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Bill Ratliff

Republican former Senators defend anti-majoritarian practices

I appreciate the spirit in which this was offered, but it’s completely out of touch with reality.

The purpose of the 31-member Texas Senate is similar to that of the U.S. Senate: to cool down some of the fevered legislation filed in the Senate or passed by a simple majority of the Texas House of Representatives.

This is accomplished by a Senate rule that requires a super-majority vote (60% of senators on the floor at this time) to bring up a bill for debate. This rule was enacted in 2015; for 70 years previously, a larger, two-thirds vote was required (21 votes of those present).

It’s no coincidence that the 2015 rule change mirrored the Senate’s partisan balance. It allowed Republicans, who held 20 seats, to bring up and pass a bill without any Democrat support. Now — with the possibility that Democrats may gain Senate seats in the general election — the idea has been raised to further lower the threshold during the 2021 legislative session to require only a simple majority vote.

As former Republican senators — with a total of 80 years of service in this wonderful, deliberative body — we oppose this possible change. Requiring only a simple majority would be bad for the Texas Senate, the Texas Legislature, and the State of Texas.


A stronger rule encourages, even forces, senators to work with colleagues across the political aisle. In our experience, working in a bipartisan manner led to better legislation and made the Texas Senate a more collegial body.

It also ensures legislators from rural and urban areas work together. In our heavily urban state, rural areas could be more easily outvoted under a rule change. In fact, some senators believe this issue is more about the urban/rural split than a partisan one.

Democrat and Republican Lt. Govs. Bill Hobby, Bob Bullock, Rick Perry, Bill Ratliff and David Dewhurst had successful terms under the two-thirds rule. It could be argued that this rule made them better leaders and improved the landmark legislation they passed (school finance, criminal justice reform, tort reform, tax cuts, worker comp reform, etc.).

Anyone notice which Lite Governor they left out of that recitation in the last paragraph? It’s not a coincidence, I assure you.

Let’s put aside the fetishization of super-majorities and the mythmaking that it’s the House producing all of the fever dream legislation these days while the Senate awaits with calm and wisdom to sort out the wheat from the chaff. (Tell me again, which chamber passed the “bathroom bill” in 2017?) The whole “require Senators to work across the aisle for the betterment of The People” thing sounds all nice and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”-like, but it ignores the utterly predictable reality of what will happen when and if Democrats achieve a majority in the upper chamber: Republican State Senators will immediately adopt of a model of intractable opposition to any bill that represents a Democratic priority, in the same way that Republican US Senators under Mitch McConnell used the filibuster to block literally everything President Obama wanted to do.

One reason for this is because Democratic State Senators have, to a large degree, taken similar action on many high-profile Republican priorities: redistricting, voter ID, more abortion restrictions, de-funding Planned Parenthood, “sanctuary cities”, “bathroom bills”, and so on. This is exactly why Dan Patrick, and to a lesser extent before him David Dewhurst, first weakened and then replaced the two-thirds rule, on the grounds that an elected legislative majority should be able to pass its bills with majority support. I hate these bills and I hate the effect they have had, but that’s why we have elections. I want a Democratic majority to be able to pass its bills with majority support when it is in that position as well.

But it’s the notion that requiring bipartisan consensus will be a net improvement to the process that is so laughable. Perhaps former Senators Deuell and Estes have forgotten, but the entire reason they are former Senators is because they were defeated in Republican primaries by opponents who successfully argued to the Republican voters in their districts that Deuell and Estes were too bipartisan, and too accommodating to the Democratic minority. They showed insufficient fealty to the Republican orthodoxy, and they needed to go. Would either of them argue with a straight face that Senators Bob Hall and Pat Fallon would “work with colleagues across the political aisle” in a hypothetical 16-15 or 17-14 Democratic Senate, in order to encourage better legislation and a more collegial atmosphere? I couldn’t even type that last sentence without snorting. The outcome we will get in a Senate with a modest Democratic majority and any kind of super-majoritarian rules is a Senate that passes no bills.

Again, I understand why this super-majority idea has some appeal. Maybe in a Democratic Senate where the likes of Krier and Ratliff and Sibley and Ogden and Deuell and Estes were the typical Republican Senators and none of them feared being tarred and feathered by their seething primary voters, we could indulge in this little fantasy. We don’t live in that world any more. I can’t even see it in my rearview mirror. The only thing this proposal would accomplish is the extended lifespan of every Republican priority from the past 20 years, possibly forever. I suspect they all know this, and that it appeals to them a lot more than the let’s-all-join-hands-and-work-together ideal ever would.

Patrick has his voucher hearing

It went about as you’d expect.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, delivered an impassioned plea in support of what threatens to become a beleaguered tax credit scholarship plan during a Tuesday morning hearing on his legislation.

“We are great enough in this state to do this thing if we just knock down some barriers of people who are against opportunity and competition because they always have been,” he said.

Currently, those barriers likely include the Texas House, where lawmakers recently made their opposition to the issue clear when they overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the state budget aimed at banning private school vouchers — which nine out of 10 members of the lower chamber’s education committee voted for — and possibly members of Patrick’s own party in the Senate.

“I may go down fighting on this issue, but I will never apologize for trying to reach out and help families who are desperate for their children to have chance they never had,” Patrick said Tuesday morning.

Nor will he ever apologize for doing nothing to help families who are desperate for their children to have access to health care. No, I’m not going to stop harping on this.

For much of the morning’s testimony, questions primarily came from Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who does not sit on the panel, but articulated many concerns of the legislation’s opponents, including whether private schools accepting students under the scholarships would be subject to the state’s accountability standards.

Patrick told the panel that the tax credit legislation had brought together “Catholics, Jews, Christians” and members of the business community to help low-income families secure the best educational opportunities for their children.

“I’ve taken a lot of criticism for this bill, but I’m okay with that,” he said. “And I’m okay with that even if we are not victorious because this a noble cause.”

Some of that criticism came from former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, who now works for the education advocacy and research group Raise Your Hand Texas, which does not support Patrick’s legislation. Ratliff noted that he carried the state’s first charter school legislation while in the Senate in 1995.

The Observer also covered the hearing and noted the exchanges with Sen. Davis and former Lt. Gov. Ratliff, but this was my favorite part:

Testifying this morning at his invitation: Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, Bishop Placido Rodriguez of Lubbock, Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, Rabbi Eliezer Langer of Austin and Cornerstone Christian Schools Superintendent Jerry Echelin.

Rodriguez reminded lawmakers that the Catholic Church runs the country’s biggest private school network, with more than two million students. All the invited speakers were enthusiastic about the possibility of a major new revenue source. The unspoken subtext is that the rise of charter schools—another side of school choice movement—has been especially rough on Catholic schools.

None said they were concerned about being accountable and transparent, if that’s what it took to get the scholarships, though they stopped short of volunteering to give STAAR tests or submit to open records laws. “In itself,” DiNardo said, “accountability is always good. I don’t know what all the ins and outs would be in terms of accountability.”

Zurek recalled the Catholic Church’s proud history of openness and transparency. ”We have never hidden any records,” he said, “in any diocese that I have been in.”

Yeah, I can’t think of a more open and transparent institution in the world than the Catholic Church, either. They’re always up front about what’s going on with them. On a tangential note, see here for more about that decline in private school enrollment and the connection with charters. Puts this debate in a new light yet again, doesn’t it?

Anyway. As the DMN notes, Patrick’s bill SB 23 and the other Senate and House bills that were discussed in this and the concurrent lower chamber hearing were left pending, which is usually how these things go. Given that Patrick chairs the Senate Education Committee, I’d say it’s a safe bet his bill comes up for a vote in committee unless it’s clear to him that he doesn’t have the votes. If it does pass out of committee, I think it’s unlikely to get to the Senate floor for a vote. But at least he had his hearing. The Statesman, Hair Balls, Burka, and the TSTA have more.

If class size doesn’t matter…

…then why do private schools boast about their small classes and low student-teacher ratios? That’s the question former Lite Guv and State Sen. Bill Ratliff asks in the Chron.

When confronted with public decision-making, many people find it instructive to turn to the free market and examine its treatment of an issue. To examine the free market empirical evidence regarding school-class sizes, one only has to look at class sizes in private schools.

An analysis of the 91 Dallas-Fort Worth area private schools providing an education to students in kindergarten through grade four shows that the average class size for these private schools is 16 students — many have average class sizes of only 10 to 15. It seems illogical to assume that privately owned schools would adopt such costly class-size measures without some convincing rationale as to their value.

The argument is being made that class size doesn’t matter – that an excellent teacher can be more effective with 25 students than a poor teacher can with 15 students, and therefore we should not worry about class size but concentrate on putting an excellent teacher in every classroom. No doubt an excellent teacher in every classroom is a worthy goal.

However, that begs the question. It is not realistic to believe that all of our teachers will be excellent. Nor is it realistic to believe we will never have any marginal teachers. We have a dedicated teacher corps in Texas, but if you believe in the bell curve widely used by businesses for staffing decisions, our teacher corps will, for the most part, be made up of average teachers.

Therefore, the question that should be asked is, can an average teacher be more effective with fewer students than with more? No doubt parents think so, and by all evidence decision-makers in private schools also think so.

I for one would like to hear how our Republican state leaders answer this.

McLeroy gets a challenger

Paul Burka breaks the news that Thomas Ratliff, son of former State Sen. and Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, will challenge Don McLeroy, the now-former chair of the State Board of Education, for his seat on the board next year. From the press release, which Burka quotes in full:

On the heels of a legislative session that saw 15 bills filed by Republican and Democrat legislators to curtail some or all of the responsibilities of the State Board of Education, Thomas Ratliff has filed the necessary paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission to run for the District 9 seat. The incumbent is Dr. Don McLeroy, whose nomination for chairman of the SBOE was recently rejected by the Texas Senate.

Mr. Ratliff said, “First, I want to thank Dr. McLeroy for his 10 years of service on the SBOE. I just simply have a different approach to working for the parents and schoolchildren of Texas. I am running because I want to work with educators and the other SBOE members to provide leadership for Texas’ neighborhood schools, help mend the fractured relationship with the Texas legislature and restore the public’s confidence in the State Board of Education.”

“The SBOE has become a distraction to our neighborhood schools and a liability to the Republican Party under the leadership of Dr. McLeroy. I strongly believe we need to take politics out of our kids’ education and the state board should refocus its efforts on the truly important issues facing parents, students and educators.”

I’ve noted before that McLeroy’s district is not fertile ground for a Democratic challenger, so I’m thrilled to see a sane Republican mount a primary campaign against McLeroy. That won’t be easy either, as McLeroy is a hero to the wingnut fringe, and they specialize in winning races like this one, which Burka notes in his post. Still, this probably represents the best hope to unseat McLeroy, and if the son is anything like the father, it would be a huge step forward for Texas. Keep an eye on this one. Greg has some general-election numbers, plus a nifty map, here.