How (NOT) To Pass A Bill
Wed May 9, 2007 5:27 pm

Imagine you are the wife of a state senator, and you've been solo parenting two kids for the past four months in a town far from Austin. It's a busy, demanding lifestyle, but you manage to squeeze in a few minutes to drop by the local Starbucks to relax. Just as you plop down with your latte, here's what comes blaring over the loudspeaker, courtesy of the local radio station:

One state senator in Austin is stopping an important bill that will bring greater professionalism to teaching. Senate Bill 1643 provides better treacher training, more pay for effective teachers, and help for underperforming teachers to succeed. But one State Senator is blocking a better education for our kids and improving teacher effectiveness. That state senator is Kevin Eltife of Tyler. After the bill sponsor offered to work with Eltife, after Senate leadership fought to bring the bill to a floor debate, Eltife has handed his vote over to the teachers' unions who want to stop the debate on improving teacher effectiveness and providing a better education to all children.

Talk about a mood killer. Needless to say, Mrs. Eltife was not amused. Her husband had already been alerted to the campaign against him, which began early Monday when his Austin office switchboard lit up with automated calls on the subject. It seems that Texans for Excellence in the Classroom, headed up by Houston businessman Charles McMann, didn't appreciate Eltife's position on SB 1643, which, among other things, institutes an evaluation system grading teachers on their students' performances on an as-yet-to-be-determined test.

Besides the automated calls and radio ads, Texans for Excellence in the Classroom posted on its website a letter accusing Eltife of "marching in lock-step with the teachers' unions."

The attack ads may have been a little premature: Eltife says he had actually softened his position last week and agreed to continue talks. But Monday morning, the automated phone calls began. That afternoon, Eltife, Shapiro, David Dewhurst and Texans for Excellence in the Classroom lobbyist Sandy Kress met again. According to Shapiro and Eltife, they had a deal: Eltife said he would vote to suspend if Shapiro accepted an amendment permitting local school districts to devise their own teacher evaluation models, so long as their plans passed muster with the Texas Education Agency.

Then he woke up Tuesday to the radio ads. "It's bizarre," Eltife said. "When somebody pushes me that hard, it makes me leery of what's in the bill."

Before Shapiro agreed to his amendment, Eltife said, the bill "set up a whole system that takes away local control -- the TEA will tell districts who they have to fire. I'm not buying that."

But, he added, "I'm telling you, we had a deal in the Ramsey Room. Shapiro and Dewhurst both witnessed it."

Shapiro agreed. "It was a compromise," she said. "We all were comfortable with it." After the radio ads, she said, "that was the end of the deal. And I don't blame him." Shapiro speculated that Texans for Excellence put a campaign in place that the group could not undo. "They pulled the trigger. As a result, Eltife pulled the trigger on them."

Kress wouldn't comment on the ads run by Texans for Excellence, but he did say that he hoped Eltife would still honor his commitment to Shapiro. "We hope very much he honors that deal," said Kress, a former Dallas school board president and Bush Administration education guru. "He must have thought the deal was good for Texas. His compromise gave tremendous flexibility to school districts. He ought to stick with it. If he does, this group would be the first to say the ads were wrong."

Late Wednesday, Eltife and Shapiro sounded as though they were moving on to other battles -- though Shapiro said she would be vigilant for House bills that could serve as vehicles for her proposal. Eltife joked that the ads actually made him a hero in his district: "You run an ad against me in my district saying I'm standing up to the leadership in Austin? That's positive thing."

As all wise Southern women know, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. It makes me wonder if the vigilant reporting -- about lobby dinners and golf games, etc. -- has cursed hospitality as a means for fruitful communication. Now all that's left is attack ads? This is not progress in human evolution.

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