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February, 2011:

Bradley gets committee approval

Can’t say I’m surprised.

The Senate Nominations Committee voted 4-2 today to recommend approving state forensic board chairman John Bradley’s appointment. Sens. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, and Kirk Watson, D-Austin, voted against Bradley’s nomination.

Four Republicans voted in favor; other, less-controversial nominees were approved unanimously. State Sen. Rodney Ellis landed a few blows on Bradley, which I’m sure made for entertaining viewing. The full Senate still needs to confirm Bradley, and as with Don McLeroy and the SBOE last session, I would not at all be unhappy with his nomination being blocked by the Democrats. Frankly, I think Grits’ suggestion that the Forensic Science Commission pick its own Chair has a lot of merit. Perhaps there’s room for a deal in there. Dave Mann has more.

UPDATE: Here’s a statement from Sen. Ellis:

Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today urged the Texas Senate to reject the nomination of Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley for the remainder of his term as Chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. The Senate Nominations committee voted 4-2 to send Mr. Bradley’s nomination for consideration by the full Senate.

“The Legislature created the Forensic Science Commission to ensure we have forensic evidence we can trust in our courtrooms –in order to increase public safety and the public faith in justice system,” said Senator Ellis. “Unfortunately, since Mr. Bradley has taken the reins, rather than move the commission forward to look into allegations, find the truth, and repair problems in our broken justice system; the Commission has invested most of its time and energy finding ways to avoid looking into problems and looking for loopholes to block the commission from doing what it was created to do.”

In 2005, the Legislature created the Texas Forensic Science Commission to restore public faith in forensic evidence following the discovery that a series of serious errors called into question evidence in hundreds of cases across the state. The commission is yet to complete a single investigation. In 2009, just as the Commission was poised to begin completing its first investigation — a review of the evidence used to convict and sentence to death Todd Willingham — Mr. Bradley was appointed Chair of the Commission.

The Commission is still yet to complete any investigation.

After boasting that he knew nothing about the Commission, Mr. Bradley’s first move was to unilaterally cancel that meeting, stunning the public and policymakers, as well as his fellow Commission members. According to press reports, Mr. Bradley then ordered all Commissioners to delete their Commission-related emails, and declared that he wouldn’t let the Commission meet until he had time to learn more about it. Mr. Bradley displayed a shocking lack of objectivity in his work by declaring to the press that “Willingham is a guilty monster,” a clearly inappropriate statement from the Chair of a state Commission tasked to provide independent, expert investigations of allegations of forensic negligence or misconduct.

“We wanted independent experts to form a lean, efficient, and non-paid publicly review allegations of problems, investigate them, and report to the public about what it had found so that the public and thus all jurors could regain faith in forensic evidence – and thus convict the guilty and not convict the innocent,” Ellis said. “Sadly, Mr. Bradley has used his position to seize power over and thwart the will of the expert Commission, hide the Commission’s work from public view, greatly increase the Commission’s bureaucratic bloat, slow its previously impressive progress to a crawl, and otherwise prevent the Commission from accomplishing the legislature’s intent.”

Deadline to RSVP for March 14 Lobby Day event

Just a reminder about this.

Monday, March 14th, 7 am – 7 pm: Legislative Day at the Texas Capitol in Austin, organized by Houston Federation of Teachers. HFT has invited parents to join them in meeting with as many state legislators as possible to discuss the state funding situation. During HISD’s recent Legislative Training, Bill King (an HISD lobbyist) shared with Houston parents and community members the high impact and value that comes from parents and community members meeting with our legislators face to face. The goal of the trip on the 14th is to fill the halls of our Capitol with Houstonians and advocate our concerns over funding issues — before our representatives become overscheduled during the pending session. The parent agenda will focus exclusively on the budget situation. We are collaborating on these messages with input from our HISD elected trustees and insight from HISD sponsored meetings. You will receive talking points on the bus ride to Austin.

There is no cost to participate in this lobbying trip to Austin other than your time. Transportation and lunch will be provided by the HFT and no experience is required. If you prefer to drive yourself or carpool you are welcome to do that. If you have never met with an elected official or have never been to the Capitol, no problem. (Please, note that childcare will not be provided and students are not permitted to ride the bus due to liability issues.)

If you are just learning about this, have not taken any action regarding the state budget crisis or funding issues at HISD, or are fired up about what is happening, then this is the trip for you.

RSVP by Tuesday, March 1st by emailing Sue Deigaard ([email protected]) and include your name, home address, and phone number. This will enable the logistics team to match up parent teams with teachers and legislators. All HISD parents/taxpayers are welcome. Feel free to forward this email invitation to any interested party.

Please RSVP if you want to attend whether you take the bus or go on your own. Please include your name, email, cell number, and address when you respond. And even if you decide after the deadline tomorrow to attend Lobby Day on the 14th, please send Sue Deigaard an email anyway so the organizers can figure out who needs to visit which legislators in as efficient a manner as possible. Thanks.

But what if you can’t attend? You can still show your support by sending a postcard that says something like “I fully support the rally on 3/12 even though I am unable to attend myself. Please take seriously the concerns of all those Texans who took the time to travel to Austin to voice our concerns.” Send that to your Rep, to your Senator, to Governor Perry (Governor Rick Perry, Office of the Governor, P.O. Box 12428, Austin, TX 78711-2428), and to Lt. Gov. Dewhurst (Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, Capitol Station, P.O. Box 12068, Austin, TX 78711). You can find your Rep and Senator’s name and mailing address here.

Other items of interest, via email:

This WEDNESDAY, March 2nd at St. Philip Presbyterian Church, 4807 San Felipe, Houston, TX 77056 at 7 p.m., 713.622.4807. Come hear how to organize your friends and neighbors in a grass roots response to the proposed, devastating cuts to public education. Sue Deigaard from Mark Twain Elementary School will be speaking about the crisis and efforts her school is making to reach the legislature that ARE ALREADY WORKING! You don’t have to ‘reinvent the wheel,’ Her website is full of helpful handouts and ideas.

This SUNDAY, March 6, 2011, also at St. Philip Presbyterian Church in room 202 (the “Families in Faith room”) at 9:30 a.m. Laura Lomax-Bream will lead a discussion of the proposed cuts, how they impact the entire future of Texas even for individuals who have no children, and what citizens can do in response. Petitions for signing, information on which elected officials to contact, and guidance in letter-writing will be available. This is in the Sunday school hour of the church, but you do not have to be a Presbyterian or Christian to attend. There are Sunday school classes for children downstairs from this meeting. If you want to introduce your kids to this church while you attend the class, you are welcome to do that, but might want to arrive early to figure out which classroom would work for your children if you haven’t been to St. Philip before.

The website referenced in the first item is Please help out any way you can. Thanks very much.

Hochberg’s plan for less testing

A new bill filed by State Rep. Scott Hochberg that would exempt students who easily passed standardized tests one year from taking them the next, makes all kinds of sense.

The bill, co-authored by Hochberg and freshman Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, would exempt fourth graders from taking the state’s standardized tests if they passed their third grade tests by a large margin. Similarly, students in sixth and seventh grade wouldn’t have to take the tests if they passed by a healthy margin in fifth grade. While the measure wouldn’t save the state much money, it would save local districts a lot in test preparation, while putting a larger focus on those students who barely passed or failed their exams. Using giant posters of data, Hochberg pointed out that students who do well on the tests one year will very likely pass the following year.

“If we know these kids are going to pass, why are we giving them the test?” asked Hochberg, the House guru of all things education and data-related. Currently, he says, school districts can rely on their high achievers to boost test scores and inflate a school’s ratings. That allows the struggling kids to fall between the cracks. This bill would shift that emphasis, as schools would be judged based more heavily on how they equipped their low performers.

“It shines a laser beam on those kids who are below grade level,” Hochberg said.

Huberty, a conservative Republican who just left the Humble school board to come to the House, concurred. He argued the districts currently spend too much time and money on testing, particulary when those children who already did well one year will almost undoubtedly will pass again.

For proof, Hochberg—by far the nerdiest House member—turned to the numbers. Of those students who passed their reading and math assessments by a large margin in fourth grade, over 97 percent passed again in fifth grade. The numbers were even more compelling among middle schoolers. Over 98 percent of seventh graders who passed their assessments by a large margin in math and reading passed again in eighth grade. Meanwhile of those fourth graders who failed their tests, less than 40 percent passed the following year.

“It really sheds the light on this group of kids who are the ones who are likely to become dropouts as things go on,” Hochberg said told the handful of reporters.

The bill is HB233, and you can read about it in Hochberg’s own words here. There are two other Republicans signed onto the bill – Rick Hardcastle and Jim Keffer – which one hopes bodes well for its chances. I’ll be interested to see if there’s any real opposition to this, because offhand I can’t think of a reason why you’d oppose it/ We’ll see what happens.

Council’s code of conduct

I’m not sure what to make of this.

City Council is considering imposing a code of conduct on itself that would give it the power to reprimand or censure members.

It already has the ultimate enforcement tool – impeachment – to punish misconduct.

However, there are no intermediate sanctions in between outright removal of a council member and looking the other way.

So, Councilman Mike Sullivan has been working with the city attorney and others to craft a code to rein in unbecoming conduct.

“Not every infraction would rise to the level of impeachment, but that does not mean you would not want to put a council member on notice that their behavior is not going to be tolerated,” Sullivan said. “Right now, we have no ability to police ourselves.”


Council conduct already is governed by an ordinance that prohibits using office for personal gain, disclosing confidential information, seeking future employment with organizations with business before the council, and more.

The draft’s disciplinary provisions would give council four progressively more severe sanctions to impose on violators: verbal reprimand, written reprimand, censure and impeachment.

In theory, I have no particular objections to this idea, but I would like to know what exactly we’re talking about before I sign on. What kind of conduct do we think has been going unpunished that we need to deal with? Let’s see what the specifics are, and then we can decide if it’s worth doing.

HISD’s opening thoughts on dealing with budget cuts

It’s not going to be pretty, no matter how you slice it.

Fewer police officers would patrol school hallways, property taxes would rise, several campuses would close and about 300 central office jobs would be cut next year under HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s initial cost-cutting proposals.

Grier asked the Houston school board on Thursday to consider increasing the property tax rate by up to 4 cents and reducing a tax discount known as the optional homestead exemption.

“Of course you can balance the budget without them,” Grier said of the tax proposals. “But you can’t balance the budget without them without having draconian cuts at the school level.”

Houston Independent School District officials are preparing for a shortfall of $171 million based on deep cuts in state funding. The amount could change as the Legislature finalizes the state budget, and the board isn’t expected to vote on a final budget until June.

The largest tax increase option Grier presented to the board would increase the rate by 4 cents from $1.1567 per $100 of assessed value and lower the homestead exemption to 15 percent from 20 percent. The exemption reduces the taxable value of the property.
Under that scenario, the tax bill for the owner of an average-priced home, $195,680, would increase by $173.70.

As noted before, HISD could actually raise the tax rate more than that. For a variety of reasons that won’t happen, not the least of which in my mind is the thought that they may find themselves in a similar position two years from now and want to keep some options open. Plus, I think Harvin Moore has it right:

Trustee Harvin Moore said it was a weak negotiating tactic to make decisions while state lawmakers have yet to amend their bare-bones budget proposals.

“I do not think it’s a good move to say, ‘Well, OK, we’re willing to cut this much or to raise taxes this much,’ ” he said. “The state’s going to say, ‘Well, that worked well.’ ”

And then the legislators that passed the budget that forced HISD and other school districts to raise their taxes will spend the next 18 months bragging about how they balanced their budget without raising taxes. It’s a sucker’s game.

Hair Balls has more on what HISD is considering, which is clearly still in the “run it up the flagpole and see who salutes” stage. There’s also the related and as yet unresolved matter of magnet schools, on which the budget issues will have some unknown effect.

In the meantime, some Senators are working on a way to help school districts delay decisions about firing teachers, while the debate about how much is spent on education administration continues on.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston and the vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, called the 58,575 people employed in nonteaching support positions by Texas public schools —”your math department supervisors, your curriculum experts” — a “soft target” for budget cutters. Those positions “must be seriously addressed,” he said. “That number is not based on reality.”

According to Patrick, the ratio of teachers to nonteachers, which includes those employed in administrative and support capacities, in districts has grown to nearly 1 to 1 today from 4 to 1 in the 1970s.

But while it may be more palatable to think of those cuts as trimming bureaucratic fat rather than as damaging the vital organs of a school, there may be less to cut than lawmakers imagine, said Michael Griffith, a school finance expert with the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan research organization. In reality, Griffith said, administrative spending “is not as bad as some of the rhetoric you’re hearing.”

“You might look at a school district and say ‘well, they have 35 people in their office doing administrative work, that seems excessive’ until you find out that 15 to 20 of them are actually paid for in federal grants,” he said. When districts receive Title I and IDEA grants, that money can also cover administrative costs, so cutting those positions doesn’t mean those dollars will go to saving teachers.

Griffith said, there is no “magic number” that reflects the optimal number of teaching to nonteaching personnel for districts, because it’s difficult to make comparisons across campuses. “The best you can see is if people compare their district to similar districts,” he said, “but that means having 1,200 separate little studies” in Texas.


Ed Fuller, a special research associate at the University of Texas, said that data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that the number of central office administrators has actually decreased in Texas since 2003. The number of administrators per school is just below the national average, he said, and there is evidence that districts with more administrators may actually increase the effectiveness of schools.

In an analysis that used campuses’ scores in the Texas Comptroller’s recent Financial Accountability for Texas study — which rated schools and districts based on student achievement relative to spending — he found that the more central office administrators per school, the higher the FAST rating.

This could be true, Fuller said, because it could mean that school principals are receiving more guidance and therefore staying in their jobs longer and improving their abilities more rapidly. “If you don’t have enough central office administrators,” he said, “then principals don’t get the support they need.” He said preliminary results from a survey of principals in Texas suggests that this is accurate.

There’s something I’ll bet you’ve never heard before – I sure hadn’t. The existence of a correlation is by itself meaningless, but it sure would be interesting to see what a rigorous study might reveal. One other point that I often hear but which wasn’t raised in this story is that a lot of the jobs that Patrick is complaining about exist because of mandates by the state. All this accountability stuff we’ve laid on schools and school districts in recent years represents real work – data crunching, report writing, and so forth – that has to be done by someone. You can’t have it both ways.

Leppert says he’s officially in for Senate

As expected.

In the final hours of his incomplete term, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert told News 8 Friday morning he is a candidate for the Republican nomination for United States Senate. Leppert announced his intentions during a Friday morning taping of “Inside Texas Politics.”


On why he is running, Leppert said this: “I think we bring a different perspective; a conservative approach; clearly I think I have an understanding of how the economy works. I built businesses, I created jobs, I’ve had to deal with spending, cutting spending on both the public and private side and where we are today is Washington is overspending, it’s overtaxing and as a result it’s destroying jobs.”

The role of a partisan candidate will be a new one for Leppert. He served without party label and got high marks from his colleagues on the Council, most of whom are Democrats, for finding consensus on most issues and doing so in a respectful, accommodating way.

However, running in the primary for Kay Bailey Hutchison’s highly-sought seat may be a whole different level for the former construction company CEO. He will have to face GOP voters hungry for red meat issues such as sharply reduced spending, debt and social issues.

Leppert has tried to show he knows how to make a sharp turn to the right.

From there comes the usual checklist of modern day Republican talking points. I don’t know much about Tom Leppert so I have no way of judging whether that stuff sounds natural or forced coming from him. I do know why he’s going that route and I wouldn’t expect anyone to do anything different, but it still feels a bit like a strategy that’s born to fail. I mean, it’s not like the red meat crowd lacks champions in this race, and if they harbor any doubts about his bona fides they’re unlikely to be mollified by what he says now. Not that there’s a better avenue available to him, I suppose. I don’t think much of his chances to win the nomination – the most recent Texas Trib poll either didn’t list him as a candidate or didn’t get enough responses naming him to mention a number – but we’ll see how it goes. The DMN has more.

Time for the Senate to go after John Bradley


Governor Rick Perry’s appointees to the Texas Forensic Science Commission are up in the Senate Nominations Committee [today]. Senators should use the forum to force Commission Chairman John Bradley to answer all the questions he’s dodged in the past – especially about the ways in which he’s delayed or shut down all the Commission’s activities after his appointment in 2009. The other commissioners who are up IMO have done a good job; even if I haven’t always agreed with them on every jot and tittle, I’ve never once thought they were acting in bad faith. That hasn’t always been true of the chair.

Bradley is a shameless, lying hack, who was appointed by Governor Perry for the sole purpose of obstructing and emasculating the Forensic Science Commission, primarily but not exclusively relating to the Cameron Willingham case. Bradley has fulfilled Perry’s every expectation, while making a mockery of what should be an objective, scientific committee. He deserves to get nailed to the wall by the Senate, especially by Sen. Whitmire. Please don’t miss this opportunity, Senators.

Just a reminder: Save Texas Schools

Just a reminder:

Save Texas Schools – Fund Public Education Now!

Our Schools, Our Kids, Our Future

Texas students are tough, but they’ve never faced a crisis like this. In every school district across the Lone Star State, the same grim headlines repeat: campus closures, teacher layoffs, drastic cuts to core academic programs.

The culprit is a $27 billion state budget hole, which some say could have been avoided. But casting blame now doesn’t help. The challenge is to keep our schools open for all students.

There is help for Texas students if our leaders have the courage to use it.

Tell your elected officials to:

  • Keep Texas smart – make education a top priority!
  • Use the $9.3 Billion Texas “Rainy Day” Fund to support schools
  • Sign the paperwork for $830 Million in federal aid for teachers
  • Fix school funding laws to be fair to all districts and to our growing student population.

These tools can save our schools. Call, write or email today!

Find your elected representatives here:

Contact Governor Rick Perry here:

In hard times, we must invest in Texas students…our future depends on it!

Across the state, thousands of concerned citizens are taking the Save Texas Schools pledge and many have signed up to come to the rally on March 12. Contact us at [email protected] to connect with folks from your area, including supporters from the following school districts:

Alamo Heights ISD, Aldine ISD, Aledo ISD, Allen ISD, Angleton ISD, Aransas County ISD, Arlington ISD, Austin ISD, Avalon ISD, Azle ISD, Birdville ISD, Brewster ISD, Brock ISD, Burleson ISD, Carroll ISD, Carrolton ISD, Cedar Hill ISD, Clear Creek ISD, Cleburne ISD, Coldspring-Oakhurst ISD, Comal ISD, Conroe ISD, Coppell ISD, Corsicana ISD, Crosby ISD, Crowley ISD, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, Daingerfield-Lone Star ISD. Dallas ISD, Decatur ISD, Denton ISD, DeSoto ISD, Eanes ISD, Edinburg ICSD, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD, Everman ISD, Fort Worth ISD, Galena Park ISD, Garland ISD, Gilmer ISD, Gladewater ISD, Goodrich ISD, Goose Creek CISD, Graford ISD, Grand Prairie ISD, Gustine ISD, Hays CISD, Houston ISD, Howard ISD, Hudson ISD, Humble ISD, Huntsville ISD, Irving ISD, Judson ISD, Katy ISD, Keller ISD, Klein ISD, Lake Worth ISD, Leander ISD, Lewisville ISD, Little Cypress- Mauriceville CISD, Lorenzo ISD, Lufkin ISD, Madisonville CISD, Magnolia ISD, Mansfield ISD, Menard ISD, Mesquite ISD, Midway ISD, Nacogdoches ISD, Needville ISD, New Braunfels ISD, New Caney ISD, North East ISD, Northside ISD, Paducah ISD, Pasadena ISD, Pearland ISD, Pflugerville ISD, Plano ISD, Quinlan ISD, Randolph Field ISD, Round Rock ISD, San Antonio ISD, Schertz Cibolo ISD, South San Antonio ISD, Spring ISD, Sonora ISD, Tidehaven ISD, Tomball ISD, Tyler ISD, United ISD, Waelder ISD, Waller ISD, Weatherford ISD, Willis ISD, Wills Point ISD, Wimberly ISD.

Click here to become a supporter of Save Texas Schools.

See Save Texas Schools for more. In particular, see here for a list of caravans and buses, and here for an FAQ. Alief ISD has organized bus transportation now – see here for the details. Get involved and make your voice heard while you still can. Martha and John have more.

Weekend link dump for February 27

Is that a lion about to come in?

Keep Twitter short!

Change is hard. But keeping things short doesn’t have to be.

See, this is why I wasn’t a liberal arts major.

How could outsourcing your core competency possibly have been a good idea?

Is this what got Glenn Beck all paranoid about Google? Whatever the case, it appears that a certain someone didn’t get the memo.

The global nature of the Internet has some downside risk, too.

For shame, Facebook.

Government funded NASCAR ads are among the things Republicans didn’t cut from their silly budget.

If you don’t already have health insurance, you probably can’t get it. We should make everyone who wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act go through this.

Awesome coelacanth photos. See what a fish that swam with icthysaurs looks like.

In case you hadn’t seen it, Ken Jennings writes about his experience going up against a supercomputer on “Jeopardy!”

Not sure how I feel about these changes to Chrome that Google is considering.

Diversity really does matter.

It’s a good question: Would FL Governor Rick Scott have turned down money to build I-95 if he’d been in office during the Eisenhower administration?

Keeping up with the satire curve, TBogg-style.

It’s overpaid hack columnists that are the real scourge.

The fight in Wisconsin is about more than just unions, but unions are a crucial part of that fight.

Imagining the bizarro world version of Wisconsin.

I thought Republicans wanted stronger border security? They just don’t want to pay for it, apparently.

Small businesses are getting screwed by big businesses.

Some rules for being in the press box.

Here is why you can’t have a flying car.

File this under “More reasons why I don’t consider myself a libertarian”.

Money can’t buy you love, but it sure can buy you access to politicians.

Want to beat a speeding ticket? There’s an app for that, of course.

We’re pro-life and we’ll kill anyone who disagrees with us.

Some music podcasts to check out.

Yes, when you put it this way, a recurring gig on the Sunday morning talk shows does seem like the logical next step.

The fight in Wisconsin is about a whole lot more than just public sector unions.

Freedom of religion is not a winner-take-all proposition.

I always knew this would happen.

The people who made that anti-Planned Parenthood video are a bunch of lying liars. Who would have ever guessed?

Harris County minus one?

Despite essentially keeping up with the state growth rate, Harris County may lose a legislative seat in the next round of redistricting.

As Texas lawmakers turn their attention to the complex and contentious task of redrawing their own districts, that loss will set in motion a game of musical chairs to determine who has a place among the 150 House seats. That number does not change despite a 20 percent increase in population statewide, which means the kaleidoscope of voters each lawmaker represents will shift. Harris County is expected to go from 25 to 24 state House seats.

Legislative districts, redrawn every 10 years in the wake of federal census results, must be roughly the same size, somewhere near 167,637 people per district. Although Harris County is home to more people than in 2000, its growth lags behind such suburban areas as Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.

Much of the redistricting process is a legalistic one involving adherence to federal law and state redistricting principles, said Trey Trainor, an Austin lawyer who advises Republicans on redistricting.

“From a political standpoint,” Trainor said, “it gets bloody when you start looking at population loss, and you have members of the Legislature who just don’t have the sheer numbers in their district, and you’ve got to go someplace else to get them. You start cutting into core constituencies of other members.”

In Harris County, the question is, who will be the odd man (or woman) out?

“It’s not necessarily that the seat goes away,” Trainor said, “but you’re going to end up with one or two incumbents in the same district having to run against each other, if they decide to do that. Of course, you know a lot of times what happens in these cases is somebody who’s been here awhile decides to retire and makes it easier on everybody else.”

A few thoughts:

Greg saw this coming months ago. The final Census totals put Harris County right on the knife’s edge of maintaining 25 seats, so I suppose it’s still possible that could happen. We still haven’t heard anything from those that are actually going to draw the maps, and dealmaking is always a possibility. I’m inclined to think that 24 is more likely than 25, however. Remember, for big counties like Harris state law forbids State Rep districts from crossing county boundaries, so sharing a district with Fort Bend or Montgomery is not an option.

– The story suggests that Republicans may target Rep. Scott Hochberg, the only Anglo Democrat currently serving in Harris County, for elimination. I say it’s far too early to write anyone’s political obituary. Hochberg was similarly drawn out of a district in 2001, but found a new home and won there. You just never know.

– Having said that, I might suggest that one person with a reason to be nervous is two-term State Rep. Ken Legler, whose district is centered in Pasadena. While the west, northwest, and north ends of Harris County grew like gangbusters, the eastern portion stagnated or shrunk; what growth there was out that way was mostly nonAnglo. It may be awfully hard to draw two sufficiently Republican districts with enough population out there to support both Legler and Rep. Wayne Smith, whose Baytown area is easily the redder. Again, you never know. My point is that there are a lot of moving parts to this, and you can’t affect one district without affecting all of them.

– Trainor is correct that sometimes these problems solve themselves via a member’s retirement, whether voluntary or not. Retirement isn’t the only way that a member may decide to free up a seat, however. There may be a different office available to them, for instance. Who do you suppose might become Ed Emmett’s bestest buddy in the event that Jerry Eversole gets convicted in his trial, which was actually supposed to begin this past week? Dwayne Bohac has been rumored to be interested in that job; I’m certain he’s not alone in that desire. Keep an eye on this.

– As we’ve seen, electoral results can differ greatly in Presidential and non-Presidential years. If nothing were changing this year, the most endangered incumbent in Harris County would be Jim Murphy, whose track record so far is winning in 2006 and 2010 and losing in 2008. As I said before, figuring out which electoral data to base the boundaries on will be extra challenging this time around, and could lead to some districts whose predisposition is dependent on the year.

All that and we haven’t even had the barest hint of a possible draft map yet. Just wait till that starts to happen. Greg and PDiddie have more.

Sugar Land seeks someone to develop prison land

I hope they get their wish.

Sugar Land city officials hope to convert a 330-acre state prison property into a light industrial business park and are looking for private partners for the development.

The tract, which sits adjacent to the Sugar Land Regional Airport northwest of the intersection of Texas 6 and U.S. 90A, is occupied by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Central Prison Unit.

You can see more on the City of Sugar Land website; if you think you might be the developer they’re seeking, go here. This is all contingent on the Lege actually closing that prison, which is currently in the budget plan and which Grits thinks might really happen. At this point, I don’t see anything standing in their way. The Trib has more.

San Antonio moves past Dallas

They’re #2! Not that it really matters.

[San Antonio’s] 1.3 million residents put it at the No. 2 spot for Texas’ largest cities and had the office of Mayor Julián Castro declaring San Antonio’s “rising prominence as one of America’s fastest-growing big cities.”

San Antonio followed Houston, the state’s largest city with 2 million residents, and came in before Dallas, with 1.1 million.

At best, the ranking may be useful at a pep rally.

At worst, it can mislead.

“People see that, and they think we should have a football team,” said County Judge Nelson Wolff. “It’s nice bragging rights, but as far as a meaningful economic engine, compared to Dallas, we’re insignificant.”

For those looking at population figures more holistically, the Metropolitan Statistical Area figures are most important.

In that lineup, San Antonio comes in distant third after Dallas and Houston.

The latest figures from the Census Bureau’s 2005-2009 American Community Survey, which are estimates, put the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which encompasses 12 counties, at 6.14 million people; and the Houston area, which encompasses 10 counties, at 5.59 million.
San Antonio’s MSA, which takes in an eight-county area, comes in at No. 3 with a total population of 1.97 million.

I’m not sure why they’re using such old data when the 2010 numbers are right there. By my count, the San Antonio MSA adds up as follows:

County Population ========================= Atascosa 44,911 Bandera 20,485 Bexar 1,714,773 Comal 108,472 Guadalupe 131,533 Kendall 33,410 Medina 46,006 Wilson 42,918 Total 2,142,508 Non-Bexar 427,735

To put that in some perspective, the non-Bexar total is less than Montgomery (455,746) and Fort Bend (585,375) by themselves; Collin (782,314) and Denton (662,614) are even bigger. Heck, Parker County (116,927) is larger than everything outside of Bexar except Guadalupe. Until Austin and its environs is considered part of San Antonio’s MSA, it’s not catching up to Houston or D/FW any time soon.

But it’s football! Football’s different!

Times are tough in Texas, especially for public schools and universities. Everyone is being asked to make do with less. Well, almost everyone.

Several professors at a [Texas Tech] faculty senate meeting Wednesday questioned the university’s January announcement it will increase [head football coach Tommy] Tuberville’s annual pay by $500,000 through 2015, one of the university’s few raises as it braces for lawmakers to cut tens of millionsof dollars from the university’s revenue.

The five-year $11 million contract guarantees Tuberville at least $2 million per year, up from $1.5 million in the original contract he signed with Tech in 2010.


Richard Meek, president of Tech’s faculty senate, sees both sides of the debate. While he understands how competitive the NCAA coaching market can be, he also relates to his fellow faculty members who have been asked to take a pay freeze in 2011.

Tech nixed $3 million in faculty raises to absorb an 8-percent reduction in state funding already in effect, and the freeze doesn’t show any sign of thaw in early budget drafts out of Austin.

“If that was me, I would have turned it down,” said Julian Spallholz, a faculty senator and human sciences professor. “I would have been embarrassed (to accept the raise).”

Others later said the raise shows a priority on athletics over academics.

Meek, like [Tech president Guy] Bailey, said some frustration may stem from confusion about how Tech pays Tuberville’s salary. Many fail to understand that a funding wall separates academics and athletic budgets, Bailey said, so the raise does not directly siphon from academic coffers. Each year, however, academics does subsidize $2.5 million of the athletic department’s budget. Bailey said Tech has reduced that to $2.25 million this year to reflect state cuts and he hopes to slowly wean athletics off that subsidy entirely over the next few years.

But, he added, his office first needs time to untangle federal and NCAA red tape tied to the subsidy.

If nothing else, the timing of this sure sucks. You can be sure that this sort of drama is going to play out elsewhere as well. I’ve already seen a bunch of griping in comments on stories and posts about the looming public education cuts about athletic facilities and coaches’ salaries and whatnot. However you view this situation, the fact remains that as with the rest of the budget, some people are being told they must sacrifice a lot, while others are being asked to do very little, if anything. You better believe that’s going to lead to resentment.

Saturday video break: When the cover is better known than the original

You know the song “Tainted Love”, right? A classic from the 80s. And a cover of a 60s Motown song.

Quite different, no? The folks at Popdose wrote about some well-known tunes that they knew better as covers. I’d say one of the best known examples of this is the Manfred Mann cover of “Blinded By The Light”:

You’re welcome for the lyrics. What’s your example of a cover song you heard before the original?

Metro settles with Higgins

And the last bit of “old Metro” business gets put to rest.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board [Thursday] agreed to settle a lawsuit by the agency’s former chief counsel in which she accused Metro of firing her for trying to prevent the allegedly unlawful destruction of documents.

Metro has agreed to pay Pauline Higgins up to $100,000 to cover her legal fees. The agency will pay no damages.

See here for the background and Hair Balls for more. Statements from Ms. Higgins and Metro are beneath the fold. Far as I know this is the last bit if Wolff/Wilson business to deal with, so it should be all “new Metro” from here on out. I know I’m glad to get to this point, and I’m sure everyone at Metro is, too.


Murdock on the cuts to public education

Not too surprisingly, former state demographer Steve Murdock thinks that the looming cuts to public education are a long-term disaster for the state. He singled out pre-K and TEXAS grants as the top two items of concern.

“I am very concerned,” said Murdock, a sociology professor at Rice University and the former state demographer who also served as U.S. Census Bureau director in the George W. Bush administration. “It’s not like we have a lot of slack in the system where we can slip a little bit and still be OK.”

Minority children now make up at least 66 percent of the state’s 4.8 million public school enrollment, most from low-income families. In the last 10 years, the number of children from low-income families has increased by 893,055, surpassing overall enrollment growth during the same period.

Education is the single best predictor of income, Murdock says, and the combination of explosive Hispanic population growth and low academic achievement produces the sour forecast.

“We are lagging now and to fail to educate this population is a formula for long-term disaster for Texas,” Murdock said. “The thing that is most important for us to recognize is that what we do today with these young people will determine the future for all of us.”

Murdock has been sounding this alarm for a long time now, so while hearing him say all this is always welcome and necessary, it’s not a surprise. What is a bit of a surprise is this:

House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said he cannot defend the proposed cuts in Pre-K and TEXAS grant funding.

“We have some serious, serious decisions to make,” Eissler said. “If you predict the future based on today, it’s not bright.”

Eissler’s early words on education cuts, made before the official announcement of how deep the hole is, were less than reassuring. This is the first time I’ve noticed him push back in some way on the Pitts/Ogden budgets, and it’s encouraging to see. He’s not made a commitment to any particular course of action, so it’s still possible he could go along with what is now being proposed, but at least he’s saying the right things.

Another story analyzing gambling’s odds in the Lege

I have three things to say about this story.

[W]ith a budget crisis looming — and funding to public education, health care and other state services on the chopping block — gambling opponents aren’t taking any chances.

Both sides have said legalizing gambling could generate at least $1 billion in state revenue, which lawmakers could dole out as they see fit. Even with a more conservative Legislature this year, some believe a billion-dollar temptation could sway more lawmakers.

“It’s a situation where a lawmaker could hold his nose and say, ‘public education is too important for me to not take advantage of this financial opportunity,'” said Chuck McDonald, a legislative consultant in Austin who has worked on pro- and anti-gambling efforts in the past.

And it’s still the case that getting a constitutional amendment for anything remotely controversial passed is an exercise in counting votes, and I have yet to see an article that really explores what that means in this Lege. The fact remains that a number of legislators who supported expanded gambling – almost all Democrats – lost in 2010. Those votes have to be replaced, and a few legislators who had previously voted No would have to change their minds, since this same effort has fallen apart in previous sessions. Where are those votes coming from? How many House freshmen are open to voting for more gambling? Are there any opponents who may now be reconsidering? I agree that if a referendum makes it onto the ballot that it is a favorite to pass, as public opinion is in favor of the idea now. It’s how a joint resolution gets passed, that’s what we need to know.

Suzii Paynter, director of the Christian Life Commission for Texas and staunch gambling opponent, is bracing for a fight.

“It’s always tempting and there’s always a big push at the capital . . . especially at a time when revenue is short,” Paynter said.

She has polished up her talking points and put together a fact sheet, ready to tell lawmakers why gambling would not be the best way to collect revenue: Unlike the lottery — where the state makes 33 cents for every $1 spent — Texas stands to make only 2 cents on every $1 bet in a slot machine, Paynter said, noting that sales tax is 8 cents to the dollar.

Instead, she argues, taxes on beer and wine could be raised by $1, bringing in $786 million immediately.

“And you don’t need to build anything or plant any palm trees,” Paynter said.

And again, this isn’t an either-or choice. You can raise the alcohol tax and support gambling, and bring in more money now and hopefully in the future as well. That’s assuming the gambling industry is being honest about its potential, which brings me to this:

In Pennsylvania, for example, supporters of legalizing slot machines in 2004, including then-Gov. Ed Rendell, said it would generate $1 billion a year once all 14 casinos authorized by the law were up and running. Ten are open today, while plans to build four others have been stalled by lawsuits, collapsed financing and local opposition. In the current 2010-11 fiscal year, those casinos are on track to provide roughly $800 million in money for tax cuts and additional funds to support civic development projects, the equine industry and local governments.

That was a remarkably accurate projection, especially given the current economic climate. It doesn’t address the social costs of more gambling, of course, but to predict $1 billion in revenue from 14 casinos and get $800 million from 10 is impressive. I’ll consider us fortunate if Texas has a similar experience, if it ever comes to pass. The Trib has more.

Brewery bills get referred to committee

It’s a first step.

State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, has introduced House Bill 602, which would allow breweries to distribute up to 48 12-ounce beers at the conclusion of tours of the respective facilities. Brewers would cover the cost of the beer by charging varying tour admission fees. The net effect would be that tourists could take some of the product home with them, just as visitors to Texas wineries can do under existing law.

HB 602 is very similar to a bill Farrar carried during the 2009 session that made it out of committee but was buried in Calendars. Traditionally, the Texas beer wholesalers have opposed anything seen as challenging the three-tier system that gives distributors exclusive rights to sell beer to retail outlets.

This is the third time a version of the bill has been introduced. But since the defeat of the 2009 measure, Texas has seen a significant spike in the number of small breweries that have either opened, have licenses to open or are in more preliminary stages.


Also sent to the Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee is House Bill 660, sponsored by state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio. It would allow brewpubs – that is, restaurants that make and sell beer on premises only – to increase the amount of beer they produce and to sell some of that beer off-site through distributors.

It’s a journey of a thousand miles, and there’s a million ways to go off the trail and into the weeds, but you have to start somewhere. As always, if you support these bills, now would be a good time to let your Rep and your Senator know that. The AusChron has more.

Way to go, Caltech!


The Caltech men’s basketball team ended a 26-year conference losing streak Tuesday night after posting a 46-45 victory over Occidental in the team’s regular-season finale on senior night.

It was the first victory for the Division III Beavers since beating the University of La Verne 48-47 on Jan. 23, 1985, a span of 310 games in Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play.

“Tonight’s win is a testament to the hard work each member of this team, the alumni and the supporters have put into this program,” third-year coach Oliver Eslinger said in a statement released by the school. “I hope that everyone who has participated in Caltech men’s basketball is able to celebrate a little tonight.”


Caltech finished the season 5-20, its best record in 15 years. The Beavers went 0-25 last season and hadn’t won more than one game in any of their previous eight seasons — but back in 2007, Caltech ended an NCAA-record 207-game losing streak with a victory over Bard College of New York.

As a fan of Rice athletics, I know a little something about perseverance in the face of adversity. My sincere congratulations to Caltech and its fans for the win.

Friday random ten: The top 500, part 14

Getting close to the end of the songs in my collection from the Rolling Stone Top 500 list.

1. Roxanne – The Police (#388)
2. Band of Gold – Freda Payne (#391)
3. Summer In The City – Black Casino and The Ghost (#393, orig. The Lovin’ Spoonful)
4. Can’t Help Falling In Love – Elvis Presley (#394)
5. Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand) – Aerosmith (#395, orig. The Shangri-Las)
6. (Don’t Fear) The Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult (#397)
7. We’ve Only Just Begun – Modern Barbershop Quartet (#405, orig. The Carpenters)
8. Sweet Emotion – Aerosmith (#408)
9. Monkey Gone To Heaven – Pixies (#410)
10. Piano Man – Billy Joel (#421)

Kind of an uninspiring group this week, with a little too much Lite Rock for my taste. “Summer In The City”, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, and “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)”, which deserves more airplay than some other Aerosmith songs I could name (not “Sweet Emotion”, which rocks), do what they can to balance it out. Since I don’t really have much to say about these songs besides that, here’s a video of the Weird Al Yankovic parody of “Piano Man”, called “Ode to a Superhero”:

Entire song list report: Started with “Three Jolly Coachmen”, sung by the Flying Fish Sailors, Ceili’s Muse, and assorted others at “Son of Blarneyfest”. Finished with “Tora, Tora, Tora”, by Pretty And Nice, song #5532, for 82 more tunes this week. Enjoy the weekend!

Consolidating school districts

The Chron’s Texas Politics blog has been running a feature called “Chopping Block”, in which it solicits suggestions from the audience about possible ways the stats could save a few bucks, then explores what the effect would be. As you might imagine, the suggestions run a gamut of practicality and desirability. This is one that’s likely to be taken seriously.

Jim Wiechkoske suggested consolidating the state’s school districts, which are now mostly organized by cities, into county-based districts.

Rep. Fred Brown, R-Bryan, has filed a bill that would do exactly that. HB 106 would make the state’s school district boundaries match county lines, essentially having one school district per county. That’d make 254 school districts in Texas – we currently have 1,030.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said consolidating school districts would be an incredible undertaking.

“Many of our school districts overlap counties, so there’d be some issue with how you’d handle that,” Ratcliffe said. “But if you assume that the district would go into whatever county where the home administration office is in, we’re estimating there’d be about $1 billion in savings.”


“Politically, it has long been considered one of the third rails of Texas politics,” [Richard] Kouri [of the Texas State Teachers Association] said, nothing rural school districts would be targeted first. He said in some measure it’s about local control but added, “Politically, it’s about local identity. It’s kind of about what keeps small towns and small communities going.”

Here’s a list of school districts by county. It’s not hard to look at this and think there ought to be some savings in there. Why it is (for example) that Archer County (2010 population 9,054) needs three ISDs, or why Bosque County (pop. 18,212) needs eight of them, I couldn’t say. Judging by their names, I’d guess each of these ISDs corresponds to a town within these counties, which speaks to the “local identity” Kouri mentions. I’ll feel sad if these small towns lose a piece of their identities, but again this would be entirely consistent with what they have been voting for, so I won’t lose too much sleep over it.

Really, the place where I’d expect to see truly fierce resistance will be from the high-end school districts. I can’t imagine Bexar’s Alamo Heights ISD, Dallas’ Highland Park ISD, or Galveston’s Friendswood ISD (just to name three) being terribly happy at the thought of getting lumped with their countymates. And while there may be some efficiencies to be gained by combining smaller districts, I have a hard time believing that consolidating all 20 Harris County ISDs into one ginormous mass would represent a step forward. So while I expect HB106 to get some attention, I’m not sure that it will get very far, and I’m even less sure that it should.

How about a temporary sales tax hike?

I am deeply conflicted about this.

State Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, has filed a bill to temporarily increase the state sales tax by 2 cents on the dollar for two years.

He estimates it would raise $6 billion, which would be dedicated to public education under House Bill 1597. The measure is meant to address a bare-bones budget proposal that would give school districts nearly $10 billion less over the next two years than they’d get under current formulas.


His proposal would increase the state sales tax to 8 1/4 cents per dollar. The increase would expire Sept. 1, 2013. Menéndez said he could suggest putting the idea to a vote of the people in an effort to make it more palatable to the GOP-majority Legislature.

Here’s HB1597. I absolutely agree that we need more revenue, that funding public schools is a top priority, and that nearly anything is better than firing 100,000 teachers. Having said all that, I have two problems with this. One is the highly regressive nature of the sales tax. The people who can least afford this will bear the biggest brunt of the tax. And two, while I appreciate the desire to just make it through this session without getting too badly hurt and hope for better next time, I feel like this will ensure we take no action to fix the structural deficit, and I don’t think that’s wise. I’d consider this as an if-all-else-fails measure, but I want to aim a little higher first.

From the “Stuff I’d like to see happen but won’t” files

You may recall that one of the LBB recommendations for helping to close the budget gap was to impose a $100 surcharge on the purchase of fuel-inefficient vehicles. I said at the time that I loved the idea but thought it had zero chance of being adopted. This Star-Telegram story about the surcharge does nothing to change that impression.

State officials are considering a $100 surcharge on the purchase of some new vehicles that don’t meet federal fuel efficiency standards. It’s one legislative proposal designed to raise more revenue and help reduce the looming, multibillion-dollar deficit.

“Despite the increased costs associated with inefficient vehicles, they are exempt from the federal gas-guzzler tax and do not pay any additional sales tax,” a recent Legislative Budget Board report said. “A surcharge attached to the sale of new vehicles with high emissions would compensate for the higher-than-average transportation-related costs these vehicles create.”

Critics say now is not the right time to levy more fees, surcharges or taxes on Texans.

“Some of these vehicles I believe that would get tagged with the surcharge are needed by small businesses for their livelihood — farmers, truckers,” said Talmadge Heflin, director of the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Fiscal Policy. “We should be free to buy the kind of vehicle we need without fear of having to pay an extra surcharge just because of what we choose to buy.”

No bills have been filed to add the surcharge.

It would be nice if someone could explain the concept of an externality to Talmadge Heflin. Be that as it may, the only person quoted in the story favoring the surcharge was Rep. Lon Burnam, and sadly he is unlikely to wield much influence this session. I’m dubious about Rep. Elliott Naishtat’s bill to make online retailers pay sales taxes, but at least there is a bill filed for that. When and if there’s a bill filed for this, we can see if it makes sense to upgrade its chances from zilch to something slightly greater than that.

More charter school stuff

Now that you’ve listened to my interview with Chris Barbic, here are a couple more charter school-related articles of interest. First, from the Trib, a story about charter schools getting help for facilities from the Permanent School Fund.

Fledgling charter schools, like any other start-up business, have difficulty establishing credit. Because the schools must renew their charter with the state every five years, banks can view them as a risky investment, said Cinnamon Henley, executive director of the Austin Discovery School, a charter that opened in 2005.

Without access to financing for buying or building new facilities, charters are subject to the whims of the rental market, which can make budgetary planning difficult.

Some state lawmakers are pushing to change that with legislation allowing some charter schools to be eligible to access the Permanent School Fund.

Proceeds from several sources — including revenue from taxes and offshore oil-drilling leases — go into the $23 billion fund, which is managed by the State Board of Education. Interest from the fund feeds the Available School Fund, which helps pay for public school textbooks.

The proposal to expand access to the fund has prominent backers, including state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, who introduced the legislation. Her House counterpart, Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands and chairman of the Public Education Committee, filed a companion bill last week.

Not everyone is on board: Traditional school districts do not like the idea. The Texas Association of School Boards opposes opening the bond guarantee program to charters, said Dax Gonzalez, a spokesman for the association, adding that charter schools are generally deemed to be poor credit risks.

“We’ve had around 280 charters awarded over the last few years,” Gonzalez said. “Out of those, 71 are no longer operating anymore. That’s about a quarter of charters that have been abandoned or closed down. That doesn’t show that they are going to be around for the state to recoup their investment.”

I’ve discussed this before, and my feelings haven’t changed. I don’t think the PSF is the right vehicle for this, because I don’t think it’s a sufficiently sound investment on the state’s part. There should be a way for charter schools with a good business plan and/or a track record of success to get state resources for facilities, but it should be created and funded by the Legislature. If that gives some charter school supporters in the Lege heartburn because of the budget crunch, that’s just too bad. If you want this to happen, you can find or create a revenue stream for it.

We also have this op-ed from the Sunday Chron about why Houston is such a hotbed for quality charter schools. The three people referenced are Soner Tarim, founder of the Harmony schools, Mike Feinberg of KIPP, and Barbic.

Houston’s charter school sector, which accounts for a rapidly growing 16 percent of public school enrollment, is among the biggest in the nation, and almost certainly the best. So why does Houston host three great charter chains, along with what may be the best urban school system in the nation? I recently asked Tarim, Feinberg and Barbic, and got answers that would not surprise any student of entrepreneurship. Just like Silicon Valley, Houston’s education miracle shows the importance of entrepreneurs, capital, transparency and political leadership favorable to competition.

To start with, entrepreneurs see a need, and as Soner Tarim points out, with a rapidly growing and increasingly low-income student population, “there was such a need.” But there was also great talent. Houston has attracted entrepreneurial educators from across the globe, many, like Tarim, drawn by the University of Houston, Rice and nearby Texas A&M. Other educational entrepreneurs were not new to the country, but were new to Houston. Feinberg, Levin and Barbic were among an army of young, idealistic TFA corps members from out of state drawn to Houston to save urban schooling. Houston has the nation’s largest TFA chapter. Unlike many cities, Houston welcomed TFA rather than seeing corps members as taking jobs from locals.

So what makes Houston different? First, the Houston Federation of Teachers never had the power to keep out TFA or hamstring KIPP and other charters. But that still left a bureaucracy, which, as Jay Mathews writes, resented KIPP’s notoriety and success. Before KIPP became a charter, the Houston Independent School District central office investigated KIPP, and at one point reassigned its classrooms. Political leadership saved the day. HISD Superintendent Rod Paige publicly praised KIPP and intervened when bureaucrats attacked. Paige also had HISD serve as an incubator for YES Prep. As Barbic recalls, “A lot of superintendents would have seen that innovation and tried to kill it, but Paige did the exact opposite.” Paige’s successors have followed his lead, fashioning a public school system that can compete with the charters.

In many cities opponents manipulate zoning and building rules to keep charter schools from finding sites, but Houston has few regulations. Not coincidentally, it also has low construction costs and cheap land. As Mike Feinberg points out, “Fifteen acres in Houston is about the same cost as one acre in Los Angeles.” That meant that once school leaders like Feinberg, Barbic and Tarim refined their operations at one or two campuses, they could expand cheaply and rapidly.

This expands somewhat on what Barbic mentioned in the interview about how charters coexist with HISD and in an ideal world each would push the other to be better. I don’t think you can fully discuss this subject without noting that our entrepreneur-friendly environment here is also attractive to a range of hustlers and con men and that the charter school business has seen its share of each as well. That would make a good subject for a longer analytical piece, not a short op-ed. Greg has more.

Dan Barrett for Fort Worth

I’m delighted to see this.

Democrat Dan Barrett, a lawyer and former state representative, is planning to file as a candidate for Mayor of Fort Worth.

“I think its time for a new direction,” Barrett said. “The other candidates in the race to me represent business as usual. I think we need new vision and I think I’m the person for the job.”

Barrett, a lawyer with Taylor, Olson, Adkins, Sralla, & Elam, served in the Texas House for about a year, from December 2007 to January 2009, representing District 97. The district covers southwest Fort Worth, Benbrook and Edgecliff Village.

Barrett won a seat in the House in a special election to finish out a term for Republican Anna Mowery, who resigned. Barrett was the only Democrat in a seven-way race. He lost his bid for a full-term in 2008 to Republican Mark Shelton.

I don’t know anything about the other candidates, but I do know that Barrett, whom I had the chance to interview in 2008, is a heck of a nice guy who would have been an outstanding State Rep. I am confident he would also be an excellent Mayor. I wish him the best of luck in this endeavor.

City to ask Census for a do-over

Very interesting.

The city of Houston will ask the U.S. Census Bureau to change its official count, raising questions about whether some apartment complexes or even entire neighborhoods were missed.

Houston’s population is 2,099,451, according to Census data released last week. That’s more than 100,000 fewer people than earlier estimates, and slightly below the 2.1 million that triggers an expansion of City Council to 16 members.

The expansion is still on, as city planners and independent researchers try to determine what went wrong.

“I think we’re all very disappointed in the Census Bureau’s ability to actually count the immigrant populations, and (other) hard-to-count populations,” said Jerry Wood, a consultant hired to review census results for the city. “The bureau had a great story about how they were going to do a better job this time, but I think the evidence is pretty clear that it didn’t work.”

Census maps show a huge section of east Houston — most of the area inside Loop 610, east of Interstate 45 – lost population, as did sections of southwest and northeast Houston.

Those areas are predominantly Latino and African-American, populations that historically are most likely to be missed by the census.

Some census tracts reported only small losses, but the widespread area that was affected caught people by surprise.

“That almost doesn’t seem right,” said Jeff Taebel, director of community and environmental planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “That strikes me as odd.”

In fact, the 2006 population estimate for Houston pegged it at 2,144,491 residents, so you can see why the official 2010 figure was so surprising. That represented 8.8% growth from the 2000 Census total of 1,953,631, and at that same rate over ten years would have led to a 2010 figure of 2,248,488. I’d guess that the growth rate would have slowed somewhat over the last four years, on the assumption that the 2006 total included a spike resulting from Hurricane Katrina evacuees, but even if you assume a rate half as large from 2006 to 2010 as you had from 2000 to 2006, you still top 2.2 million residents. Which is probably what the earlier estimates were based on.

Obviously, this matters for City Council redistricting, which as Greg notes should and will proceed. It also matters for legislative redistricting, both because Harris County is slightly under the total needed to maintain 25 seats, and because an awful lot of legislators need to add population to their districts, a task that will be easier to do if there’s more of it to spread around. Revising the count upwards will also temper somewhat the necessary westward shift of the legislative districts, since so much of the “missing” population is east of I-45. To put it in Bidenesque terms, this is a big effing deal. Keep an eye on it. A video report from KTRK can be seen here.

Where’s the money for new textbooks coming from?

Nobody knows just yet.

Neither legislative chamber’s base budget appropriates funds for any new textbooks. The primary concern in the short term is funding for science materials that reflect the 2009 curriculum changes made by the State Board of Education. Those changes are significant, according to Patsy McGee, a Beaumont school district science supervisor and past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas.

The new, more rigorous testing regimen — the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness system — emphasizes college readiness and will count toward students’ graduation requirements.

Twelve mandatory exams for high schoolers will be phased in over the next four years; the class of 2015 will be the first to complete the full STAAR program.

Last fall, the State Board of Education, recognizing the likelihood of a state revenue shortfall, asked the Legislature for supplemental science materials that would reflect the curriculum changes and be available online only. By going the digital route, the price tag for the materials dropped from $347 million to $60 million.

In total, state Education Commissioner Robert Scott is asking for about $520 million in updated instructional materials for the fall, for the online science materials and for new language arts materials based on standards also recently altered.


The Texas Education Agency intends to press on with the new testing, textbooks or not, and, barring action from the Legislature, is required by law to do just that.

Since the possibility of high-stakes testing without updated instructional materials became real, Scott has repeatedly warned that students might have legal grounds to sue districts or the state for failing to provide them with an opportunity to learn the subject matter on which testing is based.

At a board meeting in September, Scott said providing the materials is “an absolute moral and legal imperative.”

Seems to me there are only two possible choices here. The Lege can suck it up, find the money, and buy the textbooks and supplemental materials needed for the new STAAR tests (for which incoming high school freshmen this fall will be responsible), or admit that they’re incapable of doing so and push back the start date on STAAR until they can do it. The latter would be a stark admission that student performance will be affected by the budget cuts, so I take Sen. Florence Shapiro, who is quoted in the story saying getting this funded is a high priority for her, at her word. How they’re going to square that with all of the swaggering “no new revenue” talk, I have no idea. Reality is a harsh mistress.

HISD may raise tax rate

The state of Texas may not be considering any revenue enhancements to deal with its budget shortage, but that doesn’t mean that other taxing entities, such as school districts, won’t consider them.

Melinda Garrett, HISD’s chief financial officer, said the administration is considering various options for balancing the budget, including those that involve increasing the tax rate and reducing a special tax discount.

“I wish we could hold them steady,” Garrett said. “It depends on how large the final state cut will be and how bad you want to raise class sizes and let people go.”

Garrett estimates, based on discussions at the state level, that the district will be $170 million short next year. That’s a gap about half as large as one consulting group predicted initially based on the Legislature’s early, bare-bones budget proposals.

The HISD board will have to decide whether it wants to balance the district’s budget through cuts alone or with additional tax revenue.

Estimates from HISD documents show that the district could, if the board chose, cover most of the $170 million shortfall by raising the tax rate by the maximum 7 cents and by abolishing the special tax break known as the optional homestead exemption.

That would cost the owner of an average-priced home an extra $580 a year.

“That’s not likely to happen,” Garrett said.

I would imagine that HISD will see how much it can squeeze out of relatively non-painful cuts – i.e., cuts to central admin personnel and the like, but not to classroom instruction – and adjust taxes to make up the rest. They have a fair amount of flexibility on that, meaning that they’re going to take a hit for having been fiscally conservative up till now. The real problem here, as Trustee Harvin Moore points out, is that the state is funding a smaller and smaller share of public education, while localities are ponying up more. That will be what the next lawsuit it about, much like the previous one was.

More on Metro’s rail to Fort Bend plan

Here’s a story from the first of the public meetings Metro is holding on the proposed US90A rail line to Fort Bend.

Planners of a proposed project to extend light rail service from Houston to Missouri City are hopeful about securing $1 million federal funding for the undertaking.

Kimberly Slaughter, senior vice president of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, said U.S. Rep. Al Green has been pushing for the funds to be allocated from either this year’s or next year’s presidential budget.


The plan drew loud applause from those attending a Metro public meeting Tuesday night in Missouri City that was held to seek public comments as the authority prepares a draft environmental impact statement as part of its effort to seek federal funding for the project.

“Not a day goes by that I’m not asked by someone, ‘Mayor, when are we going to get on the train?'” Owen said.

Although the current proposal wouldn’t stretch the line beyond Missouri City, mayors Leonard Scarcella of Stafford and Joe Gurecky of Rosenberg also have been pushing for light rail to be expanded further west into Fort Bend County.

For sure, the projected ridership of the line would be far greater if it extended into Sugar Land, which is where most of the people are. Metro doesn’t operate in Fort Bend and would need to be brought in to collaborate in some fashion that’s not fully defined, but clearly there’s ample support for this to happen. We’ll see how it goes.

In related news, as noted earlier, Metro has received the $14 million it was owed by CAF from their settlement, and PDiddie wrote up his account of meeting with Metro folks at the Rail Operations Center. Which is right across the street from the Fannin South station, which is where the US90A line would meet up with the rest of the light rail system.

Texas blog roundup for the week of February 21

The Texas Progressive Alliance stands in solidarity with the people of Wisconsin as they bring you this week’s blog roundup.


More on H-GAC and the TIP

I received some feedback from Judge Ed Emmett’s office regarding this post about H-GAC’s Friday Transportation Policy Council (TPC) meeting, at which funding in the 2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) will be discussed and voted on. There’s some context missing from what Houston Tomorrow and Bike Houston wrote about this.

Let me start by pointing you to the TPC agenda item concerning the TIP. The original allocation of funds, with $79.8 million in “unprogrammed” monies remaining, was determined by the TPC to be short of their goal for project type Mobility, which includes “added capacity roadways; traffic operations/Intelligent Transportation Systems, transportation systems management, roadway rehabilitation/maintenance, grade separations/interchanges and freight rail projects”. To meet their goal of 78% allocation for Mobility, all unprogrammed funds plus an additional $12.8 million were designated for that type, with the extra money coming from the Alternative Modes type (“bicycle, pedestrian and transit improvements”); a third type, Air Quality, had no flexibility in its allocation, and the Planning/Studies type was already at zero. Alternative Modes is still getting $38.9 million, or 11.2% of the $345.6 million total, down from $51.6 million, which would have been 14.9%.

What Judge Emmett told me was as follows:

– The $79.8 million in “unprogrammed” funds came from a variety of sources, including the federal and state governments. This is money that was going to be spent but hadn’t been attached to anything yet.

– The TPC had decided to set ranges for the share of each project type’s allocation. Mobility’s range is 75-83%, Alternative Modes and Air Quality is 9-13% for each. The original TIP had Mobility below that range, and Alternative Modes, which Judge Emmett referred to as “hike and bike trails”, above it.

– No Alternative Modes project that already had funding lost funding as a result of this. There were some projects that had been approved but not yet funded that were pushed back to the 2015 TIP. These projects will retain their approval – in other words, they will not have to got through the approval process again and as the Judge put it “will be at the front of the line” for funding.

– In addition, as noted on page 3 of the agenda item, if there are any Mobility funds left over, unfunded but approved Alternative Modes projects would be eligible for them.

– The TIP covers a three year time frame, and most of the Alternative Modes projects that have been approved for funding have already had those funds allocated, and this is why there’s little of such funding allocated after this year.

I hope all this helps you understand it a little better, as I now do. I appreciate Judge Emmett taking the time to answer my questions. Please note that none of this is intended to discourage you from attending the TPC meeting on Friday if you were thinking about it. By all means, if you think the target ratios for Mobility and Alternative Modes are wrong, if you think that there are approved but unfunded Alternative Modes projects that shouldn’t have to wait till 2015, or if you have some other opinion about any of this, you should attend. That’s what it’s all about.

How does college tuition in Texas compare to other states?

In a previous post, John left the following comment:

Out of curiosity how much does a year at UT/A&M cost? How does that compare to Ohio St/Michigan/Cal/UVA/Washington etc. I would think this is a good time to do the revenue side and charge more for tuition if UT is still fairly inexpensive relative to other state schools.

I thought that was a fair question, so I decided to take a look into it. Let’s start by seeing how much one semester’s worth of tuition is at the University of Texas and at Texas A&M. First, for UT:

The tuition charged is in part dependent on the amount of state support received by the institution. In the early 1970s the state paid for nearly 85 percent of the cost of running the educational side of The University of Texas at Austin. Today, the state-appropriated fraction of the total budget for UT Austin is below 20 percent. The growing gap between what it costs to run the university and what the state is able to contribute has been covered in part by private donations, efficiency and other actions taken by the university. However, if the university is to maintain delivery of the quality of education for which it has become known, it determined it had to ask the students attending the university to pay for an increasing share of that gap. The University of Texas at Austin’s tuition places it well below tuition at comparable universities, and the university continues to be a nationally recognized great value in higher education.

If you look at that page, you will see that one semester tuition, for a resident student ranges from $4,493 for the Liberal Arts college to $5,163 for the Business program. Next, there’s A&M:

The cost of attending Texas A&M University can vary, depending on a student’s classification, residency status, personal needs and spending habits. Where the course is taught will also affect cost. Below are estimates to provide a reasonable idea of what it will cost to take a course or courses. The most current rates and information available at the time of publishing are used, and are subject to change.

You then have to look here for the current year. As with UT, there’s a range of tuition costs, for one semester tuition, 12-18 credit hours, from $4,193 for non-business programs to $4,803 for business.

So how do they stack up against peer institutions? To answer that question, I looked at two different groups of peers – a selection of public schools from the Association of American Universities, of which UT is a member, and the non-Texas schools that currently comprise the Big XII. Note that there is some overlap between the two – the University of Colorado, for example, is a member of both. A few words about my methodology before we begin:

– I only looked at tuition, for one semester. Some schools print tuition rates for the nine month (i.e., fall through spring) academic year – I simply divided that by two and rounded up to the next dollar for simplicity. Some present rates per credit hour – in those cases, I assumed 15 credit hours for a semester.

– I only used resident tuition rates. In all cases, non-resident tuition was between double and triple the non-resident rate. Since residents’ taxes support the public universities, that seems fair enough.

– All other costs – room and board, books, various fees – were left out of this calculation. For what it’s worth, my eyeball estimate of room and board was that it pretty consistently fell into the $7,500 to $10,000 range for the year. I didn’t bother looking at anything else. Note that for UC-Berkeley, tuition is called a fee, for reasons that escape me.

– Some schools have one flat rate, others have different rates for different programs, as UT and A&M do. In those cases, I reported the range as above. Generally speaking, programs like liberal arts, fine arts, journalism, and nursing fell on the lower end, and programs like business, engineering, architecture, and computer science fell on the higher end.

– Some schools charge more for upperclassmen than they do for freshmen and sophomores. In those cases, I reported the frosh/soph rates.

I think that about covers it. So without further ado, here are some AAU schools:

The University of Michigan

One semester tuition: Ranges from $5,824 to $8,087, depending on the program.

The University of Virginia

One semester tuition: $5,418 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

The Ohio State University

One semester tuition: $4,760 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

The University of North Carolina

One semester tuition: $3,182 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

The University of California at Berkeley

One semester tuition: $5,469 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs, which is for some reason labeled “Fees”.)

For what it’s worth, in Googling Cal’s tuition, I came across this NYT story from March of 2010 that calls Call “still a bargain” and notes that its annual tuition had gone up quite a bit, from about $7700 to over $10K, in recent years due to budget shortfalls.

The State University of New York

One semester tuition: $2,485 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

There are many SUNY campuses, some of which are AAU members and some of which are not. I simply Googled “SUNY tuition”, I did not specify a campus. Far as I can tell, it’s uniform across the system.

The University of Indiana

One semester tuition: $4,062 (Spring 2011)

Michigan State University

One semester tuition: $5,861 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

The University of Florida

One semester tuition: $2,510

The University of Washington

One semester tuition: $4,351

Putting this group into a chart for easy reading, using the lowest rates from the schools that had ranges:

School Tuition ======================== SUNY $2,485 Florida $2,510 North Carolina $3,182 Indiana $4,062 A&M $4,193 Washington $4,351 UT $4,493 Ohio State $4,760 Virginia $5,418 Cal-Berkeley $5,469 Michigan $5,824

Pretty much in the middle, as things stand now – in fact, A&M is just about smack-dab in between SUNY and Michigan. Bear in mind that this is before any tuition increases, which could be as much as $1,000 for a year, or $500 for a semester.

Now on to the Big XII schools:

The University of Oklahoma

One semester tuition: $3,927 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

Oklahoma State University

One semester tuition: $2,051 (Calculated as 15 hours of Undergraduate Tuition.)

The University of Nebraska

One semester tuition: $3,656 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

The University of Missouri

One semester tuition: $3,684 (Calculated as 15 hours of Undergraduate Tuition.)

The University of Kansas

One semester tuition: $3,937

Kansas State University

One semester tuition: $3,114

The University of Colorado

One semester tuition ranges from $3,509 to $5,610, depending on the program.

Iowa State University

One semester tuition: $3,326 (Note: Page lists full year tuition costs.)

Now let’s update that chart:

School Tuition ======================== Oklahoma State $2,051 SUNY $2,485 Florida $2,510 Kansas State $3,114 North Carolina $3,182 Iowa State $3,326 Colorado $3,509 Nebraska $3,656 Missouri $3,684 Oklahoma $3,927 Kansas $3,937 Indiana $4,062 A&M $4,193 Washington $4,351 UT $4,493 Ohio State $4,760 Virginia $5,418 Cal-Berkeley $5,469 Michigan $5,824

Compared to their athletic peers, UT and A&M are already the two most expensive schools, and they’re about to become more so.

So there you have it. I don’t know if this changes anyone’s mind, but at least now you have a basis for comparison.

The Census and Central Texas

While much of the focus post-Census will be on redistricting, the data it contains is fascinating and illuminating in its own right, absent any political context. This story about explosive growth in former small towns around Austin that now serve as its suburbs is a good read. A couple of points:

The total population in Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties grew to 1,716,289, an increase of 37 percent since 2000. But it was the suburbs that provided some of the more eye-popping gains.

While Austin grew by 20.4 percent during the past decade to 790,390, remaining the state’s fourth-largest city , the suburbs grew at even faster rates:

• Hutto grew by 1,076 percent. Only the city of Fate, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, grew faster in the past decade .

• South of Austin, Kyle added 22,702 residents, a 427 percent increase, as it became the retail hub of northern Hays County, and nearby Buda grew by more than 200 percent.

• Pflugerville shed its pastoral history to add 30,000 residents, a 187 percent increase, and Manor exploded by 318 percent.

• Even Uhland, a gem east of Kyle on the Hays-Caldwell county line, nearly tripled its 2000 population – from 386 to 1,014 – and was the state’s 36th fastest-growing city.

The population booms offer some measures of prosperity but present challenges as well. Cities like Buda, once known as much for its antique shops as the cafes on Main Street, already are dealing with the impact of both. During the past decade, Buda incorporated 1,790 acres and added nearly 5,000 residents. New subdivisions and retail developments abound.

I’ve made this point before, but the smaller your starting population, the easier it is to have a huge growth rate. Houston grew by only 7.5 percent since 2000, but that represents nearly 150,000 people, which is more than twice as much as the total increase for Hutto, Kyle, Pflugerville, Uhland, and Buda combined. Rate isn’t everything.

Metro area residents have long offered a wide range of theories for the growth of the suburbs, from the availability and attractiveness of bigger homes for the buck in cities like Pflugerville and Kyle to the forces of gentrification that are pricing some longtime Central Austin residents out of their homes.

Lloyd Potter, the state’s official demographer and the director of the Texas State Data Center, said dramatic growth in the Austin metro area was consistent with statewide patterns .

“If you look at the urban areas from Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston and Harris County and all the way from Williamson to Bexar County, you see this little cluster of counties that are growing quite rapidly,” Potter said.

The state demographer attributed slightly more than half the growth to net births and the rest to newcomers.

“Certainly, it implies there’s growing economic opportunity, and with that you see this dispersion of the populace outward from these urban centers,” he said.

But the dramatic rise in suburban counties can also be traced to something more pragmatic – the availability of those wide open spaces on which to build, Potter said.

So while Travis County had healthy growth, “most of Travis is built out,” he said. “With Hays and Williamson, there’s land that is developable.”

That’s true, but here’s the thing: It’s also true about a number of Texas’ big cities, especially Houston. I spend 90% or more of my life inside the Loop, but I still see plenty of open spaces, and spaces with vacant buildings. There’s less than there used to be – twenty years ago, Midtown was a big nothing – but there’s still a lot, especially east of 288/59. And in the coming months, we’ll see the political consequences of seeing all this population shift to the suburbs. Without going off on a long rant about urbanism, it’s vital for cities like Houston to think long and hard about investing in their infrastructure to ensure that they can keep up with population growth and shifts. This also means ensuring that our development regulations make sense, including parking requirements, and that they allow and encourage dense development where they should. It’s not just about growing the tax base, it’s about maintaining our voice in the Legislature and in Congress. If we’re not keeping up, we’re falling behind. For more on this and other Census-related stories, go see Greg.

The Trib interviews Garnet Coleman

The Trib has a too-brief conversation with State Rep. Garnet Coleman on health care and Medicaid. This is the crucial bit:

TT: What do you want out of this meeting with [the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services]?

Coleman: Two things. One, it’s important that we extend the enhanced FMAP (the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or the percent of Medicaid expenses the feds cover — which was enhanced with stimulus dollars to meet the national recession). That would help every state accomplish its goals in terms of dealing with what a recession causes, and the ability to balance their budgets, and it’s a simple fix. [The FMAP ratio is] still 70-30, federal to state, with the enhanced match. The goal is to continue the enhanced match past when it expires in June.

TT: How much would that help Texas alleviate its budget shortfall, estimated at between $15 billion and $27 billion?

Coleman: I worked really hard, and so did other members from across the country, to get that enhanced match, which gave Texas $850 million in real general revenue savings the first time around. If we had that for another year, we would get approximately $2.5 billion in savings. If we had it for another two years, we’d have approximately $5 billion in GR savings. And so this is extremely important. The other piece is, in terms of Medicaid in general, and the use of Upper Payment Limit, or UPL funds (federal funds paid to hospitals to bring Medicaid reimbursements up to Medicare levels), under the current rules, you can’t have a statewide managed care program and get UPL. And then if you did have that managed care system, you’d have to carve out hospitals. The question is whether the federal government will approve [allowing managed care programs to participate in UPL]. I went up in December to have a conversation about that, and I’m going to revisit it with [Deputy Medicaid/Medicare Administrator] Cindy Mann in her office about that.

That sure would make a dent in the budget shortfall, no? It would certainly be nice if our legislative Republicans and our Congressional Republicans got together to help make it happen. Assuming that finding constructive solutions to these problems interests them, of course. In related news, some of those legislative Republicans and our Lite Guv got together with one of the local slash-and-burn interest groups to push some unworkable alternatives for Medicaid. Rep. Coleman points out all of the problems with their approach here.