The Elusive Primary Winner

Check out this story from the Texas Observer (“Finding Marisa Perez: In Search of Texas’ Most Elusive Primary Winner“) about this little-known candidate for the State Board of Education. Most people are more public when then seek public office.


One really bad idea for Texas higher education

Tonight’s “daily buzz” in the Quorum Report includes the news that Representative Fred Brown (R-College Station) has pre-filed legislation (HB 104) to consolidate the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Education Agency. This would bring higher education under the control of the elected State Board of Education.

The first problem with this is that the current organizational chart of TEA is already complicated enough. You might remember that in between the various stories about the politicization of public school curriculum, the SBOE has also had a scandal associated with the handling of investments. The SBOE is already handling too broad of a range of issues. Tasking them with higher education issues is not going to help this part-time board do their job in an effective manner.

Second, not everyone considers Texas public schools wildly successful. (I think the criticisms are greatly overstated.) The state’s record at creating, imposing, and  then discarding standardized testing schemes for the state’s children doesn’t inspire confidence. The best parts of Texas’ public schools are the teachers and most parents consider the test (and the manipulation of their scores by TEA) to be more trouble than they’re worth. People come from all over the world to attend college in America. Giving politicians more control over our universities isn’t going to make them more appealing to anyone.

Third, the whole effort is seriously misguided. Brown claims, “There would be one agency and one commission of education to deal with K-16 issues.” Such a reorganization would help pushing public schools and higher education into a “K-16” mode. Texas public schools already have a problem with “social promotion” and the state’s universities are already feeling pressure to accept and graduate any student who shows up. College needs to be more than 13th – 16th grades.  Also, combining two agencies doesn’t make their work go away and Brown’s proposal would likely just end up putting the same number of workers under the same heading. In the process, it will probably lower standards in higher education. Texas universities shouldn’t be an extension of Texas public schools. Our universities should attract students from across the country and then prepare them for success anywhere in the country and the world.

Legislators interested in saving money should consider asking universities to do less paperwork in the name of “accountability.” Universities have been forced to hire more administrators and reassign teaching faculty in order to deal with the rising tangle of red tape coming out of Austin. The state’s experiment with “accountability” produced no real progress and has only repeated and distorted the professional and other accreditation processes already in place. Texas universities should go back to working with the private businesses that hire our graduates and quit being asked to focus on the demands of Austin bureaucrats.

I’m sure that Representative Brown set out to save a few dollars. However, I think he’ll find that the cost of those saving those few dollars will be too high to justify the devaluation of Texas diplomas. Reform is needed in higher education. Shuffling the office space of the bureaucracy is not the answer.

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.

Accidentally banned

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see?

Not the book with "very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system."

The Dallas Morning News has reported that the State Board of Education has (apparently) accidentally removed the wrong book. Apparently, a SBOE member confused Bill Martin Jr. (author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (and several other bear-themed books) with Bill Martin (author of Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation). I understand that it’s hard to research every book you want to ban. However, it’s relatively easy to spot the differences between the two and I’m not sure why anyone would think they came from the same author.  Brown Bear weighs in at 32 pages and is richly illustrated by Eric Carle. Ethical Marxism runs 480 pages and doesn’t seem to have any pictures of animals. It took me less than a minute to sort this out.

I have sympathy for the authors in this situation (Bill Martin Jr. passed away a few years ago). There are several Kenneth Colliers and one writes about politics and has a distinctly conspiratorial view of American politics. That’s not me. I occasionally get fan mail for the other Kenneth and now I’m wondering if I’ll end up on someone’s banned list because of his views.

Cover of Ethical Marxism

Not a rhyming book about bears, frogs, and other animals.

I’ll leave others to wrangle over the battle between the left and right’s view of political correctness. The broader issue is in government is how our government functions and what the liabilities and advantages of such boards.

Part-time boards like the SBOE are going to make mistakes like this. “Citizen” government means part-time, amateur government. While some voters seem to relish criticizing “experts,” you have to admit that experts wouldn’t confuse these two books.

We’ve also seen conflict of interest and partisanship run wild in the SBOE. This is the dynamic you get when people run under party labels, take campaign funds from special interests, and seek the office to become the political watchdogs for their ideology. By now we’ve learned that the problems can come from members of both parties. When the selection process a partisan battle you’re going to produce a partisan governing process. Does that really benefit anyone?

Should we stop electing the State Board of Education?  One possibility is letting the governor appoint the board. Texans have resisted giving more power to the governor. However, that might be a better option than leaving the choice to an inattentive public in a partisan election.

Ethics and the State Board of Education

The Texas State Board of Education continues to be a wonderful laboratory for learning about problems in government. If it were not for the SBOE I’d probably have to spend hours sitting around dreaming up examples for my lectures.

The most recent contribution of the SBOE appeared because two Democratic members of the Board (Rick Agosto and Rick Nunez) more than $5,000 in dinners, football tickets, rounds of golf and other gifts from a company seeking contracts with the board.   The Austin-American Statesman’s editorial board takes the SBOE to task its inability to follow or even understand ethics rules while the Dallas Morning New wants a legislative investigation into the gifts.

Unfortunately, this isn’t going to be the last we’ll hear of the follies of the SBOE.


October 27 update: Texans for Public Justice filed a formal complaint against the State Board with the Texas Ethics Commission and urged an investigation

Who gets to have a conflict of interest? The case for doing a little surgery on the Texas Medical Board

The Dallas Morning News has done an interesting story on the Texas Medical Board and physician misconduct. The News has been looking at this issue for seven years and there continue to be signs of problems. There’s very little serious investigative journalism going on these days and I appreciate the DMN for doing some research.

The question for those of us in political science is how to create institutions that guard the public interest. The Texas Medical Board is a state agency charged with regulating the practice of medicine in the state. Board members are appointed to six-year terms by the governor (subject to confirmation by the Texas Senate). Texas law specifies that the board is composed of 19 members, 12 physicians and 7 “public” members.  Specifically, the law specifically calls for “twelve members who are learned and eminent physicians licensed in this state for at least three years before the appointment, nine of whom must be graduates of a reputable medical school or college with a degree of doctor of medicine (M.D.) and three of whom must be graduates of a reputable medical school or college with a degree of doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O).” You can not be a public member of the board if you or your spouse is a health care provider or if you have a similar conflict of interest.

So, by law the Board is dominated by doctors. You can argue about whether or not that is a bad thing. However, it is a sharp contrast from teachers who are barred from being appointed to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board or elected to the State Board of Education. Section 7.103 Texas Texas Education Code specifies: “A person is not eligible for election to or service on the board [SBOE] if the person holds an office with this state or any political subdivision of this state.” According to an Attorney General’s opinion issued in 1982 that will include public school teachers and faculty members at state universities.

Going beyond barring eligibility for service, § 7.108. of Texas Education Code states that “person engaged in manufacturing, shipping, selling, or advertising textbooks or otherwise connected with the textbook business commits  an offense if the person makes or authorizes a political  contribution to or takes part in, directly or indirectly, the  campaign of any person seeking election to or serving on the board [State Board of Education].” As far as I know our textbook is not being considered for use in Texas public schools. However, it certainly could be and I am engaged in the “textbook business.” So, I can not give money or volunteer for a SBOE candidate. For educators, the language of the law about conflict of interest is very restrictive.

It seems very odd to me to legally preclude citizens from electing an educator to the State Board of Education. It would be one thing for the Legislature to check executive power by restricting a governor’s appointment powers.  However, legislating a restriction on the choices voters have is a check on democratic power rather than executive power. In this case Legislature has decided to define conflict of interest for voters rather than letting them decide for themselves. I’m not aware of similar restrictions on elective offices.

In Federalist #10, James Madison said, “No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.” In Texas, conflict of interest is mandated in one case and outlawed in another. The Texas Medical Board does benefit from the insights of experienced doctors. However, citizens must feel confident that professional judgment isn’t trumped by  personal interest and that the oversight of the state’s doctors is as concerned with patients’ health as doctors’ interests.

I don’t see why the TMB couldn’t get by with fewer doctors and more public members. Governors are not going to nominate citizens who are hostile to doctors and public board members would certainly listen to the opinions of the medical professionals on the Board. With a TMB weighted toward public membership, Texans could fee more confident that conflicts of interest could be check and that the balance of power favored the public interest.

The State Board of Education–Episode II: The Revenge of the Sith

According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, Rick Perry is considering Cynthia Dunbar at the new chair of the State Board of Education. This comes after the Texas Senate rejected Perry’s nomination of Don McLeroy.

Dunbar has done more than her share to bring attention the SBOE. In a column she suggested that Obama’s election is “the end of America as we know her.” Dunbar went on to suggest that there will be an attack on America by terrorists and it will be “a planned effort by those with whom Obama truly sympathizes to take down the America that is threat to tyranny.” From this, she speculates, Obama will launch martial law. Dunbar claimed she was writing as a “private citizen.” That reminder seems unnecessary since almost no public (or private institution) seemed to want to claim her. Even the website that originally published her rant ( removed it from their site.

As it turns out, Rick Perry may want to claim her.

Dunbar has other interesting views. The Chronicle points out that in a book published last year (One Nation Under God: How the Left is Trying to Erase What Made Us Great), Dunbar argues the founders created “an emphatically Christian government” and that should be guided by a “biblical litmus test.” A  press release from Texas Freedom Network graciously pointed out that on page 100 Dunbar describes public education a “subtly deceptive tool of perversion.” The Ft. Worth Star Telegram reports that Dunbar points out that she explains the characterization in the chapter and, “I also go on at the end of the chapter and say that I do not believe that it would be responsible to dismantle a system that educates more than 80 percent of the children in this country.”

Fellow SBOE members argue that her views have nothing to do with education policy. However, her writing reveals a contempt for America’s courts when she complains about “the attack this great Country undergoes on a daily basis from our own militant leftist Judicial Branch.” (Obviously, she missed the fact that Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43 did a pretty good job of appointing conservatives to today’s courts.) Whatever worldview shaped her rant against Obama and the courts will be behind other other decisions. It’s hard to see how she has the credibility to effectively lead the board.

I haven’t read the book (And, I’m not going to buy it. When I take  a break from my political science reading I’m going to read something fun). However, it’s hard to not be concerned by any description of the public education system as “tyrannical” and a claim that “the underlying authority for our constitutional form of government stems directly from biblical precedents.” Dunbar is consistent in her beliefs and has relied on home schooling and private schools to educate her children. What seems odd to me is that someone who rejects the legitimacy of public education’s role in the lives of families (page 102) would seek and exercise exactly this authority as a public official.

To be fair, the SBOE has been embarrassed before. Texas Monthly even put together a fun quiz about the innovative ideas emanating from SBOE members. Dunbar isn’t the only character on the Board. However, she may be the most interesting