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January 6th, 2011:

Cohen looking at City Council

Former State Rep. Ellen Cohen is exploring a run for City Council in the updated District C.

“It has a real appeal to me,” added Cohen.

Potential candidates do not have to register until August at the earliest, though Cohen may act long before.

“I’ll know where I’m heading on this soon,” she said.

Cohen, 70, was head of the Houston Area Women’s Center for 18 years prior to her four-year stint in the Legislature.

“I can’t possibly see me not being as involved as I feel I can be,” said Cohen. “What I enjoy most about serving is constituent service. At the state level that means, if I’m involved in passing a bill, you might bump into someone who benefited from that bill, and you really feel good about it. If you take that to the local level, then you’re involved in things that someone mentions to you directly, and I love that.

“There’s that expression that when one door closes, another opens. I’m really excited about what I was able to do in the Legislature, and it’s exciting to think about bringing that home.”

Cohen, who has lived in Houston since 1977, has taken a preliminary, world-view of common issues facing the city.

“We’ll have to see what the next 11 months bring, but obviously the budget issues are critical,” said Cohen. “As with anything, whether you live in the city of Houston or the three cities I’ve been involved with (Bellaire, West University Place and Southside Place) people still want a strong infrastructure.

“You want strong police and security, and people still go to parks and breathe the air, and want a good environment.”

I spoke with her about this a few weeks ago, when she was first beginning to think about it. Clearly, she’s getting a good response to the trial balloon.

The story doesn’t say what Council office she might seek, but the logical choice would be the next version of District C. If so, the first obstacle for her would be redistricting. As I said before, what is now District C could get radically altered since there is no incumbent seeking re-election in it. If she’s unlucky, Cohen may not get drawn into the district she’d want to represent – as Greg notes, it’s conceivable she could get put into the same district as Oliver Pennington – and it’s already too late to move into it after the fact. We just won’t know for a few more months. I’m a fan of Cohen’s so I hope this all works out for her. We’ll see how it goes.

UPDATE: That didn’t take long.

[Cohen] filed Thursday for the District C seat up for grabs in November.

I wish her the best of luck.

UPDATE: For clarity, my understanding is that she has filed a designation of treasurer, which is the required first step. You cannot begin fundraising until February 1, and the official filing deadline is in August, with the filing period beginning (I believe) 60 days before that. In other words, it’s possible Cohen may wind up not running for anything. Nothing is final until August.

The pushback on class size limits

The DMN continues its commendable work on the upcoming legislative fight over class size limits by writing about the skeptics of smaller class sizes.

The most comprehensive assessment dates back just as far as the Texas law, to a four-year study that tracked more than 7,000 Tennessee students from kindergarten through third grade. The study found classes with 13 to 17 students performed better than classes with 22 to 25 students, even when the larger classes had a teacher’s aide. A follow-up showed students from the smaller classes succeeding more later in life.

Educators began proclaiming ideal class sizes in the teens. But Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and chairman of the Executive Committee for the Texas Schools Project, doubts the numbers.

“If you ask people in school, the optimum is always five fewer than we have today,” he said, adding that research shows little effect on classes that range from 15 to 30 students. “Part of the reason is because with a change of one or two students in a class, what you see is teachers doing exactly what they did before.”

Hanushek said class-size reduction has turned into a trend, one districts should re-examine. “Class-size reduction is the most expensive kind of reform,” he said.

Subsequent studies in California and Florida produced mixed findings, none with a magic number. A 1999 Texas Education Agency report linked academic benefits with classes under 20 students. It said research remained too preliminary to show any advantages to altering classes by one or two students.

“Roughly speaking, the difference between ineffective and effective classes is the equivalent of 10 to 13 students,” said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington-Bothell.


Goldhaber, the University of Washington researcher, said that small classes do offer benefits but that teacher quality is a more significant determiner of success.

“One size fits all is a pretty blunt instrument,” he said.

A few points:

1. The Hoover Institution is a right-wing think tank, and should have been identified in the story as such. Quoting them is like quoting someone from Heritage or Cato or some other place with an ideological mission. That doesn’t mean their data is invalid, just that it comes with a pre-defined perspective, and you should be aware of it when you evaluate its data.

2. What’s most striking about this is that nobody actually disputes the notion that smaller classes are beneficial. The arguments they advance are that you have to make class sizes a lot smaller to get real benefits, and that this is an expensive way to improve outcomes. To the former point, I refer you back to Leonie Haimsen, who provides more information here. To the latter, I take this as an admission that when someone claims we can’t solve education issues by throwing more money at them they are at best being ignorant. Certainly, one must weigh the cost of the benefit, and one must decide at what point the marginal benefit isn’t worth the increased cost. The flipside of that is that one must also weigh the loss of benefit one gets when seeking to cut costs. I don’t see any Republicans talking about what the contingency plan is if getting rid of the 22:1 ratio leads to a drop in student performance.

3. “Teacher quality” is the new buzz phrase that we are hearing from those who want to justify squeezing school budgets. Nobody disputes that having better teachers would be beneficial. However, the only objective method we really have right now for measuring teacher quality is standardized test scores, which are also blunt instruments. I am not aware of any plans or proposals to hire and retain better teachers beyond the Teach for America grants that may be subject to the same budget pressures as everything else and whose critics make the same “insufficient bang for the buck” claim that class size skeptics do. Another virtue of class size limits is that it’s easy to implement and to know that’s you’ve done it; if there’s a way to know that you’re hiring better teachers, it’s not getting much discussion. Finally, how much would it cost to improve outcomes by improving teacher quality, and would this be attainable in the current budget environment? Again, I have not seen any discussion of that.

We get the college graduation rates we pay for

Just a couple of related items of interest. First, from the man who would be Governor if we lived in a just world.

In the last 30 years, Americans with only a high school diploma experienced a drop in average income from $36,600 to $30,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars, while incomes of those with a bachelor’s degree rose to $50,000. The unemployment rate for college graduates is less than half the rate of those with only a high school diploma and less than a third of those who never finished high school.

No state has more at stake in higher education than Texas, with 1 million unemployed and one-tenth of all young Americans in public schools. In the next decade, young Texans will account for almost 40 percent of our nation’s total growth in public school enrollment. Two years ago, business leaders on our state’s Select Commission on Higher Education and Global Competitiveness reported: “Texas is not globally competitive. The state faces a downward spiral in quality of life and economic competitiveness if it fails to educate more of its growing population. … Unlike states with higher average incomes or growing economies throughout the world, in Texas, young workers, under 34, now have a smaller percentage of degrees than older workers.”

Public investment in university research also helps attract the grants and philanthropy needed to strengthen and expand the number of Texas’ Tier 1 research universities, which serve as magnets for new businesses and economic growth.

The state government invests about 70 cents a day per resident in support of higher education. Other business-oriented states have found a way to do more. North Carolina and Georgia, with a combined population far less than Texas, together invest substantially more than Texas each year in higher education. North Carolina has long used universities to spur high-wage job growth and in the last five years has increased its full-time college enrollment at a much faster rate than Texas.

And from the Texas Trib:

Nationally, 52 percent of Hispanic students and 58 percent of black students are unable to earn a bachelor’s degree in six years, compared to 40 percent of white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“What is increasingly evident now that wasn’t evident 10 or 20 years ago is the extent to which this is a national phenomenon,” said Steve Murdock, a sociology professor at Rice University and previously the state demographer of Texas and head of the U.S. Census Bureau. “This is not a Texas issue. It’s not a California issue. It’s a national issue.”

For the U.S. to maintain — let alone grow — a college-educated workforce, Murdock said, those numbers will have to change.


In 2007, recognizing the demographic shift — and its accompanying challenges — [the University of] Texas set up a Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. With an annual budget of $30.4 million, it encourages minority high school students to apply to college and then supports them with a complex framework of programs that include tutoring, personal advising.

“The question is, can we get them the support to help them over the gaps?” said Gregory Vincent, vice president of diversity and community engagement.

The results, so far, have been promising. Generally, students in the division’s programs have grade point averages and retention rates as good as or better than the average in their respective classes. “The good news is that our students come highly motivated, so our challenges aren’t as great as you’d expect, despite assumptions some people might make about their backgrounds,” said Aileen Bumphus, executive director of the Gateway Program, an initiative under the Diversity and Community Engagement umbrella that works with about 300 first-generation students in each class.

Such programs have been crucial for students like Oscar Ayala, a UT senior from Houston who majors in biomedical engineering. Both of his parents are from Mexico, and neither attended college. “When it came time in high school to get ready for college, I didn’t know what that meant,” Ayala said.

But that success may prove difficult to maintain, depending in large part on decisions the Texas Legislature will make this year to confront a budget shortfall that could reach $20 billion or more. About $5 million of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement budget comes from state funds. Educators are particularly worried about cuts to the state’s largest financial aid program, which primarily serves minority students.

Robert S. Nelsen, president of the University of Texas-Pan American, an institution that is 89 percent Hispanic, said cuts to the aid program would be “devastating” to the area.

Just something to keep in mind when we start hearing about the inevitable cuts to higher education funding that the Republican Legislature is about to impose on us. The effect of these cuts will last a lot longer than the next fiscal period. But at least we’ll have a balanced budget, and Dan Patrick will keep his property taxes low.

A more suburban Metro?

Another possible feature of the Census data, of which I had not been previously aware, could be characterized as Metro redistricting.

The city of Houston could lose its majority control of the Metro board if the 2010 Census shows that population in the part of Metro’s service area outside the city limits has grown enough to trigger a provision in state law that calls for adding two seats to the Metro board.

Houston’s mayor has effectively controlled Metro since its 1978 creation through the authority to appoint five of its nine board members. Mayor Annise Parker demonstrated this power nine months ago when she replaced all five of the city’s appointees. The new board then installed as chief executive officer a former Houston city controller, George Greanias, who was the point man on transportation issues for Parker’s transition team.

No one is yet projecting that the demographic change will come to pass when the Census Bureau releases population figures for cities, counties and metropolitan areas in a few months. But recent county population trends suggest it’s possible.

The population of the county’s unincorporated areas has grown at nearly four times the rate of the cities over the past decade, according to a recent county study.

State law requires that 75 percent of county residents outside Houston must live within Metro’s service area before the transit board would expand to 11 members with six non-Houston seats. Numbers gathered from Metro and census estimates indicate that the percentage is already above 70.

Some local transportation experts say an expanded board is not likely to cause fundamental policy changes at Metro. But to Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, it could be a game-changer.

“If we got a new board over there that’s interested in things other than electric trains, we might be able to do a heck of a lot more mobility,” Radack said. “I believe Metro money should be spent on transportation.”

Radack suggested that a new board with greater non-city representation might not support plans to spend billions of dollars on five new light rail lines. Harris County spends its share of so-called general mobility payments from Metro on road projects, and the four commissioners decide how to spend that money.

Where to start with this? Metro has, of course, spent a ton of money on park and ride service to the suburbs. Maybe Radack doesn’t consider anything that isn’t a toll road to be “transportation”, I don’t know. Be that as it may, I’m always amused by the way that light rail critics like Radack and Bill King always manage to ignore the results of the 2003 referendum as they plot to get their hands on the funds for it. Just an inconvenience to be brushed aside, I guess.

Unfortunately for Radack and his grand plans, the Metro board has generally acted in unison, as noted in the story. And for the time being at least, the Board also includes people like former West U City Council Member Burt Ballanfant, who is both a strong light rail supporter and an inside-the-Loop guy. So even if the Census requires a change to the membership of the Board, it’s unlikely it will change direction.

Having said this, I wouldn’t mind seeing a change to Metro’s board if it were accompanied by a change to Metro’s service area, to see if places like Fort Bend County might reconsider joining in. Given the logistical issues involved in building a rail line to Fort Bend, it might make more sense to have them on the inside, if they want that. If something like that were to happen, then of course the Board structure would need to change as well. I’m just thinking out loud here, but between that and all of the other commuter rail talk that we’ve seen recently, it’s worth considering whether the structure we have in place is adequate. Yes, I know we have the Gulf Coast Rail District driving the metaphorical train on this, but you’re still going to need someone to build and operate any future commuter rail lines, and you’re going to need a way to properly fund that service. I don’t know what the optimal solution is here, I’m just suggesting we think about it.

Closing prisons needs to be on the table


Texas’ prison population is shrinking. The state has made great strides in recent years to offer community alternatives to long sentences. But with a budget crisis looming, state prison officials are saying they won’t consider closing a single prison. Laying off staff and cutting prison programs while keeping 112 costly prisons running is a mistake, and will lead Texas back to the cycle of crime and punishment that build those prisons.

Sign the petition and edit the letter below to urge Texas Department of Criminal Justice Director Brad Livingston to consider prison closings to save taxpayer dollars and protect public safety.

Closing prisons, and shifting resources from incarceration to things like mental health services, drug rehab, and other less-expensive, more-effective programs was a good idea even before the current budget crisis, and it’s an absolute imperative now. Unfortunately, as was the case in 2003, it’s those alternative programs that are more likely to get the ax, which will of course cost us a bunch more money in the long run. The idea that teachers could get laid off and other vital services get cut while prisons remain off limits is repugnant and extremely short-sighted. Go sign the petition and let Brad Livingston know it. Link via Grits.