After thawing from the worst winter storm and most prolonged (by far) power outages of my long Texas lifetime, I, like many other people, started thinking about accountability, as in who should be held accountable for this utility and government breakdown. Accountability is a word that Texas politicians don’t often like to accept but love to preach. As preached and practiced in the Texas political system, there are two versions of accountability, one faux and the other real.
First the faux.
From about the first or second grade, Texas public school children are introduced to accountability. They may not recognize that particular word, but they do start hearing about something called STAAR, a test they will have to start taking in the third grade. That’s because their state government decided long ago that it was less important to adequately pay for what students need for successful learning than it was to hold their schools and teachers accountable for their ability to pass a standardized test that purportedly measures their teachers’ effectiveness, but actually doesn’t.
Schools with good STAAR scores get good accountability ratings under this contrived system, and schools with consistently bad STAAR scores are threatened with sanctions, takeover by a corporate charter chain or even closure. Meanwhile, the state leaders who have failed to provide enough educational resources, health care and other support services necessary to give millions of children — especially disadvantaged kids — a chance at success in school dodge their own accountability and skate (usually) through the next election.
Most people, if they bother to vote, let them get away with it. They don’t have children in public school, they are happy with their own neighborhood schools, they and their families are doing well. Or, perhaps, they are snookered by the myth of Texas “exceptionalism” that Gov. Greg Abbott and like-minded officials peddle, and they ignore the realities of poverty, inadequate health care and an outdated, under-funded infrastructure system that Abbott and a succession of public officials have ignored.
Now, maybe, just maybe, single-digit temperatures, days without electricity, melting snow to flush toilets and other life-threatening misadventures may finally direct their attention to the fact that the so-called Texas “miracle” that Abbott, Rick Perry and countless other Texas politicians have been claiming for years is, in reality, a state with very thin clothes. Or, more precisely, a very neglected infrastructure.
I am sure the disaster has gotten the attention of the high-tech billionaires and other business CEOS who have been moving their companies to Texas because of its lax regulatory climate and (for them) low taxes. They got incentive deals, but you don’t get what you don’t pay enough for, and in this case, it was electricity.
What will it be next? How much longer can an under-funded public school system produce all the highly educated employees these new and expanding companies will need? More STAAR testing won’t do it.
Abbott’s first reaction to the winter disaster was preposterous. He went on Fox News to blame the power grid failure on frozen wind turbines and solar equipment in a fossil fuel state, where only a small percentage of electric generation is produced by green energy. In truth, the power outages in Texas’ go-it-alone electric system were caused by the failure to winterize power-generating systems, including natural gas pipelines.
After his initial denial of reality, Abbott took responsibility for the fiasco and demanded that utility companies be required to start taking these preventive steps, requirements that Texas governors, legislators and regulators should have demanded and began enforcing years ago.
The Legislature also will demand changes from utility companies and state regulators in a public hearing this week, where there will be much political posturing and outrage by lawmakers who also share the blame for lax industry regulations and outdated infrastructure.
This time, though, we are talking about real accountability, which at this point belongs to Abbott and the Legislature. Voters will decide whether that accountability is enforced in the next election. Then we will see how well most of us remember the big freeze.