Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

March 6th, 2011:

Weekend link dump for March 6

Happy birthday to my buddy Matt!

People who have health insurance that isn’t tied to a particular job are more likely to be entrepreneurs.

The biggest problem with our political system is that too many people just don’t care about politics, and thus have no idea what’s going on with government.

The economic impact of Nevada’s other iconic industry.

Texas has some serious competition for the Worst State Legislature title this year.

Yeah, I spend a lot of time doing this. We bloggers lead very glamorous lives.

Why would we ever trust the people who created the deficit to fix the deficit?

George Will is still a fool.

I wonder where all those complaints we used to hear about the coarsening of our discourse now.

The war on women just keeps getting uglier.

A tale of two protests.

RIP, Duke Snider. See his Charlie Brown coefficient as well.

What Krugman says.

Why yes, Newt Gingrich doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

The irony is just delicious.

RIP, Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last surviving American World War I veteran.

How homophobic can you get?

The answer to this depends on who they send on that one-way journey.

What the hell is the deal with Hell?

RIP, Jane Russell.

A look at the future for Barnes & Nobles.

For reasons I can’t quite fathom, Texas likes to throw money at Hollywood, too.

Are you smarter than a second grader? When it comes to spelling the name of a certain Libyan dictator, the answer is “probably not”.

The Republican war on the environment continues unabated.

What American Idol teaches us about the voting process.

Cats quoting Charlie Sheen. He’s much more coherent this way.

Taxes and commute times.

How to increase the deficit by cutting spending.

Has anyone told Scott Walker about this union?

Always looking out for the little guy, that’s your modern day Republican Party.

What Chad says.

No courage is required to take advantage of circumstances to do what you’ve always wanted to do.

The Supreme Court has decisively knocked down one of the key arguments that anti-gay marriage advocates have been making.

When will politicians learn that using stock photos of “supporters” is never a good idea?

If there’s a Hall of Fame for headlines, this will be in it.

Welcome back, Barbarino. And that calls for this:

Up your nose with a rubber hose!

HISD’s budget and magnet meeting

A whole lot happened on Thursday evening with HISD.

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier proposed a major shake-up Thursday night to the district’s popular magnet program, calling for 25 schools to lose the special status and for funding increases or reductions in others.

“This stands to change the landscape of the entire Houston Independent School District,” Trustee Anna Eastman said at a meeting packed with more than 300 parents, students and teachers who showed up to lobby for their schools.

In a three-hour presentation, Grier’s administration also laid out several controversial cost-cutting moves, such as changing bus schedules, closing four small schools and ending the college-readiness program Project GRAD.

McDade, Grimes, Rhoads and Love elementary schools would have to close their doors this fall under the plan.

Grier’s proposal to end the magnet programs at 25 schools scales back the massive cuts recommended in January by consultants hired by the school board. The $269,000 audit by Magnet Schools of America proposed eliminating 55 of the 113 magnet programs.

Trustee Harvin Moore called Grier’s magnet plan “way better” than the audit but expressed concerns about proposed funding reductions to many of the Vanguard schools, which serve gifted children. Moore and a few other trustees asked that final decisions about the magnet schools not be rushed at a meeting set for next week.

“I don’t think one week is enough time for the board or the public, who we report to, to look at this,” Moore said, prompting applause from the audience.

I recommend you read Ericka Mellon’s liveblog of the proceedings for a more comprehensive blow-by-blow account of what happened. There’s a whole lot to digest, and it’s hard to say how much of it will get modified or dropped as a result of a changing budget picture – the operating assumption was that the state would cut public education by $5 billion for the biennium, not $10 billion, so the assumptions made in their budget are more likely to be too optimistic than too pessimistic – or pushback from parents and trustees. And as Hair Balls makes clear, to a large degree what the Board can do is constrained by what the Legislature may or may not do.

Throughout the recommendation, Moore reiterated to the audience that the budget cuts were being made because of a failure of the state to shore up money for HISD, not because of money mismanagement at the school district level.

“Whatever we come up with, we want to make sure we convey to the state what will happen if they don’t act,” he said. Melinda Garrett agreed. “We have to wait. If we don’t, everyone in Austin will think we just rolled over,” she said. The school board said they are lobbying in Austin for more funding.

Other ways to scrounge for HISD include increasing taxes and reducing the homestead exemption, which could create $23 million by cutting it five percent. But Moore warned that once homeowners and taxpayers agreed to take on the state’s financial responsibility, there would be no going back. Another way would be to temporarily cut the salaries of teachers, but such a measure is illegal in Texas.

“You can’t touch any teacher salaries, and that’s the bulk of the money in this district,” Garrett said.

All the more reason to get involved now, and make sure your voice is heard.

Beyond that, the main thing that concerns me is the proposed change to school start times, which would greatly affect our morning routine along with everybody else’s. Take a look at the liveblog and the documents it contains to see how you and your school may be affected, and give feedback to your trustee. The West U Examiner has a good writeup as well. What do you think about all this?

Eyewitness ID bills advance


Sen. Rodney Ellis’ eyewitness ID bill passed out of committee unanimously, with an an inconsequential cleanup amendment from Sen. Joan Huffman, just as Chairman Pete Gallego’s companion bill passed out of House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee last week. Since that legislation two years ago died because of time as opposed to any vocal opposition (and no one testified against it in either committee this year), that bill appears to have a good chance of passage.

Exonerees who testified had spent between 13 and 30 years falsely imprisoned, and as always their testimony was powerful and moving. It’s quite an honor and a humbling experience to get to work with those guys. I find it unimaginable what’s been taken from them, not to mention the courage it takes to have endured such a trauma and then keep coming down to the Legislature to tell them “Change the system so this doesn’t happen to somebody else.” (Watch the video here; testimony on SB 121 (Ellis) begins at the 58:05 mark.)

Except it is happening somewhere in Texas, arguably, every day Texas courts are open for business. DNA testing has given us a narrow window into the causes of innocent people being convicted – mainly false eyewitness identification, mendacious snitches, false confessions, faulty forensics, and ineffective assistance by defense counsel – but those same types of flawed evidence are every day in a large number of cases that don’t have DNA available to clear the falsely accused of defendant. Eyewitness identification errors were involved in the vast majority of DNA exonerations (75% nationally, 80% in Texas), so this bill arguably is the most important piece of preventive policy legislation on the subject the Lege will consider this year.

Here’s SB121, and here’s some background on Sen. Ellis’ package of innocence-related bills. Though there’s still some resistance to these efforts from law enforcement, hopefully this will be the year this stuff makes it through.

A little more room to express yourself

On your vanity license plate.

Texas drivers with more to say on their personalized license plates beyond the current six numbers and letters will have more options.

My Plates, which sells the state-authorized specialty vehicle plates, announced Monday that some plates will be expanded to seven characters starting March 7.

The vendor for the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles says the offer, for the new seven-character plate category called Freedom, will run through early March 14.

Go here to get yourself a seven-letter personalized plate while you can. As they say, “A portion of each purchase goes into the state’s general revenue fund”, and Lord knows it can use all the help it can get.

What to do with the SBOE?

The Lege has many ideas about what to do with the state’s most embarrassing branch of government, some of which are better than others.

State Rep. Roberto Alonzo (D-Dallas), wants the SBOE abolished under his House Bill 881 and all the board’s responsibilities directed to the Texas Education Agency and the commissioner of education. The 26-page piece of legislation transfers each of the board’s entrusted functions to the TEA and commissioner. Similarly, state Rep. José Menéndez (R-San Antonio) has proposed a constitutional amendment to dissolve the SBOE and create the Texas Education Commission in its stead. According to House Joint Resolution 91, the governor would appoint the new 15-member TEC from populous and rural areas. Members would also be required to have at least a decade of education or business experience.

I can’t say that I support either of these bills. The SBOE is awful, but I don’t see how converting them all to Governor’s appointees helps. The Governor has enough power, and I’d feel the same way with a different Governor as well.

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), a vocal critic of the SBOE’s social conservative bloc’s politicking and author of SBOE-related legislation, also opposes eradicating the board altogether. Rather, Howard supports milder legislation proposed by state Rep. Diane Patrick (R-Arlington) that would place the SBOE under Sunset Advisory review. Patrick’s HB 862 makes clear the board would not be at risk of being abolished.

Patrick specifically points out that the audit process is not intended for the sole purpose of reducing costs or abolishment, but instead aims to identify inefficient processes and streamline functions. She does not attribute her proposed legislation to the myriad of political and ideological accusations leveled at the board; instead she sees the bill as a means to eliminate redundancy across governmental entities

“In seeking reductions in state spending, it is prudent to examine functions and establish efficiencies within the State Board for Educator Certification and the State Board of Education at the same time the Texas Education Agency is under review in 2013,” Patrick said in an e-mail.

Here’s HB 862. This is an approach I could support, though I’d like to know more about what the sunset process would actually mean for the SBOE. In theory at least, I like this idea.

Former education committee member Howard has filed two SBOE bills; one that would strip the board of its authority to manage the multibillion Permanent School Fund and another that would require SBOE elections to be nonpartisan, just as local school board elections are.

“It’s important to look at the overall situation, not just have some kind of kneejerk response,” Howard said. “In regards to the PSF fund bill, it’s not about punishing the SBOE. It’s not about politics or ideology. It’s about making rational, reasonable decisions about how we should oversee public education in Texas in order to prepare our students for a 21st century economy.”

Legislation for the former proposal are HJR 85 and HB 1140, and HB 553 for the latter. As with judicial elections, I do not understand the allure of erasing the partisan identity of the candidates. It’s not like the interest groups that support the candidates would go away or be unaware of what colors an individual candidate is flying. All it will do is make the average voter less able to tell anything about them. I just don’t see how this makes a positive difference. I’m inclined to support the removal of PSF management from the SBOE – it seems like a misfit for a board that’s supposed to design curricula – but again, I’d like to know more about it first, and I’m leery of anything that would rely on gubernatorial appointments.

Conversely, some lawmakers hope to grant the SBOE even more power over education this legislative session. As previously reported by the Texas Independent, state Rep. Fred Brown (R-Bryan) proposes eliminating the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and transferring the board’s functions to TEA, which deals with K-12 public education. Under Brown’s HB 104, the SBOE would oversee the newly formed entity, instilling the 15-member board with a greater scope of authority. The lawmaker characterizes the bill as a way to streamline the state’s education process while also conserving the budget.

“They are smart people,” said Brown, who has no reservations about handing the controversial SBOE more influence than ever before. “They have to have a passion for what they do, or else they wouldn’t run for office in first place.”

Fred Brown is the same guy who’s pushing school district consolidation, in case that affects your opinion of it. I for one see no reason to expand the SBOE’s scope or powers in any way.

No clue what the odds of any of these bills are, but they’re out there so we should keep an eye on them. What do you think about these proposals?