and do their best work.”

His bill would require exams at lower grade levels to be reworked so that most students could complete them in two hours or less. It would also remove the time limit so that struggling students could take the rest of the day to complete the test if needed.

Ratliff’s bill would also would reduce the amount of testing in lower grades to the extent possible under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, by eliminating writing exams in fourth and seventh grades and the social studies exam in eighth grade.

But for parents concerned about the effects of high-stakes testing on young children, that is not enough, said Susan Kellner, the vice president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a statewide grassroots organization.

“The issue is that No Child Left Behind requires 14 tests between the grades of three through eight, and really that limits what these bills can do,” she said.

Some lawmakers, like state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, are attempting to get around those requirements by passing laws that would require state education officials to request a waiver from the federal government.

Under House Bill 866, by Huberty, students who do well on state exams in third and fifth grades could skip exams in fourth, sixth and seventh grades. All students would be tested in math in the third and fifth grades, on reading in third, fifth and eighth grade, on writing and science in fifth and eighth grades, and on social studies in eighth grade.

Hubert’s bill is similar to one he co-authored last session with Rep. Scott Hochberg. It was a good idea then and it remains a good idea now. That hasn’t stopped Bill Hammond and the TAB from digging their heels in against it for reasons that are not clear to me. But come on, there is nothing about this that contravenes the goals of rigor and accountability. I do not get where TAB is coming from on this.

Also at the Trib, the TEA wants to change the accountability ratings to letter grades.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams told senators Tuesday that the state intends to move forward with developing an A through F public school accountability rating system that would take effect in 2014.

“With the engagement of hundreds of educators and stakeholders around the state providing advice and council to TEA during the past year with the development of the accountability system, it was recommended to me and I accepted the recommendation to move in that direction,” he said.

Williams said that although he had the authority to make the transition without enacting legislation, he did not want to formally approve the change without an opportunity to answer legislators’ questions.

Proponents of the A through F system, which include House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, say that its transparency helps engage parents in their community schools by making their performance easier to understand. A similar proposal overwhelmingly passed the lower chamber as a part of House Bill 5.

“It’s a system that we all grew up with. We all got grades A, B, C, D, F in school, and the public will understand, too,” Williams said.

I don’t feel strongly about this one way or the other. As long as the evaluations mean something and everyone understands what they mean, and knows what they need to do to move up, it’s fine by me.

Also in the Senate, a bit of a slap fight between Williams and Patrick.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told his fellow lawmakers Tuesday morning that he had read the newspaper editorials and comments suggesting that his graduation plan bill (SB3) lowers standards. He staunchly disagrees and wanted Education Commissioner Michael Williams to back him up. The committee chairman didn’t get the answer he sought.

“I just want to be on the record that we have not stepped back in rigor,” said Patrick, R-Houston.

“Allow me to respectfully disagree,” Williams countered.

Williams tried to elaborate, but Patrick interrupted, saying it’s the senator who gets to ask the questions.

Eventually given a chance to speak again, Williams said that the default graduation plan for high school students today requires them to take English III and Algebra II. The current default plan also requires four years each of English, math, science and social studies. All students are put on the default plan and need parental permission to drop to an easier plan.

Under Patrick’s bill, which has passed the Senate Education Committee, the default plan (called the foundation diploma) does not require Algebra II. It requires four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies. Students could choose to take a tougher path — called getting an endorsement — and then would have to take Algebra II.

Williams said he was particularly troubled that the proposed default plan is easier than current law. Patrick said Algebra II is losing its status as a “holy grail” course for colleges, but he offered a compromise to try to win over Williams. Patrick said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, planned to offer an amendment to SB3 that would require all students to start on the tougher “endorsement” route, with parental permission needed to drop down, similar to current law.

We saw this same fight play out in the House last week, with Rep. Mark Strama leading the fight to keep Algebra II as part of the default requirements for a diploma. He lost that fight, but it looks like it will be re-fought in the Senate. It will be very interesting to see what happens if the Senate bill keeps the Algebra II requirement. Should make for some boisterous times in the joint committee to reconcile the two bills.

And finally, here’s this week’s legislative update from Raise Your Hand Texas. They’re a good source for more of what’s going on in education legislation, so follow them in whatever fashion you prefer to keep up with this stuff.

Where does the crime lab go from here?

Now that there’s a plan in place to clear the longstanding crime lab backlog, the question is what should we expect from the crime lab going forward?

Scott Hochberg

“It’s sort of hard to build a house when you’re trying to dig yourself out of a hole,” said Scott Hochberg, chairman of the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corp., a nine-member independent-appointed board formed by Mayor Annise Parker last year to take over the city’s forensic operations from Houston Police Department. “So getting back to ground level is a good place to start.”

Police officials are optimistic that by the time backlog testing is completed, in an estimated 14 months, control of the city’s forensic testing will largely fall under LGC authority, rather than HPD. Whether more property crimes – which accounted for just 3 percent of evidence the crime lab tested over the last two years – will be included will likely be the decision of the board, said HPD Executive Assistant Chief Timothy Oettmeier.

“We’d like to be in a position to look at the LGC and say ‘You know what, because we got rid of this humongous backlog that maybe we’ve got enough capacity to start processing some of that stuff,’ ” said Oettmeier, emphasizing that HPD will only play a supporting role for recommendations in crime lab functions once the LGC takes over.

[…]

The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, which serves 37 area law enforcement agencies, has been testing touch DNA in property crimes cases. When testing for touch DNA, the forensics institute has a 70 to 75 percent success rate for matches to crime suspects in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a national database used to store DNA profiles, said agency spokeswoman Tricia Bentley.

Oettmeier said collection of touch DNA is contingent upon the number of crime scene unit personnel on staff to gather evidence. He said crime evidence collection is another part of forensics that HPD would like to hand over to crime lab.

“It’s unfortunate that we aren’t farther along in this area than we should be,” Oettmeier said. “But we’ve been carrying around this anchor with all of these problems for so long that we finally have a break and we’re going to take advantage of that.”

See here and here for more about the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corporation (LGC). I too would like to see more done with property crime cases, including “touch DNA” testing. I also think moving crime evidence collection under the auspices of the LGC and away from HPD makes sense. What would you add to this that isn’t in the story?

Clearing the rape kit backlog

Some excellent news from the Mayor’s office.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker and the Houston Police Department today announced details of a plan that will eliminate the backlog of untested sexual assault kits (SAK). Under the plan, which will be formally considered by Houston City Council next week, the untested kits will be sent to two outside labs for testing. It is anticipated the work will be completed in 12-14 months and cost the city $4.4 million, which will be covered with grant funding already awarded to HPD and dollars set aside for this purpose by City Council in the city’s current budget.

“Today is an important day for rape victims and the city as a whole,” said Mayor Parker. “With this plan we will finally be able to say the backlog is gone. The problem was years in the making and we’ve been working to solve it since I became mayor. It has been a struggle to deal with during a period of extremely difficult economic times, but we remained determined. I am committed to it never happening again.”

HPD is recommending the contract be awarded to Bode Technology Group, Inc. and Sorenson Forensics, LLC. They were selected through a competitive process. Both are recognized leaders in the field and both have worked on other large backlog projects in various places, including New York, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. Due to the volume of work, the city is able to maximize the use of a low, fixed-price contract.

“This plan will eliminate the backlog of SAKs and other DNA cases entirely,” said Houston Forensic Science LGC Chair Scott Hochberg. “This will allow the existing crime lab to focus on current casework and give the LGC a clean start and the ability to focus on other issues as it works to establish an entirely independent city crime lab.”

“Department personnel have worked diligently on this project and will be implementing an aggressive plan to complete it in an effective and efficient manner,” said Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland. “I am extremely confident this will not be an issue in the future. I am also very proud of all the men and women who have helped us reach this milestone.”

The contract will include the following:

  • Testing of 6,663 stored SAKs
  • Testing of 1,450 active SAKs
  • Testing of 1,000 SAKs HPD anticipates receiving in the next year
  • Testing of 1,020 other non-SAK cases

The proposed contract with Bode Technology Group and Sorenson Forensics is expected to be on the February 20 City Council agenda. Approval by City Council would clear the way for transfer of all SAKs and other DNA cases to the two firms for the start of testing.

The backlog of these rape kits is a longstanding scandal, and clearing it would be a major accomplishment. Amazing the positive things that can get done when there’s money in the budget, isn’t there? The Chron story adds a few more details, including the fact that clearing the backlog would mean that DNA testing for property crime cases can proceed; that’s what the “1,020 other non-SAK cases” item above refers to.

The main question I have in reading this is whether the money came from the $5 per customer strip club fee that Council adopted last June. I wouldn’t think so, for two reasons. One, CM Ellen Cohen, who proposed the fee as a way to help pay for the rape kit backlog, estimated it would collect between one and three million dollars per year. Two point two million in six months seems like an awful lot. More to the point, I’m not sure the fee is even being collected yet, or if it is if its revenue is available for the city to use since the strip clubs filed a lawsuit over the fee in October. The state held the revenues collected from their fee in escrow for years while that litigation was being resolved. In any event, I posed the question to the Mayor’s office, also asking if the fee would still be needed now that the backlog was on its way to being resolved, and got the following response:

While the litigation is pending, the clubs are not paying the fee. The $2.2 million from the General Fund is part of $5 million City Council included in the current city budget last June for testing and to help with start up of the independent crime lab. It is not from the fee. There is no implication that the fee will no longer be needed. It just may not be needed for this purpose.

So there you have it. Speaking of the lawsuit, and I want to emphasize that this is my own speculation here, it seems to me that the resolution of the backlog would be a useful pretext for settling that litigation if both parties were so inclined. If the backlog is cleared then the fee is no longer needed, right? The city could agree to quit collecting it, and then modulo any haggling the clubs might want to do over fees that had already been collected, that would be all there is to it. Like I said, entirely my own speculation. Hair Balls has more.

Endorsement watch: Wu and Vo

Clearly I was wrong about the Chron ignoring legislative endorsements, as they now have two more to follow Ann Johnson‘s. First up is an endorsement of Gene Wu to be Rep. Scott Hochberg’s successor in HD137.

Gene Wu

We believe that Democrat Gene Wu has the educational background and passion for policy that make him the best candidate to succeed Hochberg.

A former Harris County assistant district attorney, Wu’s experience isn’t limited to the legal arena. With a master’s in public policy from the University of Texas, Wu worked at the Texas Workforce Commission to improve standards for community colleges and technical schools and served as chief clerk for the House Higher Education Committee. These are particularly pertinent areas of experience, given the importance of building an educated workforce and the education budget battles in Austin.

Wu talks about education policy with the specificity of an experienced politician, arguing for proper student-to-teacher ratios, reforming high-stakes testing and improving vocational training. He also offers high praise for schools like KIPP and YES Prep that create a cultural respect for learning, which can often help students more than anything else.

Wu also has a deep connection to his district, regularly volunteering with the Skills for Living program and tutoring at-risk youth at Sharpstown High School. He exhibits an exhaustive understanding of his home turf and hopes to attract the businesses that will serve and support the middle-class families that are the growing base of the area. This is the sort of forward thinking that voters should want for a district that covers areas like Gulfton and Sharpstown.

The Chron has made three endorsements in HD137, having gone with Joe Madden in the primary and Jamaal Smith in the runoff. This was a testament to the depth and quality of the candidates running in the Democratic primary, as they said at the time. I’d encourage you to go back and listen to the interview I did with Wu for the primary, because the qualities the Chron talks about in this endorsement really came through in that conversation. I’ve no doubt at all that Wu will be an excellent representative.

The Chron also endorsed four-term Rep. Hubert Vo for re-election.

Rep. Hubert Vo

Texas House District 149 is one of the most diverse in the state, covering west Harris County from I-10 south to Alief, including Mission Bend. The Democratic incumbent Hubert Vo, a Vietnamese immigrant, reflects the diversity of his district and is the right choice in this election.

In his past races, Vo stood as an attractive alternative to candidates who embodied some of Texas’ worst policy instincts, such as underfunding government services and leaving available federal dollars on the table. Since his first election to the Texas House in 2004, Vo has fulfilled his promises of working to fully fund CHIP, support education and serve local needs at the Legislature. A reliable defender of these important issues, Vo rightfully points out that budget fights will happen every year due to a structural budget shortfall – the kind that we can’t cut our way out of. Voters should appreciate this sort of honest talk from a politician.

One of Vo’s greatest achievements for his district was the creation of the International Management District, located along Bellaire and Bissonnet between Beltway 8 and Highway 6. This district has allowed for reinvestment in local infrastructure and a dedicated focus on attracting businesses. And the district’s success in improving public safety by contracting with the constable’s office and private security has not only bolstered business but created safer neighborhoods.

I’ve been a fan of Rep. Vo’s since his first run for office in 2004. Good guy, good representative, good fit for his district.

STAAR pushback

The House Public Ed committee gets an earful.

Members of the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday questioned why the first batch of students who took the end-of-course exams scored so poorly. For example, 55 percent of ninth-graders met the minimum passing standard on the English writing test, and only 3 percent hit the college readiness standard that will be required in 2016.

“Is it a function of the instrument? That’s one answer. Is it a function of student attainment? That’s a different answer,” said state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin.

They got few answers. State education officials said there is not enough data to draw conclusions with only one administration of the test.

[…]

Superintendents from across the state testified that the number of high school dropouts could skyrocket in the coming years because almost three-quarters of the students who failed the exams this spring were already considered at risk of dropping out.

In order to graduate, high school students must achieve an average passing score in the four core subject areas: math, English, science and social studies. Students who have failed two or three exams might give up because they will lose hope that they can catch up, said Amarillo Superintendent Rod Schroder, who testified at the hearing.

Manor Superintendent Andrew Kim, who also testified, said he supported the increased rigor of the end-of-course exams. But he said the state needs to help districts help students who struggled on the tougher test by allowing districts to start school earlier in the year and providing greater aid for students with limited English skills.

Only 8 percent of the ninth-graders with limited English skills met the minimum standard on the writing test, even with some accommodations. Educators asked legislators to give those students an extra year to get up to speed and offer the tests in the student’s native language.

Schroder drew applause from the audience when he called for eliminating a mandate that the end-of-course exam score count for 15 percent of a student’s final grade.

The Trib has more on this.

The 15 percent rule was designed to create “skin in the game” for students taking the exams, said Amarillo ISD Superintendent Rod Schroder and Aldine ISD Superintendent Wanda Bamberg. But students already have two other incentives to perform well, they said — the cumulative exam score they need to graduate and the minimum scores needed to pass each test.

The committee also heard testimony from TEA officials, who addressed difficulties in timing STAAR exams. Currently, exams are administered about a month before school ends, so teachers have not yet covered all course material.

If exams are administered later, schools will not have time to see the results before starting summer school for students who must retake tests, said Gloria Zyskowski, the agency’s director of its Student Assessment Division. In turn, summer school cannot be pushed back because that would interfere with the start of the next school year.

Given this year’s timeline for exam return, there is no way to resolve the timeline of the statewide exam so that it covers the entire course, said Tyler ISD Superintendent Randy Reid.

“I don’t see any solution to them getting the scores back in a timely manner,” Reid said.

Any new system is going to have some bugs to work out, but the issues here are pretty fundamental. I get the desire for more rigor, but it really sends a message that the push for higher standards comes at the same time as a $5.4 billion cut to the budget. The students that will have the greatest difficulty with the STAAR or any other accountability measure are exactly those who have the greatest needs. Jay Aiyer takes a closer look at the test scores and what they mean.

First and foremost, it is critical to understand what the test results actually say. If final standards scheduled to take effect in 2016 were used today, only 41 percent of students in biology, 39 percent in algebra 1, 40 percent in world geography, 46 percent in reading and 34 percent in writing would have passed. Based on this data, we can logically conclude that nearly 60 percent of high school students lack mastery of the tested subject at a level consistent with a student who is college-bound. If we analyze the data further, we see that students in affluent districts and students in admissions-based magnet programs far outperformed students in schools with large, economically disadvantaged populations. Unfortunately, this is consistent with a multiyear trend that strongly correlates family income with student performance.

This is true in Texas, across the country and around the world.

In fact, the Houston Independent School District, with a student population that is more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged, actually outperformed the state and many suburban districts, when the data are adjusted by income.

It is also important to note that the nearly 60 percent passage rate roughly corresponds to the percentage of students currently enrolled in remedial education classes at two and four-year colleges in our state. What STAAR results seem to have identified are students who are not on pace to graduate ready for college.

If we recognize that STAAR is simply a reflection of the underlying problems in public education, much of which is caused by economic factors that are outside the schoolhouse, what do we do?

Remediation can only do so much if you ignore the underlying issues, which is what we have always done and will keep doing, with even greater vigor these days. Meanwhile, the schools that are being told to do more with less now have to spend a bunch of money they don’t have on remediation. Don’t expect anything to be different next year.

Council approves Mayor’s crime lab plan

It’s a done deal.

City Council has appointed a nine-member board to oversee the city’s crime lab, the first step in yanking it from police department control and setting up a publicly funded non-profit corporation to do evidence testing.

The vote was 15-2.

[…]

Though Council members supported the mayor’s proposal to try to insulate the crime lab from pressure from police, prosecutors and politicians, some raised questions about the city’s plan to go it alone when the county is about to build its own forensics tower.

“There’s so many areas the city and county can save taxpayers money, and this is one of them,” said Councilman Jack Christie, who voted no. Councilwoman Helena Brown, the other no vote, called the plan “a political stunt” that wastes taxpayer money by failing to cooperate with the county.

See here and here for some background. The concern about going solo instead of joining forces with Harris County is a legitimate one, even when expressed in typically Brownian fashion. As Mayor Parker noted in her press release, nothing about this precludes future expansion of the LGC to accommodate Harris County’s participation, and talks with the county are still going on. There is a difference of vision here, however, so that eventual cooperation could take a long time. I don’t think it would have made sense to continue on with the HPD lab as is and defer dealing with those 6,600 untested rape kits until everyone got onto the same page. I say it’s better to move forward now and work through the disagreements along the way. This is a big step and a long overdue one. Hair Balls has more.

Three primary stories

TX Trib: 4 Democrats Vying to Replace Hochberg in HD-137

Observers say the winner of the contest for HD-137 is likely to be decided in the Democratic primary, whose four candidates are former Capitol staffers Joseph Carlos Madden and Jamaal Smith, Harris County prosecutor Gene Wu and Alief Independent School District board member Sarah Winkler.

“It’s a [minority-opportunity] district,” [HCDP Chair Lane] Lewis said. “People from all around the world are attracted to the district when they move to Houston. I’ve heard some people refer to it as the United Nations of Harris County.”

Only one Republican candidate, former Houston City Councilman M.J. Khan, is running for the seat. Several Democratic candidates said Khan’s name recognition could make him an opponent to be reckoned with in the general election. Khan has not filed any campaign finance reports with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Khan and the Harris County Republican Party did not return interview requests.

The Trib has done a number of stories about races like this, and they’ve done a good job of it. As they have done in other such articles, they manage to talk to all of the candidates and actually tell you something about them. It’s the mention of Republican candidate Khan that piqued my interest. As the story notes, he could be a formidable candidate in this Democratic-leaning but not rock solid district; in addition to the other factors cited, Khan could write his own check for the race and easily outspend whichever Dem wins the nomination. Yet so far at least he’s been completely disengaged. Maybe he’s just biding his time on the not-unreasonable theory that no one is really paying any attention right now, but I can’t escape the feeling that being a state legislator is not something MJ Khan has a burning desire to do. I understood his candidacy for City Controller – for sure, if he has it in his head to be Mayor some day, that’s a good way to go about it – but I never got the impression that state issues were a driving force for him. I could be wrong, and if someone out there knows better I’d love to hear from you, but I get kind of a Joe Agris 2008 vibe from him.

TX Trib: Two SBOE Rivals Each Facing Tough Primaries

Two influential incumbents on the State Board of Education — who are often at odds with each other — are both facing primary challenges that could result in a power shift on the fractious board.

Thomas Ratliff won a spot on the board after a 402-vote victory in the 2010 GOP primary over Don McLeroy, who brought international attention to the state with his spirited defense of creationism. Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant native who campaigned on a platform of taking politics out of education, has become one of the Republican-controlled board’s reliably moderate voices.

He has also been a thorn in the side of David Bradley, widely considered the ringleader of the strictly allied social conservatives who led the board to adopt science standards that required educators to teach “all sides” of evolution in 2009 and pushed for ideologically driven revisions to social studies standards in 2010.

During their time on the board, the two have been on opposing sides of issues like withdrawing money from the $25 billion Permanent School Fund to bridge the state-funding gap for public schools, requiring amendments to curriculum to be laid out at least 24 hours before a vote, and handing more authority to school districts for textbook purchases.

Now they both find themselves entangled in what are likely the board’s two most closely watched primary races.

Another Trib story, which I see as being what that lame Chron story should have been. It’s also a reminder that while the potential is there for the SBOE to become less crazy if the likes of Bradley and Cargill get defenestrated, the potential is also there for the pendulum to swing back hard towards Wackytown if Ratliff loses. TFN Insider has a handy list of the candidates to watch out for. It’s a bit unnerving to have to rely on the sanity of GOP primary voters, but for the SBOE there’s not much choice.

TX Observer: House District 26 – As Fort Bend Goes

HD26 under current interim map

Fort Bend has been called a bellwether county so often that it’s easy to become skeptical about the use of the term—even if the description is accurate.

Fort Bend, which sits just southwest of Houston, is among the most diverse and fast-growing counties in Texas, part of the “Big Five” fast-growing suburban counties along with Collin, Montgomery, Denton and Williamson. It has pleasant subdivisions with genteel names like First Colony and Sugar Creek and an abundance of retail outlets along Highway 6, which barrels through Sugar Land, the heart of state House District 26.

After 16 years, Republican incumbent Charlie Howard is leaving the legislative seat once held by Tom DeLay, long before he became U.S. House majority leader. Four Republicans, including two women of color, are running for the open seat.

[…]

HD26 under original interim map

Democrats hope to claim the county through building coalitions among its United Nations assembly of residents. Republicans are also courting the melting pot. Of the four competitors for the District 26 seat, the people of color are—Sonal Bhuchar, a trustee and former board president of the Fort Bend Independent School District, and Jacquie Chaumette, mayor pro tem of Sugar Land. Bhuchar is originally from India. Chaumette is from St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands. The other candidates are Rick Miller, former chairman of the Republican Party of Fort Bend County, and Diana Miller (no relation to Rick Miller), a real estate agent.

Bhuchar and Chaumette have big fundraising hauls and are considered strong contenders in the four-way race. [County GOP Chair Mike] Gibson, not surprisingly, downplays the candidates’ race. “We don’t look at Sonal as South East Asian or Jacquie as Caribbean, but as Americans with strong skill sets that we feel good about running as Republicans,’’ he says.

One thing this article doesn’t talk about is the fact that HD26 is one of the disputed districts in the ongoing redistricting litigation. Plaintiffs claim that districts such as HD26 are protected under the Voting Rights Act as minority coalition districts. In that fashion, a district that is more than 50% minority cannot be retrogressed even if no single racial group has more than a plurality of the population. The state argues that only districts in which a single protected minority is 50% or more does the VRA apply and as such there is no such thing as a protected coalition district; mapmakers are free to slice and dice as they see fit. That was how the Lege treated HD26, which is why it has that bizarre mutant Tetris piece shape, which it retained in the current interim map and which allows it to be a solid red 65% GOP district. In the original interim map, the judges drew a much more compact district that was also near partisan parity – both President Obama and Supreme Court candidate Sam Houston scored a bit over 48% in it. This is one of the questions that the DC court will address in the preclearance lawsuit, whether districts like HD26, SD10, CD25, and CD33 are covered by Section 5. If they rule for the plaintiffs, and if SCOTUS doesn’t come along behind them and gut the VRA, we could see a very different HD26 in two years’ time.

Meet your Crime Lab board

Mayor Parker has recommended nine people be appointed by Council to the governing board for the proposed Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corporation (LGC).

Rep. Scott Hochberg

“The people I have selected have varied backgrounds in science, law enforcement, public policy, business and defense of the accused,” said Mayor Parker.  “Their perspective will be invaluable as we proceed forward toward my goal of a crime lab that is truly independent from law enforcement, prosecutors and political influence.  I said we would get this done during my second term in office and we remain on track to meet that timeline.”

The mayor is recommending the following for the board of director’s:

  • The Honorable Scott Hochberg, Texas House of Representatives, District 137
    (The mayor is recommending Representative Hochberg for chair of the board.)
  • Enrique V. Barrera, Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, Rice University
  • Willie E. B. Blackmon, retired, Judge Advocate, United State Air Force
  • Nicole B. Ca′sarez, Professor, Communication Department, University of St. Thomas
  • Donna Fujimoto Cole, Founder, Cole Chemical and Distributing, Inc.
  • Art Contreras, retired United States Marshal, Southern District of Texas
  • Marcia Johnson, Professor, Thurgood Marshall School of Law
  • Catherine Lamboley, retired, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Shell Oil Company
  • Sandra Guerra Thompson, Professor, University of Houston Law Center

Once created, the Houston Forensic Science Center LGC will oversee operation of an independent center providing the city and area communities with accurate and timely analysis of forensic evidence and related services.

You pretty much can’t go wrong with Hochberg. He’s a great choice for this. Everyone else is a lawyer, scientist, or law enforcement type, which should be satisfactory to Council. I think they’ll do a good job and I look forward to them getting started.

Interview with Sarah Winkler

Sarah Winkler

Wrapping up a week of conversations with candidates who hope to succeed Rep. Scott Hochberg in HD137, today we have Sarah Winkler. Winkler has served on the Alief ISD Board of Trustees since 1997 and on the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) Board of Directors since 2001; she was TASB President in 2009-10. She is a longtime neighborhood activist and also serves on the SPARK Park Board of Directors. I interviewed her for the 2009 election Alief ISD election here. Oh, and she’s a Rice grad as well, which I am constitutionally required to mention. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

Interview with Jamaal Smith

Jamaal Smith

Continuing with the candidates who hope to succeed Rep. Scott Hochberg in HD137 we have Jamaal Smith, whom you may remember from his time as Executive Director of the HCDP and as the Deputy Campaign Manager and Campaign Manager from the 2008 and 2010 Coordinated Campaigns. Before his stint with the HCDP Smith was the Legislative Director for the late Rep. Joe Moreno, and more recently has been a policy advisor and community liaison for Sen. Rodney Ellis. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

Interview with Gene Wu

Gene Wu

The second candidate running to succeed Rep. Scott Hochberg in HD137 that I interviewed is Gene Wu. Gene is currently a felony prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s office, and he also has legislative experience, having previously been the Chief Clerk for the House Higher Education Committee for the Texas Legislature. He is currently the President of the Houston 80-20 Political Action Committee and a Board member for OCA Greater Houston. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

Don’t go counting school finance lawsuit money yet

The state of Texas is very likely to have to do something about school finance soon, but “soon” is not the same as “right now”.

Houston ISD counsel David Thompson was exuding confidence Saturday that Texas school districts will prevail in their four lawsuits challenging state funding — but he warned trustees not to expect relief for another two years.

“I think the cavalry are coming, but we’re still a couple years away,” he told the HISD board at its annual retreat, held Saturday at Horn Elementary School in Bellaire.

[…]

He said he expects the four suits to be consolidated for a trial court, and that the districts are seeking a trial date in early fall. Anticipating a trial lasting about six weeks, he said the goal is to get a decision before the start of the legislature in January 2013. The losing side (he expects that to be the state) will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and presuming that appeal will be expedited, the earliest that a decision could be forthcoming would be late 2013.

A win for the plaintiffs would set the stage for a special session of the Legislature in 2014 to establish funding that will comply with the court’s ruling, Thompson said.

I don’t recall the West Orange-Cove lawsuit going to SCOTUS, but it may have just been that SCOTUS declined to hear the state’s appeal. I’ve been saying for awhile now that the pieces are in place for the 2014 election in this state to be seen as a genuine change election. There may be no incumbents running for re-election in any state (non-judicial) office, and we’ll have had one more tumultuous deficit-dominated legislative session by then. Having a special session to once again “fix” school finance a couple of months before that election could be the catalyst.

On a related note, did you catch this Patricia Kilday Hart column, in which State Rep. Scott Hochberg gives us a going-away present on school finance?

Rep. Scott Hochberg

Call it Exhibit A: Why Money Matters In Public Education. The revenue available to school districts co-relates exactly with how their students perform in the state’s elaborate accountability system.

Here’s how the numbers break out: On average, school districts that earned the “Exemplary” rating had $6,580 available to spend on educating each student. Districts earning the “Recognized” label could spend an average of $5,751 per student. “Academically Acceptable” districts, on average, had $5,662 per student. And the pariahs of the state’s accountability system – “Academically Unacceptable” districts? They had, on average, only $5,538 per student to spend.

So the school districts that pat themselves on the back for being “Exemplary” have a $1,000-per-student advantage over those rotten, no-good “Academically Unacceptable” districts.

I asked Hochberg, who has spent nearly 20 years in the Texas Legislature advocating a more equitable school funding system, what lessons we should take away from his chart.

“We have a system where the state picks the winners and losers,” he told me. “The state decides what districts are going to get the most money, and then they turn out to be ‘Exemplary’ and we act surprised. The state decides who is going to get the least money, and they turn out to be low-performing and we whip them.”

There’s more disturbing news. The wonky Hochberg decided to look at the number of students on free-and-reduced lunch in the districts of each accountability category. He found that “Exemplary” districts, on the average, have only 17 percent of their students on free-and-reduced lunch. Meanwhile, 85 percent of the students in “Unacceptable” districts qualify for free lunches, based on federal poverty guidelines. Since poor kids are more likely to move more often and have less-educated parents, they arrive at school with greater educational needs. Therefore, our so-called “Exemplary” districts “have the easiest kids to teach,” Hochberg pointed out.

But don’t worry. I’m sure if we threw more money at the poorer districts there would be no effect at all on their educational outcomes. So there’s no need to even try. Right?

Who will be the Lege education expert post-Hochberg?

In writing a political obituary for State Rep. Scott Hochberg, who announced his retirement from the House last week, Abby Rapoport spends a paragraph on his purported successor as the go-to education legislator.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, is clearly the chosen member to take the reins from Hochberg, but it’s bound to be a tough job. During the session, it fell to Aycock to try, unsuccessfully, to pass a fiscal matters bill containing school finance language. While Aycock is undoubtedly smart and eager, he’s only in his third term. Hochberg had the trust of his colleagues, that he both understood all sides and would explain the policy options fairly.

The House will dearly miss its resident nerd.

Rep. Aycock is a ParentPAC endorsee, and is certainly well regarded on education issues. There’s only one problem: The San Antonio court put him in a district that voted over 60% for President Obama in 2008. Even if SCOTUS throws out the San Antonio map and restores the original Lege-drawn one for 2012, there are no guarantees that Aycock will be back, as the HD54 that was drawn for him by his colleagues was mighty purple. He’d at least be a favorite under the Lege map, but he’d be no lock.

Putting it another way, if Hochberg is Matt Schaub, and Aycock is Matt Leinert, who’s TJ Yates? That person may find himself or herself suddenly thrust into the spotlight in 2013. Better make sure he or she is taking extra reps, because this scenario is entirely foreseeable, and we need to be prepared for it.

Hochberg bows out, Gallego makes it official

I am totally bummed out by this.

The Legislature’s foremost expert on school finance and one of its top public education advocates, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, confirmed this afternoon that he won’t seek re-election next year.

Hochberg, who took office in 1993 and is now the vice chairman of the House Education Committee and the chairman of the education subcommittee on the House Appropriations Committee, said the time had come for him to pursue something new.

“Being in this job and trying to do it well is a continual thing, as any member will tell you, after a certain amount of time, I think the grind just wears people down,” he said, “I love working on all the problems we work on, but it’s 24/7 and it makes it hard to focus on anything in specific.” He brushed off any suggestion that his absence would leave an void of leadership on school finance issues.

“Nobody’s indispensable,” he said. “The state survived a lot of years before I was in the Legislature, and will continue to after I’m not.”

That’s true, and it’s completely in chacter for Rep. Hochberg to say something like that, but let’s face it: The Lege will miss him, especially in a year where school finance will be once again near the top of the list. So far I’m aware of two people who have expressed an interest in running to succeed him. One is Joe Madden, currently the chief of staff for Rep. Garnet Coleman and the executive director of the Legislative Study Group, the other is Jamaal Smith, former Execuitve Director, Deputy Campaign Manager, and Campaign Manager for the Harris County Democratic Party and Coordinated Campaign. Both would be good candidates; we’ll see if one steps aside or if they both file. I join many others in thanking Rep. Scott Hochberg for his service in the Lege, I wish him the very best for the future, and I look forward to supporting his successor. Greg has more.

Also leaving the Lege, in this case seeking a promotion, is Rep. Pete Gallego, who made his official filing for CD23 yesterday.

Gallego will formally become a candidate on his 50th birthday. He spent Thursday in San Antonio raising money for his congressional bid.

“I run every race as if it’s a tough race. This is no different — except that my opponent this time self-funds his campaign,” said Gallego, a 20-year veteran of the Texas House.

Canseco, R-San Antonio, has bankrolled $460,641 for his campaign, nearly four times the $133,233 Gallego reported in his war chest, according to the Federal Election Commission.

However, Canseco also has nearly $700,000 in campaign debt from a $1 million loan from a previous election cycle.

Democrat John Bustamante, a San Antonio lawyer, has $260, according to the FEC, and is expected to challenge Gallego in the March 6 primary.

The national parties have targeted District 23, redrawn by a federal court after Democratic challenges to a Republican redistricting plan passed by the Legislature.

The Lege’s loss would be Congress’ gain if he wins. I feel pretty confident that this one will be on the national radar. Stace has more.

First impressions of the new maps

Before I get too into this, the invaluable Texas Redistricting reminds us that the parties in the lawsuit will be able to make objections and comments to the proposed maps today at noon. Meaning, there may yet be some tweaks to come.

Until then, this is what we have. I have 2008 electoral data for the House here and for the Senate here. The Trib has some nice pictures of the maps here, Greg has a Harris County view here, Stace has a look at his neck of the woods here, and Texas Redistricting notes all of the pairings here. My opening thoughts:

– The Senate map is not very different from the one we had coming into 2011. Sen. Wendy Davis, whose statement about the proposed maps can be seen here, gets a district she can win but will have to work hard to do it. Note that SD09 is also somewhat purple in hue, though redder than SD10. It’s certainly worthy of a challenge. I don’t have much to add to this, just to note that Dems would have a puncher’s chance of maintaining 12 seats. No guarantees, but they’re in much better shape for it than they were when they started.

– By my count in the House there are 60 seats that Democrats should have some reasonable expectation of winning:

Dist County Incumbent Obama Houston ========================================= 22 Jefferson Deshotel 68.8 72.6 23 Galveston Eiland 47.8 54.3 27 Fort Bend Reynolds 68.8 68.6 31 Webb Guillen 77.1 80.7 33 Nueces Torres(R) 49.8 55.4 34 Nueces Scott(R) 49.8 55.3 35 Hidalgo Aliseda(R) 63.3 65.0 36 Hidalgo Munoz 72.8 75.1 37 Cameron Oliveira 67.5 69.7 38 Cameron Lucio 64.7 67.0 39 Hidalgo Martinez 72.3 74.6 40 Hidalgo Pena(R) 74.8 77.4 41 Hidalgo Gonzales 57.0 59.7 42 Webb Raymond 70.8 76.5 43 S Texas Lozano 51.6 57.9 46 Travis Dukes 76.6 74.6 48 Travis Howard 60.7 56.7 49 Travis Naishtat 73.9 69.5 50 Travis Strama 59.6 56.6 51 Travis Rodriguez 80.6 77.9 54 Bell Aycock(R) 60.6 60.4 74 Maverick Gallego 57.9 61.3 75 El Paso Quintanilla 74.1 75.4 76 El Paso Gonzalez 74.7 77.5 77 El Paso Marquez 60.8 62.6 78 El Paso Margo(R) 58.3 60.0 79 El Paso Pickett 64.8 67.4 80 Uvalde T. King 51.9 56.8 90 Tarrant Burnam 66.8 68.7 93 Tarrant Nash(R) 62.1 62.4 95 Tarrant Veasey 79.2 79.3 100 Dallas E. Johnson 87.6 87.7 103 Dallas Anchia 60.5 61.9 104 Dallas Alonzo 68.2 70.8 105 Dallas H-Brown(R) 49.7 51.6 107 Dallas Sheets(R) 65.6 66.9 109 Dallas Giddings 74.2 74.7 110 Dallas Caraway 80.8 81.7 111 Dallas Y.Davis 73.8 74.3 116 Bexar M-Fischer 59.6 59.4 117 Bexar Garza(R) 53.7 54.2 118 Bexar Farias 53.7 56.3 119 Bexar Gutierrez 58.2 59.7 120 Bexar McClendon 64.9 64.5 123 Bexar Villarreal 59.2 58.9 124 Bexar Menendez 59.4 59.6 125 Bexar Castro 57.7 58.5 131 Harris Allen 80.7 81.1 137 Harris Hochberg 60.3 60.7 139 Harris Turner 75.9 76.1 140 Harris Walle 70.0 73.8 141 Harris Thompson 72.7 73.4 142 Harris Dutton 77.3 78.9 143 Harris Luna 60.2 66.9 144 Harris Legler(R) 53.2 59.0 145 Harris Alvarado 61.6 65.7 146 Harris Miles 81.2 80.8 147 Harris Coleman 81.0 79.2 148 Harris Farrar 59.0 62.4 149 Harris Vo 55.2 55.5

Note the post above about pairings, and note also that Reps. Gallego and Castro are planning to run for Congress as things stand right now. Harris County remains with 24 seats, but instead of Reps. Hochberg and Vo being paired, Rep. Beverley Woolley was “paired” with Rep. Jim Murphy. I put “paired” in quotes because of course Woolley is retiring, and what they really did was eliminate HD136 – it’s now in Waller and Montgomery Counties – and give Murphy a stronger red district. The Harris split as I see it is now 13D – the twelve existing incumbents plus the redrawn HD144 – to 11R, with Woolley and Rep. Ken Legler going away. Quite remarkable.

In addition to these, the following seats could be competitive for Dems and certainly should be contested:

Dist County Incumbent Obama Houston ========================================== 17 Bastrop K'schmidt 40.9 46.2 26 Fort Bend Open 48.4 48.3 45 Hays Isaac 46.7 45.8 47 Travis Workman 44.6 41.2 64 Denton Crownover 42.0 41.8 65 Denton Solomons 43.0 42.4 94 Tarrant Patrick 41.5 42.0 97 Tarrant Shelton 43.0 43.0 102 Dallas Carter 43.4 43.8 106 Williamson Open 46.0 43.1 108 Dallas Branch 48.7 46.0 112 Dallas Chen Button 42.1 44.0 113 Dallas Driver 46.0 48.2 114 Dallas Hartnett 42.4 41.3 115 Dallas Jackson 44.0 42.9 134 Harris S. Davis 50.1 46.2 135 Harris Elkins 42.8 43.8 138 Harris Bohac 42.2 42.9

Obviously, some of these are more potentially competitive than others, but there are a couple that could reasonably go the Dems’ way. Note that Reps. Driver, Hartnett, and Jackson are all stepping down, and that Rep. Burkett was paired with Driver and Rep. Sheets was paired with Hartnett. HD26 was Rep. Charlie Howard’s (HD30 is the new Fort Bend-centered district), and HD106 had been called HD149 before.

Bottom line: Assuming this map with no unfavorable changes made to Dems, I’d consider a 10-seat pickup to be acceptable, and a 15-seat pickup to be a hell of a day. I have no idea why the Chron says that Dems “could gain a half-dozen seats” when a cursory glance shows eight Republicans now in districts that were majority Dem all the way in 2008. If six was all we got under this map, I’d call for beheadings. Note that Robert Miller predicts a more or less 90R 60D House, which is right in line with my view, so it’s not just my optimism talking here.

– Bear in mind that if the Dems pick up 13 seats, which I would consider a very good result, that leaves the partisan balance at 88-62 in favor of the Republicans, or exactly where we were after the 2002 elections. The loss of all those rural Democrats really hurts. The path forward from here is urban and suburban, and it won’t be easy.

But at least there is a path forward now. We’ll see if the court makes any further adjustments to the maps after today’s hearing. BOR, Juanita, EoW, and PDidde have more.

The Constitutional amendments

In addition to all of the local races that will be on your ballot next month, there are ten Constitutional amendments up for ratification. Unlike some previous years, and somewhat surprisingly given the divisive and ideological nature of the session, there are no particularly high profile or controversial measures on the ballot. (Proposition 2, which authorizes the Texas Water Development Board to lend $6 billion via a bond fund dedicated to building and fixing water infrastructure, drawn btoh support and opposition.) If you want to know more about the referenda, and this includes me as I’ve spent approximately zero time thinking about them, State Sen. Kirk Watson and State Rep. Scott Hochberg have you covered. This Chron story has more detailed information about Props 2 and 8, both of which relate to water. Happy reading!

Another school finance lawsuit update

The Trib brings some news about the impending school finance lawsuits. Yes, lawsuits – there are two in the works.

The Equity Center’s lawsuit will focus on fairness, attacking the target revenue system established in 2006 when lawmakers reduced the property tax rate and guaranteed that districts would get no less than the amount they received per student at that time. That stopgap has since become permanent, resulting in an arbitrary funding scheme in which neighboring school districts can have as much as a $7,000 difference in state spending per student — and, the Equity Center will argue, is wildly inefficient.

Many of the state’s 1,030 school districts, like its largest, Houston ISD, whose school board will take up the question at its meeting on Oct. 13, have yet to decide whether they will join a suit. But as of Tuesday, 139 districts — a mix of suburban, rural and inner-city schools of varying sizes, though they are primarily low- to middle-property wealth — have joined the Equity Center’s coalition of schools. In addition to schools, Executive Director Wayne Pierce said they also eventually plan to include taxpayers like business owners and parents in the suit as well.

See here, here, and here for some background. School Zone has a list of the districts that have signed on so far. I will be very interested to see if HISD joins in. I hope they do.

[Attorney David] Thompson’s group will focus primarily on adequacy and property tax issues, arguing that not only has the state failed to dedicate enough money to public education for schools to meet increasingly rigorous accountability standards, but that in doing so, it has not given local districts enough choice in how to spend or whether to raise property taxes — in effect, instituting an unconstitutional statewide property tax.

“Educational standards are continuing to go up, but the revenue is flat-lined — and in this session it’s gone down,” said Rickey Dailey, a spokesman for the Texas School Coalition, a group that represents “Chapter 41,” or property wealthy districts that send money back to the state through Robin Hood laws.

Seems to me both groups have strong cases. Ultimately, whatever the courts say – and nobody knows what they’ll do – it will be up to the Lege to fix it. They seem to like being ordered to take action rather than doing it themselves. They’re likely to get their chance soon.

Eissler changes class size bill

Hair Balls was first with the news.

Rep. Rob Eissler (R- The Woodlands) whose House Bill 18 wanted to move the state to a cap of 25 students in each classroom, [Friday] instead made a floor substitution which only mildly tweaked the present classroom size regulations calling for a cap of 22 students in grades K through 4. This had to be good news for State Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), who has argued continually that upping the class size was a bad move for the state and its children.

And districts would still have to notify parents of children whose rooms exceed the 22 cap.

Superintendents have always been able to apply for waivers if they can successfully argue that holding students to the 22 cap “works an undue hardship on the district.” Eissler’s bill would have removed even that requirement. Instead, districts will still be required to prove why they should be granted a waiver.

In addition, the proposed new language now allows a waiver if the Texas Education Commissioner “determines that as a result of a reduction in state funding levels, the amount of state and local funds per weighted student available to the district is less than the amount…available to the district in the preceding year.”

Or in other words, if the district can mathematically prove a financial hardship. Any such waiver granted would expire at the end of the school year for which it is granted.

Teacher groups, who have fought the Eissler legislation from the beginning, have reacted favorably to the change. Add this to the Howard-Farrar amendment that will make available Rainy Day fund monies if possible, and I hope Democrats have adequately answered the question why they bothered to fight for their constituents and their convictions instead of folding like a beach chair.

House Appropriations follows Senate, passes SB1

The grim march of the inevitable takes another step.

The House Appropriations Committee voted along party lines on Saturday to recommend a controversial plan to reduce public education spending by at least $4 billion, cuts which hundreds of Texans later protested during a Capitol rally.

The full House will take up the school funding bill later in the week in a special session that Gov. Rick Perry called Tuesday after Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, killed the plan to cut public education with a filibuster in the last hours of the regular session.

Actually, the Appropriations committee vote wasn’t exactly along party lines.

Abilene Republican Rep. Susan King, who voted against a similar measure during the regular legislative session, said she still cannot support the measure because the scope is too broad. Not only does it contain $3.5 billion in “non-tax revenue” to help balance the 2012-13 budget, but also a highly contentious school funding plan that was finished just two days before the end of the regular session Monday.

“I voted against it several times,” King said after the House Appropriations Committee meeting had adjourned. “It’s the fact that something of this major importance was brought out in a very cloaked way at the very end and pushed into a fiscal matters bill. It should have been kept out. It should have been kept separate, in my opinion. Almost everything for education was rolled into that one fiscal matters bill.”

[…]

King’s vote is evidence of the lack of unanimity among even Republicans over the measure, particularly the school funding plan.

While Democrats are opposed to it mostly because of the sizable cuts it imposes on schools, Republicans such as King question the fairness of how those cuts are distributed and are wary of the last-minute — even secretive — nature of the closed-door negotiations that produced the plan.

King said her questions and concerns were dismissed.

“Toward the end of the session, I asked multiple times, you know, ‘What exactly are the negotiations on this? What is it, what will be brought to us?’ ” King said. “And, I mean, you cannot imagine the comments made to me. You know, ‘You don’t need to ask that question,’ ‘You’re going to hurt the deliberations if you ask for that.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s just transparency.’ ”

Of the 20 committee members present Saturday, 14 voted for the measure — including Rep. Drew Darby, who represents San Angelo’s District 72 — and five voted against the measure — including King and four Democrats. Another Republican, Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria, registered “present not voting.” Seven members were absent.

You’d think that lack of transparency that Rep. King cites might be a concern to more people. Does the Lege really know what it’s about to vote on? As Rep. Scott Hochberg pointed out, there hasn’t even been a committee hearing on the proposed changes to school finance. The response from those pushing to get something passed, as expressed by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, is that they have to do something now, and they can fix whatever it is they do in 2013. The thing is, though, they wouldn’t actually have to do that. Patricia Kilday Hart explains:

In our current system, the Legislature sets out school funding formulas in statute, usually after lawmakers see computer runs demonstrating how a particular scheme affects their schools. Putting those formulas in statute means the state is legally obligated to fully compensate school districts for variables like enrollment growth or lost tax revenue due to declining property values.

But the plan panned by Davis and Hochberg — and again under consideration in the special session — will free lawmakers to decide each budget cycle to choose how much money schools get. Public education will be toppled from its special status in the state budget to just another program that will compete for scarce dollars.

The GOP leadership has downplayed the impact of this change, arguing that lawmakers have always made public schools a priority. But the very reason this school finance bill is necessary is to free the state from owing about $4 billion under current formulas.

To some, including Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, this is sound policy. Last week, he called the school finance proposal “a true cut in an entitlement.”

Note the use of that dirty word — entitlement — as if public education is some kind of welfare, not the underpinning of democracy envisioned by Thomas Jefferson.

This school finance bill is a tipping point for the Texas public education system. If the state’s obligation to local schools is no longer carved in statute, public education funding becomes vulnerable to last-minute budget balancing by 10 lawmakers on a conference committee. If they decide to trim a couple of billion from education, the other 171 members of the Legislature have little voice.

Not to mention the voters. We’re one step closer to that now.

Back to school finance

The Lege has started the process of picking up where it left off on school finance. The Trib reminds us how we got here.

[T]he earlier failure of SB 1581, which put a behind-closed-doors conference committee in charge of any decisions about how to distribute $4 billion in cuts in state funding across school districts, was a dramatic warning of just how much further lawmakers had to go to find consensus on what they repeatedly called the “second most important bill” of the session. As lawmakers again tackle the issue in the special session the governor called on Tuesday, it is worth revisiting the demise of SB 1581.

Passing a new school finance plan, said veteran education consultant Lynn Moak, often depends on selling lawmakers on what changing formulas will mean for their districts. That can lead to a situation, he said, where “we’re really passing a printout and having to translate it back into a school finance bill.” Difficult under normal circumstances, that becomes infinitely more challenging when the state is coming up $4 billion short in funding for public education.

“Nobody has ever done this before. Nobody has ever had the kind of massive cuts to deal with,” he said, adding, “The Legislature really did not spend any time prior to January trying to work out a game plan, and wrote one as they went along, and it showed.”

Before the conference committee were three options to chose from: separate proposals from Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, that enacted cuts relative to a districts’ wealth, and a proposal from Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, that chopped districts the same across the board. Each, though, contained a numbers game nobody really wanted to play.

The simplicity of Eissler’s approach — which was originally a last-minute amendment to SB 1581 — gave it a political advantage among House members. In a scenario with no real winners, lawmakers newly unsettled by the stark realization of what the gaping reduction meant for schools in their districts realized they wouldn’t have to return to their superintendents and explain why they voted for deeper cuts for some and not others.

That still wasn’t enough for the House to coalesce around Eissler’s plan in time to pass it as a part of SB 1581. As the bill was debated on the House floor, “there was no single bloc of votes for anything,” said David Anderson, an education lobbyist for the Austin-based HillCo Partners, a government consulting firm, who described a “meltdown” that night between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. as members began taking a hard look at projections of the cuts for their districts.

[Rep. Jimmie Don] Aycock and Eissler both said that until shortly before then, members had been concerned with what the budget cuts were going to look like across the state, and hadn’t had an opportunity to consider the impact on their individual districts.

“People were so focused on the cuts that only those few geeks of us who wade around in school finance even saw it coming,” Aycock said, adding, “It was only late in the session when we figured out the number, and then the question became how do we divvy it up.”

In other words, these yahoos voted to cut billions of dollars from the state public education budget without having any idea what the effect would be on their own school districts. And remember, the House initially voted to cut $8 billion from public ed, which is double the amount that wound up getting cut. If they’re blanching at what that means, imagine what they’d be thinking if the House budget had been adopted as it was. The mind boggles.

Meanwhile, of course, more than enough money is in the Rainy Day fund to cover this shortfall. It still wouldn’t account for growth and other higher expenses, but it would moot this current exercise. More seriously, the legislation that’s being considered, which the Democrats fought tooth and nail against, would not just distribute cuts for this biennium but would mean permanently lower allocations for public schools.

For about 60 years, Texas lawmakers have afforded public education a special status in terms of state funding.

Written into law is a guarantee that schools would get enough money to provide a basic, foundational education for each student. That obligation has dictated what the state has put into the Foundation School Program to cover growing enrollment and a changing student population.

But the school finance plan now under consideration by legislators wipes that guarantee out and makes future appropriations dependent upon how much money is available rather than how much is needed.

“The commitment to fund current law would cease to exist as a legal commitment,” said Lynn Moak, a school finance expert and consultant. “Public education has lost its special status.”

[…]

On Sunday, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, highlighted the shift in Texas’ future obligation to schools during an exchange on the House floor with Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, one of the House negotiators on the compromise.

Eissler had already acknowledged that the change would mean that school districts would no longer be legally entitled to a certain amount of state aid.

Hochberg asked him if that change would allow the state to routinely short school districts.

“That would allow us to,” Eissler said, “but I don’t see that happening.”

“This is not a good year to make that argument, Mr. Chairman,” Hochberg responded.

Anyone who thinks that we can simply take the Lege’s word for it that they wouldn’t use their new authority to short school districts to actually short school districts needs to pay attention to Dan Patrick:

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said the school finance change “is a true cut in an entitlement” and an essential cut at that.

“There are no guarantees, and for a Legislature to say we can guarantee this forever is not being straightforward to the people,” said Patrick, who was deeply involved in the Senate’s school funding discussions.

[…]

But in the future, a specific vote to change the law would not be necessary. Lawmakers would simply put less into the budget than the funding formulas call for, as is the common practice for higher education funding.

“That is a very, very big change in the way that we do funding for the schools,” Hochberg said.

Patrick agreed that it is a significant change to how the state has done its business.

“I think it’s a change that is needed as we move forward. We need to have real cuts,” Patrick said.

So at a time when Texas has a population that is much younger than the national average, which is a key driver of the state’s population growth, Dan Patrick thinks we need to cut education funding, not just now but forever. If you think that maybe isn’t such a hot idea, you need to vote that way in 2012.

Davis filibusters SB1811, special session looms for tomorrow

Hoo boy.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filibustered for a little more than an hour Sunday night, probably killing a school finance and revenue bill critical to the budget (it’s still possible for a four-fifths supermajority of the Senate to pull it up for a vote today). And the House hit a midnight deadline without approving three major pieces of legislation — including one that’s designed to corral Medicaid costs and help balance the state budget.

Gov. Rick Perry had promised earlier in the day to call lawmakers back on Tuesday if the budget bills weren’t all approved. The regular session ends today, and it looks like the first special session will begin as early as tomorrow morning.

Even without an unfinished 2012-13 budget to bring them back, Gov. Perry had already set the table for a special legislative this summer.

• The governor, tort reformers, trial lawyers and lawmakers in the House and Senate couldn’t put together a fix to the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association in the 140-day legislative session, and Perry promised that if they didn’t get it done he’d call them back to Austin in July to finish up.

When they hit the deadline at midnight Saturday, they didn’t have anything except for the governor’s promise that they’ll be back.

• Lawmakers completed their work on new political maps for the State Board of Education and for the Legislature itself, but never even presented or held hearings on maps for congressional redistricting. Perry’s aides indicated for weeks that their boss would be unlikely to call lawmakers back for that purpose alone. Then, in the last days of the session, the governor told reporters he’d be willing to call a special session on congressional maps if House and Senate leaders can show him they’ve got enough votes to make it a quick deal.

Whether or not the governor is thinking about a presidential race, the memory of Senate Democrats running off to Albuquerque — as they did in the 2003 redistricting fight — has to make him wary of a session on that all by itself.

• Then there is the sanctuary cities legislation, one of six items the governor put on a list of legislative “emergencies” to speed consideration by the House and the Senate. That one didn’t make it out, and a special session could give him another shot at it.

On Sunday, they added to their troubles when the midnight bell tolled before the House had approved three bills that created interstate health compacts, contained Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s health reforms, provided funding for textbooks, and addressed efficiency in the Medicaid program. That last bill is one of several considered critical to the budget.

If the past is any guide, a special session that starts with one topic often picks up others along the way, and Perry could add other issues — new ones or things left undone during the regular session, small issues or large ones — as he goes along. Lawmakers will likely start with the budget bills on Tuesday, and if they can come up with negotiated solutions on others — redistricting, for instance — Perry might add those to the agenda.

When I went to bed last night, the failure to pass a windstorm bill was the only known reason for a special session, and it was unlikely to be immediate. This changes everything. Postcards notes that SB1811 almost went off the rails even before it got back to the Senate.

In the House, the leadership initially sought to wipe out the midnight deadline so Democrats couldn’t use it as a weapon; the bill was not eligible to be considered until 10 p.m., leaving a narrow window for action on such a large bill.

Instead, the Republicans waived the rules so they could bring SB 1811 up earlier, but only after House Speaker Joe Straus cast a rare vote.

Iconoclast David Simpson, R-Longview, joined the Democrats in opposition.

So the House proceeded in the early evening with its discussion of the mammoth, 393-page bill, primarily focusing on the school finance component.

The state will reduce by $4 billion the amount that it owes school districts under current law. The school finance provision in SB 1811 apportions that reduction among school districts.

“This proposal reflects the decisions of this body in House Bill 1,” said House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, referring to the budget bill.

That school finance provision, which was grafted onto the bill at the tail end of the session, apportions a $4 billion reduction in state aid among the school districts. Democrats objected that the school finance proposal was thrown together without input from the public or rank-and-file members.

“Now we’re being told we better the heck pass it or we’ll be in a special session, so close your eyes and hold your nose and vote for it,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston.

But Hochberg said there is little understanding about what exactly is in the compromise proposal.

The printouts that detail how each district is affected by the reduction were not delivered to House members until Saturday afternoon, and the bill language itself was not available online until Sunday morning.

“We’re making a very big change here without any discussion,” Hochberg said. “We never brought a school finance bill to the floor this session. Never.”

That’s the key point here: SB1811 was being brought up for a vote at the very last minute because it wasn’t finalized until then. Everyone was being asked to vote on something they surely hadn’t read or understood. You’d think that would be a concern for more of them, but the Republicans in the House have dutifully followed orders from above from the beginning, so why should this be any different? During closing remarks – did we mention that debate was limited on this bill and amendments were prohibited? – Democrats expanded on their objections to it.

Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said that the proposal would codify the existing funding inequity into the system. He read a list of the spreads in funding in per student spending between the richer school districts and the poorer districts in various Senatorial districts — pointing out that the difference can be as much as several thousand dollars between the districts.

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Dallas, was just as critical of the proposal.

“Today, what you’re voting for is Edgewood Foor,” he said and compared the decision not to touch the Rainy Day Fund to what would happen if a parent was late on child support. He said that any judge would laugh that parent out of court if they claimed they couldn’t meet their child support payment because they were preserving their savings account just in case things got worse.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said that the proposal would shortchange school funding by allowing the state to discount the ‘settle up’ expenses that the state owes the state.

“We’re making a very, very big change without any discussion,” said Hochberg. He warned that the proposal could drastically alter how programs for the gifted and talented and for shop programs are calculated in school finance.

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, complained bitterly that the bill had only been available for reading for less than 24 hours and that the “lack of transparency” was a violation of conservative principles.

“This bill is full of the accounting tricks and chicanery that your voters said they were tired of,” said Strama.

Yeah, somehow I don’t think they really care all that much. They’ll get outraged over Sen. Davis’ filibuster for whatever reason is convenient, and it will go from there. I can’t say I’m thrilled about legislative overtime, but I salute Sen. Davis for standing up and refusing to go along to get along. A statement from Se. Jose Rodriguez in support of Sen. Davis is beneath the fold.

UPDATE: Rick Perry – Rick Perry! – just accused Sen. Davis of being a “show horse”. This is like Charlie Sheen accusing someone of being an unstable egotist.

(more…)

Vote on school finance today

On Friday night, the Lege finally reached an agreement on school finance, which is to say on how to distribute the $4 billion in cuts to public education to the school districts. Today the Lege gets to vote on that deal.

House leaders wanted a two-year plan cutting school funding across the board by about 6 percent.

The Senate insisted lawmakers address the controversial “target revenue” system that has created disparities in school district funding. The compromise will use across-the-board cuts for the coming school year before turning to the Senate’s version for the 2012-13 school year.

“We believe it’s the best way to distribute those dollars out to our communities,” Shapiro said.

The deal has been called part Eissler and part Shapiro, which is to say part of HB400 and part of SB22.

Preliminary numbers indicate that Houston ISD will lose about $84 million the first year and an estimated $119 million in the second year — or cuts of roughly $328 per student in the first year followed by $490 the second year. Those numbers are based on earlier printouts that should be fairly close when the newest district-by-district impact figures come out, Shapiro said.

Based on the preliminary details, HISD faces a smaller cut next year than district officials had projected, but they expressed concern about deeper cuts the following year.

Hair Balls noted on Thursday that the HISD Board of Trustees was cautiously optimistic that their remaining shortfall would end up being less than they had originally planned for.

Although leaders reached an agreement on school funding, individual lawmakers will have to assess the impact of the funding cuts on the school districts they represent before ratifying the plan. Most if not all 49 House Democrats are expected to oppose the plan to cut funding to public education — especially when use of the state’s rainy day fund could have avoided those cuts.

“It’s unbelievable that we would lay off teachers, increase class sizes, cut Pre-K programs and hurt our schools across the board while there is more than enough money sitting in the rainy day fund to avoid the cuts completely,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston.

Without Democrats, House Republicans would need 76 of their 101 members to support the agreement. Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, one of the House negotiators, said, “I think we can sell this.”

I hope you can, too. I can’t wait for the 2012 campaigns to start noting that this Republican or that voted to cut billions of dollars from public schools. Remember, the House and every Republican in it originally voted to cut $8 billion from public education, so whatever cuts they end up approving for their own schools, they were prepared to approve cuts twice as big. Oh, yeah, I’m ready for this to quit being a legislative issue and start being a campaign issue. Have fun voting on your cuts, Republicans. School Zone and EoW have more.

New map, new opportunities: Harris County

For our last stop on this tour we look at Harris County, which provided several pickup opportunities for Democrats last decade. How will they fare this time around?

Harris County's new districts

Republicans started the last decade with a 14-11 advantage – they intended it to be 15-10 after drawing Scott Hochberg out of his seat, but he moved into HD137, drawn at the time to be a 50-50 district, won it, and watched it grow more Democratic with each election. Democrats picked up seats in 2004, 2006, and 2008, then lost two of them in 2010, ending the decade at a 13-12 disadvantage. This map shrinks the Harris delegation to 24 seats and in doing so forces the only Dem-on-Dem pairing, as Hochberg and Hubert Vo were thrown together. At this point I don’t know who is going to do what. I’ve heard rumors about Hochberg moving to 134, which includes a fair amount of turf from his pre-2001 district, but that’s all they are. We won’t know till much later, and I doubt anyone will commit to a course of action until the Justice Department has weighed in.

Assuming there are no changes, the Republicans had some work to do to shore up their members. With the current map, Jim Murphy in 133 and Sarah Davis in 134 would be heavily targeted, with Dwayne Bohac in 138 and Ken Legler in 144 also likely to face stiff competition. By virtue of shifting districts west, where the population has grown and where the Republicans have more strength, they bought themselves some time. Here’s a look at the 2004 Molina numbers for the old districts versus the 2008 Sam Houston numbers in both the old and the new ones.

Dist 04 Molina Old Houston New Houston ======================================== 126 32.9 42.0 37.9 127 28.3 33.3 32.4 128 35.5 38.9 38.0 129 33.4 36.8 38.6 130 23.6 29.5 26.4 132 30.3 41.4 40.6 133 44.0 51.2 41.6 134 43.3 44.7 42.6 135 35.5 42.1 39.5 136 28.1 31.7 40.0 138 41.1 44.8 40.3 144 39.9 45.1 42.1 150 28.4 36.4 33.0

A couple of massive shifts, in 133 to protect Murphy, and in 136 where Beverly Woolley gave up some turf to help out Bohac and Davis. Some Democratic districts got even bluer, though not all of them; losing a district allowed voters of all stripes to be spread around more. Woolley and Davis’ districts cover neighborhoods that are unlikely to change much, so what you see there is likely to be what you’ll get. Everywhere else, especially in the western territories – 132, 133, 135, and 138 – are likely to see change similar to what we saw last decade. I wouldn’t be surprised if their partisan numbers are already different. The question is how much time have the Republicans bought themselves, and how much effort and resources the Democrats will put into reaching the new residents out there; not much had been done in the past. Other than perhaps Davis, who will surely be attacked for voting mostly in lockstep with the rest of the Republicans, it’s not clear that any of these seats are winnable next year, but the results we get at that time may tell us when they’ll be ripe for the picking. I expect we’ll see some turnover over time, but I don’t know how much.

The budget work is far from done

The Senate may have passed its budget via some creative interpretation of its rules, but there’s more to what has to happen now than just the conference committee. As Abby Rapoport notes, they still have to rewrite the formula for school finance.

You see, under current law, schools are entitled to a certain amount per student. Districts raise what they can with property taxes, and the state must pay for the rest. (For more on our troubled school finance system, read my March cover story.) The state can’t make good on those obligations, and for the first time in 60 years, we won’t automatically fund public schools.

When budget writers opted to cut from public schools in order to balance the budget, they knew that they would need extra legislation to change the school finance system. The House and Senate each have bills that cut the necessary amounts to schools in order to make their budgets’ respective cuts to school districts—$4 billion in the Senate and a whopping $8 billion in the House. Those bills are integral to the budgets that each chamber approved.

But as we knew back in February, these school finance bills will be hard to pass. In the House, Democratic Rep. Scott Hochberg’s bill isn’t even on the calendar yet. His bill tries to shield the poorest districts from cuts by putting all districts on a formula system. But that means that those school districts that have been living high on the hog will get slashed by huge percentages. It’s certainly not going to be an easy-pass in the House.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Education Chair Florence Shapiro’s bill hasn’t yet had the votes to come to the floor, and Democratic senators have a clear chance to block the bill.

Assuming the 2/3 rule is still in effect, of course. See here, here, and here for some background on Hochberg’s bill and the nature of how school finance currently works. All of this takes place against a background in which there have been over 12,000 documented job losses in public education in Texas, and that’s just scratching the surface. The worst is very much yet to come. A statement about the budget from Sen. Mario Gallegos is here, and one from Sen. Rodney Ellis is here.

Finally, on a related note, HB400, the bill to increase class sizes for grades K-4, which was derailed on a point of order last week, is on the House calendar for today. I suspect that without this bill, which has enough sponsors (all Republicans) to guarantee its passage, the rest of the pieces to redo school finance won’t fit. Keep an eye on this.

Redistricting committee votes out State House map

Texas Politics:

By a vote of 11 to 5, the House Redistricting Committee approved a plan redrawing the Texas House map that, according to its sponsor, committee chairman Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, creates a total of 30 minority opportunity districts.

The committee rejected several amendments offered by the four Democrats on the committee, who contended that the Solomons plan, House Bill 150, does not properly reflect the growth in the state’s Latino population during the past decade. Latino growth made up 65 percent of the 4.3 million overall population increase in Texas since 2000.

“The plan passed out of committee today splits communities of interest and denies proper representation to people of color – but particularly Hispanics – who drove the population growth in Texas for the past decade,” said state Rep. Robert Alonzo, a Democratic member of the committee from Dallas.

In addition to the four Democrats on the committee, state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, voted against the bill.

State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, one of the four, objected to the speed with which the Solomons plan was adopted. She said the fast track didn’t allow the committee time to consider the changes made to the bill during today’s committee meeting.

She also opposed reducing Harris County districts from 25 to 24, ostensibly because the county’s population growth was not enough to warrant a 25th seat. Alvarado argued that the county grew by 20.3 percent from 2000 to 2010, a rate that’s close to the 20.7 percent growth from 1990 to 2000 that justified a map with 25 districts.

The adopted plan is Plan H153. Here again is the Harris County view:

Harris County State Rep districts as currently proposed

As before, Harris County gets 24 districts, with Reps. Scott Hochberg and Hubert Vo being paired. I had to zoom way in to realize it, but this map puts me in HD147, Rep. Garnet Coleman’s district. As before, I have the same mixed feelings of delight and heartbreak. I’m also more than a bit peeved to see just how much my neck of the woods gets sliced and diced:

So much for keeping communities of interest together

For comparison, here’s what it looks like today:

This is more like it

The difference between the two is pretty jarring. The fact that the only opportunity to give feedback to the committee was last weekend makes it all the worse. Say what you want about the Houston City Council map, at least you had a chance to be heard.

You can see a PDF of the map here. On the plus side, the weirdly uterus-shaped district in and around Williamson County has been replaced by something that doesn’t appear to have been drawn by a prankster. Beyond that, I don’t have much good to say.

UPDATE: Just got this statement from Rep. Carol Alvarado:

State Representative Carol Alvarado’s Statement on the committee vote and passage on the committee substitute of HB 150 as amended, the redistricting map for the Texas House of Representatives.

“The map that was voted out of the Redistricting Committee is bad for Harris County. I stand by my “no” vote on this proposed plan as it would cause Harris County to lose representation by merging two predominately minority districts.

As a county boasting more than 4.1 million residents and a consistently strong growth rate, Harris County deserves to maintain their twenty-five House districts. Unlike other areas in Texas, the populations of our urban areas did not abandon our county, they simply shifted across our county while staying within our borders. Harris County did not lose population and there is no justification for the loss of a House district.”

Solomons State House map 2.0

Go to http://gis1.tlc.state.tx.us/ and check out Plan H134 for a revised State House map from House Redistricting Chair Burt Solomons. Here’s the Harris County view:

Harris County, take two

Still 24 districts, with either Rep. Scott Hochberg or Rep. Hubert Vo on the outside looking in. In this variation, HD143 goes back to being an East End seat, and HD148 regains some of its old territory in the Heights, but my part of the Heights gets moved into HD145, which would make me a constituent of Rep. Carol Alvarado. As with Rep. Ana Hernandez Luna, I would be delighted to be her constituent, but heartbroken not to be Rep. Jessica Farrar’s constituent. HD134 gains a little more outside the Loop territory, but most of the districts on the west side look not too different than they were before. Beyond Harris County, the only thing I looked for was the weird uterus-shaped HD149 that surrounds and passed through Williamson County. It’s still there. You’ve got to be a little desperate to maintain Republican hegemony if you’re drawing districts like that.

Also, State Rep. Garnet Coleman has submitted a plan, Plan H130. The Harris view:

Rep. Coleman's map for Harris County

That one has 25 seats in Harris County, so Reps. Hochberg and Vo can remain. It also puts me back into HD148, which just feels right. And as we turn our eyes to Williamson County, we see no uterine districts. All of which means that this map won’t be given a moment’s thought.

With regards to Rep. Hochberg, I note that someone has been whispering into Burka‘s ear.

I haven’t discussed Hochberg’s plans with him, but I did hear from sources close to Sarah Davis that she expects Hochberg to move into her district and run against her.

I don’t know who his sources are and I don’t know who his sources’ sources are, but I do know that I have not heard anything like this from Democrats as yet. In fact, the reaction many of us had was that it was Rep. Vo who’d gotten the short end of the stick, since the HD137 drawn (in the original map, anyway; I can’t vouch for the revised map just yet) has more of Hochberg’s precincts in it than Vo’s. I personally thought Vo might be better off running against Rep. Jim Murphy in HD133, since as noted before it might be viable for him. Burka’s sources may be right and they may be wrong, I’m just saying that I’m not hearing the same buzz that he is.

Finally, a couple of stories from the Monitor and the Guardian about redistricting in South Texas and the disposition of Hidalgo County. I figure they wind up getting shafted again, which is to say business as usual.

UPDATE: The following was sent out by email from Karen Loper, Rep. Vo’s campaign manager, last night:

Message from Hubert Vo for help with redistricting

The Texas House Committee on Redistricting  has re-drawn the district lines of the State Representatives and  filed the plan as HB150.   District 149 which is Hubert Vo’s district has been eliminated.  Many of the  precincts in his district have been moved to other districts which breaks up the voting strength of all  ethnicities including the Vietnamese.  The only 3 current Vo precincts left after they move the others are combined with District 137.

Letters should be sent as soon as possible to the redistricting committee.  We have attached two sample letters to email or fax – one is for you to use if you live in District 149 and the other should be sent if you live somewhere else.  These letters will be used  for  the committee and also will be sent to the Department of Justice (DOJ) where the redistricting map must be approved .

All you have to do is date the letter and type in your name and address at the bottom.   You can make additions to the letter if you wish to do so. The letters should not argue the Democratic and Republican point because that is not part of the DOJ’s concerns.  You can email or fax the letter. The e-mail address and fax number are listed below.  PLEASE SEND A COPY TO HUBERT VO ALSO

SEND YOUR LETTER TO:

marc.veasey@house.state.tx.us or Fax (512) 463-1516

AND SEND A COPY TO:

hubert.vo@house.state.tx.us or Fax (512) 463-0548

Sample letters were included. You can see them here and here.

Lege loosens graduation requirements

A sign of the times.

The Texas House tentatively approved legislation Wednesday to make it easier for high school students to pass end-of-course exams, a move critics called “a substantial retreat” from school accountability.

“This bill creates a clear, understandable path to graduation,” House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said of his bill, HB 500.

Business and education reform groups complained the legislation would weaken efforts to make sure all high school graduates are college- or career-ready.

Here’s HB500, which received final passage by a 138-5 margin on Thursday. Here’s the Trib on some key aspects of the bill:

The idea behind Eissler’s bill is to provide a transition period for students as schools move from the TAKS to the STAAR tests — whose more rigorous standards some believe could lead to large numbers of students failing to meet graduation requirements. Right now, students can’t graduate unless they get a certain cumulative score across all the year-end tests. Fifteen percent of their final grades is based on how well they do on those tests. HB 500 does away with those requirements, instead allowing districts to set their own policy on how end-of-course exams weigh in student assessment. Eissler, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said his bill was about “trying to get out of the micromanaging of school business from Austin” and vehemently denied accusations from his colleagues that it weakened school standards.

Three amendments from state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, were adopted from the floor. One prevented double-testing for fifth and eighth grade students taking advanced courses. Another, in an allusion to this summer’s Texas Projection Measure kerfuffle, specified that the Texas Education Agency could not use a projected achievement level to measure student growth. The last allows districts to opt into a pilot program to study whether students are “overtested.” Hochberg said that there is “pretty clear data” that show that if students pass a test one year, they are more than likely to pass it the next. “If we know they are going to pass that test, why are we going to continue to test them?” he asked. (Hochberg’s HB 233, co-sponsored by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would implement this policy statewide.)

I’ve blogged about HB233 before. It’s a good idea. Abby Rapoport has some more details and context.

School districts had fought for the bill—House Bill 500—which was carried by Public Education Committee chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. But amendments prompted heated discussions about just what role testing should play in school assessments. And the coalitions for and against were anything but predictable.

The measure centered around the new STAAR tests, the soon-to-be-implemented statewide school assessments set to replace the current TAKS tests. Eissler’s bill would give school districts an opportunity to cut students some slack while students adjust to the new testing system. If the districts so chose, for a transitional period, a student’s STARR test performance wouldn’t necessarily count toward their final grade in a course. Districts could set their own policy on just how much the assessments count for a student’s grade. The bill also allows districts to suspend a new graduation requirement that students maintain a cumulative passing rate on 12 exams in four subject areas. Instead students would only have to pass four exams total—English III and algebra, specifically as well as one in science and one in social studies.

I don’t have a fully formed opinion of this bill yet. Mostly, I agree with Rapoport in that this bill won’t have nearly the effect on student performance that the budget will. Maybe when we’re at a point of fully funding education again, we can revisit this and see if it’s still needed. Until then, the budget is the cause and everything else is effects.

School finance reform bills on tap

Whether you look at the House budget or the slightly less drastic Senate version, public schools will not get the funding they are due under the current defined formulas. That means that how the funds are distributed needs to be redone as well. The first bills to tackle this highly sensitive issue have been laid out, with more to come.

On the heels of a newly approved House budget that leaves public schools $7.8 billion short of what they’re entitled to under current funding formulas, the House Public Education Committee [Tuesday] considered a round of school finance bills.

Two of the bills came from the lower chamber’s veteran school finance wonk, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. One came from freshman state Rep. James White, R-Woodville, who made his first appearance before the committee.

During seven hours of testimony — and in sometimes tense exchanges that revealed the frayed nerves of committee members and witnesses alike — representatives from districts across the state spoke repeatedly about the dire consequences of the House’s budget cuts. At one point, as Alamo Heights Superintendent Kevin Brown urged the Legislature to provide its fair share of funding, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, emphasized the strain lawmakers have felt attempting to fund essential programs and meet voters’ demands for no new taxes.

“We’ve seen HB1; we don’t have the money … We’re trying to create a system that is reasonable and equitable under some parameters,” he said. “Obviously, as you can tell, the past couple of weeks have been very frustrating for us, and we’re getting a little short on temper.”

Cry me a river, Dan. To say “we don’t have the money” is a copout that absolves the House’s Republican majority of its responsibility for its penurious budget. There’s still $6 billion left in the Rainy Day Fund. There’s still the structural deficit caused by the 2006 property tax cut, which the Senate is willing to address but the House isn’t. You guys know damn well that HB1 is a steaming pile of failure. You deserve all the strain you’re feeling.

It’s too early to say what will happen here. The budget isn’t finalized. House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler has a bill of his own in the works, as I believe does Sen. Florence Shapiro. At least one group, the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented, has come out strongly against the latter of Hochberg’s bills on the grounds that it “would eliminate weighted funding for the majority of special programs, including gifted education”. I’m sure other groups will weigh in as well. This wouldn’t be a problem if education were adequately funded, but the House has already spoken on that subject. The ultimate endgame of all this is still likely to be litigation, as everyone acknowledges the basic unfairness of how public education funding is currently done. The main question that a school finance reform bill is likely to answer is what form that litigation will take.