Capital Tonight: Stage set for battle over education cuts

The Capitol saw its share of tense exchanges Monday, one of which played out on the House floor not long after the gaveling in. Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer took to the back mic to ask Republican Rep. Jim Pitts, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, whether he thought the state of education funding counted as an “emergency” issue.

“You’ve never been on Appropriations,” Rep. Pitts replied, “but 27 members of Appropriations are going to discuss public education in the full committee.”

“So it is emergent?” Martinez Fischer asked.

Pitts’ one-word reply: “Yes.”

In Monday’s episode, we examined that exchange and spoke to Rep. Martinez Fischer about his plan to hold Republican lawmakers accountable for 2011 cuts to education.


The “creationism” versus “evolution” debate resurfaced at the State Capitol Monday. Barbara Cargill is looking to keep her governor-appointed seat as chair of the State Board of Education. But some aren’t convinced that the self-proclaimed conservative Christian will be able to separate her personal views from her job of overseeing education standards for the state’s children.

Sen. Kirk Watson, the only Democrat on the committee, had no shortage of questions for Cargill about her thoughts on evolutionary science. Meanwhile, advocates on both sides of the issue made sure to have their voices heard.


Education, transportation and a longstanding fine for Texas drivers are all issues Rep. Larry Gonzales is looking at this session. Click the image below to hear our full interview with Rep. Gonzales, plus a fact-check stemming from Gov. Perry’s trip to California.


Capital Tonight Extra: Sen. Dan Patrick talks about CSCOPE controversy

Sen. Dan Patrick stopped by the Capital Tonight studio Thursday to talk about several issues. Discussion on one in particular turned into its own six-minute segment. In the video below, hear Sen. Patrick talk about his reasons for holding a hearing on CSCOPE, an online curriculum management system used by teachers in more than 800 school districts.

Click the link below to watch the full segment.

Capital Tonight: Lawmakers moving quickly to reform standardized testing

Re-grading the test

Standardized testing took another hit in the Capitol Wednesday, when Senate lawmakers voted unanimously to do away with the so-called 15-percent requirement.

Already deferred by the Commissioner of Education twice, it requires school districts to count the results of the STAAR test as 15 percent of a student’s final grade. Wednesday’s bill would leave that decision up to individual school districts.

The same day, Republican Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock filed an expansive education bill in the House. It, too, includes ending the 15-percent requirement.

“We get in situations where [students] may pass their courses, but not their end-of-year exam and not graduate,” Rep. Aycock said. “So they have lots of opportunities to keep them from graduating, and we’re looking to reduce those obstacles somewhat.”

The House bill also lowers the number of required tests for high school students from 15 to five, a change Sen. Kel Seliger is pushing for on the Senate side as well.

We also spoke to a representative of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, who pointed out that similar changes were adopted during the group’s annual convention.

“It’s in line with our overall desire to reduce the emphasis on high-stakes testing in this state,” Holly Eaton with TCTA said.

How we got here

The bigger story hovering over all these changes is the recent ruling on school funding. Monday, a state District Judge ruled the system for funding education in Texas violates the state constitution. It’s one of several decisions dating back to a 1989 ruling known as Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby.

In that case, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, filed a suit against the commissioner of education claiming students in poorer districts weren’t getting equal funding compared to students in wealthier districts. Capital Tonight spoke to MALDEF legislative attorney Luis Figueroa about where things stand today.

The ‘Majority Party’ party 

Texas Democrats got together Wednesday night to celebrate the start of session and to do some fundraising. Known this time around as “The Salute 2013,” the yearly event was once called the “Majority Party” party. Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa joined us from the event to talk about how Texas Democrats plan to return to majority status again.

Click the image below to watch tonight’s full episode online.

Capital Tonight: State loses in school finance, Morton testifies in Anderson inquiry

Click the video link at the bottom of this post to watch the Monday’s entire show.

School Finance Trial

After months of testimony from the state and attorneys representing a majority of Texas school districts, a judge finds that the state’s system is unconstitutional.

More than 400 school districts across the state sued after the legislature cut $5.4 billion from education. The school districts claimed schools aren’t adequately funded and that the current system violates the Texas Constitution. Closing arguments wrapped up Monday afternoon and District Judge John Dietz delivered his decision a short time later.

“We feel the judge made very clear that we have increased our expectations for school districts in the state but we haven’t increased our resources to match,” said John Turner, an attorney representing the school districts.

Attorney General Greg Abbott had previously said he would appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.  He did not, however, release a statement Monday.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had this to say following the ruling:

“As a product of Texas’ public school system, I have always worked to ensure the state provides the opportunity for a good education to every student.  I disagree with today’s school finance ruling by the district court in Austin, but I expect an immediate appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.  While we await their final ruling, I will continue to work with Governor Perry, Speaker Straus, and the Legislature to continue to support our students and improve public education.  Together we will ensure that Texas continues to have an accountable, efficient system of public education that produces graduates ready to compete in college and in our global economy.”

Anderson faces court of inquiry in Morton case

A court of inquiry got underway in Georgetown, today to determine if District Court Judge, Ken Anderson should face criminal charges. Anderson is facing accusations that he hid physical evidence and tampered with government records during Michael Morton’s 1987 trial.

Morton spent 24 years behind bars for murdering his wife. DNA evidence later tested in 2011 proved his innocence. Now, Current District Court Judge Ken Anderson is answering to charges he denied Morton justice at his trial more than two decades ago.

Michael Morton spent nearly five hours on the witness stand, Monday. Morton answered questions about statements he gave to police the night his wife was killed and fielded inquiries about reports that a suspicious green van had been seen in the area around the time of the murder. See more from today’s testimony, in the video link, below.

Lobbying Texas

In Monday’s “Lobbying Texas” segment we sat down with the former Texas Medical Association President Dr. Bruce Malone to talk about Medicaid. The group wants to see Washington and Austin reach a bipartisan compromise to expand the state’s medicaid program as part of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.

“We agree with the governor in that we would like to see an innovative way to change the Medicaid program,” Dr. Malone said.  “We want to do it so that we have more flexibilty in how we spend the money so we can provide excellent care to our citizens and make it available to more people.”

Click on the link below to hear more details about potential ways Austin can work with Washington and what a hybrid plan might look like.

Capital Tonight: Bill aims to make federal gun laws ‘unenforceable’ within state borders

Texas lawmakers are already planning for the possibility of stricter gun regulations.

Republican Rep. Steve Toth is in the process of filing a bill dubbed the “Firearms Protection Act,” which aims to make any federal law banning semi-automatic firearms or limiting the size of gun magazines unenforceable within the state’s boundaries.

“We’re not trying to do anything radical and crazy,” Rep. Toth said. “We’re just trying to preserve, protect and defend our rights.”

The legislation also calls for the criminal prosecution of any federal official who might come into the state to enforce stricter gun regulations, should President Obama take executive action.

“Maybe, just maybe, this will wind its way through the courts and we will be able to challenge executive orders, which are being abused right now.” Rep. Toth said.

In Tuesday night’s show, we also looked at the impact of one omission in the House budget proposal — that of funding for statewide school testing.

“We did some things in the introduced bill that we wanted to start the discussion,” Rep. Jim Pitts explained.

That discussion is just what many education groups were looking for. Holly Eaton with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association says that, while it may be a little item in the overall scheme of things, it’s hugely important to some.

“We test more than even the federal law requires,” Eaton said. “So we could at least scale down the number of tests required of a student to take.” 

Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples has a hard-nosed assessment of where things stand when it comes to Texas’ water woes: “Texas has a water crisis. It is not imaginary, it is very real.”

He’s pointing to voluntary conservation as a significant part of a multi-tiered solution.

“Water conservation is really the least expensive method of obtaining new water. And 26-million Texans times a few drops saved by each really adds up,” Staples said.  

We also heard from Democratic strategist Glenn Smith and Republican Strategist Ted Delisi, on everything from new campaign finance numbers to gun control.

Click the image below to watch tonight’s entire episode online.


Capital Tonight: One-on-One with Governor Perry

Click the video at the bottom of this post to watch tonight’s show

Since the start of session Tuesday, we’ve been hearing a lot of vague plans and priorities from state leaders.  Thursday, in an interview with Capital Tonight, Gov. Rick Perry shared more specifics on his plans for the future. 

We talked to him about calls from some lawmakers to restore funding cuts made to education last year. 

“Why wouldn’t we want to have an open and very transparent discussion about which one of these programs delivers the best results for the people of state of Texas. Have that conversation,” the governor said. “And if the legislature agrees that this needs to be funded at a higher level, then I would suggest to you that’s what’s going to happen.

Gov. Perry also talked about the embattled Cancer Research Prevention Institute of Texas.

“We know that the best and quickest way to get cures into the marketplace is to have commercialization of those technologies,” Perry said.

Rep. Craig Eiland is among the lawmakers questioning that path for CPRIT, saying: “If you look at the ballot language that was sent to the voters, ‘commercialization’ was not mentioned to my recollection.”

Thursday’s show also digs into why some politicians are backpedaling on a bill passed last session. The Sunset Advisory Commission put the brakes on nine commercial projects slated for the Capitol Complex this week, including a proposed planetarium. Now, some lawmakers who voted for the bill that set those projects in motion are changing their minds.


Bill filed to restore $5.4B in education funding

The first shot in the battle over school funding has been fired.

Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam is sponsoring a bill that would restore all of the $5.4 billion cut from the state’s public schools in 2011. Burnam says Texas’ better economic picture means there’s now funding to undo the cuts, which the Texas Legislature approved during weaker economic times.

More than 600 school districts have sued the state over the cuts. If the courts side with them, it will be up to the Legislature to remake Texas’ funding system. But no ruling is slated to come until after the Legislature adjourns for the year.

In the meantime, Gov. Rick Perry is calling for restraint when it comes to the projected budget surplus. He says public education has been funded at a “rather substantial level” over the last decade.

“As a matter of fact, from 2001 to 2012, public education funding went up 70 percent. Population enrollment went up 23 percent,” Perry said in an interview with Capital Tonight, Thursday.

Rep. Burnam’s assesment is less optimistic. A report prepared by his office says class size increased in nearly 7,000 elementary classes statewide.

 The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Gov. Perry gets specific on tax relief

In an interview with Capital Tonight, Gov. Rick Perry repeated his suggestion that some form of tax relief could come out of the legislature this session, and went into more detail about what the end result might look like.

“During the last year, as I’ve talked about implementing a budget compact, I talked about specifically putting into place a permanent exemption from the business tax for small businesses. Those businesses that are a million dollars or less in receipts,” Gov. Perry said.

The governor made a brief mention of tax relief on the 83rd Legislature’s opening day, but he hadn’t named specific plans until now. The call for lower taxes comes just three days after a new report from the State Comptroller’s office, predicting 12.4 percent more money will be available for this session’s budget than for the last one.

But the rosier numbers won’t necessarily mean a full restoration of education cuts.

“Listen, the state’s growing,” the governor said. “I think anybody that says we’re not going to put any more money into education, that’s just false on it’s face. But the idea that we’re going to stand here today before we’ve even had one hearing — to say ‘Oh, we’re going to restore full funding.” There may be some people out there saying that, but I will suggest to you that they don’t know how this process works, and frankly, they’re being irresponsible.”

You can see an extended interview with the Governor tonight at 7 on Capital Tonight.

Education lobby reacts to budget projections

Mention a budget estimate that’s about 12 percent higher than the last time state lawmakers met, and it’s not hard to get reaction from those lobbying for a cause. And arguably the biggest cause to confront lawmakers this two-year budget cycle is the future of public education funding.

The day before the 83rd Legislative Session convenes Tuesday at noon, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, representing more than 50,000 teachers, believes the funding cuts of the past session should be fixed thanks to the fiscal conditions of an estimated $101.4 billion available this biennium, announced by Comptroller Susan Combs on Monday.

“If the legislature was willing to tap into the Rainy Day Fund in a major way, it could restore the cuts made to public education last time,” Lonnie Hollingsworth Jr., TCTA’s director of legal services and governmental relations, said. “Unfortunately, no one is really talking about that.”

The comptroller indicated there’s currently about $8 billion dollars in the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s savings account. If left untouched, that figure is estimated to climb to about $12 billion by the end of the next budget cycle.

Another issue the TCTA is monitoring is school choice. That includes the proposed idea of lifting the cap on charter schools, and the possibility of someone introducing a voucher plan.

“The problem with charters is they need to be vetted,” Hollingsworth said. “There needs to be someone at the state level to make sure that the entities that are going to be operating those charters are going to do a good job.”

Hollingsworth added that with cuts to the Texas Education Agency itself, that oversight may be impacted.

As for any voucher plan that might be introduced, Hollingsworth said the cost would either come out of the state’s overall budget, or directly out of the budget for Texas public schools.

Newly-appointed Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Dan Patrick indicated late last year that he preferred to hear directly from teachers rather than from teachers groups. Patrick argued the two often contradict each other on this issue. Patrick at the time, also alluded to the idea of a “teacher’s choice” plan that could be unveiled this session, but did not go into details.

Williams named Education Commissioner

Even though seemingly every Texas Republican has fled to Tampa for the Republican National Convention this week, Governor Perry made the surprise announcement Monday that Michael Williams has been named the state’s newest Education Commissioner. Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds will be the chief deputy commissioner.

"High standards and accountable public schools are essential to our state’s future success, and no two people understand that better than Michael and Lizzette. Together, they will build on the improvements achieved during the tenure of Robert Scott and Todd Webster, and will ensure our children are prepared for the challenges of college and the workplace,” Gov. Perry said in a press statement. "Michael’s pioneering leadership in both public and private sectors, combined with Lizzette’s nearly two decades of public education experience guiding and implementing statewide reforms create a powerful and dynamic team that will fortify our state’s public education system."

The governor’s office writes that Williams is the former Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. He will replace Robert Scott, who resigned from the post in July. A statement from the Texas Education Agency says staff members "stand ready" to help Williams as he begins his new job on September 1.