Evolving Standards

On March 27 the State Board of Education set its new science curriculum standards. Of course, the real issue was the teaching of evolution. There were good stories in the Dallas Morning New, Houston Chronicle, and Austin-American Statesman on the Board’s final decision. CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times also took covered the story, in part because of the impact of the Texas market on textbooks nationally, .

Somehow, both sides seemed to be claiming victory despite the fact that the anti-evolution forces lost several close votes. Gone are the requirements that students be taught the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories. That was a victory for the advocates of evolution.  However, the Discovery Institute claimed victory because the new curriculum asks students to “analyze and evaluate” the scientific evidence. Obviously, these creationists would be experts at fig leafs and it’s  clear that they lost on several key votes that weakened the current policy.

The science teachers didn’t get everything they wanted. Steven Schafersman, the President of Texas Citizens for Science, saw some improvement from the old policy. “I think the science standards will be OK. Frankly, the publishers and the authors of the textbooks will be able to use this standard and write good textbooks.”

There remain several footholds that creationists can use to lobby publishers and teachers can use to teach intelligent design. However,  the new language should make it much easier for textbooks proposed for use in Texas to match the scientific standards set by much of the rest of the country.

The change is not a dramatic and instead looks like a classic example of the kind of incremental change that we expect. Well established interest groups seldom lose their grip on an area in which they have invested heavily. In the end, policy policy is usually much more like the evolutionary process being debated.

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As a follow up: My local state representative (Rep. Wayne Christian) submitted a bill on Thursday (before the final vote) that would reverse the State Board of Education’s decision.  (Kind of put a damper on the Discovery Institutes’s victory party, didn’t it?). In a story in the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel Christian described the board’s decision as a “heinous direction.”  Christian complained that the decision was part of  a culture “political correctness.” So he’s going to correct the problem politically.

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What is Medicaid?

You might ask: “What is Medicaid?” And, apparently, so did a member of the Texas House–in the middle of a House and Human Services committee meeting. According an Austin-American Stateman blog, Representative Gary Elkins asked that question during a committee hearing. “I know I hear it — I really don’t know what it is. I know that’s a big shock to everybody here in the audience, OK.”

As the Statesman’s Corrie MacLaggan points out, Medicaid is a health insurance program for people with low incomes and disabilities. The program is a partnership between the federal and state government that accounts for about a quarter of the Texas state budget. More detailed information is available from the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

We all have gaps in our knowledge and forget things from time to time. Let’s hope this is the case. However, it does raise questions about our part-time legislature. Many Texans prefer having the state run by amateur part-timers because of their distrust of professional politicians and fear of what the Legislature would get into if it were in session all year. Having those who rule over us return to live and work among us can provide a dose of humility and reality check.

However, reality can escape even the most ordinary of us and the down side of having amateur legislatures is that they will act like amateurs.

Beer at Six Flags

Brave conquistador leaves Mission of San-Francisco de los Tejas

Brave conquistador leaves Mission of San-Francisco de los Tejas

It now appears that Six Flags Over Texas will be allowed to sell beer.  A few Texans feel that the mixing of beer and TweetyBird and other licensed characters is inappropriate (others think it’s redundant).

For me, Six Flags has lost some of its charm as it began to abandon its historical theme. I miss the park’s weird attempts to capture the state’s history.

Tuition Re-regulation

The battle over tuition is picking up in the Texas Legislature and some people around the capitol take passage of re-regulation of tuition as inevitable. A lot has been written about the issue. However, this Austin-American Statesman story from March 7 seems to be the best overview of the issues (at least for those of us who like having the numbers about how much tuition has gone up).

Rising Tuition in Texas

Rising Tuition in Texas

It’s hard not be be alarmed by the dramatic rise in tuition. (It’s even more alarming for faculty members who haven’t seen any of these increases turn into significant pay raises.) However, there is a certain irony in the rush to re-regulation. Generally, free market forces are hailed by Republicans as the best way for prices to be set.  Judith Zaffirini, who chair the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, understands that state funding has fallen far behind the rate of enrollment and inflation and is trying to get the state to return to its previous levels of support for its schools. However, she’s one of the few willing to take accept the risks of real leadership.

The politics of higher education is going to be a mess. Texans expect tuition to be capped next year. At the same time, Perry and other state leaders had promised to educate another 500,000 Texans by 2015. This means more students and (likely) more poorly prepared students. As a story in the Ft. Worth Star Telegram describes the problems that senior vice provost at UTA Michael Moore and other leading educators face in getting the flood of students to graduation. While that initiative began well, growth rates have slowed and the state has fallen behind its goals and more resources are needed. Soon, formulas for funding universities will shift from rewarding schools based on students who begin the semester to those that finish the semester. Thus, universities will be told to take in more students — and keep them (social promotion can be fun and profitable!).

In the middle of the enrollment pressures legislators from cities around the state are jockeying to get schools from their districts designated as the state’s next Tier 1 school. However, academic fame has hits price. As soon as our state’s leaders take a break from attacking President Obama for promising too much, they’re going to come to grips with the promises they’ve made.

Students, parents, and faculty should brace for disappointment.

Portrait of a lobbyist

The Dallas Morning News published a useful profile of Fred Hill that reflects a classic case of legislator turned lobbyist. Hill represented Richardson, Garland, and parts of Dallas for 20 years and now he’s paid to lobby on behalf of many of the local governments that had be elected to represent.

The story also illustrates the lobbying that cities do and how lucrative that can be for a former member. Hill’s lobbying contracts will earn him from $509,000 to $689,000 this year.

Stuck on Texas

The Pew Center (always a great source for information) through its  has just released its analysis of internal immigration in the U.S. Their analysis indicates that people born in Texas stay in their home state more than any other state in the union. States where a high percentage of who were born there live there now are termed “sticky.” States where a high percentage of residents came from other states are termed “magnetsSticky and Magnetic states.”

The Pew Center’s analysis shows that 75.8% of those of us born in Texas are still in Texas.  That makes Texas the “stickiest” state in the United States. Some of that stickiness may the product of our size. You have to move pretty far to get out of this state.

As it turns out, we’re less magnetic than sticky. Only 33.4% of current Texans are from other states. That ranks us 34th among the states. However, PEW conceded that this percentage is low in part because migrants from other states are offset by the large numbers of Texans staying put.

Their research notes that Texas’ “net migration” (the number that moved in minus the number that moved out) in 2005-2007 was about 1.8% of the population. That rates us about 11th of the states. However, that underestimates the degree of change. If you count the total number of people coming and going to and from Texas it totals to about 12.3% of the state’s population. Also, this study only examines only internal migration and doesn’t include people from other countries.

By the way, a related study from Pew showed that about 405 of Americans live in the community that they were born in and 57% have never lived outside their home state. It seems that a few Americans do a lot of the moving with 15% of Americans having lived in four or more states. (State-level data is not available in that report.)

It’s a safe bet that while Texas continually changes, new Texans are moving next to native-born who may never move outside the town they were born in. This is especially evident here at SFA where many of our students come from families that have lived in the area for generations. Many have not even traveled very far and may not have even vacationed much beyond Dallas/Fort Worth.