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February 25th, 2011:

Way to go, Caltech!

Woot!

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.