The Harris County Department of Education held its monthly board meeting yesterday and for once, it was fairly interesting. First off, proof that both Republicans and Democrats like to feed at the public trough:
See what I mean? Oh, c’mon, relax. It’s just a joke! If they would have taken my advice and moved that thing to the back of the room where ordinary citizens could partake, I wouldn’t have mentioned it.
Turns out that only one citizen wanted to address the board in the Open Forum. Me. After my most excellent suggestion that the Superintendent’s signature spending authority be reduced from $50k to $10k, the real business started.
First, there was a public hearing of sorts on the proposed budget for next year. The staff is asking for a 2.4% increase, from $47,289,859 to $48,399,831, or $1,109,972. There wasn’t much discussion from the board about it. One citizen spoke about it, saying that the law requires “equalization” funds to be shipped to local ISD’s and the proposed budget fails to do that. She asked that the budget be reworked to address that.
Next up was recognition of outgoing Trustee Jim Henley. You could tell by the applause and genuine affection for him that he was well liked by other board members and staff of the HCDE. He was presented with his official portrait that had been hanging in the hallway and then Board President Angie Chesnut presented him with a plaque for his service. As you may know, he now lives in Costa Rica and during his speech, he invited anyone that works for HCDE to visit him, saying that if they can get there, they can stay with him for free. I’m thinking about applying for a part-time job – hey, an almost free vacation in Costa Rica rocks! Plus, he seems like a fun guy to hang with.
Okay, old member out, new member in. Former Judge and now Harris County District Attorney First Assistant Belinda Hill was on hand to give Howard Jefferson his oath of office.
Time to move on to business. The first presentation came from a group called the Harris County School Readiness Corporation. A lawyer named Jonathan Day was the frontman for the group on this occasion. You may have heard about this group already – Kiah Collier of the Houston Chronicle reported on it Monday. Marc Campos commented on it yesterday on his Camposcommunication’s Blog. Charles Kuffner commented on it today at OfftheKuff.com. And there will be a lot more noise about it in the future because they want to raise taxes.
Obviously this proposal is controversial and it isn’t simply because they want to more than double the current taxes collected by the Harris County Department of Education. If you read Collier’s report, you’ll see that County Judge Ed Emmett is adamantly opposed to it and thinks the whole scheme is illegal. As well, Commissioner Steve Radack is against it, saying that it is just a backdoor way to get the county to put more money into education.
Most troubling to me is that the proposal is to force taxpayers to pony up money to give to a private, non-profit group with very limited oversight from the HCDE board. The board would have no operating control whatsoever, according to the presentation by Mr. Day. The only “control” would be at budget time but really what we are talking about is a straight pass through from your pocket to a private entity. Mr. Day minimized the effect of the tax, saying that the average homeowner would only pay $18 per year. Why do these guys always minimize taxes? That $18 per year is in addition to the current HCDE amount. If you live in the Houston ISD boundaries, you’ll see that they want another $0.02, which is another $36 per year, if Mr. Day’s number is correct. When will it stop?
And think about how this works – it is ripe for corruption. An unelected, private non-profit corporation gets to dole out $25,000,000 in taxpayer money to organizations of their choosing. With no oversight from the elected board of the Harris County Department of Education. This stinks to high heaven.
The board asked Mr. Day a lot of questions. I got the feeling that the whole thing is unorganized and rushed. Trustee Smith noted that no programs for “special needs” children were included in the proposal. Mr. Day’s assistant said they there were programs for “special needs” included and directed Smith to an appendix item. Smith asked Day why he had told her previously that none were included and he answered that he made a mistake. Board President Angie Chesnut and Trustee Debra Kerner noted that they were originally told that the HCDE board would have one appointment to the board of the new corporation but Day said that they were not going to do that because they didn’t want “partisan” politics on the board. Chesnut said that she could not accept that and would vote against it – Day then said they could look into but they really didn’t want to do that.
There was confusion about the age range to be serviced. Is it birth to 3? Birth to 4? Birth to 5? I heard each of those ranges from Day. There is no website yet but they expect to get enough signatures for the petition by the end of July. Like I said, it just felt unorganized.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have a shot at getting this through. This is not a grassroots effort, as you normally think of petitions. Probably the closest comparison would be the Rain Tax petition and subsequent approval. People looking to feed at the government trough will pay a lot of money to make even more. My guess is that they will pay for the signatures – not directly, but will hire people to stand in front of large retail establishments and convince them to sign the petition “for the children”.
But the biggest problem with the entire proposal is that it is a waste of money. The cornerstone of the proposal is the idea that if children are not reading at grade level at the end of 3rd grade, they are four times more likely to drop out. Scary stuff. Their guiding principle is the acceptance of the notion that early childhood intervention programs make a difference. You probably believe that too, given that “everyone” knows this to be true. Unfortunately for the people pushing this program, Head Start and other early childhood intervention programs DO NOT make a statistical difference for children by the end of third grade. Don’t believe me, read it for yourself: Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study: Final Report – Executive Summary.
Looking across the full study period, from the beginning of Head Start through 3rd grade, the evidence is clear that access to Head Start improved children’s preschool outcomes across developmental domains, but had few impacts on children in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Providing access to Head Start was found to have a positive impact on the types and quality of preschool programs that children attended, with the study finding statistically significant differences between the Head Start group and the control group on every measure of children’s preschool experiences in the first year of the study. In contrast, there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.
So unless their goal is to hire 2nd graders, this is a complete waste of money. And before you discount that report and revert to your “conventional wisdom” on early childhood programs, note that the report was prepared not by some right wing think tank but by the good old U.S. Department of Health & Human Services – it doesn’t get more liberal than that.
Interestingly, the board went into executive (closed) session before the presentation was finished so that they could talk about it and have more questions for Day and his assistant. They were in the closed session for almost an hour. Guess who didn’t stay to finish their presentation? Day and his assistant. Now, if I was going around asking for a $25 million handout, I’d stick around and answer questions. I guess $25 million means more to me than it does to Day. Who knows? But they weren’t there when the board opened the doors, so the board had to move on to other agenda items. Arrogance? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
One last thing. Board President Angie Chesnut asked a very interesting question. What if County Judge Emmett refuses to put the initiative on the ballot? Day answered that there could only be two reasons for that. First, if the petition didn’t gather the required number of valid signatures. Second, if Emmett refused to follow the law, in which case, a lawsuit would be filed. Chesnut followed up with “Who is going to file the suit? Us?” Day responded that the petitioners would be filing the suit.
Which brings up more questions. If the HCDE doesn’t agree to this before it is on the ballot, how could it possibly be on the ballot? And to Chesnut’s main concern, if HCDE has to agree to it before it gets on the ballot, they will be the ones suing Commissioner’s Court. Again.
And let me say this – if HCDE does sue Commissioner’s Court again, there will be no question that they will be shut down in the next legislative session. And that is what Chesnut is concerned about.
UPDATE: Contrary to this Houston Chronicle headline (County education trustees approve tax rate hike), the HCDE board DID NOT APPROVE A TAX RATE HIKE! . They approved allowing the staff of HCDE to continue working with the non-profit corporation to determine if the idea is feasible. Goodness. How in the heck could they write a headline like that?
UPDATE 2: The Houston Chronicle has now changed the headline to read: Tax rate hike to get review. While that is closer, it still isn’t accurate. The staff of HCDE has been given permission by the board to continue working with the non-profit corporation to determine if the idea for the overall plan is feasible. We won’t know until they finish their review and report back to the board what, if anything, they want to contribute to the partnership. Meanwhile, Charles Kuffner is saying that the board approved the plan. Not even close to what happened, which is why it helps to be there. Also, this isn’t a proposal for Pre-K funding – it is a proposal to provide training to birth to some age (3? 4? 5?) care providers.