The State Board of Education–Episode I: The Phantom Menace

In the spirit of the Godfather and Star Wars sagas I’m taking stories of the  State Board of Education out of order. In that spirit, I want to take you back to the beginning… or as far back as you can go on a blog on Texas politics.

Texans have shared the American pastime of arguing over where we came from.  Did we evolve from lower life forms (small mammals, apes, Oklahomans)?  Or, did we spring directly from the hand of God in our finished form (walking upright and speaking English)? Of course, such questions are impossible to answer with certainty. However, that’s not going to stop the SBOE of from giving us the answers to life’s test. (Like many Texas high school students I hope that Saint Peter’s questions at the pearly gates are multiple choice. I’ve head that if you guess “B” on all the questions you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting in.)

According to a story in the Dallas Morning News, Steven Schafersman (Evolution ally and President of Texas Citizens for Science) warned the SBOE that, “Once again our state is going to experience the embarrassment of having anti-scientific, anti-evolutionists on the state board try to game the process and force the new science standards to contain anti-scientific language.” This seems like an overstatement. The embarrassment of the evolution debate will likely pale in comparison to whatever some legislators dream up during the session. Still, there is something to the idea of letting scientists tell us what to teach in science classes. It’s a plan that’s just crazy enough to work.

Currently, the SBOE is evaluating their policy about how evolution is to be taught. We’ve even found our way into the pages of the New York Times. In dispute is language that requires teaching both the strength and weaknesses of evolutionary theory. While most explosions occur in high school chemistry labs, the discussion of how to teach the origins of Texans and other humans produce fireworks of their own.

The courts have often view the creationist view as more religion than science. As such, teaching the “religion” of creationism violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. At the same time, evolution is not without some unresolved questions. While scientists often seem quite certain, there are often gaps in their knowledge when they can’t trace the lineage of very critter going back a few millions years.

According to the Austin-American Statesman’s coverage, during the course of the hearing one anti-evolution advocate noted that “Darwin was from England and Einstein was from Germany… The elitism and arrogance that has been going on is not what Texas is about.” Of course, as someone who studies only the US and Texas I am completely sympathetic. However, certain intellectual elites will prefer to take their cues from foreigners. We’ll see who prevails in the SBOE.

The fiscal outlook

This Ben Sargent cartoon sums up the outlook for the session pretty well.

The Legislature dives into some pretty shallow fiscal waters

The Legislature dives into some pretty shallow fiscal waters

Comptroller Susan Comb’s Biennial Revenue Estimate 2010-2011 was released on Monday. The second line of the letter to the state’s leaders makes the challenge clear: “For 2010-11, the state can expect to have $77.1 billion in funds available for general-purpose spending. This represents a 10.5 percent decrease from the corresponding amount of funds available for 2008-09.” Clearly, the Legislature is going to have some tough choices to make and there’s almost no room for new initiatives. Legislators had already been very cautious when talking about goals for the upcoming session and their worries certainly became more real on Monday.

The projection that 111,000 Texans will lose their jobs in the coming year highlights both the source of the fiscal decline and the growing needs that some programs will face. Legislators are already debating how much of the “rainy day” funds they entered the year with can/should be spent this session. It certainly looks like a rainy fiscal day to me.

Like a lot of people who work for the state I’m not relishing going without a significant pay raise. However, I’m feeling very lucky to enjoy the job security that comes with a faculty position.

Opening Day-2009

Opening day for the Texas Legislature had the feel of the first day of school. The Capitol had suddenly come to life and everyone was scurrying around to find their place while greeting friends they haven’t seen in a long time. Freshmen were nervous, but their senior colleagues seemed excited as well.

Outside, tour buses full of excited citizens emptied onto the grounds. The cold weather kept most from posing in front of the monuments outside. However, I’m sure many noticed how beautiful the dome looked against the morning’s blue sky. Inside, tour guides struggled to be heard over the crowd as they described the history and meaning of the floors, ceilings, and art of the building. The line to get into the House gallery on the third floor worked its way down two sets of stairs and ended on the first floor. We may be a nation of cynics and residents of an anti-government state, but many Texans seemed to share a real sense of excitement about seeing representative democracy taking flight.

The day’s main event was the selection of a new speaker. Of course, the actual voting in the Speaker’s race today was a ceremony that revealed nothing of the real battle for power that had already been waged. The good news is that there seemed to be some real optimism that Joe Straus would create a more friendly and productive atmosphere in the House.

On the Senate side, conflict over the rules began when Republicans proposed a plan to waive the rule requiring two-thirds of senators to agree to bring up a bill. However, this would only apply to the voter ID bills and redistricting. Of course, Democrats plan on fighting this. The conflict seems especially unfortunate since people on the House side were trying to make a fresh start and rid the Legislature of the worst aspects of conflict.

This may be the first session where the old newspaper and television reporters give way to the bloggers. A couple of people blogged live from the gallery and there faces of the reporters looked much younger than past years. It will be interesting to see if the rapid blogging of the younger reporters gets a larger audience than the more detailed reporting of the older journalists. I’m somewhat worried that with fewer experienced eyes watching the Legislature some of the more subtle political tricks will go unnoticed.

The Speaker’s race

There are several good stories that look at how Joe Straus III rose so quickly from relative obscurity to one of the most powerful positions in the state.

A story (The How the House speaker’s race was won) by Laylan Copelin of the Austin-American Statesman recounts a quirky process with the key gathering of the ABC (“Anybody But Craddick) Republicans facilitated by Representative Byron Cook’s  14-year-old daughter’s ability to hook up video conferencing (and returning from shopping at the mall to fix the system when it crashed).  Later, when the lawmakers tried to destroy the secret ballots they used to produce their consensus they forgot to open the damper in Cook’s fireplace and set off the smoke alarm. Karen Brooks of the Dallas Morning News described the process as a “wild ride.”

The story of Straus’ emergence from the crowded field (14 members were declared candidates for the speaker) often sounds like an accident. Maybe, it’s because I just finished reading Team of Rivals, but I can’t help but think that somebody was playing the the right angles. The inexperienced Lincoln emerging from a crowded Republican field in 1860 was the result of some careful planning and Straus may have had more than good luck.

There has already been some interesting analysis of the impact of the change in leadership. Christy Hoppe of the Dallas Morning News has a story on Straus’s plans to share power and a  transcript of an interview with Straus. Straus offers a kinder, gentler approach to the speakership and a significant change from the Craddick style. He described the role of the speaker is to “help every member” and promised not to campaign against any incumbent–regardless of party.

Another change noted by one legislator I heard from this week is the Straus will be first truly urban speaker. While we’ve had a Speaker from Ft. Worth (Gib Lewis), Straus will be the first  Speaker to have a urban upbringing and district. Further, Straus’ base of support came from House members from urban districts. Texas has long been dominated by rural interests and urban legislators have struggled to explain their needs to the leadership. The selection of Straus may help the Texas House move beyond the myth of rural Texas and more effectively govern the modern, urban state we actually have.

Rick Perry passes a milestone

On December 18, Rick Perry became Texas’ longest serving governor. The Dallas Morning News noted the milestone with a story pointing out the degree to which all those years in office allow a governor a chance to control the Texas bureaucracy.  While the Texas governorship was created as a very weak office the gradual expansion of appointive powers has allowed a long-serving governor the chance to gain considerable control over many executive agencies. Combining that with the governor’s power to make temporary appointments to the Railroad Commission and the courts and you can see that Perry has been able to shape Texas government. However, it seems to me that Perry’s success can be seen more in personal politics than broad policy control. He’s stayed in power longer than other governors. Has he accomplished more? That seems to be an open question.

The same day Perry used a press conference to announce his support for “Choose Life” plates. It seemed ironic to me that Perry’s passage into the record book would be accompanied by such a minor initiative. License plate designs probably are not the best way to build a legacy and the case reminds me of Perry’s odd leadership style. At times Perry seems to be everywhere and nowhere (both in terms of geography and issues). He often pops up after the Legislature has adjourned and vetoes a bill that observers assumed he supported. Major initiatives like the Trans Texas Corridor seem to be developed with little consultation with legislators and follow-through suffers.

The design for Texas Alliance for Life's proposed "Choose Life" license plates

The design for Texas Alliance for Life's proposed "Choose Life" license plates

It was (somewhat) interesting to look at the “comments” section of the Dallas Morning News story. Many of Perry’s fans greeted the story of the “life” plates by attacking Kay Bailey Hutchison. It’s been clear for some time that the blogs have become a battleground for surrogates and it’s likely that the Perry and KBH camps routinely patrol the newspaper sites. Also, these comments often track with what I hear coming out of Perry’s office. It’s telling that the response from Perry’s camp is to always attack Hutchison rather than touting Perry.

Among of the criticisms of the “Choose Life” plates were  arguments these plates would politicize license plates in a way they had not been before. If abortion is a legitimate issue for our license plates then maybe other issues are fair game. If the Legislature takes up the “life” plates I wonder if they will consider other issues like term limits.

I oppose term limits. However, I felt obligated to offer a possible design for a new "Term Limits" license plate.

I oppose term limits. However, I felt obligated to offer a possible design for a new "Term Limits" license plate.

Wiley College and the return of the “great debaters”

Wiley College, located in Marshall, has a number of connections to fame. Most recently, the movie “The Great Debaters” brought the success of Wiley’s debate team to the attention of millions. As the Dallas Morning News reported the movie reminded the campus of its history and launched a revival of the debate program. In the fall of 2008 an 11-member team started debating again thanks in part to more than a million dollars in donations (including a million from  Denzel Washington who directed and starred in the movie).

James L. Farmer Jr. is one of the most famous alumni of the Wiley College debate team. Farmer co-founded the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and was a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. His legacy is discussed in a little more detail in another blog entry.

James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), originally founded in 1942 as the Committee of Racial Equality, was the brainchild of an interracial group of students in Chicago. Among them was James L. Farmer, Jr., a native of Marshall, Texas. Born in 1920, Farmer would skip several grades before entering college at age 14 at Wiley College where his father taught Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. While there Farmer was on Wiley’s legendary debate team (featured in Denzel Washington’s “The Great Debaters”). Farmer initially intended to become a Methodist minister, but he later left the Methodist church because it remained segregated in the south.
Farmer was an important advocate of bringing Mohandas Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent direct action into the civil rights movement and CORE played a vital role in leading non-violent resistance like boycotts. Farmer a friend were among the first to use sit-ins to pressure local businesses. The lessons of these early non-violent protests would become the heart of early CORE efforts and would be the model for sit-ins across the nation. In 1961 Farmer directed the “Freedom Rides” that helped interstate bus service in the South. While advocating peaceful tactics, Farmer was far from politically passive. In the 1960s when Attorney General Robert Kennedy advised CORE to cool down and not press ahead with efforts to integrate Farmer refused, saying, “We have been cooling off for 350 years.”
Farmer was one of the most important leaders in the civil right movement but less visible than Martin Luther King. Farmer was in jail for “disturbing the peace” in Plaquemine, Louisiana the day that Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as the climax of the March on Washington. While he was not able to attend, Farmer speech was read by Floyd McKissick, an aide in CORE. His speech proclaimed, “We will not stop until the dogs stop biting us in the South and the rats stop biting us in the North.”
By the late 1960s, Farmer, saw CORE drift away from its pacifist roots, Farmer was upset by CORE’s leftist positions, including siding with the Marxists in the civil war in Angola. Farmer left the organization he had helped found and had led. Although he endorsed Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey for president in 1968, he ran for the US House against Shirley Chisholm. Although he ran as a member of the Liberal party he was endorsed by the Republican party that saw him as their best chance to unseat Chisholm. He was defeated in the election, but he noted in his autobiography that it won him the unique distinction of being the first black man in US history to be defeated by a black woman in a congressional election. Despite not being a member of the Republican party Farmer was asked in 1969 to become Assistant Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the administration of President Richard Nixon. He remained in office only until 1970 leaving over frustration with disagreements with the President and the resistance of the bureaucracy.
While sometimes overlooked by some, he felt somewhat vindicated when President Clinton honored him on January 15, 1998 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Clinton proclaimed, “Our Nation proudly salutes James Farmer for his extraordinary work to combat discrimination and bring racial harmony and healing to our land.”