A cruel hoax

Governor Perry and Bill White are still debating whether or not public schools are on the right track. I don’t know of anyone in higher education who believes that Texas public schools students are better prepared for college. I haven’t talked to an employer who feels like students are ready to figure out the challenges of the workplace. I haven’t talked to any parents who thought that those standardized tests were telling them anything they wanted to know.

Blind faith in the value of standardized tests and  “accountability” is slowly strangling the life out of Texas public school. Neither party seems to have accepted the need to put aside the reliance on these tests. In the meantime, the creativity and critical thinking skills that employers need are slowly wrung out of most Texas school kids. By the time they emerge from the K-12 system too many students are ready for little beyond a standardized test. (Coming to the rescue, the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board is putting together a new formula that will encourage the state’s faculty to lower their standards and pass more students.)

The state’s leaders need to put aside politics and take a serious look at education in the state. The Governor needs to look at providing real leadership in areas like technical training and trade schools. The State Board of Education needs to try to stop trying to dictate every detail of what is said in classrooms and create a curriculum that serves students better than political constituencies. Employers need to step forward and help schools reevaluate the education they offer. Parents need to press their children to work hard and quit telling teachers to declare what their kids are doing now as “success.”  And, the Texas Legislature needs to stop enabling all this. Education policy has become a cruel hoax as students suffer needlessly through testing that provides little information about an educational system few state leaders think seriously about.

Voters need to demonstrate that their own education worked and toss aside any candidate (even ones from their favorite party) who suggests that the answers are easy. That’s how we got where we are today. Unfortunately, Texans have forfeited their independence and remain slaves to their partisanship.


Vote-but verify

The Texas Tribune had a good story looking at the uncertainty about ballot counting in Texas. Texas (like many other states) has pressed ahead on the use of electronic voting without dealing with some of the uncertainties that come with that technology. Creating paper trails or other means of verifying ballots will cost money. However, compared to the costs of paying teams of lawyers to defend uncertain practices…

Many people are content to pour money into Vegas slot machines whose payoffs are determined by centralized computers. Those systems are subject to strict scrutiny by the state and that trust may be well deserved. Still, mechanical voting machines could be rigged and I’m not convinced that their digital heirs aren’t also at risk.

Can we trust this technology? Can we trust it enough to rely on it without any means of verification?

A host of science fiction books and movies have been based on fears of computers and machines violently attempting to take over the world. Should that be our only worry about the role of computers in the future?

The Race for the Railroad Commission

The Dallas Morning News has a story about the interesting race for Texas Railroad Commission. You can certainly argue that this is a possible win for the Democrats. There is uncertainty with GOP ranks about their candidate and the factors behind his victory in the primary. However, it’s hard to believe that most Texans are paying enough attention to the race to get them to do anything except vote along party line.

The obscurity of the race opens the door to debate whether or not seats on the Railroad Commission should be elected. Should Texans be choosing commissioners in regulatory agencies? Or, should we be moving regulation farther from Texas politics?

Newspaper endorsements

Perry may lead in the public opinion polls, but he has clearly lost the support of the state’s major newspapers. Some of the newspapers that endorsed Perry in 2006 but are now endorsing Bill White include: The Dallas Morning News, The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal,  San Angelo Standard-Times, and San Antonio Express News.

Other newspapers that have endorsed White (who may or may not have endorsed Perry in 2006) include:

As of today, I can’t find any major newspaper that has endorsed Perry.

Why the defections?

First, Perry has shunned the editorial boards and his campaign has attempted to declare them obsolete. That’s not the best approach to winning anyone’s support. Two weeks ago the Tyler Courier-Times–Telegraph (a clearly conservative newspaper) ran an editorial across the top of the front page (Tyler Courier Times Telegraph October 3, 2010)  urging Perry to “end the silence” and talk to editorial boards and enter into debates. That should have been a pretty clear signal.

Second, Perry’s campaign has sometimes been too clever for its own good. The technique of avoiding editorial boards, debates, and generally avoiding political risk may serve him well with many voters. However, editorial boards and other close observers become frustrated. The looming $21 billion budget has a lot of people looking for answers. Both Perry and White have both failed to provide enough answers. However, at least White has put himself into the settings where those issues could be pressed. Newspapers’ endorsements may not be important to many Texans (were they ever?). However, allowing yourself to be subject to close questioning and scrutiny is part of the process. Visiting editorial boards may be on its way it out, but that had not been replaced and candidates might want to consider paying a courtesy visit until a replacement comes along.

Third, Perry has been in office longer than most Texans can feel comfortable about. Many Republicans are willing to put that aside and vote against Bill White. However, asking conservatives to sustain one person in an executive office for over a decade is certain to make some pause. Newspapers, always wanting to play the guard dog in American politics, will be the first to warn a politician against over-staying their welcome.

Perry’s partisans try to claim that “liberal” media is behind the wave of endorsements. However, there’s no doubting that editorial boards that endorsed Perry (often enthusiastically) are now calling for a change. The Perry campaign may eventually see this strategy pay off with a victory at the polls. At the moment, they’re paying the price and may be thinking about how wise their choices were.

Perry will likely still win the election. However, whether his ambition is to be a strong governor in his next term or to position himself for national office, his campaign has done him a great disservice making him to appear to be either arrogant or fearful. Perry has been an effective debater and has little to fear from editorial boards. There’s no need to hide protect him at a moment when he could easily be projecting strength.

“Last minute” voting

Early votingEarly voting begins today (October 18). In the 2008 general election about 5.3 million Texans cast their votes early. That was 66% of the roughly 8.1 million votes cast by Texans in the election.

It appears that “early voting” is now so common that the it is more common than traditional voting on election day. We may need to change how we label voting since the old norm of lining up to vote on election day may become the domain of the last-minute voter who, like their Christmas Eve shopping counterpart, are left to squeeze their vote decision in during extended hours on the last day.

Political campaigns have been adapting to the new order for years. With voting beginning well ahead of election day, campaigns now need to peak earlier to make sure they catch voters’ ears before they cast their ballots. Late voters may be often late deciders, but campaigns are going to worry that they they’ll reach swing voters too late.

Running a civil campaign

If you’ve every wondered what it looks like when two grown-ups  run for office, take a look at this year’s race for Texas Land Commissioner. The Dallas Morning New has a short article looking at how incumbent Jerry Patterson and challenger Hector Uribe are waging a positive campaign and remaining friends.

The campaign reflects the competition between two secure adults (as Patterson says: “You reach a point in your life when you’ve got nothing to prove by denigrating somebody else.”) engaged in a competition that actually benefits voters (Uribe notes that voters benefit from a “civil discourse.”). Imagine two candidates putting their humanity and the public interest ahead of their personal ambition.

It’s no surprise that if we competing teams of advertising consultants millions of dollars they can tear down  the candidates on both sides. All we’ve succeeded in doing by the end of the campaign is making sure that we have the lowest possible opinion of the people who will serve in public office.

We can’t simply blame the consultants for this. Citizens reward campaigns whenever we respond to these attacks. Maybe that’s what people want. Americans love to judge others and complain. Negative campaigns allow us to carry all the worst elements of “reality” television into governing. The difference is that we don’t rely on the “real housewives” or the cast of Jersey Shore to do accomplish anything. However, we need our elected officials to have some ability to communicate with us and lead the state.

Why do we work so hard to prevent that?

Taxing lesser sins

Soda bottleTexas is already doing what it can to tax alcohol and tobacco into oblivion. It’s all part of the category of “six taxes” that I’ve discussed before.

According to WFAA, some people now feel like it’s time to go after obesity through the form of a tax on sugary drinks. In Texas, a tax of 1¢ per ounce (the typical soft drink can is 12 ounces) would generate over $600 million a year in new taxes. That’s a pretty big pot of cash to legislators trying to find money.

At the same time, the lobbyists from soft drink companies would be pretty formidable partners for all those Texans who don’t want to pay more for their soda.

This poses an excellent question for discussion: how much of what is bad for us (physically or spiritually) should we try to tax away? Yes, soda can contribute to obesity which can lead to health costs that might fall upon society. However, other foods and drinks can contribute to obesity. Where should Texas draw the line?