PolitiFact Texas

In case you missed it, PolitiFact.com has opened a Texas branch. PoliticFact Texas is dedicated to fact-checking the claims of various Texas politicians and parties. PolitiFact.com checks out the claims of these people and gives them a rating on a their “Truth-O-Meter” scale  that rangers from “True” to “Pants on Fire.”

Pants on FireMy favorite category is Pants on Fire and Texas’ politicians have already made a good effort at filling up that category. However, you can also look for the cases where politicians got it right.

These kind of “truth watch” sites are playing a constructive role in politics. They can be a little finicky at times. However, they give Texans a place to go and check out what they’re hearing from candidates.


Previewing higher education funding

A lot of university faculty are feeling very fortunate to have job security during the economic downturn. At the same time, the state’s leaders have asked agencies to cut their budgets by 5% is sending chills through higher education because, at the  Austin-American Statesman reported in December, universities are finding themselves trapped between growing demands and shrinking revenues.

Graph of increasing tuition in Texas

The Texas Tribune tracks the growth in tuition since 2003

The Texas Tribune does a good job of looking at the problem in The Tuition Time Bomb. Their story notes that tuition has climbed 63% since tuition was deregulated in 2003. Tuition has already risen much faster than family incomes and the state’s universities were warned by the Legislature not to increase tuition by more than 3.95% unless unavoidable. Almost all will meet that goal.

The good news is that college tuition in Texas is still around the national average. The bad news is that average family income in Texas is below the national average and students are running up more and more debt.

Texas had a tradition of opening up it universities to as many Texans as possible and a college diploma offered the promise of economic mobility for generations of Texans. For decades tuition was very inexpensive and small town Texans could afford the education that would move them from the farm to the new economy of Texas. Today, the path for many Texans is more steep and the demands of the new economy are daunting for those without a college degree. In some parts of the country, state schools are looking increasingly like their expensive private counterparts. Texas could be headed in the same direction.

Ironically, a few years ago the state’s political leaders have promoted the idea of putting 500,000 more students in college in Texas.

As we expand the number of students going into higher education we increase the number of marginal students. The students who aren’t well prepared can be the most expensive to education. Often, they end up the schools with the fewest resources. It’s a prescription for disappointment and frustration. Students who need remedial courses and additional help are unattractive to schools–especially as the state shifts its funding toward “retention” (schools will not be funded for the students they take–they’ll be funded for the students they keep). The message to higher ed is clear: either turn away risky students or lower your grading standards and pass everyone.

Many students enter college poorly prepared. The need for remedial coursework reveals only some of the gaps between what students need and what they’re given. While some political leaders point at test results and claim progress, those of us in higher education have seen that test-driven students are lacking creativity and flexibility. “No Child Left Behind” has given us a generation of students better suited to standardized tests than the demands of college–or the workforce.

The situation will not get better any time soon. The New York Times reported from a recent meeting of the nation’s governors that states expect more tough financial times ahead. It looks like the budget Texas will be writing next year is going to be drafted in the face of some tough revenue estimates. In the meantime, Texas universities can expect less money while serving more students

Remember the Alamo?

The AlamoThe Houston Chronicle has a story (“On siege’s anniversary, Alamo caretakers look for reinforcements“)  about the financial fall of the Alamo. Tuesday, Anita Perry was in San Antonio to unveil the “Allies of the Alamo” campaign, the first membership program to fund the preservation and educational mission of the Alamo. Annual membership runs $30 for students, $40 for individuals and $70 for families. For $500 you can become a “Courier” in the “Defender Society.”

Putting money into the history of the state is much more important than giving money to any political candidate. A few months from now no one is going to remember attack ads like “Kay Bailout.” They will remember the Alamo.

What Texans are thinking

The Texas Tribune’s February poll of 800 registered voters is a good opportunity to look at what Texans are thinking going into the 2010 election. The Tribune did a number of stories based on these polls (“Accentuate the Negative,” “Survey says…” and  “Meet the Flinstones“) and I found a number of questions that deserved some mention.

Interest in politics

“Generally speaking, would you say that you are extremely interested in politics and public affairs, somewhat interested, not very interested, or not interested at all?”

Chart of Texan's interest in public affair

Anyone who has taught the subject or talked to most citizen knows some of these people are lying. It’s a good example of “social desirability bias.” Social desirability bias leads citizens to respond to questions in a way that they believe to be social desirable. Poll respondents frequently over-report voting.

Job approval

“How would you rate the job Barack Obama has done as president? Would you say that you…”
“How would you rate the job Rick Perry has done as governor? Would you say that you…”

Chart comparing job approval of President Obama and Governor PeryNote that approval (combining approving “strongly” and “somewhat”)  you get 41% approval for Obama and 48% for Perry. While Obama’s approval is clearly lower in Texas, Perry’s approval is much lower than you’d expect for a governor going into reelection. Both are suffering somewhat from the state of the economy.

Political ideology

“On a scale from 1 to 7, where 1 is extremely liberal, 7 is extremely conservative, and 4 is exactly in the middle, where would you place yourself?”

Chart of Texans' self-reported political ideology

Texans are clearly in the conservative category. However, note that just over one in four Texans put themselves exactly in the middle. Moderates usually feel ignored by both parties. The race to the base in the primaries has been clear as candidates in the primaries have pursued the more extreme party activists. Turning around and claiming those moderates could prove critical in the general election.

Gay marriage

“What is your opinion on gay marriage or civil unions?”

Chart of Texans' opinions on gay-lesbian marriage or civil unionsThe level of support for gay marriages or civil unions may surprise some people. However, Texas conservatism has always included a strong libertarian element. Few candidates have been willing to disappoint religious conservatives, but many Texas conservatives don’t care about regulating the private lives of others. As the chart shows, almost as many Texans (28%) support gay marriage as oppose it (30%). The support of the 35% of Texans who support civil unions reveal that many Texans have some sympathy for these couples.

If you get into the 225 pages of detailed crosstabulations that the Texas Tribune provides, you see that while only 3% of  self-described “extreme” conservatives opposed the rights of gays to marry, about 40% support their right to enjoy civil unions. The chart below also reveals a small divide on gay marriage on the left. Some of this may result from some Catholic voters who are liberal on some social programs but conservative on social issues like marriage and abortion.

Chart of support-opposition to gay marriage by ideology

Home state pride

“How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statement: Generally speaking, the way state government runs in Texas serves as a good model for other states to follow?”

Chart of Texans' agreement that Texas is a good model for other states.

It’s tempting to say that Texans are endorsing their government. However, note that later in the survey only 31% of respondents will correctly answer the question about how often the Texas Legislature meets. In fact, the most popular answer was every year (36%) with the correct answer (every other year) finishing at only 31%. It’s hard to say what Texans mean when we say our government is a model to follow when we don’t know much about what our model looks like.

The Origin of our Species

Texans have some pretty interesting views about how long we’ve been around where we came from.

For example, 30% of Texans agreed with the statement:”The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs.” Another 30% Texans responded “Don’t know.” Those “don’t knows” are interesting to me since evolution has been a pretty public debate since the Scopes Monkey Trail in 1925 brought William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow into a very public debate about our origins. Also, dinosaurs certain get their share of attention on the Discovery channel. You would think that after almost a century of debating these things that Texans would have made up their mind about this issue. If we lived at the same time as dinosaurs, that debate about whether T-Rex was a predator or scavenger become much more personal.

The relationship between these attitudes on the origins of life and political life is complicated. There is some relationship between the belief that humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs and political philosophy.

You can see that agreement with the idea that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans generally goes up as you move from left to right on the political spectrum while disagreement generally trends the other way. However, the picture is mixed with the exact middle of the ideological scale showing the most belief in dinosaurs and humans together.  Actually, moderates are pretty evenly divided between agree (34.9%), disagree (29.8%), and don’t know (35.8%).  In addition, belief in humans co-existing with dinosaurs declines as education increases and increases with age. Check the last couple of pages of cross tabulations if you want to do you own speculation on who believes what about dinosaurs.

The question on dinosaurs and people is the product of the research of Professor David Prindle. You can read some of his comments about the results in the original Tribune article (“Meet the Flinstones“).

A Pew Center Poll found that 87% of scientists agree with the statement that humans and other living things developed through a natural process.In contrast, the Tribune’s poll found that 38% of Texans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago.”  I don’t know what percentage of scientists believe that the earth is only about 10,000 years old. However, I’m sure it’s very, very small. Anyway, it’s clear that Texans don’t see eye-to-eye with most scientists.

The science questions are interesting to me since science education has become an obsession. Why are we spending so much time teaching kids science if we’re going to ignore what science says?

Why do Texas candidates run such negative ads?

Because they work.

We (voters) make them work.  At least, that’s what campaigns believe. And, we’ve given them reasons to believe.

Recently, the Texas Tribune offered evidence on the effectiveness of attack ads in a poll done February 1-7, 2010. My thanks to the Tribune for doing this test and sharing so many of the detailed results online. There is an 18 page summary and 225 pages of crosstabs linked to the story (“Accentuate the Negative“).

Respondents who said they planned on voting for Senator Hutchison, Governor Perry, or were undecided in the GOP primary were divided into two groups at random. One group was shown a Hutchison ad attacking Perry and the other group saw a Perry ad attacking Hutchison. Before and after seeing the ad the respondents were asked to rate their likelihood of voting for Hutchison on a 100-point scale. It’s the kind of classic experimental design that we’d love to be able to do more often.

Voters who saw the “Bailout” ad attacking Hutchison averaged 37.06 before seeing the ad and 31.63 after.

Voters how saw the “Cha-Ching” ad attacking Perry averaged 35.98 before seeing the ad and 40.43 after.

Several cautionary notes about these results:

  • This method only measures the impact of the ad immediately after viewing. Its seems certain that the impact of the ad diminishes over time as voters forget the ad and/or get new information about the campaign. This means we’re probably measuring an ad at its peak impact and it doesn’t tell us how much impact the ad had on the voter’s final choice on election day.
  • The results were “statistically significant.” This means that the impact can be distinguished from zero. This doesn’t mean that the impact is large. In fact, the researchers note that the impact is small.
  • The 100-point scale may produce some weird results. I’m not faulting the choice of the researchers. Any time you measure citizens opinions you’re going to get some kind of mess. There’s a lot of room between 0 and 100 and how voters locate themselves between those two extremes may vary greatly from person to person (and even from moment to moment). When you ask people to pull numbers out of the air, you need to be careful about evaluating their meaning. If I were the “average” Republican voter and my response shifted from 36 to 40 after seeing the Perry ad–what would that mean in terms of actual voting behavior?

There’s a vigorous debate in political science about the effectiveness of negative ads. However, most campaign consults are absolutely sure that attack ads work and voters aren’t giving them much reason to doubt that.

A little more amateur government

Abby Rapoport at the the Texas Tribune has a story that illustrates some of the problems with having part-time amateurs running state agencies. In “No Experience Necessary,” Rapoport describes some of the controversies surrounding the State Board of Education‘s management of the Permanent School Fund.

The State Board of Education (SBOE) has been facing criticism as some members have rejected the recommendation of staff and experts in putting together curriculum for public school students. In this case the Board is facing scrutiny for putting aside advice from staff in its handling of the Permanent School Fund (PSF). The PSF’s origins go back to 1854 when the new state of Texas set aside $2 million of the $10 million it received from the US for giving up claims to some of the land it had claimed as the Republic of Texas.  The Constitution of 1876 revived the fund and granted the proceeds of the sale of certain public lands to fund.  Since that time monies from the sales and leasing of these public lands have gone into the PSF with the returns on the investment of the funds being made available for use in Texas public schools. The PSF was valued at about $22.6 billion dollars at the end of fiscal 2009.

Tasking the SBOE with management of these funds puts Board members in a challenging position. Of course, the SBOE doesn’t try to directly manage every detail of the fund itself. The Board works with consultants and the staff of the Texas Education Agency. Still, the role of the Board is to supervise these investments. This creates two sets of problems:

  1. Asking a set of part-time board members to manage the very different areas of high finance and education curriculum. Would you ask your high school’s principal to manage your portfolio? Would you ask your stockbroker to decide how the sciences should be taught?
  2. Concerns about possible conflicts of interest you might expect when you’ve got that much money on the table.

There is a good case to made for having amateur boards watch over the professional bureaucracies we have in Texas. However, asking citizens to supervise many different functions effectively undermines the ability to supervise any one function. Sometimes, too much supervision results in no supervision. The safety net seems to be stretched a little too far.

So… What are the limits of amateur bureaucracy? Is it better suited for some areas than others.