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Troy Fraser
State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay)

It’s never been easy fighting powerful polluters in Texas. A bill approved by a Senate committee today would make it even harder. With a big push from the Texas Chemical Council and the Texas Association of Business, the Senate Natural Resources Committee voted 6-3 today for legislation “streamlining” (read: weakening) the process that communities and environmental groups can use to challenge permits to pollute. (Democrats Rodney Ellis and Carlos Uresti as well as Republican Robert Duncan were the ‘no’ votes.)

“We are very disappointed by the committee’s vote today,” said Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger. “The deck is already stacked against residents when a powerful polluter applies for a permit to discharge chemicals in to our air, water and land.”

Senate Bill 957 by Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) would put limits on contested case hearings, mini-trials in which each administrative law judges hear testimony and evidence from each side. Environmental groups already complain that the process is flawed: The judges can only offer recommendations to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. That agency, run by corporate-friendly Rick Perry appointees, often ignores or downplays the judge’s proposals.

However, SB 957 would weaken it even further. Fraser’s proposal would shift the burden of proof from the company seeking the permit—often some of the most lucrative and powerful corporations in the world—to the protestant, often a hastily-formed grassroots group or an environmental organization. The bill would also strictly limit how long the contested case hearing could last; limit who could participate; narrow the scope of the hearing; and eliminate discovery.

But Sen. Craig Estes, a Wichita Falls Republican who voted for the bill in committee, said it would do nothing to diminish democratic participation.

“The bill in no way lessens the ability of the public to fully participate in the environmental permitting process,” Estes said.

“That’s a true statement,” responded Fraser. “That’s why it’s a good bill.”

A few minutes later, Estes explained to veteran consumer advocate Tom “Smitty” Smith, using an analogy, why he thinks the burden of proof should be shifted to citizens.

ESTES: “Let’s say you get accused of jaywalking. Should you have to prove that you didn’t jaywalk or should your accuser be the one to have to prove you jaywalked?”

SMITTY: “That’s the criminal standard, Senator. And this is a civil issue.”

ESTES: “You can be accused of all types of things, rightly or wrongly.”

The good news for opponents of the bill is that it’s unlikely to receive enough support to bring it up in the full Senate as-is—a political reality its author acknowledged.

“I think this bill has got to have some magic happen to get it up on the Senate floor,” Fraser said.

Patrick Michels

The Lead:

School vouchers will be big today at the Capitol. The Senate Education Committee will hear two bills this morning that would set up a voucher (or school choice, as proponents call it) program. Sen. Dan Patrick’s SB 23 and Sen. Donna Campbell’s SB 1575 would permit businesses to divert tax money into a scholarship fund that would pay for kids in public schools to attend private ones. But that’s not all. This afternoon, the House Ways and Means Committee will hear a similar bill, HB  3245, by Rep. Bill Callegari. The argument against these bills, as with many voucher plans, is that they would deprive public schools of much-needed funds.

Voucher-hearing day couldn’t have come at a worse time for proponents. It seems unlikely that a voucher bill can pass the House after the lower chamber overwhelmingly rejected vouchers during the budget debate last week. Sen. Patrick may think that school choice is  the “civil rights issue of our time,” as he frequently calls it, but he may have to wait at least another session to see a voucher plan implemented.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The Texas Enterprise fund has been a boon to the campaign accounts of Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, reports the San Antonio Express-News. Donors associated with companies that received job-creation grants from the Enterprise Fund donated $3.6 to Texas’ top three lawmakers, according to a detailed report by the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

2. Casinos will get their biennial hearing and this time around two of the three big players are in talks together, writes the Quorum Report.

3. The Texas Tribune reports that the political drama surrounding the University of Texas continues, with Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) calling on Gov. Rick Perry to turn down the heat. Don’t hold your breath for that.

Line of the day:

“In this day and time, I recognize that people of the same sex become partners. I think there’s a recognition nationally that we could do better [in] how we treat people that have same-sex relationships.” – Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) on legislation to add same sex language to laws on sex.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. There are four, yes four, committees discussing big environmental issues in the House and Senate today.

2. Voucher bills in House and Senate committees.

3. Pharmacists are pushing a bill—SB 1013—up in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee today that would allow pharmacists to administer vaccines. The doctors aren’t crazy about this idea. Should be a fun debate.

3. The House Public Education Committee will hear the Texas Education Agency sunset bill, which would reform the agency. The committee is also scheduled to debate cutting funds to districts that offer same-sex partner benefits. Maybe they should listen to Whitmire about that.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

Committees are back up and running today, including the Senate Finance Committee, which will continue to work through agency recommendations for the budget. Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) said he’s shooting to get the bill out of committee and headed to the Senate floor by next Wednesday. Of course the senators took an extra long weekend (poor dears got a little flack for that), so we’ll see if they make their own deadline on the only action the Legislature must accomplish during the session.

Weekend Headlines:

1. Former Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia won the runoff race for Texas Senate against state Rep. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston), as the Texas Tribune reports. Garcia will fill the seat previously held by the late Sen. Mario Gallegos.

2. Major changes may be in order for the Texas Water Development Board, will handle billions of dollars in the coming years. The Austin American-Statesman reports that Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) wants to restructure the board before all that money starts to, ahem, flow. With all the cronyism in state government in recent years, some people are naturally suspicious of this move.

Line of the Day:

“It would be irresponsible to add more Texans and dump more taxpayer dollars into an unsustainable system that is broken and already consumes a quarter of our budget,” —Perry spokesperson Lucy Nashed to the Austin American-Statesman about Medicaid expansion.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The House Elections Committee is set to hear a large slate of bills today, including a bill by Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington) to give local prosecutors the ability to investigate election fraud—instead of the Attorney General. That may sound benign, but with all the controversy in recent years over supposed election fraud—and the efforts of groups like King Street Patriots, a Houston tea party group, and its True the Vote project—providing more outlets for voter fraud investigations has political implications.

2. The Ways and Means House committee will hold a hearing on the sporting good tax, which has been substantially used to fund programs outside of its intended use—state parks. They could use some extra cash.

3. The Senate Finance Committee continues to make its way closer to pulling together a budget bill. Today the committee will discuss recommendations on higher education and criminal justice.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio)

As oil and gas companies descend on South Texas, lawmakers are beginning to confront the new chaos brought on by the Eagle Ford Shale boom.

The recently formed Eagle Ford Shale Legislative Caucus met Wednesday, led by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) to discuss the shale play’s economic impact on South Texas—but the conversation veered to the day-to-day issues affecting residents most, like quiet country roads that become an industrial zones without any notice.

Thomas Tunstall, who directs the Center for Community and Business Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the caucus should try to promote long-term stability in the fast-growing boomtowns around the shale, so the families lured there for work will want to stay.

It’s been 25 years since Texas has produced this much oil, Tunstall said, and 1,600 wells were completed in the Eagle Ford area last year. A study produced at UTSA last year pegged the Eagle Ford’s regional economic impact at $25 billion, and supported 47,000 jobs.

DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler said he has formed a coalition, along with other South Texas officials, “to get the idea across that we need help.” Fowler said they want to spend some of the tax revenue generated by the Eagle Ford on road repairs, rather than put it all into the Rainy Day Fund.

“The Rainy Day Fund, as big as it is, the damages are not being paid for at the county level,” Fowler said.

Zaffirini and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) worried about housing and schools in the fast-growing areas around the shale.

“We really need to look at this in a comprehensive approach to sustainability planning,” Van de Putte said. Zaffirini said students might drop out of high school or college to work for oil and gas companies. She said she’d like to see colleges offer some courses on worksites.

The Lead:

Gov. Rick Perry gave his State of the State address on Tuesday, which followed the usual trend: Perry claimed credit for the health of the Texas economy and outlined a plan to maintain the status quo. The Senate Finance Committee will meet today to discuss health and human services. The meeting should be interesting given Perry’s strong denunciation of Medicaid expansion in yesterday’s speech. The House will meet too, but we’re not expecting much until committees are named, hopefully in the next few days.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Gov. Rick Perry gave his State of the State speech yesterday, emphasizing specific conservative policy items such as school vouchers, tax cuts and shunning Medicaid expansion. Perry largely steered clear of social issues, reports the Observer’s Olivia Messer.

2. In his speech, Perry supported the UT System expanding Permanent University Funds to South Texas institutions. If passed by the Legislature, the money could be integral in establishing a medical school in the underserved region, according to the Texas Tribune.

3. The Dallas Morning News wrote about a news conference in which people who have lost a family member who had been texting while driving spoke. The families are supporting legislation that would ban texting while driving.

Line of the Day:

Texas will not drive millions more into an unsustainable system, a system that will drive this state into bankruptcy.” —Gov. Rick Perry on Medicaid during yesterday’s State of the State.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The Senate Finance Committee will discuss health and human services today. Medicaid expansion may be up for discussion. In his speech,  Perry made clear his opposition to expanding Medicaid under Obamacare to adults earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. That would cause the state to lose out on a pretty sweet deal—for the first three years the federal government would cover most of the costs.

In Another Blow to Public Schools, Hochberg Leaving Legislature

Facing major education challenges next session, the House will have a tough time replacing its education expert.

Scott Hochberg was none too happy that everyone called him a nerd. “You can’t think of something to call me?” he groused more than once. But it was hard to think of anything else to call the state legislator with his messy white hair, glasses and encyclopedic knowledge of school finance law. In a House chamber of cheerleaders and quarterbacks, he often proved that knowing the facts and doing your homework could actually bring power and influence. As the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and the vice chair of the Public Education Committee, Hochberg seemed a living example of Revenge of the Nerds.

Until last session, when he watched helplessly as the Texas House chose to make unprecedented cuts to public education, and the leadership shut him out of school finance negotiations, making cuts less equitable across the state.

So maybe it’s not a huge surprise that today Hochberg announced he won’t seek re-election after almost 20 years in the state Legislature.

Hochberg is one of 25 incumbents so far to announce they aren’t coming back. But his decision may have the most widespread impact, particularly for education advocates. The funding mechanisms around public schools and universities are mind-boggling complicated and irrational. Hochberg was the undisputed expert on how the laws worked. He often tangled with the Texas Education Agency, following up on how policy was actually getting implemented. He spent much of his time on the floor translating and explaining the rules to less-informed colleagues. Because education has traditionally been a bipartisan area, Hochberg often had Republicans sponsoring his bills in the Senate and supporting him in the House—most notably working with Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

Last session, however, everything blew up. With an ultraconservative Republican super-majority and a $27 billion budget shortfall, things turned nasty fast. Spectators watched Hochberg’s and Eissler’s friendship implode as the two men battled on school finance plans.

Hochberg was kept out of the closed door meetings on school finance and ultimately had almost no say in the plan the House backed—a plan that cut the same percentage from all school districts, despite vast funding inequalities. He had little say on the Appropriations Committee, where lawmakers ultimately decided to cut $5.4 billion from public schools. Then, adding insult to injury, the Legislature passed redistricting maps that put Hochberg in a district with fellow Democrat Hubert Vo. While those maps have now been redrawn by federal courts, it’s hardly shocking to think Hochberg’s downtrodden.

In his announcement, Hochberg writes, “My decision should not be thought of as any commentary on the current political environment, the challenges ahead, or, for that matter, the disappointment of soon having to endure the designated hitter rule when watching hometown Houston baseball.”

But regardless of his reason, Hochberg’s departure leaves an enormous gap in education expertise—at a time when the Legislature can least afford it. The 82nd legislative session was bleak, but the 83rd will likely be worse. Next time around, lawmakers will actually have to deal with the state’s structural deficit and tax-policy problems, which means figuring out a better system to pay for public schools. Meanwhile, they’ll probably also have to figure out a new way to distribute money to the schools. School districts across Texas are suing the state in several different lawsuits around both inadequacy and inequity in funding.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, is clearly the chosen member to take the reins from Hochberg, but it’s bound to be a tough job. During the session, it fell to Aycock to try, unsuccessfully, to pass a fiscal matters bill containing school finance language. While Aycock is undoubtedly smart and eager, he’s only in his third term. Hochberg had the trust of his colleagues, that he both understood all sides and would explain the policy options fairly.

The House will dearly miss its resident nerd.

Who’s Sinking Faster: Rick Perry or Dave Carney?

With news of a possible Carney demotion, you have to wonder where he's been this whole time.

Yesterday, the Perry presidential campaign pushed hard for attention around the governor’s latest endorsement: highly controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. Instead, most Perry headlines focused on his double-gaffe, getting both the voting age and the election date wrong. 

Less noted, however, was a Politico blog post noting that Perry had approved yet more restructuring on his team, giving former Bushie Joe Allbaugh and Tony Fabrizio more power and leaving Dave Carney, who was the campaign’s chief strategist, to focus on New Hampshire—a state Perry is almost definitely going to lose. The campaign denies the assertions, which Politico credits to unnamed sources. But whether or not Carney’s actually been demoted hardly seems to matter. This presidential campaign has not borne any of his marks.

The common wisdom from most national outlets goes something like this: Perry has easily won every race in Texas because of his conservative Republican credentials. When he actually faced real competition—from the political Justice League of heroes that is the current Republican primary field—he got slaughtered.

Take Alec MacGillis at The New Republic:

Mixed in with all the praise for Carney I heard one cautionary note from several Austin insiders: because of Texas’ shift to one party dominance, Carney and Perry had learned to run a certain kind of campaign: appealing heavily to the narrow band of hard-core primary voters to stave off more moderate Republican challengers (like Hutchison) and then relying on the state’s Republican tilt to hold on in the general election, even if many moderate Republicans stayed home or even voted for the Democrat. It was a turnout operation, with little need for the kind of persuasion of a broader electorate that Perry would need on introducing himself to voters nationally, even just within the Republican primary. And Perry and Carney had been able to set the terms of the contest in ways that just weren’t possible in a national campaign, such as keeping debates to the barest minimum and, in his last campaign, not attending a single interview with newspaper editorial boards.

But even with its flaws, where was that turnout operation that MacGillis shrugs off? In addition to Perry’s stunningly bad debate performances and giddy speeches, the governor’s presidential campaign has also lacked the signature moxie that defined previous efforts and were largely credited to Carney.

In August, I wrote a lengthy profile of the Perry campaign’s chief strategist, a guy who’s spent much of his career in the shadows. It was hard not to be impressed with Carney’s creativity and his willingness to experiment. Central to that impression was Carney’s masterminding of the 2010 gubernatorial primary, in which Perry faced the state’s most popular elected official, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Hutchison had more money than Perry and everyone assumed the only way the governor would win would be in a low turnout primary of party faithful.

But that’s not what happened. Using data gathered by political scientists in 2006, Carney opted to spend much of the campaign’s funds on grassroots organizing. They created the “Home Headquarters” program in which those who signed up promised to recruit 11 other pro-Perry voters and get them to the polls. There was almost no money spent on phone calls, mailers or the usual campaign efforts, which the 2006 data showed to have little effect.. Similarly, Carney held off on television ads until the few weeks before the campaign—the data showed that tv only had short-lived effects and was best used to blast voters just before the election.

Certainly, there’s nothing on Perry’s current site that’s half as innovative as the Home Headquarters idea. (The 2010 home headquarters webpage is actually still live, if you want to see it for yourself.) But then, such grassroots efforts take significant time, and the Perry team got a very late start. 

But instead, the Perry campaign has gone whole hog into the very tactics that it ignored in the 2010 effort. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Perry’s made his biggest mark with television ads. In South Carolina, they’re even doing mailers.

Rick Perry has never been a great policymaker or an inspiring leader, but his campaign, with Dave Carney at the helm, has always had an innovative approach to politics and executing within the inches. Not long ago, Carney himself was frequently been compared to Karl Rove—only smarter and more cunning. 

But all of that seems laughable now. Perry’s repeated gaffes and errors have clearly been the main problem in his campaign. However, the campaign never had any strategy up its sleeve. And with Carney now focusing on almost un-winnable New Hampshire, you’ve got to assume we’ve seen everything the Perry campaign had to offer. Why not hand off the reins to some new guys?

The 2010 approach may not have won Perry a 2012 presidential nomination. But as it seems less and less likely that he’ll win the nomination anyway, one has to wonder if he—and his team—wouldn’t have preferred going down on their own ship, in their own way.

Virtual Schools, Virtually Unregulated?

After a technical switch, a virtual school gets around accountability standards

At this point, the Texas Virtual Academy shouldn’t exist.  Under the state’s accountability rules, the school should have been shut down or overhauled after failing to meet state standards two years in a row. Instead, students are enrolled now for yet another year, thanks to a loophole for-profit companies contracting with state schools can exploit.

The Texas Virtual Academy, which last year had 2,400 kids, isn’t like other schools. The full-time school, geared toward students between third and eleventh grades, differs from other public schools in two major ways. It’s online-only, meaning students take their classes over the Internet rather than in a bricks-and-mortar classroom. And though it’s paid for with public dollars, operations are managed entirely by a for-profit company, K12 Inc.

But Texas Virtual Academy is still subject to the state’s accountability system—at least in theory. The school was rated unsatisfactory the past two years, despite an intervention team from the state. Normally that would mean the school had to be overhauled or shut down.  But despite that performance, it’s still operating. In fact, not much has changed this year. The school’s website is still located on the K12 Inc. server, and the school’s teachers are still K12 Inc. employees rather than state workers.

But there is one slight change this year—location.

For the last five years, the Texas Virtual Academy contracted with the Houston charter Southwest Schools, which paid K12 to manage and operate the establishment.

But the virtual academy failed to meet state standards two years in a row and faced getting shut down. Southwest Schools severed the contract and no longer offered the online program. Yet that was hardly a problem for K12, which simply got a contract with a different charter school. This year, K12 operates Texas Virtual Academy through a contract with Houston charter Responsive Education Solutions.  Texas Virtual Academy’s relationship with these charter schools is all on paper. So even though it swtiched host charter school, Texas Virtual Academy is virtually unchanged. The school is still going by the same name and operated by the same company, but its record is wiped clean.

The on-paper switch to a new host charter has given Texas Virtual Academy a completely fresh start.

David Fuller, the head of school for Texas Virtual Academy, shrugged off concerns about performance, explaining that the school was only failing among certain subpopulations and overall doing well. He defended the arrangement. “I don’t understand what you mean, there’s a problem,” he said.

Fuller explained that while the school would get a new identification number, the change wouldn’t be a big deal. “The curriculum is still the same,” he said. “It’s still K12.”

In an emailed statement, the Texas Education Agency said that because Texas Virtual Academy had switched host charters, the agency has little authority to regulate the school:

[A]s we understand it, the TxVA campus of Southwest School is gone and the kids dispersed to unknown locations, the Southwest School is no longer responsible for them, but neither is [Responsive Education Solutions]. Even if some of them enroll in the new campus of [Responsive Education Solutions], whatever it is called, we would not have any authority to intervene. If they all, or the vast majority, enrolled in the new [Responsive Education Solutions] virtual campus, or in their existing virtual campus, we don’t have procedures that address that situation. In summary, we are not certain that we have any authority in terms of requiring interventions for the closed campus, or any standing as related to a successor campus.

That’s quite a loophole.

Nowhere on the school’s website is the switch mentioned. In fact, it’s hard to tell how a parent now would even know about the school’s failing record—since it now has a completely different identification number than it did when it was housed under Southwest Schools.

The loophole has larger implications. After all, the Texas Virtual Academy was part of a larger state initiative to examine the possibilities of online education. The state authorized three such schools, two of which were to be run out of charter schools and one of which was run through the Houston Independent School District. The academy wasn’t unique—in all three cases, the virtual schools were managed and operated by for-profit companies. Presumably, all three could take advantage of the loophole.

As I wrote in my September story on educational industries, there’s a lot of enthusiasm around virtual learning:

It’s much cheaper, by and large, than traditional classroom instruction and, according to proponents, offers more innovative ways for students to learn. As the state struggles with long-term budget challenges, virtual learning will likely become an increasingly appealing option for lawmakers looking to save money—or increase “efficiencies”—as the number of students continues to rise.

But while the appeals of virtual learning are easy to see, the verdict is still out on just how to deliver it. Full-time, online-only schools are controversial, particularly when run through a private, for-profit company.

Texas prides itself both on tough school accountability and non-traditional approaches to education. In this case, K12 found a loophole to make them mutually exclusive.

Virtual Schools; Not-So-Virtual Loopholes

After failing to meet state standards, the Texas Virtual Academy is supposed to be shut down. So how has the for-profit company running it?

At this point, there shouldn’t be any more Texas Virtual Academy. It should have shut down because it failed to meet state standards two years in a row.  Instead, students attended yet another year, with almost no interruption, thanks to a loophole that advantages for-profit companies offering .

TXVA as its known, was one of three experimental virtual schools in Texas, all offering all-day virtual education for students, as early as third grade.

I wrote about the Texas Virtual Academy in my September story on for profit companies in the education industries. The school is one of the

The Texas Virtual Academy is a full-time school geared toward students between third and eleventh grades. It differs from other public schools in two major ways. It’s an online-only school, meaning students sit in their homes and take classes over the Internet. And though it’s paid for with public dollars, operations are managed entirely by a for-profit company, K12 Inc.

The school’s website is still located on the K12 Inc. server, and the school’s teachers are still K12 Inc. employees rather than state workers. But this year, the school will be housed at a different charter institution, which means its record of unacceptable student achievement has been wiped clean.

For the last five years, Texas Virtual Academy (through contractor K12) has been housed at the Houston charter school Southwest Schools. The Virginia-based K12 corporation continues to create the curriculum for the school and even trains the teachers.

But it hasn’t exactly been successful. For two of the last three years, the school has failed to meet state standards.

The setup isn’t unusual. These companies, known as for-profit educational management organizations, or EMOs, operate in both brick-and-mortar and virtual charter schools. According to a 2009-2010 report from the National Education Policy Center, these for-profit management companies are increasingly prevalent among virtual schools. Texas has allowed for three full-time virtual schools, including the Texas Virtual Academy. All are housed either within charter schools or traditional schools, and all are run by for-profit companies.

Southwest Schools ended its contract with K12 Inc. and shut down the academy for the current school year. Yet that was hardly a problem for K12, which simply got a contract with a different charter school. This year, K12 and Texas Virtual Academy are housed within Responsive Education Solutions in Houston. DeEtta Culbertson, a spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency, said Virtual Academy parents and students shouldn’t notice the change.

But the school does get a new campus number―meaning the performance record of the last several years is no longer associated with its new incarnation. Texas Virtual Academy has a clean slate. Parents looking into the school now housed at Responsive Education Solutions won’t see the institution’s poor track record at Southwest Schools.

Texas prides itself both on tough education assessment standards available to the public and non-traditional learning opportunities. In this case, K12 Inc. found a loophole to make them mutually exclusive.

It was like the Grand Bazaar for schools.

Stretched out across the Austin Convention Center exhibition hall this weekend was every product a superintendent could imagine—from new computer software for teaching math and science to giant scoreboards for baseball and football stadiums. Dozens of construction companies and architectural firms had come with impressive displays to show why they would be the best option for designing or building schools. In the back, one company brought five actual buses, to show the array of transportation options. JC Penney even showed up with a rack of new school uniforms, presumably to appeal to the fashion savvy.

All told, hundreds upon hundreds of vendors hawked their products to the thousands of attendees, all members of the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators. In many respects, it was just like the conventions every year—hundreds of meetings on a variety of topics, a few big name speakers and, of course, the giant exhibition hall.

But unlike in years past, school administrators in town are coping with unprecedented budget cuts from the state Legislature, exacerbating an already unwieldy and inequitable school finance system. There was a grim sort of humor to much of the event. Many of the convention’s breakout sessions focused on how to deal with slashes in funding for public schools. On Friday, the first day of the convention, there were meetings on how to reduce personnel costs, how the budget cuts functioned from a policy perspective and a couple on what districts were doing to cope with the lack of money. Saturday had a few sessions on holding successful bond elections and convincing voters to raise property taxes. Perhaps most surprising was a session from the Texas Education Agency, to help school administrators “get the support you need from the newly down-sized agency.”

The vendors in the exhibition hall were clearly sensitive to the lack of funds. Many were offering bargains and good deals—one massive back-to-school sale. Houston Independent School District was there to offer a consulting service to help districts maximize Medicaid reimbursements for educating eligible special needs students. Nearby, the company eInstruction explained why its Mobi devices were a better option than the computerized “smartboards” so many schools have opted for. “This is cheaper,” explained a salesman as he showed off the device’s capabilities. One company was offering to give away a free soundsystem to school districts that bought their product. And an eager bus security salesman explained the latest camera systems are only $500, as compared with older versions that cost as much as $2,600.

At one booth, advertising Joe Walch’s financial consulting services, an employee had taped up a sign offering “free money.” Turned out, they were offering help with tax elections. Walch, a school finane consultant, explained his complex “tax swap” plan that helped districts get more bang for their buck.  But in a candid moment, he said, between the tremendous cuts and the alread unequal funding levels, the school-finance system in Texas was broken.

He isn’t the only one who thinks so. By 3 p.m., sellers began to pack up. Attendees were heading to the last set of breakout sessions for the day. Among the most popular: the session explaining just how school districts were planning to sue the state over its tattered school finance system.

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