A cowardly attack on academic freedom


You may never have heard of Charlie Kirk, but he is a rising star of conservative politics in America who is still in his early 20s. On his Twitter page, he calls himself a “proud capitalist, best selling author, Eagle Scout, blessed.”

He also is a political coward promoting cowardice among his generation.

Kirk is the founder and executive director of Turning Point USA, a conservative, non-profit organization seeking to educate college students about the “importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.”

There certainly is nothing wrong with that. Free and open political discourse is part of what the First Amendment is all about, a First Amendment that, so far at least, hasn’t even been trumped by the new president-elect. (Keep your fingers crossed, though.)

But Kirk also is using his organization to promote a form of modern-day McCarthyism designed to scare many students and their parents away from college courses taught by professors who are deemed “too liberal” to be exposed to young, impressionable minds.

Turning Point USA has created a website, Professor Watchlist, to name professors or college instructors throughout the country who “advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” Kirk wrote in a blog post that “it’s no secret that some of America’s college professors are totally out of line” and should be exposed.

So far, about 200 professors and instructors have been listed, accused of promoting “leftist propaganda in the classroom,” on the basis of unverified, published material gleaned from various sources by Kirk and his colleagues, the self-styled arbiters of academic and political acceptability.

Finding the Second Amendment more important than the First, they even included on the watchlist one University of Texas at Austin professor for the alleged transgression of leading a petition drive to bar students from carrying concealed guns into classrooms. The watchlist falsely accuses the professor of violating the law. She didn’t. The extent of the campus carry law was still being debated when the petition drive was being conducted.

This, of course, is an attack on academic freedom. It also is a reminder of the Joe McCarthy era, when the demagogic late senator from Wisconsin claimed he saw a communist behind every tree and ruined the careers and lives of many writers and other prominent Americans whom he had blacklisted.

Perhaps more than anything else, though, this watchlist is an act of political cowardice. Kirk and his colleagues would love to keep their peers in a conservative echo chamber rather than let them be exposed to a variety of political viewpoints. Why?

Maybe they find it easier to discourage political debate than engage in it. Maybe they find it easier to stifle opposing viewpoints than defend their own.






An economist with a realistic view of Texas and vouchers


This is a short tale about vouchers and economists, one economist with an overactive imagination and little knowledge of public schools and the other with a more-grounded view of the financial and political realities of public education in Texas.

You may not recall, but at the beginning of the 2015 legislative session, Arthur Laffer, the economist with the sky’s-the-limit imagination, issued a report all-but- equating the potential magnitude of private school vouchers with the discovery of penicillin, the development of the internal combustion engine and space travel.

All the Legislature had to do was approve vouchers, take tax dollars from under-funded public schools to pay for them, and education in Texas would very soon become the envy of the nation. The “competition” forced on public schools would inspire would-be dropouts to greatness, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and set the Texas economy soaring to stratospheric heights.

I am not sure that even the most-determined voucher advocates believed him, but they nevertheless trotted him out at a news conference to promote their cause, which ultimately failed for the umpteenth time because many legislators didn’t believe him.

Now, with the 2017 legislative session looming, voucher advocates are trying again – for the umpteenth-plus-one time – to foist their very bad idea upon the school children and taxpayers of Texas. I don’t know if they will again enlist Laffer to promote their education savings accounts, tax credit scholarships and whatever else they will be calling vouchers this time around.

But another economist – one with his feet on the ground and his conclusions based in reality — already has chimed in. In an oped that ran in some newspapers over the weekend, economist M. Ray Perryman discussed arguments for and against vouchers and concluded they are not a good idea for Texas, at least not as long as the legislative majority continues to under-fund the public school system.

In his oped, linked below, Perryman points out that the “school voucher and ESA (education savings account) proposals in Texas appear to be nothing more than an attempt to save tax dollars (by providing less than the cost of education while removing a student from the public system) and to further drain the public schools of resources.”

He refutes the argument by voucher supporters that schools will need less money if students take vouchers (and tax dollars) and leave to enroll in private schools. Many of a school district’s operating expenses, he notes, are fixed costs – including teachers, bus drivers and other staffers – that can’t be proportionately reduced everytime a student leaves.

Perryman also points out that many students with the greatest needs wouldn’t benefit from vouchers because their families still couldn’t afford the tuition at many private schools.

“In essence, the (voucher) plans would likely have the effect of reducing educational funding and quality in the public school system which must provide opportunities for the vast majority of Texas children,” he writes. “Competition to improve an excellent (school) system is laudatory; competition as a code word to further deteriorate a chronically underfunded system that is leaving our future workforce behind is not.”






A-F grading system is shameful


The editorial board of The Dallas Morning News was wondering the other day: “Why does the A-F campus report card have superintendents in such a tizzy?”

“Tizzy” may not be a strong enough word to express the outrage that many superintendents feel – or should feel — over this latest effort by the legislative majority to transfer the blame for their own failures and neglect of public schools to educators who actually are helping many school children improve their lives.

The scheme to label individual schools with an A through F grade, beginning with the 2017-18 school year, will do absolutely nothing to improve educational quality in Texas. But it will unfairly place a stigma of failure on low-income children in property poor school districts, where most of the Ds and Fs will be posted. Here’s why:

# Some 55 percent of the grading model for a school’s letter grade will be based on STAAR test scores, which persistently have been lower among low-income, minority children.

# Another 35 percent of a school’s grade will be determined by such factors as attendance and graduation and dropout rates, which also are heavily affected by poverty. That’s 90 percent, and it’s loaded against disadvantaged kids.

The legislative majority adopted this scheme to help provide cover for its own policy failures, beginning with a refusal to adequately and fairly fund public education, and to make it easier to declare neighborhood schools “failures,” clearing the way to have them taken over by corporate, for-profit charter companies.


# Some 38 percent of Texas school districts received less state and local funding per student in 2015 than they did in 2011, when the legislative majority slashed $5.4 billion from public school budgets. Texas now pays about $2,700 less per child than the national average.

# The Legislature pays for only about 43 percent of school operating expenses, with local property taxpayers kicking in the rest, including Robin Hood transfers from districts that aren’t really wealthy to districts that are even poorer. The state even uses some of these local Robin Hood tax dollars to pay for other programs.

# The same legislators who persist in shortchanging education also insist on under-funding health care and other programs that are crucial to ensuring that a low-income child is able to attend school and function effectively in the classroom. Everyday, educators work tirelessly to help kids like these who have been neglected by policymakers who now want to slap an “F” on their neighborhood school doors.

That’s a shameful act of cowardice, and educators – superintendents, principals and teachers – have every right to be in a “tizzy.” So do parents.





Robin Hood needs some school finance help from the Legislature


My state representative, Donna Howard of Austin, has pre-filed a piece of school finance legislation that probably would be very popular with local property taxpayers. But it won’t be as popular with the legislative majority or with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, despite all the crocodile tears Patrick sheds over local property taxpayers.

Howard’s measure, HJR27, proposes a constitutional amendment that would require state government to pay for at least half of Texas’ public education costs. At present, the state pays for only about 43 percent of school costs, leaving the remainder – about $26 billion a year — to local taxpayers. The local portion includes all those Robin Hood payments that taxpayers in districts classified as property wealthy, including Austin ISD, kick in to help support poorer districts.

Constitutional amendments have to be approved by Texas voters, and I believe most Texans would vote for this one – if given the chance. But they may never get that chance because the amendment first has to be approved by two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate during next year’s session.

Many members of the legislative majority, including Patrick, don’t want to spend more state funds on public schools, which is what Howard’s amendment would require the Legislature to do. Patrick already has made it known that he isn’t interested in trying to fix the school finance system during the upcoming session. He and his accomplices at the Capitol would rather brag about keeping limits on state spending, while the local cost of education funding and inequities among districts continue to increase.

Nevertheless, they will spend a lot of time pretending to be concerned about the plight of local taxpayers. Patrick has declared that property tax “reform” will be one of his priorities. That means he will try to pass laws to make it more difficult for school districts to raise the tax revenue they need to fill the shortfall in state funding that Patrick and other legislators helped create.

And to make matters even worse for school districts and their local taxpayers, Patrick will try again to divert public education money to private school vouchers. Patrick, in short, is a disaster for public education.

Howard, on the other hand, has an excellent idea. Property owners who really want some relief from their local school taxes and a better school finance system need to demand that their legislators support her amendment. Even if nothing else is accomplished on school finance next year, Howard’s amendment would be a start in the right direction.



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