Month: <span>January 2021</span>

CDC: Reopening school buildings a risk without strong safety requirements

In a new article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that schools, despite the presence of COVID cases on campuses, have not been major sources of spreading the coronavirus.

Their conclusion, however, is not an endorsement of the lax school opening process in Texas because they also made it clear that school openings should be accompanied by strong safety requirements, including social distancing and mask use, important things that Texas’ state government hasn’t been enforcing.

Masks, social distancing and ventilation of school buildings are among an encyclopedia’s worth of COVID safety guidelines listed on the Texas Education Agency’s website, but neither TEA nor Gov. Greg Abbott has done anything about putting teeth in them.

Some school districts have attempted to enforce them, while others haven’t. One school superintendent in North Texas all but bragged to the media about refusing to enforce the governor’s so-called mask “mandate,” and the state hasn’t challenged him. A “mandate” isn’t a mandate if it is not enforced, and guidelines are mere words if they are ignored.

You may recall that TSTA conducted a campus safety survey of our members last fall. By early December, shortly before the winter break, our members in more than 150 school districts had reported more than 6,000 violations of various safety standards in their school buildings. These included more than 400 violations of the mask mandate, more than 600 violations of social distancing, more than 600 reports of inadequate ventilation and more than 500 reports of inadequate protective equipment.

Small wonder that many Texas districts have had to temporarily close their doors for periodic COVID outbreaks.

To my knowledge, the Texas Education Agency hasn’t penalized any school district for violations of COVID safety standards. But it is quick to pounce on districts, with the threat of funding cuts, that entertain the idea of closing school buildings for student and educator safety, as it did when Austin ISD suspended in-person instruction for a week after the Thanksgiving break, on the advice of local health authorities.

There is something wrong with that approach, and I think the scientists at the CDC agree.

CDC researchers find “little evidence” of major school outbreaks, with precautions

Clay Robison

Stop the real steal, Dan Patrick

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick didn’t condone the violence at the U.S. Capitol, but as President Trump’s campaign chairman in Texas, he fanned the flames and the lie of the “Stop the Steal” movement that resulted in the insurrection. He even offered rewards of as much as $1 million for people with proof of voter fraud.

Patrick and the “Stop the Steal” movement wrongfully claimed that democracy was being “stolen” in the presidential election, when in truth they were undermining to a dangerous extent the democratic process.

Now, the Texas Legislature is in session, and Patrick is back to promoting his own version of theft in the state Senate. In his zeal to neutralize the influence of Democratic (upper case) senators, he has engineered another rule change to undermine democracy (lower case) in that chamber.

For many years before Patrick took office as lieutenant governor in 2015, the Senate had operated under what was called the two-thirds rule. That provided that no bill could be brought up for debate by the full Senate without the approval of at least two-thirds of the senators who were present. If all 31 senators were present, 21 had to approve debate. That meant only 11 senators could block and ultimately kill a proposed law.

The two-thirds rule served an important democratic (lower case) purpose. It promoted more deliberation, compromise and accommodation in the Senate and helped protect the interests of the political minority, which for many years in Texas were Republicans. It also gave more power to individual senators, sometimes at the expense of the lieutenant governor.

Even before Patrick became lieutenant governor, the two-thirds rule had started to fall victim to increased Senate partisanship. Under Patrick’s predecessor, David Dewhurst, a new Republican majority had occasionally bypassed the two-thirds rule on selected partisan issues, such as redistricting and voter identification bills.

But that wasn’t enough for Patrick, who considers deliberation, compromise and accommodation obstacles to his political and ideological agenda. And Republican senators, who are supposed to have more control over the Senate’s rules than the lieutenant governor, have let Patrick be the boss.

In 2015, GOP senators replaced the two-thirds rule at Patrick’s behest with a three-fifths rule. Republicans had a 20-11 majority that year, and the new rule allowed only 19 Republicans to approve debate on a bill with Democrats unable to stop them.

That 19-vote requirement was all Patrick needed for the next two sessions. Last session, the GOP majority was 19-12. But one Republican senator was unseated by a Democrat in November, so Patrick had the rule changed again this week. With an 18-13 Republican majority now, all it will take is 18 votes to advance a bill. That means if all 18 Republicans are united on a vote to debate a bill, Democrats will be powerless to block it, eroding the democratic process even more.

It is time to stop the real steal, Dan.

Clay Robison

How the Legislature can increase education funding without raising taxes

Cutting school budgets during this legislative session would be almost criminal, considering the heroic work that teachers and support staff have done to keep their students educated, fed and safe during this health crisis.

Even though Comptroller Glenn Hegar has reported revenue losses during the pandemic haven’t been as dire as he earlier predicted, it will be a tough budgetary session, a sharp contrast from two years ago when the Legislature had a budgetary surplus and spent much of it to increase education funding.

But even now, there are ways to avoid cuts to education and even increase school spending without raising taxes. And these don’t include the legalization of casinos or marijuana, potential and controversial revenue sources that will be aggressively promoted by those interests but may very well fall flat.

The first emergency revenue source that lawmakers should tap is the state’s Rainy Day Fund and its $11.6 billion balance. As its name implies, it is for emergencies, and that includes more than hurricanes, tornados and floods. A pandemic is an emergency, and so is the economic upheaval it has caused.

Here are some other revenue-enhancing steps legislators should take:

  • Keep the door closed to private school vouchers.
  • Stop the expansion of corporate charter chains in Texas and their growing bite into the state education budget. Charters are taking about $3 billion a year in tax money, and much of that is ending up in the bank accounts of for-profit management companies.
  • Abolish STAAR testing and the A-F grading system and find a better, fairer way to measure student progress and teacher effectiveness. The state already has signed contracts totaling $338 million with two STAAR vendors for the next four years. The Legislature needs to find a way to cancel them.
  • Legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, must use their influence to convince the members of Congress from Texas to quickly enact President-elect Joe Biden’s education program. For starters, Biden has proposed tripling federal spending for the Title I program, which provides assistance to high-poverty schools, from $15 billion to $45 billion a year. During his campaign, Biden also called for doubling the number of counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers in schools; substantially increasing federal spending for special education; providing more funding for universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-old children; and more funding for school infrastructure improvements. Much of this money could help improve the education budget in Texas.
  • Repeal unnecessary corporate tax breaks. This admittedly is an old proposal, fraught with political dissension, but it is worth considering.

The several billion dollars in additional funding that lawmakers provided in House Bill 3 in 2019 was the biggest increase in education spending in years, but it was only a down payment on improvements to a long-underfunded school finance system. We cannot let the funding gains under House Bill 3 be lost, especially at a time when school districts have shouldered extra expenses and suffered declining attendance during the pandemic.

The Legislature must keep districts fully funded this spring at last year’s levels, despite the attendance losses, and then increase school funding for the next budget period.

Clay Robison