Mon April 20, 2015 7:41 pm By Erica Grieder

school vouchers texas

I have conflicting intuitions about education reform. Like most people who support free enterprise, I agree that competition is healthy and tends to improve overall outcomes. In the context of public education, however, we can’t be cavalier about the fact that competitions involve winners and losers. Some struggling schools may improve under competitive pressure, and those that fail may be replaced by more effective operations, but even if the process ultimately yields a better set of schools, the kids enrolled in the schools that finally fail will have been profoundly disadvantaged by the experience. And I don’t buy the argument that reform advocates are secretly hoping to get rid of “government schools” altogether; I think most reform advocates are in fact trying to improve public education, not end it. But having listened to a lot of testimony over the years, I’m aware that plenty of Texas parents would prioritize their own preferences over policies more likely to maximize the common good.

Plus, as a general matter, legislation should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Even if the intentions are honorable, and the underlying principles widely shared, the bill itself may be awkwardly structured. The vouchers proposal that passed on first reading in the Senate this afternoon, for example, is conceptually sound enough but includes one provision which would, I think, effectively defeat the purpose.

The measure, authored by Larry Taylor, parallels one Dan Patrick fought for in 2013, when he was the chair of the Senate Education Committee. Basically, it proposes a tax credit for businesses that agree to allocate the corresponding amount of money to a statewide voucher fund instead. In the first year, up to $100 million in tax credits could be authorized, meaning that some 15,000 students could participate. The amount of tax credits allowed would grow each subsequent year, as would the number of students who could potentially participate in the program. The size of the scholarships would be capped at a proportion of the average statewide per capita spending on public schools—let’s call it about $6,000 a year at first, compared to about $8,000 for a public school student, for simplicity’s sake—meaning the state would save some money on each scholarship student.

The aforementioned bum provision relates to the eligibility criteria for students. To apply, a student must be in foster care, in institutional care, or have a household income not greater than 250 percent of the income guidelines necessary to qualify for the national free or reduced-price lunch program. At first glance, that sounds admirably egalitarian; it sounds as if these scholarships will go to genuinely disadvantaged students, many of whom are indeed trapped in failing schools. The problem is in the third provision. Per federal guidelines, a family of four with a household income of $44,000 qualifies for reduced lunch. The way this is written, a family of four would therefore be eligible for vouchers if their household income is up to $110,000 a year. But $110,000 is about double the state median income; kids from those households probably already have access to good public schools. And yet realistically those are the kids most likely to be the beneficiaries of such scholarships, if the bill becomes law as written. That’s fine if that’s the goal, but if the goal is to help poor black kids in inner-city Houston and poor Hispanic kids in the Rio Grande Valley, that’s not going to be accomplished by subsidizing yuppies in Plano. It would be better to ratchet down the criteria, so the only students eligible are the ones actually eligible for free or reduced lunch, as about half of all students in Texas public schools are.

With that minor revision, the bill would be a great way for Texas to experiment with a voucher program. Since the state has some five million children enrolled in public schools, the number of students affected would not amount to an accidental overnight overhaul of our extant approach to public education. At the same time, 15,000 students would benefit in a meaningful way. They would also make for a fairly good sample set, and if there is a measurable effect in their educational outcomes, reform advocates would be well positioned to advocate for an expansion of such programs. The tax credits themselves would not create a revenue hole, because the foregone revenue would be accompanied by a commensurate cut in spending requirements. All in all, worth a try.

One other thought, on reflection: the proposal was controversial in 2013, and although it passed the Senate easily enough today, on a mostly party-line vote, it will inevitably elicit more opposition in the House. It’s worth mentioning, then, that the bill may sound more sinister than it actually is. If so, it’s probably because Republicans keep describing it with euphemisms. The funding for the program, in their telling, would not be public money, because it would be generated by a tax credit, and therefore would never be collected by the state in the first place. Similarly, since the vouchers would not be funded by tax revenue, Taylor wants us to call them scholarships.

Both arguments are dubious. “Vouchers” may be controversial, but “scholarships” implies that the program seeks to differentiate between students on the basis of merit or financial need, and the Senate proposal is predicated on the opposite goal: Patrick has argued for years that all children deserve access to a good education; the whole purpose of vouchers is to empower parents, in practice, to differentiate between schools. And obviously a program funded by tax credits is a program funded by the state. Over the long term, I don’t see how it helps Republicans to argue over that point. The argument itself makes it sound like they’re trying to confuse people with gimmicks in an effort to score short-term political points. I realize that scoring such points may be the only thing that matters to many elected officials these days but it’s a little tiresome and dispiriting, especially when the overarching goal is an honorable one.

Or maybe I should put it this way. Patrick and the Senate can take credit for having done something today, but they have to choose their bragging rights. They can take credit for passing a bill that is projected to save the state $135 million in 2020 by cutting public school enrollment. Or they can take credit for giving some 20,000 students across the state of Texas a real and meaningful opportunity that may well change their lives. Either would count as an accomplishment. But the voucher is only good for one.

(Thinkstock)

Mon April 20, 2015 10:15 am By Paul Burka

The state is headed for fiscal catastrophe if it persists in refusing to expand Medicaid and stands to lose some $4 billion in federal funds if a lucrative Medicaid waiver expires. This is the legacy of Governor Perry and all of the Obama haters in state government. It is also a test for Governor Greg Abbott: whether he will allow ideology to stand in the way of recouping billions of dollars in federal funds that the state should have coming to it. It is one thing to be ideological. It’s quite another to be out of touch with reality.

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Mon April 20, 2015 8:06 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Texas Department of Public Safety border violenceThe drug cartel violence on Friday in the Mexican border town of Reynosa will give ammunition to those in Texas pushing for an increase in state spending of up to $800 million for border security. But the violence also may be a sign that Mexico is making some progress in its war on the cartels.

For anyone who may have missed it, gunfire broke out in Reynosa on Friday as Mexican authorities arrested a Gulf Cartel leader. Cartel members attempted to halt his transfer to Mexico City by blockading Reynosa with burning school buses. Although there were gun battles, the international bridges leading to Reynosa remained open and travel was not prohibited. Part of what is happening in Mexico is a splintering of the major drug cartels as authorities concentrate on capturing organized crime chiefs.

Many of the recent clashes within the Gulf Cartel have come from infighting between different cells that control key cities along the Rio Grande.

Cartel forces in Reynosa are known as the Metros and have fought members based in Matamoros, known as the Ciclones, in ongoing turf battles over the past few months. Further west, Los Zetas have traditionally controlled territory west of Miguel Alemán, across the river from Roma, toward the northwest past Nuevo Laredo.

At about the same time as the Reynosa violence, Mexican authorities also arrested the head of the Juárez Cartel. This head of the snake approach has been effective to a point, but like the mythical Hydra, cut off one head and more appear. 

While violence has fallen in several areas of Mexico, particularly Ciudad Juárez, other areas remain in the grip of these battling criminal gangs, including much of the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, where Reynosa is.

New gangs have emerged in the past couple of years and rapidly gained strength. One of the most dangerous is the Jalisco Cartel-New Generation, which officials say ambushed a Jalisco state police convoy on April 6 and killed 15 agents.

But gang violence has been so diminished in Juárez across from El Paso that city officials have launched a public relations campaign to attract renewed tourism. In 2010, Juárez was called the most dangerous city in the world because of its 3,000 murders, but the number was down to 424 in 2014. The mayor says he wants to “vindicate the city’s image abroad.” However, the number of murders still is more than double what it was in 2007, and one critic said the new program “is like washing a face when the rest of the body is still dirty, sick of corruption, impunity, poverty and inequality.” 

So here is the rub for Texas lawmakers: The cartels no doubt have a presence in Texas with the smuggling of drugs and humans, but the extreme violence remains on the Mexican side of the border. The real question, which so far the Texas Department of Public Safety has not adequately answered, is this: what exactly is Texas getting for the money it’s spending on border security?

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Fri April 17, 2015 4:13 pm By Erica Grieder

One of the challenges of covering Texas politics is that during our state’s biennial legislative sessions, especially these frantic final two months, there’s so much happening at the Lege that it’s hard to keep track of anything in the outside world. But Tuesday, as I was heading into the Capitol, I paused to say hello to Brandon Darby and Ildefonso Ortiz of Breitbart Texas, and thereby heard a tidbit I had missed: Judicial Watch, a right-wing website, had posted a story asserting that ISIS has set up a training camp in Juarez.

This is an absurd claim, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. And Judicial Watch’s story was barely posted before it was flatly dismissed by the Mexican Embassy and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Nonetheless, some of Judicial Watch’s readers have taken the story at face value, undeterred by the total absence of evidence and the official denials. An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes, and an official statement is only as credible as the officials offering it.

Darby and Ortiz, I sensed, were exasperated about the situation, for reasons any journalist can easily understand. Many of you reading this are probably skeptical of Breitbart Texas, which is a right-wing news site with a reputation for erratic quality; I get that, but in general  I put more stock in individual reporters than in the outlet they work for, or the ideological affiliation of either, and I have a high opinion of Darby and Ortiz as border reporters. Both have extensive experience and expertise, built up over time. Both have a lot of good sources, including in law enforcement, notably. Both are aggressive and have a record of breaking news—Darby was the guy who exposed last year’s border crisis, and triggered the national focus on it, when he published photos of immigrant children in detention facilities, which a law enforcement source had leaked to him—but have maintained a commitment to accuracy, even when their audience’s attention has been distracted by a lurid internet story about a shadowy menace lurking on America’s doorstep, like the one that Judicial Watch had just made up about the ISIS training camp. The resulting kerfuffle was bound to be a frustrating and thankless distraction. Like all honest journalists they seek to inform the public; that’s hard enough even when the public isn’t being actively misinformed by lies and propaganda.

You may not feel much empathy for the reporters’ plight. But widespread misinformation isn’t just a pet peeve for people like me and Darby and Ortiz. It causes all of us, including you and your loved ones, real harm. It can cause people to waste time and money. It can prevent us from allocating efforts and resources in ways that would actually advance our goals. In some cases it puts lives at risk. This may be one of those cases. There are extremely bad things happening along the US-Mexico border every day. And yet this week, at least, Texas’s law enforcement apparatus had to allocate some of its efforts to debunking a story that is either an error or (more likely) a blatant fabrication. If you care about border security, that should worry you.

Misinformation is not a new phenomenon. Neither is spin. But both are more prevalent today than they once were as a result of technology and politics and the interaction between the two. The decentralization of what we still call traditional media, in conjunction with the increasingly negligible barriers to entry in the information marketplace, means that anyone can disseminate information, anyone can find it, and the people and structures that once served as filters are increasingly irrelevant. That’s not necessarily bad; in many ways it’s great. It maximizes individual freedom and opportunity. But it means that the average reader has to work harder. You can curate your own news feed. In fact, you have to. And in the meantime, an array of third parties—politicians, partisans, advocates—are offering you unsolicited opinions about what to read or listen to. All of these people have their own incentives. Some want your vote. Some want your attention because they can monetize it via advertisers or subscriptions. Some are just sincerely trying to raise awareness of issues they sincerely care about.

Neither aspect of the situation is going to change. And neither is intrinsically sinister; I err on the side of skepticism myself. The problems only really arise when readers are misled, deliberately or not. So I thought I’d take the occasion to lay out the types of claims that are worth double-checking, and offer a three-part strategy for how you as the reader can check for yourself, using the Judicial Watch piece as an example.  

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Fri April 17, 2015 3:13 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

Texas Governor Greg Abbott today released his income tax return for 2014, and it is something of a shocker. Abbott paid just $1,752 in taxes on $131,251 in adjusted gross income.

The low tax payment was because he had paid $51,778 in property taxes on his home in Austin and $44,257 in mortgage interest. His mortgage interest was almost ten times as much as the $4,495 in charitable donations he made.

His office tried to put a positive spin on the governor’s multimillion dollar home, though, by claiming his state, federal and local tax burden was 39.96 percent of his income.