Point Austin: Pointed Questions for 2006

When the Lege comes back to school, will they have done their homework?

Point Austin
Gov. Perry got the political New Year off to a (far) right start, when he wrote a constituent that he believes "intelligent design" should be taught in Texas schools as an acceptable alternative to Darwinian biological theory. One might think, with Carole Keeton Strayhorn having bolted the upcoming Republican primary, Perry would no longer feel quite so obligated to cultivate his fundamentalist base. But not so – spokeswoman Kathy Walt, an otherwise educated person who is definitely earning her flack's salary on this one, confirmed that the governor supports teaching intelligent design (aka creationism with a college degree) as "part of the effort to teach critical and analytical thinking skills." Along the same lines, we await the governor's proposal for Texas students to study Flat Earth Theory as part of the effort to overthrow the secular tyranny of materialist geography.

When Perry's predecessor – you remember Dynamic Dubya? – used to spout this bilge, it was impossible to determine whether he really believed Phonics Cures All Ills or was just reading the requisite cue cards. But Perry seems frankly, even bitterly smarter than the dumbed-down level of contemporary Texas politics. Maybe that explains the inevitably nasty edge to so many of his press conferences, when reporters spout their predictable questions and he snarls his more-predictable answers. He has to dance, but he doesn't have to pretend he likes it.

As for Strayhorn, all she had to do to get the endorsement of the Texas State Teachers Association was to declare herself an "independent." Since her One True Party has always been Carole Keeton Strayhorn, you'd think the TSTA would at least wait a few weeks before they jumped on her careening November bandwagon. But the teachers have been wandering in the desert for so long even saltwater looks refreshing. Union President Donna New Haschke sheepishly called CKS "electable" – since the official endorsement score is now Perry 140, Strayhorn 1, Haschke might consider a refresher in Math 101. More to the point, although Strayhorn has been more rhetorically supportive of public education than Perry – and reportedly renounced vouchers in return for the endorsement – she's done more than her own share of school-bashing. In particular, she loves to bray the Big GOP Lie that "only 50%" of school funding is spent in the classroom. That's true, of course, only if you consider four classroom walls, a roof, cafeterias, lavatories, and incidentals like libraries and buses nothing but wasteful fripperies. Considering the Lege's flat ed budgets over the last several biennia, there are plenty of Texas politicians who do.

Cold Comfort

The major Dem wannabees, former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell and former Supreme Court Justice Bob Gammage, were predictably grumpy about the TSTA endorsement (which may have been printed on a white flag), though it remains to be seen if either of them can generate sufficient popular traction to make the union send regrets. If nothing else, Strayhorn's defection promises to make the fall run a good deal more interesting for folks like me, who make a living mocking political dunderheads. Pending the post-primary signature campaign – a serious obstacle to independent Texas candidacies – we've got the real chance of a four-candidate horse race: Perry, Strayhorn, Kinky Friedman, and whoever survives the Bell/Gammage March tap dance. At a minimum, that should make it more difficult for Perry to achieve an outright "mandate" for the 2007 Legislature – and if the three opposition campaigns drag the state political conversation a few small degrees to the left, the chances may be somewhat diminished that Vouchers for Intelligent Design can make a comeback on the House floor.

Far more fundamentally important for the schools, of course, is the outcome of Perry's Tax Reform Commission, which thus far seems one more feeble public relations exercise in avoiding serious school funding. Perry appointee John Sharp's charge seems to be to lower property taxes, find a relatively painless, "revenue neutral" business tax/sales tax alternative, and otherwise leave bad enough alone.

But the increasing pressure from wealthy districts (with politically powerful constituencies) to be allowed to raise local school taxes for "enrichment" carries a potentially positive consequence. If wealthy districts can raise their own money, established legal principles of equity require the state to come up with compensatory funding for those poorer districts (representing a sizable majority of both students and schools) that can't raise it on their own. Some people call that "Robin Hood"; the Supreme Court has repeatedly called it the law of the land under the Texas Constitution.

So it will not be a slam dunk for the Commission, nor the special session that follows in its footsteps some time this spring, to design a tax plan that moves the same desiccated pea around under the same tired shell game and calls it "reform." Even this credulous Lege didn't buy that scam last year; if Perry, Sharp, Craddick & Co. try to sell the same snake oil again, this year's prospects for a deal seem little better. end story

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Texas politics, Rick Perry, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Kathy Walt, Texas State Teachers Association, Donna New Haschke, Chris Bell, Bob Gammage, Kinky Friedman, John Sharp

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