Political Intelligence

Kids Fail, Polluters Pass



This spring, as many as 42,000 third-graders–a disproportionate number of them African American and Latino–could fail the reading portion of the TAKS test on their first try. The kids get two more chances to pass the test before they’re held back from entering fourth grade. The public schools–already suffering from reduced state funding–get the bill for tutoring, retesting, and ultimately retraining as many kids as necessary.

Two bills filed in the House this session might provide a loophole through which thousands of eight-year-olds who can read could avoid an arbitrary statistical designation as “failures.” HB 336 and HB 337, authored by Rep. Dora Olivo (D-Fort Bend), would require schools to use “multiple compensatory criteria” –essentially grades and teacher evaluations–in the decision to pass or fail a public school student. Under the provisions of these bills, an 8-year-old who did well in school all year but bombed on test day wouldn’t have to repeat third grade.

A similar bill by Olivo passed in the House last session but never received a hearing in the Senate. With the House and Senate firmly under conservative control, Lege watchers give this session’s bills even longer odds. Gov. Rick Perry has been very public about his support of the testing system as it stands. So far, Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro (R-Addison), and Kent Grusendorf (R-Arlington), chair of the House Committee on Public Education, are in lock step. The test-based “accountability” system was a cornerstone of Dubya’s campaign, after all, and no faithful Republican can consider dismantling it the year before an election.

The bills may also encounter opposition from proponents of vouchers. The more kids who flunk the test–and the worse the public schools look–the easier it will be to sell the public on a program that funnels students and state money into private, for-profit schools.

Olivo’s bills are under attack from more surprising directions as well. Of the three big teachers’ unions in the state, only the Texas State Teachers’ Association publicly supports the bills. The Texas Federation of Teachers lobbied against the bills in the last session, claiming that the testing system works because it brings attention to previously neglected minorities.

Meanwhile, the Association of Texas Professional Educators, the largest organization of teachers and administrators in the state, is playing ostrich. The association hopes instead to rally bipartisan support for what they see as more dangerous attacks on the public schools: vouchers, expanded class sizes, and the razoring of teachers’ health insurance. The ATPE wants to steer clear of a polarizing struggle over the issue of testing.

“There may be some members who do support [Olivo’s bills],” says Brock Gregg, governmental relations director for the association. “But this is not a good issue for us right now.”

But legislators may get a kick in the pants come March, when students across the state bubble in the first round of the TAKS. If thousands of failing third-graders aren’t enough to raise a public outcry, perhaps this estimate will: About 145,000 10th-graders, the first class who must pass the TAKS to graduate, are projected to fail the “English Language Arts” exam. If a recent well-attended rally for Olivo’s bill on a drizzly Saturday in January is any indication, frustration with the test exists throughout the state among parents and teachers and will only grow.


Texas polluters couldn’t have picked a friendlier Environmental Regulation Committee for the 78th session if they did it themselves. Or maybe they did do it themselves, a conclusion bolstered by even a cursory glance at the contributors to Republican leaders like House Speaker Tom Craddick.

Composed of seven Republicans and one Democrat, the committee is neither bipartisan nor reflective of the House, in which Dems hold roughly two out of every five seats. The lone democrat, Kino Flores, has the best environmental voting record on the committee. Flores earned a whopping pro-environmental score of 50% for the previous two legislative sessions from the League of Conservation Voters.

But party affiliation is the least of the committee’s problems. In a state that boasts five cities among the largest 25 in the nation and three in the top ten, Craddick has appointed only one member from a metropolitan area, freshman Wayne Smith (R-Baytown). The majority of the members hail from rural and suburban districts–not from big cities facing noncompliance with federal clean air standards and at risk of losing millions of dollars in federal highway funds.

The real bogeyman in this pro-industry nightmare is the new committee chair, Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), whom local greens gave a 0% score in 2001. Bonnen has replaced former chair Warren Chisum (R-Pampa), who has served on the Lege for eight more years than Bonnen but made the political mistake of voting in an environmentally responsible way one out of three times last session, according to the enviro scorecard. Some environmentalists think that Chisum, although a staunch advocate of industry rights, was deemed by Craddick as “too fair” in his leadership on the Environmental Regulation Committee.

The new chair from Angleton has ingratiated himself with the Right-to-Pollute crowd with more than just his voting record. Last session, he fought fiercely to strip down a landmark fuel emissions reduction bill that would have helped clean up the air in Texas metropolitan areas. Not surprisingly, Bonnen has taken money from Chevron, Arco, Texaco, and Diamond Shamrock. In fact, well over $17,000 of Bonnen’s campaign contributions since 2000 came from automobile, petroleum, energy, chemical and other “resource” industry PACs. The main employers in Brazoria County, which Bonnen partially represents, include DOW Chemical, Phillips 66, BASF, and BP.

The Environmental Regulation Committee will hold hearings on a slew of deregulation bills this session, many of which are expected to target Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission Sunset Review legislation passed by the 77th Texas Legislature. In addition to Sunset rollbacks, an especially glowing bill will soon be filed to open up West Texas to the radioactive waste industry. The nightmare of making Texas into a national dump for spent nuclear material has never had a rosier future than with this legislature.