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What is the difference between faux STAAR accountability and real accountability? Gov. Abbott may be about to find out.

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 Greg Abbott and like-minded officials peddle, and they ignore the realities of poverty, inadequate health care and an outdated, under-funded infrastructure system that Abbott and a succession of public officials have ignored.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.

Clay Robison

Who is going to educate the governor?

Gov. Greg Abbott wants the Legislature to take steps to “ensure our schools teach students the civics knowledge they need to be engaged productive citizens.” It is important, he says, that students “be educated in how to participate in our democracy.”

There is nothing wrong with a good civics education, provided it is not used as cover for an ideological immersion. But the most important participation in a democracy is voting, and this is where the examples and actions of elected leaders are more important than a classroom.

If Abbott really is concerned about voting and the democratic process, he would actively encourage every eligible voter to cast a ballot AND publicly honor the election results. Instead, he seems quite comfortable with Texas’ history of voter intimidation, and his silence following the recent election was a lousy example for school kids.

The best example for anybody, including children, after the election would have been for Abbott to have spoken up publicly and forcefully to refute the lies that Donald Trump and his allies were spreading about the election having been “stolen” from the former president, lies that ultimately contributed to the Jan. 6 riot at the national Capitol.

But Abbott didn’t make any public attempt to honor democracy by setting the record straight. The democratic example that the governor should have set then for the school children he now wants to impress was missing. Ken Paxton and Ted Cruz behaved badly. But Abbott was complicit in his silence, as his political allies attacked the very essence of the democratic process.

Now, the governor is undermining faith in democracy even further by declaring “election integrity” an “emergency” for the Legislature to address, even though election fraud is a very minor problem.

Texas instead has a sad history of voter intimidation, including under this governor, and Abbott now is seeking more laws to intimidate people who are inclined to vote the “wrong” way. That is not election integrity, and it is not democracy.

And guess who is eager to help the governor? None other than Rep. Briscoe Cain, another democracy denier who went to Pennsylvania after the election to help Trump’s fraudulent cause, and now has been appointed chair of the House Elections Committee by Dade Phelan, the new speaker.

In truth, the governor and many of his political allies are woefully in need of their own civics education. Maybe some of our young people can teach them. No one else has been able to.

Clay Robison

What will the governor do for hard-working educators?

“Hard-working Texans are at the forefront of our agenda this legislative session,” Gov. Greg Abbott declared in the first-ever State of the State address delivered from a chemical-processing technology firm in Lockhart.

Sounds good. But is it true?

How about the hard-working Texans we call school teachers, who have heroically worked to protect their students during a deadly pandemic and reinvent the delivery of public education? They haven’t even been given priority for a COVID-19 vaccine, but thousands of them are being forced to risk their health and perhaps their lives in classrooms every day.

So are thousands of bus drivers, cafeteria workers, clerks and other school support staff. They distributed free meals to countless hungry kids while schools were closed over the summer, kept facilities clean and secure and are now risking their health taking many of those children to school and feeding and keeping them safe on campuses.

They haven’t been given priority for a vaccine either. Well, there aren’t enough vaccines to go around yet, the governor may say, and that may be true. But why doesn’t he allow schools to end in-person instruction if local school and health officials believe that is best for safety?

What will the governor be doing for these hard-working educators this session? So far, he hasn’t even promised not to cut funding to school districts over attendance losses this spring as the pandemic continues to rage across Texas. Lost funding will cost many educators their jobs.

In his address, Abbott said “we must continue to fund education as we promised,” suggesting he will maintain funding for House Bill 3, the school finance law enacted two years ago. But school districts may need more money than that just to meet the extra pandemic expenses that will end up not being covered by the federal government.

And despite the additional school funding, including teacher pay raises, approved last session, average teacher pay in Texas still trails the national average by $6,500 and per-student funding is an estimated $2,800 behind.

Public schools and educators are essential to Texas’ post-pandemic economic future, but Abbott didn’t even declare public education an emergency item for lawmakers to consider. For that matter, he didn’t declare the pandemic an emergency item either. That designation allows the Legislature to give an issue expedited treatment, but it often has more political than practical impact.

The governor did put an emergency tag on the expansion of broadband internet access, something that has been a major need for many schools and students seeking remote instruction during the pandemic.

The other designated emergencies are conservative political priorities of the governor, including providing civil liability to businesses affected by COVID-related legal claims. This proposal could help some hard-working small business owners, but it also could be abused to deprive hard-working educators and other consumers of judicial relief to which that are entitled.

Abbott also declared election integrity an emergency, even though election fraud has been shown time and again to play an inconsequential role in the American political process, including in the recent presidential election. A lot of hard-working Texans of both parties, including the governor, know the truth, but the governor still is playing what can be a dangerous political game.

Clay Robison

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