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May 8th, 2014:

Jay Aiyer: Consider a local option for pre-k

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

Pre-K education has emerged as the most hotly debated issue in this year’s race for Governor. Both Senator Davis and Attorney General Abbott have laid out competing proposals to provide pre-k education in Texas, with dueling press conferences and accusations flying back and forth.

What Pre-K seeks to do is to eliminate what education researchers have recognized as the single biggest impediment to improving public education—the literacy gap. For years we have been aware that because of income and parental education disparity, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds begin school at a significant disadvantage. We know that a child that reads at grade level by the end of 3rd grade has over a 95% chance of graduating from high school. When you consider the close correlation between high school graduation and the rate of poverty—you can see that the development of an effective Pre-K program in Texas has the potential of significantly reducing poverty in a generation.

While there are merits to both Davis and Abbott’s respective plans, it’s what they are missing that is most telling.

Funding
You simply can’t have an effective Pre-K system without a funding mechanism in place. Our current K-12 system is itself woefully underfunded and the object of litigation. The idea of proposing an expansion of education without addressing the underlying financial problems that exist in K-12 renders any plan proposed nonsense. You have to get the funding right.

Infrastructure
Private and religious schools largely provide Pre-K in Texas. Several ISDs have a limited Pre-K program, but the vast majority does not. In order to expand Pre-K through the ISD system, it would require a significant capital expenditure on a scale not previously seen. Buildings have to be built and that itself could be billions in additional costs.

Implementation
Every study that has been done on Pre-K recognizes that its impact is only significant if the program is comprehensive and structured educationally. State government has repeatedly shown that when it comes to the development and implementation of specific educational programs, they have done more harm than good. Rather than a large state program—local governments are better suited to making Pre-K work.

So what should we do?

The most effective Pre-K systems nationally, have been locally driven and locally controlled. Tulsa, Oklahoma is the national leader in Pre-K and has had the most effective program. San Antonio’s local initiative has also been widely praised for its approach. While applauding Davis and Abbott for their focus on Pre-K, I would argue that if they really wanted a program to be successful—develop a funding system through a local authorization process, and let city/county governments lead the way. Austin has repeatedly proven it is unable to solve big problems. It’s time to try a different approach.

Jay K. Aiyer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs. He served on the Board of Trustees for the Houston Community College System from 2000-2008 and served as Chief of Staff to Mayor Lee P. Brown from 1998-2000.

NDO vote will be next week

The proposed non-discrimination ordinance was on Council’s agenda yesterday, but it did not come to a vote as it was tagged, which means it’ll be voted on next week. The Chron’s preview story gave some insight into what we should expect from the ordinance based on the experience of other cities that already have protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in their local codes.

RedEquality

Houston handles discrimination complaints from city employees and sends a hundred housing complaints to federal authorities each year, [city attorney David] Feldman said. The work added by protecting sexual orientation and gender identity and covering places of public accommodation may be modest.

Less than half of 1 percent of the housing complaints Fort Worth received last year were based on sexual orientation, and the city received no employment claims based on sexual orientation, according to an annual report

Fort Worth has received five complaints against places of public accommodation in the last two years; Austin typically sees three or fewer per year.

“The fact that it creates a scheme that is almost entirely voluntary compliance doesn’t reduce the value or the effect of it,” said Jonathan Babiak of Austin’s Equal Employment/Fair Housing Office. “Many, many people are going to comply just because it’s the law.”

Since passing its nondiscrimination ordinance last fall, San Antonio has learned of three incidents of alleged discrimination in areas other than housing, all against transgender or gay residents. The events, one involving a city contractor and two involving businesses that serve the public, have not yet resulted in formal complaints, said deputy city attorney Veronica Zertuche. One city employee also has filed a complaint based on sexual orientation, she said.

In El Paso, deputy city attorney Laura Gordon said she is aware of two incidents of alleged discrimination in places of public accommodation, both from gay couples, and neither of which resulted in a complaint. El Paso does not cover private employment.

Feldman said a Dallas official reported that city has received 12 complaints not related to housing in the decade that its ordinance has been in effect.

Feldman said he foresees Houston fielding more employment and public accommodation complaints than other cities, due, in part, to its size.

“We’ve never had it before, and now people will say, ‘Ah, there’s a remedy here,’ ” Feldman said. “But I also think it will dissipate in time.”

Houston’s added workload also would be limited by its exemption for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Fort Worth and Austin exempt businesses of 15 or fewer employees, matching federal and state laws. Texas Workforce Commission data show 29 percent of the state’s private workforce is employed by firms with fewer than 50 workers.

Houston GLBT Political Caucus president Maverick Welsh and others want the 50-worker exemption dropped to 15. “I’m very optimistic,” Welsh told the council Tuesday. “I believe you’ll do the right thing.”

See here and here for the background. An amendment proposed by CM Robert Gallegos would lower the threshold to 15 employees; we’ll see how that one goes. As there will be another public session of Council on Tuesday the 13th, with the vote scheduled for the 14th, there will be another opportunity to address Council and show your support for the ordinance and CM Gallegos’ amendment. Email [email protected] to get on the list of speakers for that.

The late Wednesday story has more on the amendments.

Councilman Oliver Pennington proposed the most substantial changes to the measure, seeking to exempt all private employers and to permit discrimination in the sale or rental of a single-family home if the seller or landlord owns eight or fewer homes; the current drafts exempts the owners of three or fewer houses.

Pennington also seeks to allow a first-offense conviction to be dismissed if the person is not convicted of discrimination again within a year, and wants to let someone accused of denying a transgender person access to the public restroom of his or her choice to have the complaint dismissed by submitting an affidavit explaining the decision to deny access.

“The thrust of my amendments today was to promote voluntary compliance, and I know reconciliation is provided for now, but for first offenses there’s still a possibility for criminal prosecution,” Pennington said. “Whatever we can do, in the long run, to promote interaction with the affected parties on a voluntary basis will be a worthwhile thing to do and I hope we can reach that.”

[…]

Other council members sought to strengthen the ordinance.

Councilman Robert Gallegos wants the measure to cover more private employees by dropping the proposed exemption for businesses that employ fewer than 50 workers to those with 25, and then to 15 over two years.

That change had been advocated by the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, which said the stated exemption left too many workers unprotected.

“The transition from 50 to 15, which is the more common standard across the United States, was thoughtful,” Parker said. “That may be doable … .”

CM Pennington’s amendment is a non-starter. CM Gallegos’ amendment is the one to watch. Most of the rest were technical in nature.

Back to the Tuesday story:

[Mayor Annise] Parker and 11 of the 16 City Council members agreed last fall to support a nondiscrimination ordinance. Some members have expressed concerns about the item, however.

The 11 Council members that stated their support for an NDO in their screening questionnaire for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus are listed here. Of those 11, CM Christie has waffled a bit, but I think in the end he’ll be a Yes. In addition, based on his willingness to engage on the issue and the feedback I’ve heard, I have hope that CM Kubosh will vote in favor as well, though he expressed some doubts in Wednesday’s story. CM Nguyen is hard to read, CM Martin is a firm No, CM Pennington is a likely No, and as of Tuesday CM Stardig is a No. I recommend you read Brad Pritchett’s response to CM Stardig, as he says what needs to be said. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in 2015. Be that as it may, I expect this to pass with a healthy majority next week, and about damn time for it. Texpatriate has more.

Let’s talk about the Dome

Time for a come to Judge Emmett meeting about everyone’s favorite historic yet threatened local landmark.

Not historic but still standing

Emmett said he wants to use the meeting next Wednesday to clear up any confusion surrounding last week’s unanimous vote by the state’s Antiquities Advisory Board to forward an application for landmark designation to the full commission, acknowledging that approval is “likely.” The vote will occur at the commission’s quarterly meeting on July 30 and 31 in Alpine, commission spokeswoman Debbi Head said.

Emmett said many people do not understand that the county-owned Dome has had protected status since February when the historical commission agreed to consider the application, submitted by two Houston residents.

“We’ve got a lot of people who are saying different things about what they think is happening and this is just to make everything clear as to what’s going on,” Emmett said. “There is no answer, there is no proposal out there right now, but it’s just to have the conversation because once the historical commission filing was made, then the county’s hands are tied to a degree already. Some people don’t understand that.”

Representatives from the Rodeo and the Texans – the primary tenants of NRG Park, where the Dome is located – are among those on the guest list. Others include Ted Powell and Cynthia Neely, who submitted the antiquities designation application earlier this year, and Dene Hofheinz, daughter of former Houston mayor and county judge Roy Hofheinz, who is credited with building the dome.

In a statement, Rodeo officials said they remain eager to find an “acceptable resolution to a closed and rotting building that sits at the center of their operations.”

[…]

Neely, part of a group that proposed turning the Dome into a movie studio, said Tuesday she is glad Emmett is holding the meeting, but that she still is wary the county ultimately may resort to demolition, which inspired her to seek the antiquities designation in the first place. She and Powell, a retired LaPorte chemical engineer who led the fight to save and restore the Hurricane Ike-damaged Sylvan Beach pavilion, successfully pushed for the Dome’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year, making it eligible for placement on the state list.

“I’m going in with a positive attitude hoping that now something good will happen,” said Neely, owner of Black Gold Productions, a Houston film company.

See here and here for more on the Dome’s historic landmark designation, which at the very least would seem to take demolition off the table. Maybe. Anyway, let’s be honest, the problem has always been money. There’s no shortage of ideas of what to do with the Dome, ranging from compelling to wacko, but what they all have in common is no readily identifiable way to pay for them. I thought the 2013 bond referendum would have settled this, but I was wrong. I’m still not sure whether the reason for its defeat had more to do with people just not liking the New Dome proposal, people not wanting to pay for anything, people being distrustful and cynical about a process that has taken forever to go nowhere, or some other thing. What I do know is that if we’re ever presented with another plan that requires public funding and a vote, the powers that be need to do a much better job selling it. I also think the Rodeo and the Texans need to put some skin in the game and pledge to pay for at least a little bit of whatever gets proposed; part of the cynicism I mentioned before comes from the Rodeo and Texans are driving an agenda of demolition and that they’ve gotten all of the benefit of Reliant Stadium on our dime. A private investor would solve a lot of these problems – assuming they are sufficiently capitalized, of course – but in the absence of a sugar daddy, everyone else needs to put an oar in the water and start rowing in the same direction. Maybe then the public will go along with it.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 5

The Texas Progressive Alliance strongly supports efforts everywhere to eradicate inequality as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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