Texas Dental Board

The Texas Tribune had a story (“Texas Dental Board is Accused of Ineptitude“) that reflect one of the worries behind the bureaucracy in Texas.

The Texas State Board of Dental Examiners is composed of 15 member appointed to six-year terms by the governor: 8 dentists,  2 dental hygienists, and 5 public members. Thus, like most of the commissions that oversee our licensing and regulatory boards, the board is dominated by professionals in the field. Of course, it makes a lot of sense to make sure that the board has some understanding of what they are regulating. However, it also builds in a potential for conflict of interests that will worry citizens.

Here’s the challenge for Texans: Do you want to hand agencies like this entirely to professional bureaucrats, or do you allow citizen-commissioners with potential conflicts of interests?


Cheating on tests standardized

Recently, the Austin-American Statesman has run a story (“No Texas investigation following cheating report“) and commentary (“State withholds clues to possible test cheating) questioning the TEA’s decision not to investigate suspicious test scores in the state’s public schools. This came in the face of yet another analysis that turned up suspicious patterns in exams.

It makes you wonder what it would take for the state’s leaders allow Texans to question the gospel of standardized testing.

Too many secrets at the Commission on Judicial Conduct?

The Austin-American Statesman has an important article (“Texas judges’ misdeeds often kept secret by oversight commission“) for those of us concerned about judicial ethics. The Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) has made it harder for citizens to trust the judges they elect and it is impossible for the public to judge the fairness of the CJC’s decisions when little information is released. As the Statesman reports:

While some judges may receive a relatively harsh public sanction, with details of their cases made available for public consumption, most of the reprimands meted out by the commission in a given year… are kept private, with only the rough outlines of the case made public. No identifying information about the judge or his or her jurisdiction is released, and the penalty has no real impact beyond a notation in the commission’s records and the judge’s conscience.

The CJC defends it secrecy based on worries that judges could be subjected to political attacks based on false claims. However, we allow our governor and other elected officials to face such attacks. We need a pretty good reason to protect our elected judges from similar scrutiny.

There might be some point in protecting judges to protect the image of state courts from the ravages of politics. However, we turned our courts into political offices when we decided to elect them in partisan elections and protecting judges from political attacks also protects them from the kind of scrutiny needed to make elected officials accountable. Rules that say we can only get good news about elected officials are contrary to democracy.

The CJC’s fourteen employees hardly seem like enough staffing to investigate the 1,200 complaints they  receive every year. The  commission is headed by thirteen unpaid commissioners who serve six-year terms. Six commissioners are judges chosen by the Texas Supreme Court, two are lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Texas, while the remaining five are ordinary citizens appointed by the governor.

The limited staffing and the secrecy behind CJC investigations are fundamentally at odds with the very public and very political nature of our judicial elections. The laws of Texas and CJC rules seem more concerned about protecting the reputation of judges than serving  the needs of the judicial election system we rely on to choose them.

Hard choices in higher education

The University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education has released a study (“Hard Choices Ahead: Performance and Policy in Texas Higher Education”) that looks at the tough choices Texas faces during the budget shortfall:

But the future of economic growth is at stake. The performance of higher education in Texas still lags well behind that of other states. Unless state leaders prioritize their goals for higher education and develop a plan to pay for them, Texas will be forced to close the doors to college opportunity for thousands of young people—many of them Latino—as a number of warning signs attest.

The report points out that the state’s educational system is unable to keep up with the demands of Texas employers:

Despite recent progress, Texas higher education falls below the national average on most measures of performance and below the best-performing states on all of them. Worryingly, Texas ranks 39th among states in the share of adults ages 25 and older who have earned at least an associate degree, at 32%. Yet by 2018, 56% of all jobs in Texas are projected to require some kind of postsecondary education or training. Unless more Texans earn certificates and degrees, and soon, Texas businesses will have no other choice but to look outside the state to find these workers.

The authors of the report effectively point out that Texas has to start making choices.

Texas needs to decide how it will divide its finite financial resources among its competing goals for higher education: increasing college enrollment, raising the number of degrees awarded, pushing the state’s colleges and universities up in the national rankings, and luring more federal research dollars. Experience in other states, such as California, demonstrates that overexpansion of the university research function can come at the expense of educational opportunity. If Texas spreads its finite financial resources among too many priorities, however worthy, it is unlikely to get a handle on the soaring tuition that is threatening to price more and more Texans out of a college education, thus perpetuating racial and economic disparities.

In effect, the report calls out the state’s political leaders for promising everyone that they can have everything: high prestige research universities and an education for more students–all in the face of a public school system that is not preparing most students to succeed in college. The state’s political leaders promised that Texas would create more Tier I universities and begin attracting more federal grants and other prestigious research. Of course, this flew in the face of the cuts necessitated by the budget shortfall.

While investing in the state’s community colleges would have contributed to a solution, the report notes that the state has failed to adequately fund the two-year schools are often the most affordable alternative.

Texas is not meeting the fiscal needs of its community colleges, despite their huge hole in postsecondary education. Promisingly, Texas is seeking proposals for a study of community college governance, but any reforms would need to be accompanied by changes in the financing model if they are to be effective.

While the report see some promise in some of the discussions going on in Austin, the state’s political leaders are unlikely to change.

Related news stories:

Does the death penalty work?

Cover Deterrence and the Death PenaltyA committee of the National Research Council has completed a review of the evidence on the deterrent value of the death penalty and concluded that current studies do not provide much evidence that the death penalty affects homicide rates.

You can read the press release summarizing the findings or take a look at the full report online.

The committee’s conclusions (from the full report):

The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide. Consequently, claims that research demonstrates that capital punishment decreases or increases the homicide rate by a specified amount or has no effect on the homicide rate should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment.

Those findings are not going to excite a lot of people. As the committee points out, the existing research has produced conflicting results and the debate has often spawned more political fighting than informed debate.

The study will probably produce two interesting responses:

Why [use the death penalty]?

Some people will ask why we utilize such a drastic and irreversible form of punishment when we are not sure of its impact.

Why not [use the death penalty]?

Others will ask why worry about the deterrent value of the death penalty since it can serve justice in other ways and the society has the right to retribution.


So… what’s wrong with the existing studies?

The report cites two problems with the existing research on the death penalty:

(1) It does not look at the “differential deterrent effect of execution in comparison with the deterrent effect of other  available or commonly used penalties.” That is, does the prospect of being executed discourage potential criminals beyond other possible punishments dished out in the state? We don’t know if crime is deterred by the existence of capital punishment or the kind of generally tough-on-crime mentality that will manifest itself in punishment other than the death penalty.

(2) We don’t know how criminals think about the death penalty or how they weigh such punishment in their decision to commit a crime. Most of us generally assume that the government promising to kill killers makes society’s intentions pretty clear. However, I have to admit that I know nothing of the state of mind behind a murder and projecting my rationality onto someone who is doing something I consider unimaginable is silly.

The problem of looking at how potential murders assess risk is complicated by the fact that only 15% of people sentenced to death have actually been executed. That means that a death sentence isn’t always a death sentence. Knowing that the state might not follow through on the intention to execute people may undermine the deterrent value of capital punishment. To compute the odds that they will be executed potential murder would have to calculate the probability that they would get caught/convicted/sentenced and then multiply that by the likelihood that the state will follow through on an execution.

Unfortunately, this study seems to pretty accurately reflect our real understanding of the death penalty and left with more uncertainty about its impact than we’re comfortable with.

We’re on Facebook

FacebookWe’ve set up a Lone Star Politics page on Facebook. It seems like a good forum for sharing links to news stories, etc. Feel free to “like” us there if you’ve got yourself a hankering for more Texas politics ‘n’ stuff.

Texas has fourth highest teen birth rate

Another rating of states has come out (“US teen births: Miss. has highest rate, NH lowest“). Texas finished toward the wrong end of the scale with rates of teen pregnancies is similar to much of the South.

Teen birth rates by state

The good news is that nationally the rate of teen births is the lowest it has been since the government started keeping records in 1940. This is the kind of news that the drama queens that pass themselves off as media analysts tend to over look. If you listen to some people they would assure you that today’s teens are out of control and that teen births are an epidemic.

The decline in teen birth rates

No doubt, Texas and the rest of the nation can do better. However, we need to acknowledge when things are going in the right direction.

You get read the full report from the CDC.