Month: <span>February 2015</span>

Will anything be left for schools?


Acknowledging the obvious, state Sen. Robert Nichols told the Austin American-Statesman, “We can delay the construction of a road or bridge a year or two, but kids have to go to school every day.”

But as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Nichols’ first priority is roads, not schools. And, that is why he is sponsoring legislation, which may win Senate approval next week, to dedicate a big chunk of revenue from the state’s sales tax on cars and trucks to highway construction and maintenance. At present, all of that money – about $4 billion a year and growing – is available for spending on education and other needs.

Within a few years, Nichols’ proposal would help the state start reducing a large backlog of needed transportation projects, but it also would significantly reduce the amount of tax revenue – by billions of dollars each budget cycle — available for spending on education and other  needs.

I appreciate good roads and highways as much as most drivers. But why should Nichols’ plan be put on the fast track while public schools – whose needs are no less critical than highways – are still waiting in line? And, a separate decision to make tax cuts the top budget priority, even ahead of highways, puts even more funding off limits before even considering what is needed for public education.

Almost everybody, from the new governor on down, says they want to improve education, and a state judge has declared the school finance system inadequate, unfair and unconstitutional.  But instead of addressing that ruling, the state is appealing that decision, while available revenue that could be used to start building a reliable school funding system for all of Texas’ school children is being committed to other causes.

Kids are still going to school every day, many in overcrowded, under-funded classrooms.

“We have got to deal with the major problems of this state before we commit to tax cuts,” Sen. Kevin Eltife of Tyler said in a recent interview with The Texas Tribune.

But, so far, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s demand for tax cuts — $4.6 billion worth in a Senate proposal – is mostly drowning everyone else out. Patrick also is backing Nichols’ highway funding plan.

“At the end of the day, the Texas economy stays strong if people have more money in their pocket, if businesses have more money to create jobs,” Patrick said.

But what kind of jobs will they be? The quality of those jobs and the future of our economy will depend on the state’s investment in public education, not tax cuts.



When science and education collide with politics


As the prolonged debate over global warming has demonstrated, politics and science often don’t mix well. And, for that matter, neither do politics and education in the highly charged, ideological atmosphere in which we find ourselves today.

The latest example is the bit of political theater that Sid Miller, Texas’ new agriculture commissioner, performed last week for the financial benefit of the Texas cattle industry and the amusement of the political clique that has made Washington-bashing a Lone Star State pastime.

The educated science was compiled and updated by a committee of nutritionists, physicians, and other health care experts from some of the country’s most prestigious universities. In an advisory report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the panel urged Americans to limit their consumption of red meat and sugar in favor of more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. This is the kind of advice we have been hearing from doctors and nutritionists for years but is worth repeating.

The new report will be sent to the respective Cabinet secretaries, who are scheduled to release national dietary guidelines later this year. The committee also called on state and local officials throughout the country to make policy changes – such as taxes on less-healthy foods — to encourage healthier eating habits.

“This report would take meat off the menu,” Miller retorted, according to the Texas Tribune. “I don’t think it hurts a kid to have a hamburger on Fridays.” He also declared, “We know better how to raise our kids than some bureaucrat in Washington, D.C.”

The report won’t force the removal of meat from menus, and it says nothing about outlawing hamburgers.  Nor, for that matter, does it dictate how to raise children.

But Miller was responding to scientific evidence with political rhetoric in a transparent effort to defend the Texas beef industry, as well as his own future political support from that industry and, perhaps, his own livelihood as a cattle raiser. Cattle-raising was one of the things he did before he was elected last year.

The cattle industry is a large, important part of the Texas economy, and Texas politicians have been circling the wagons around it for years against threats, both real and perceived, from health experts who believe that too much red meat in most people’s diets is, well, too much.

Miller may know how to raise cattle, but he isn’t qualified to debunk the nutritional science or the alarming increase in recent rates of childhood obesity.

Political posturing, though, doesn’t require much education.


Abbott encouraging on education, but…


Gov. Greg Abbott, in his State of the State address, continued to give mixed signals about his commitment to a strong public education system. On the plus side, TSTA was encouraged that the governor supports strong pre-K and early childhood education programs because those are critical to later student success.

But, as we all should know, a meaningful commitment to pre-K and every other step up the public education ladder requires a commitment to resources. And, it was discouraging that the governor called for an end to school finance litigation without saying how he intended to provide public schools with the adequate and equitable funding that all school children need for success.

You may have noticed that the governor gave a specific figure, $4 billion, he wants the Legislature to appropriate for transportation, and he also specified a few billion dollars as his goal for tax cuts.

As TSTA President Noel Candelaria noted, “The governor gave a specific dollar figure for roads and for tax cuts, but, unfortunately, our children’s educational needs did not warrant that level of commitment.”

God, guns and schools


You probably have noticed how some legislators and advocates like to invoke the name of God when they are seeking approval of something controversial. It’s as if they are proclaiming, “If you oppose this, you are opposing God’s will.”

I do not presume to know what God may or may not like when it comes to legislative issues, but I do believe that legislators who invoke God’s name should at least be consistent in their views of His will.

For example, state Sen. Brian Birdwell of Granbury, the main Senate sponsor of the bill to allow permit holders to take handguns inside state university classrooms, was asked why he wouldn’t let university regents decide that issue instead. According to the Austin American-Statesman, Birdwell said that was because the U.S. and Texas constitutions guaranteed gun ownership rights.

“Rights that are granted by God are ours to protect. They are not to be delegated…to boards of regents,” he said.

Now, I am not conceding that it is God’s will that people carry pistols into college classrooms, or even that God influenced the drafting of constitutional gun rights. But if Birdwell believes that God was behind the constitutional provisions on gun rights, I wonder whether the senator also believes that God’s will is reflected in all other constitutional provisions, including Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution, which requires the Legislature to make “suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of free public schools.”

Birdwell voted to slash $5.4 billion from school budgets in 2011, prompting a state judge to declare the school funding system unconstitutional because it is, among other reasons, inadequate and unfair.

Does Birdwell also feel the need to address the rights that God granted to all of Texas’ school children? Or, is he selective about which parts of the constitution reflect God’s handiwork?

Just wondering.