Bad Bills

Virtual Inanity


No Class

House Bill 277 Rep. Jerry Madden (R-Richardson)

You know it’s trouble when the Legislature starts inventing things on the Internet. State Rep. Jerry Madden’s House Bill 277, graceful as a hippopotamus in a kiddie pool, imagines a vast network of virtual schools sporting an actual price tag of more than $26 million a year.

Online classes are hardly new, and supporters say Texas should be doing more to extend the reach of public education over the Internet. But critics say Madden’s bill creates a jumble of problems and is a backdoor way to funnel tax money to private schools—virtual vouchers, in a manner of speaking.

Madden’s network would make hard-to-find classes available online for students attending public or private schools in Texas and beyond. Opening its virtual arms to the world, the program would make a range of classes available to any student, rich or poor—provided they have their own computer and high-speed Internet connection.

The network imagined by the bill is a jumbled clearinghouse for online courses from school districts and charter schools around the state, with the state Board of Education running quality control. For each student a virtual course attracts, the organization teaching the class could get up to $400 from the state network.

All this would drive the cost of public education up by $13.5 million during the first two years without adding a single classroom. The cost reaches $26.5 million per year by 2011—all while the Legislature is getting creative just trying to keep schools funded at all. Madden outlined these costs for the House Public Education Committee on February 20, hours after he joined the House majority in a vote to raise the state spending cap.

Teacher groups worry about how to maintain the quality of online instruction, but it is a tool already being used on a small scale to open up foreign language, advanced placement, and other courses to students whose schools don’t normally offer them. It could even have a place in education within the juvenile justice system.

Madden’s bill would broaden a pilot program in online, off-campus education that began with a handful of school districts in 2001. Online courses are old news even at the high school level. In theory, the state-run program would cut the overall costs of developing online education by eliminating the creation of duplicate online courses in separate districts.

“I’m a firm believer in the educational opportunities this bill provides,” Madden says. “I think we need to do whatever we can to get it moved forward.” Madden says he is still meeting with education leaders to tweak the details, but he’s confident the bill will roll ahead with its major pieces unchanged.

Teachers’ groups agree online education has its place, but say HB 277 leaves too many questions unanswered. “It’s got to get a little more streamlined and a little more comprehensible as far as where the money’s flowing,” says Richard Kouri, director of public affairs for the Texas State Teachers Association. Kouri says there are instances for which online courses make sense, but that the flow of money is hard to track and it’s unclear how students’ online performance would count toward meeting state and federal performance standards.

As for the inclusion of private students, Kouri says the bill’s roots are revealing. “It started off several sessions ago as a virtual vouchers bill. It has moved mostly, but not completely, away from that,” he says.

The bill addresses private school students by limiting their enrollment, but only for the first two years. Just 6,000 spots in virtual courses could go to private school students the first year, and 15,000 the next. After that, enrollment would be wide open. The Legislative Budget Board estimates Texas’ private- and home-schooled children would contribute $10.5 million to the network’s price tag if five percent of them enroll in virtual classes.

As originally drafted, the bill would make the online courses available to private and home-schooled students for $50 a course, with the state taking on the remaining cost up to $350. “By subsidizing a private school education with public money, it’s amounting to a virtual voucher,” says Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based watchdog group. According to Miller, Madden agreed to remove that provision from the bill and has been meeting with education groups to hear changes they’d like to see before the bill moves on.

Even if Madden removes the tuition break for private students, Miller will be watching in case someone tries to put it back. “We have many serious concerns about it being tacked on as an amendment on the House floor, even if Rep. Madden removes it now,” she says.

Presenting his bill to the House Committee on Public Education, Madden closed by recalling his own high school years as an “Army brat” in Germany. The beauty of the bill, he said, is that it allows military families out of Fort Hood or Fort Bliss “to continue to have a Texas education” even if they’re living “in places like Guam, or Mannheim, Germany, or someplace else in the world.”

In a time when Texas schools are battling rising class sizes and tougher testing, while Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is trumpeting “Texas Children First,” it’s heartening there’s someone in the Legislature looking out for kids in the South Pacific.

Elementary Sex Ed

House Bill 311 Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa)

Texas boasts the highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation. Now one lawmaker has decided to make it even harder for kids to get accurate information about sex. House Bill 311 would require school districts to obtain written consent from parents before students learn about sex. Currently parents must be notified of the basic content of sex education classes and can remove their kids from any part of the course, but they don’t sign any permission slips.

Rep. Warren Chisum says his bill is about stronger parental control. “I truly believe parents need to be involved in education, especially these kinds of courses,” Chisum says.

Others worry that an opt-in policy would be an administrative hassle for schools and might prevent some students from getting sex education simply because the note never made it home.

David Wiley, a professor of health education at Texas State University, says national and Texas studies show overwhelming parental support of comprehensive sex education. About 2 percent of parents opt out of sex education for their kids, but that number increases with opt-in policies, Wiley says. Three states have opt-in policies, while 35 have opt-outs.

Nearly half of new sexually transmitted disease cases occur in people between ages 15 and 24, says Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network. “Putting any barriers in the way of protecting our kids is bad public policy,” she says. “Many children are reluctant to talk to their parents about these issues, and putting it in their hands doesn’t seem to recognize the reality faced by parents and teens.”

Chisum says parents aren’t always told what their children are being taught. “We have some evidence that maybe some school districts are trying to teach sex ed in the lower grades, sometimes even as low as kindergarten,” he says. “It’s what I’ve been told.”

If you’re imagining kindergartners putting condoms on bananas, that’s not exactly the case. In each school district, a health advisory council determines the appropriate grade levels and methods of instruction for human sexuality education. As for kindergarten sex ed, it might consist of things like learning about personal space or appropriate touching, says DeEtta Culbertson, a spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency. The board of trustees in each district decides on course materials and content, though they are required to stress abstinence. Teaching contraception and condoms is optional under Texas law.

Sex ed need not be so scary. Studies show that comprehensive sex education doesn’t lead to kids having more sex. “In terms of long-term behavior change, kids who are already abstinent remain abstinent, and the kids who are sexually active tend to be safer about it,” Wiley says.

If It Ain’t Broke…

House Bill 101 Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball)

In an effort to keep Texas elections free of a voting fraud epidemic that may or may not exist, state Rep. Debbie Riddle’s House Bill 101 is one of three bills filed so far that would require voters to present multiple forms of identification at the polls.

Republicans in numerous states have begun ratcheting up voter identification requirements, justifying the new rules by claiming they will stop dead people from voting, or live people from voting more than once. Critics say the new requirements are an insidious effort to throw hurdles in front of voters least likely to have multiple forms of ID—poor people.

Riddle says Texas voter-registration cards are too easy to falsify, so her bill requires prospective voters to also present either one photo ID or two semiofficial documents bearing the same name. Photo ID options include a driver’s license or passport, or even a photo badge from work or a student ID. Leave them all in your other wallet? You can still vote if you’ve brought your citizenship papers and hunting license, or your pilot’s license and library card, or your divorce records and cable bill.

Riddle’s bill leaves voters plenty of options to identify themselves, but assumes each citizen has ready access to multiple forms of ID. “It’s just not essential to a lot of poor people to have an ID,” says Sonia Santana of the Texas ACLU. “You’re putting up another barrier for poor people to vote.”

HB 101 is nearly identical to a 2005 bill by Rep. Mary Denny, a Flower Mound Republican, that passed the House but stalled in the Senate. This session, Republican Reps. Betty Brown of Terrell and Phil King of Weatherford have filed similar incarnations of the voter ID bill.

Riddle says she has firsthand experience hearing people brag about voting multiple times and can quote numbers demonstrating the problem is widespread. But a 2006 report by the federal Election Assistance Commission concluded only that voter fraud is an ill-defined problem of uncertain scope. Most fraud is related to mail-in absentee ballots, the report said.

Still, Riddle says the point is to keep our elections pure. “I don’t care if it’s only one fraudulent vote,” she says. “There are elections that are won and lost by one vote.”

The cost of a new photo ID might be enough to keep that one voter from making it to the polls. “If you ever have been a poor person living paycheck to paycheck—$15 to vote? They’re going to blow it off,” Santana says.

Both Riddle’s and Brown’s bills would waive the state ID fees for people who say they can’t afford them, but a 2006 voter ID law passed in Georgia was struck down by a federal judge, who ruled that even with a fee waiver, requiring the extra ID was an excessive burden.

“This is simply going to dampen any enthusiasm for voter fraud,” Riddle says. “If we do not protect our ballot box, then our liberties are in peril.”

Not What the Doctor Ordered

House Bill 40 Rep. Ken Paxton (R-McKinney)

In July 2006, new federal laws began forcing U.S. citizens to prove they are, in fact, U.S. citizens before receiving Medicaid. The laws were designed to weed out illegal immigrants, and Medicaid enrollment has dropped in their wake. The problem is that many eligible applicants are also being shut out, not because they’re here illegally, but because they don’t have the documents.

And here comes House Bill 40, which would make it even harder for U.S. citizens in Texas to get over the paperwork barrier.

Under federal law, Medicaid applicants who don’t have birth certificates, passports, or other proof of identity and citizenship can substitute affidavits. Two people swear under penalty of perjury that applicants are citizens, and the applicants explain why they don’t have the papers to prove citizenship.

McKinney Republican Rep. Ken Paxton says he introduced HB 40 precisely to close that option “because anybody can go out on the street and have someone swear that they’re a citizen.”

Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the Austin-based nonprofit Center for Public Policy Priorities, says the bill will affect citizens from other states who have difficulty obtaining birth certificates because it costs money or because they are lost, for example. “The policy is designed to get at immigrants, but the people it’s actually hurting are U.S. citizens,” Dunkelberg says.

The federal law, part of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, did not change Medicaid eligibility, only the documentation required. It was intended to keep undocumented immigrants from receiving Medicaid under false citizenship claims. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank, there is little evidence the problem exists. Dunkelberg says that in Texas, it’s difficult to get immigrant parents to enroll children, who legally qualify for Medicaid, due to a fear of deportation.

“The general trend that we’ve seen is a great reluctance to participate in Medicaid, even among U.S. family members who are eligible,” Dunkelberg says. “It’s quite the opposite of undocumented people passing themselves off as citizens.”

Since the federal law was implemented, Medicaid enrollment has dropped and administrative costs have risen, according to a study by the Washington-based CBPP. The study concludes that the drop is most likely because eligible citizens can’t produce the necessary documentation. Dunkelberg says Paxton’s bill is legally questionable because it eliminates an option that federal rules allow. “The general principle is that states are not allowed to add a more restrictive requirement to federal policy,” she says. “It’s a bill that seems more symbolic than meaningful.”

An African white-backed vulture escaped from the Dallas Zoo in January, not long after the Legislature convened. Zoo officials figure it’s not dead because vultures tend to eat well wherever they go. Look somewhere around Congress and 11th, fellas. There’s enough legislative carrion to feed multitudes. The Observer welcomes nominations for Bad Bills. Please e-mail them to [email protected].