- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Houston Chronicle. April 18, 2014.

Texas is changing: Improving education conditions for black and brown kids is key to a bright future

It’s easy to imagine that politicians would fall all over themselves to take credit for an economic outlook that looked like this: Enough new jobs are coming to Texas to boost the state’s aggregate household income by at least $586 billion a year - and, perhaps, by as much as $1.6 trillion a year.

But how would our state leaders respond if our total household income was projected to drop by at least $586 billion per year and maybe by as much as $1.6 trillion per year?

Those jaw-dropping numbers are real. They are documented in a new book, “Changing Texas: Implications of Addressing or Ignoring the Texas Challenge.” The bottom line: The state’s population will be poorer and less competitive in the coming years unless we improve the education and socioeconomic conditions of our growing minority population.

The state’s population is rapidly changing. Hispanic Texans are expected to surpass whites as the state’s largest population group by 2020. College graduation rates will decline and poverty will increase, according to the book’s authors, led by demographer Steve Murdock, former U.S. Census Bureau director in the George W. Bush administration and currently director of Rice University’s Hobby Center for the Study of Texas.

Business leaders face a challenge. State leaders and legislators face a challenge. All Texans face this challenge. We must change the trend line - and it starts with the education of our children. The research is clear: Education plays a major role in increasing income for all racial/ethnic groups. By improving the socioeconomic condition of minority populations, the authors note, the benefits are likely to be widespread - from the private sector that needs a reliable customer base to the state treasury, which needs a reliable and robust tax revenue stream.

Testimony in the school funding trial last year indicated that 47 percent of low-income students in the Class of 2015 were not on track to graduate. That’s bad news. Even worse is the fact that an ever-growing super-majority of our public school students (60 percent) comes from low-income families. All of our enrollment increase over the past 12 years comes from children of low-income families.

Texas lawmakers must make the education of these low-income youngsters a priority. For starters, legislators should greatly expand access to early childhood education for 3- and 4-year-olds. Demographers cite evidence suggesting wide agreement that expanding access to pre-kindergarten can do more to close the gaps than any other single reform.

The state now funds half-day pre-K for at-risk kids, but only a fraction of the need is met. Children may learn more in a full-day program, which also better fits the schedules of working parents.

Expanding early childhood education won’t come easy - especially with the state Republican platform position in opposition. The stance is not smart for Texas. Our policies urgently need to go beyond the traditional political lens of red and blue and focus instead on empowering the emerging Latino majority. For the sake of our future, our policy choices must embrace Texas’ socioeconomic and cultural diversity.

Our state’s public education system from pre-school to higher education must no longer be determined by litigation. Instead, we should focus on inspiration. Lawmakers will achieve this goal when they ask: “What do our children need to succeed?” rather than, “What is the bare minimum we need to avoid being in court?”


Corpus Christi Caller-Times. April 20, 2014.

What’s the harm in teaching Mexican-American history

The Texas Board of Education in 2010 tried to oust Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence, from the state history texts because the founder who coined the phrase “separation of church and state” grated against their conservative skins. That same conservatism prompted them to try to inject religious “creationism” into the state’s science texts.

But last week the Board conservative majority, facing a move to create a statewide Mexican-American history elective in Texas public schools, said they feared such a course would inject progressive politics into the schools. The board managed to sideline the motion. Yet it is the height of irony, if not cheekiness, that the group that has done much to steer the public school curriculum into its own brand of politics now says it is afraid to stir up political radicalism.

Board member Ruben Cortez, a Democrat from Brownsville whose District 2 includes Corpus Christi, deserves the credit for making the motion to create the Mexican-American studies course. In doing so he was following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Mary Helen Berlanga, who frequently battled to get acknowledgment of the state’s Mexican heritage into what Texas public schoolchildren are taught.

It’s well to remember that such a course would have been an elective, not a mandated course. Texas has some 200 elective courses on the books, including flower arranging. This is hardly the captive political brainwashing of the entire Texas student body. Opponents say districts have the leeway to create their own courses on Mexican-American history, but that seems more open to politicization than a model that would apply statewide.

It’s also well to remember also that Hispanics now make up 51 percent of the state’s student body. It’s reasonable for this student population to desire to know more about their own history, a history that places them in context with state and even national history. This is a kind of history that does more than just bolster ethnic pride: any young Texan who intends to make their life in the state needs to know more about the ethnic population from which tomorrow’s political, business and cultural leaders will likely spring.

This is hardly the stuff of radicalism. Though discussion of the initiative never progressed enough to get down to what such a course would include, it seems fair to say that such a curriculum would go far beyond just protest marches and strikes; simply the demography of Mexican-Americans in Texas and its history would offer a wealth of study material.

Mexican-American studies courses now have a history of their own as they have begun to rely on more recent academic historical research. Such courses have been developed in other schools in other states in the southwest of the United States. Del Mar College recently began its own Mexican-American studies curriculum as did Coles High School. The inauguration of both was free of the drama that attended the state action.

The board didn’t defeat the motion outright. The majority asked publishers to submit textbooks on Mexican-American studies by the 2016-17 school year, though the publishers are under no requirement that they follow through. Cortez and proponents took what they could and called it victory, but no amount of dressing up will make it anything but a rejection. The state’s public schoolchildren will be no better for the result.


Abilene Reporter-News. April 16, 2014.

Texas has learned from past disasters but changes slow to come after West explosion

April 16 and April 17 are two dates that live in infamy in Texas.

On April 16, 1947, the freighter Grandcamp exploded at a pier in Texas City. Perhaps it was a cigarette that started a fire in the hold of the ship, into which ammonium nitrate and ammunition - a lethal cargo, to be sure - were being loaded. The ammunition was removed but the fire could not be put out - workers did not realize the ammonium nitrate, a compound used during the war to make dynamite and now used for fertilizer, did not need oxygen to burn - and just after 9 a.m., the French ship exploded.

The blast was so strong that the ship’s 1.5-ton anchor later was found two miles away. A nearby ship was lifted out of the water.

Pieces of flaming debris flew in all directions, some striking a nearby Monsanto chemical storage facility, causing it also to explode and killing an additional 234 people. A residential area of 500 homes was leveled.

In all, 581 people died and 3,500 were injured. The explosion caused $100 million in damage.

Just last year, on the evening of April 17, a fire was reported at a fertilizer plant in West, which is about 20 miles north of Waco, or about 175 miles east of Abilene.

First responders rushed to the facility, as did some folks curious as to the destination of the emergency vehicles.

Then, the plant exploded. Not only did the blast rock the town, it was felt at least 80 miles away.

Fifteen people - including 13 firefighters - were killed and more than 150 injured. A middle school and apartment complex were destroyed and other buildings, including a nursing home, greatly damaged.

Again, it was ammonium nitrate - the same volatile ingredient used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

The 1947 disaster, of course, has faded into history. However, one result of that explosion was limiting the Texas City port to the handling of oil products.

The cost of the damage in the Texas City and West tragedies each topped $100 million.

In March 1937, the London School in New London exploded as the result of a natural gas leak. Almost 300 students and faculty were killed, and it still stands as the greatest school disaster in Texas history. Overall, it ranks third behind the 1900 Galveston hurricane and the Texas City explosion.

As a result of the school disaster, the Texas Legislature ordered that a strong odor be added to naturally odorless and colorless natural gas to make detection of leaks easier. The practice became common worldwide.

In both disasters, change came about as a result of attempts to ensure that similar tragedies would not occur again.

As the residents of West rebuilt their town - including the school and nursing home - questions arose as to whether the fertilizer plant explosion could’ve been prevented, and why responders rushed in to fight what amounted to the fuse leading to a powder keg rather than evacuating the area.

About 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate were used in Oklahoma City; almost 550,000 pounds were inside the West plant.

A year later, there still are questions. There are dozens of other fertilizer plants in Texas, and many are wooden, as was the one in West. Obviously, there are plants in other states.

A veteran firefighter, knowing the potential danger, was ordering volunteer firefighters to pull back when the West plant exploded. He died with the others.

Tighter regulations have been proposed. Some have demanded that facilities be made safer - a sprinkler system at the West Fertilizer Co. may have doused the fire before it ignited the fertilizer. Some have demanded better reporting of what is inside facilities and any changes made. Others have asked why there is little regulation and oversight at the state level.

Although Texans are hesitant to add more government authority to their daily lives, this is a case - similar to the New London and Texas City disasters long ago - when common-sense changes will help ensure a similar catastrophe doesn’t happen again.


Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. April 18, 2014.

Texas should discuss allowing the medical use of marijuana

Passage of state laws in Colorado and Washington two years ago allowing recreational use of marijuana has generated much national discussion about the leafy substance.

But the subject of marijuana’s legality first broke into the national discourse in 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana.

Currently, 13 states allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients suffering from a variety of ailments, according to Time magazine.

It’s a safe bet the subject also is being talked about by citizens of the other 37 states, and we think it’s time for Texas lawmakers and officials to begin to discuss it.

We’re not yet ready to endorse the use of medical marijuana in Texas, but there are some logical arguments that should be examined.

Regardless of opinions about marijuana, the subject takes on a different perspective in the context of relieving suffering of people with glaucoma, AIDS and other illnesses.

The Harmon family of Amarillo, whose 8-year-old daughter suffers from spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy and has up to 40 seizures a day, are hopeful the oil of a special strain of marijuana grown in Colorado can help their daughter as it has other children who suffer seizures.

How could even the most dogmatic anti-drug zealot in Texas oppose the family’s hope to see if the drug can help?

Many law-abiding citizens, after seeing the suffering of loved ones, would be more than willing to buy marijuana illegally on their behalf if they thought it could help.

Such a willingness to break the law to ease a loved one’s suffering probably is found in Texas more often than people would suspect, and it probably has happened here.

Members of our editorial board recently discussed marijuana in a lively candidate interview with Kinky Friedman, who is in a runoff election for the Democratic nomination for Texas Commissioner of Agriculture.

Regarding the medical use of marijuana, Friedman pointed out Texas has the finest cancer hospital in the world in Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center but doesn’t have medical marijuana.

Friedman is running on a pro-hemp, pro-marijuana platform that favors legalization of recreational use of marijuana as well as medical use.

We disagree with full legalizing, but making the substance legal for medical use would not only help ease suffering, it would add to the tax base of Texas.

It also would allow growers to produce higher quality crops than are available on the illegal market and to develop hybrid plants designed to treat specific illnesses.

If medical marijuana were legalized in Texas, it wouldn’t be a matter of Dr. Cheech and Dr. Chong going crazy with scribbling on prescription pads. The process would be regulated by the state and monitored carefully.

Would there be cheaters, who would get prescriptions for reasons other than medical needs? Yes, it’s likely some would. But the opportunity to ease the suffering of sick people would more than make it worth it.

We’re ready for the discussion - with studied input from medical experts - to begin.


Austin American-Statesman. April 15, 2014.

To help UT System heal, regent Hall should step down

The hallmark of good leadership is knowing when to step aside for the sake of the institution, and in the case of University of Texas System Board of Regents member Wallace L. Hall Jr., that time has come.

Hall’s public wrangling with the University of Texas at Austin and its president, Bill Powers, has become a distraction and has tarnished the flagship’s reputation. We believe that it is time for Hall to step down so that the university can get back to the business of educating students and leading in the world of academia.

Hall, who has come under legislative scrutiny for burying the university in records requests, may have had good intentions when he first began to probe into the university’s dealings. But after months of digging and not much to show for his so-called research efforts, his actions have only cast a negative national spotlight and created a stressful environment for faculty, staff and the board of regents. With possible impeachment and potential criminal charges now on the horizon, Hall is but a distraction from pressing matters, including the search for a new system chancellor.

A report for the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, released last week, stated Hall’s “unreasonable and burdensome requests for records and information”, as well as his “improper use” of confidential student information, violated state laws and constitute grounds for recommending impeachment. Improper disclosure of student information is a misdemeanor under state law, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail. The report, written by Rusty Hardin & Associates LLP, also states that some of Hall’s actions would not by themselves be grounds for impeachment, however “improper” or “incompetent.”

On Monday, the American-Statesman reported that a state House panel had referred its report on Hall to the Travis County district attorney and the county attorney for possible criminal prosecution.

Also energized by the report’s findings, the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education has called on Hall to resign, saying he has become “a toxic distraction.” We agree.

Hall’s critics say he is on a witch hunt to oust Powers. Others criticize his lack of interest in other UT System institutions, citing as an example his lack of involvement on the sexual harassment claims against top administrators at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston that resulted in those same administrators getting new jobs after initially resigning.

Yet, supporters say Hall’s demand for official documents has raised valid questions about open-records policies, political influence in admissions and other matters. His supporters may be right, but the price the school has had to pay for Hall’s obsession has been high.

Not only have Hall’s demands created a divide between UT-Austin and UT System personnel, but the highly publicized scrutiny of UT-Austin has also discouraged recruitment of faculty and students to UT-Austin. Recent searches for provost, school deans and the new director of the Butler School of Music have all been affected by the instability.

Every board, whether corporate or academic, has a healthy amount of ideological differences. That’s a good thing. Differences challenge the norm and can be the foundation for greatness.

But when the differences go beyond ideology and turn personal, it takes away from the organization’s goal and mission. Hall’s hunt has not resulted in new policy or ideas to enhance the UT System.

We firmly believe that in order to protect the best interest of the UT System, regents should and need to ask tough questions. We’ve learned this to be true from cases like the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. However, spending 30 to 40 hours a week, as Hall has, combing through hundreds of thousands of pages of UT System emails, letters and other documents, some of them confidential, without disclosed reasons is not productive.

Regents should not be a rubber stamp of approval for all of a president’s ideas. But a regent should find balance in pushing for excellence and moving forward in the name of progress.

Though Hall might believe he is only doing his job, he should see the damage his actions have cause and will continue to have if he stays on as regent.

Hall’s efforts have resulted in change. In February the UT System’s governing board adopted tighter procedures for its members’ information requests, while also granting the members wide latitude to obtain records and data.

But enough is enough; it is time for Hall to step down.

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