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Abbott, pioneering prevaricator

crowPoliticians should have as many words for lying as Inuits have for snow. To tell the truth in politics requires only the inverse of the courtroom oath: I promise to tell some of the truth at least some of the time, so help me Fox News. Now a right-wing political group has asked the Supreme Court to make lying in politics a First Amendment Right. And you thought nothing got done in Washington.

Politicians are already entitled to taxpayer-funded cars, junkets, pensions, and full-time salaries for part-time jobs. Now the Supreme Court is weighing whether politicians are entitled to their own truth as well. No wonder a recent Rasmussen poll measured a puny 6% approval rating for Congress.

There’s no crying in baseball, but it’s hard to imagine politics without lying. Denying a politician the pleasure of the dodge, the shade, the evasion, and the verbal wink would be like wanting a world with only one shade of blue. Still, giving political lies constitutional sanction would complete our journey from not being able to lie about chopping down the cherry tree to denying the tree was there in the first place.

Any politician can lie. I once had a client caught in a massage parlor of ill repute. He claimed he was there to interview a witness, admittedly without his pants. In the old days, that was a scandal. These days, that’s amateur hour.

We are at the dawn of a new age of political lie, the falsehood that unashamedly proclaims the ridiculous as self-evident. This next-level lie claims that the smoking gun was just having a cigarette if indeed the gun existed at all. Not just any politician can tell a lie of such towering ambition. Only the most accomplished of the next generation of political prevaricators can even attempt a feat of such daring and skill that it leaves us in gasping admiration.

That is how Texas Republican Greg Abbott makes me feel. In a state over-populated with politicians fluent in hooey, Abbott deserves special acclaim for what he recently did when he rolled out his education plan. It’s actually a privilege to be the one to tell you what he did. It’s that special.

Abbott, who is running for Texas Governor against Wendy Davis, opposes universal pre-K. Instead, he wants to improve early childhood education with what he calls “gold standard program” that will direct state funding to pre-K programs showing the greatest success.

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 1.09.54 PMHe ran into a bit of a problem on page 21 of his plan that lists three ways to measure the effectiveness of a pre-K program: having the teacher observe, judging the student by his or her work, and “Direct Assessments, norm referenced standardized tests”.

Texas is where the Education Spring rebellion against high-stakes testing started. A grassroots group of angry mothers known officially as Texans Advocating for Meaningful Assessment and unofficially as Mothers Against Drunk Testing convinced the legislature to roll back the number of tests required to graduate high school from 15 to 5, and a recent poll found that 56% of Texans want to get rid of the rest of them. Making kids put down their crayons so they can take standardized tests plays as well in Texas as advocating the abolition of tackle football.

Despite clearly stating in his plan that he wanted “assessments at the beginning and end of the year” for pre-K students who don’t now take standardized tests, Abbott denied that he was advocating increased testing.

“Suggestions to the contrary are absurd,” said his spokesman, whose future in political lore should be secure for then claiming that the proposal that 4-year-olds take “norm referenced standardized tests” was “there for informational purposes only.”

It almost makes one weep with wonder. Claiming that one’s proposals exist without meaning or context brings us closer to a more perfect union. We truly live in the golden age of political deceit, thanks in part to pioneers such as Abbott. With humble respect, I bow down to my betters, and that’s the truth. You can believe me. I’m in politics.

On Apr. 23, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column. 

Is Texas losing “fertilizer happens” attitude?

boomThe arch of history is long, but it does not always bend towards justice. In Texas, it usually veers off and gets lost. A year ago, 15 people died in the fertilizer plant explosion in West, forcing the Texas legislature to pass regulations, but these new laws had jack squat to do with fertilizer plants. Instead, the legislature passed a bill regulating women’s uteruses.

Even for Texas, which doesn’t so much have a history as a series of cautionary tales, dealing with fertilizer plants that store ammonium nitrate like the one in West should have been easy. That’s the stuff that domestic terrorists used to build the bomb that leveled the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. Intentionally or not, this stuff kills people wholesale.

But this is Texas, where the State Fire Marshal lacks the power to inspect fertilizer plants unless they feel like letting him in. To store ammonium nitrate, you need to lock it up or put a fence around it, but not both, and a security camera isn’t necessary. You don’t need to install a sprinkler system—which would have contained the damage in West to a relative annoyance—and storing this explosive material in a wooden room is perfectly legal.

The real Texas Miracle is that more fertilizer plants don’t explode. Chris Connealy, the State Fire Marshal, politely asked for permission to inspect Texas’ fertilizer plants and found that 46 store ammonium nitrate in wood-frame buildings. His suggestion to lawmakers that they require plants to store the stuff in stand-alone buildings made of material that won’t burn is a lesson we learned when we read The Three Little Pigs.

But regulations ain’t Texan. The Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee has held three hearings, and there is no consensus that we need new safety regulations. One member, Republican Dan Flynn, cited “old-timers” who stored ammonium nitrate without taking precautions and didn’t want new regulations because so far nothing has exploded. I’m not making this up.

“We haven’t had that many incidents. What’s kept that from happening – luck?” asked Flynn, who leads the “fertilizer happens” contingent on the committee. In an earlier hearing about the West explosion, he urged lawmakers to “keep it in perspective” and not “paperwork a company to death.”


That’s not to say that Texas is totally opposed to regulation. Progress Texas, a liberal advocacy group dedicated to the proposition that its name is not an unintentionally oxymoronic taunt, pointed out recently that since the West explosion “Texas has done more to regulate women’s bodies than it has to regulate fertilizer plants.”

That isn’t entirely accurate. What the legislature actually did was regulate women’s health care clinics that perform abortions, forcing many to close. The law regulated janitor’s closets, ventilation systems, and the width of hallways in abortion clinics. The legislators swore up and down that they were doing this all in the name of protecting the health and safety of Texas women.

Here’s the funny thing: Getting an abortion is safer than living next door to a fertilizer plant in Texas. (And yes, there are no rules against having a fertilizer plant in a residential neighborhood or next door to a school, just as happened in West.) Getting an abortion is 10 times safer for women than giving birth, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The Texas Tribune reported that the last time a Texas woman died seeking an abortion was 2008, a safety record that the residents of West would probably take.

Joe Pickett, the Democratic chairman who has presided over the hearings, promises to push for regulations next year that will require fertilizer plants to secure ammonium nitrate in rooms made of non-combustible material. He also wants to give the State Fire Marshal the power to inspect and to regulate these plants. All that remains is to name the bill. I propose Demonstrating Understanding of Health, or DUH.

Texas has more than twice as many fertilizer plants with ammonium nitrate than it has abortion clinics. If successful, Pickett’s common-sense reforms would bend the arch of history back toward progress. If not, Texas can go back to regulating lady parts. Republicans like that here.

On Apr. 19, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column.

Why are Republicans playing the victim on civil rights?

A1029-11ARepublicans used to be the bullies, but now they can’t stop whining about how everyone’s picking on them. They’ve volunteered for the losing side on every single civil rights fight facing America and seem happy to whine about their woeful circumstances. When did the Republicans decide playing the victim was a good idea?

This week three ex-presidents are joining Barack Obama in Austin at the LBJ presidential library to mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Beyond focusing on the struggles of the struggle for racial equality, the Civil Rights Summit featured panels on immigration, gay rights, social justice, and feminism. On all of these issues, Republicans find themselves cast as the bad guys in the ongoing American struggle to form a more perfect union.

“How could they not?” asked former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who spoke in favor of immigration reform at the Civil Rights Summit. “The media’s already said, decided and said, if this [immigration reform] doesn’t pass it’ll be the Republicans’ fault. Most Republicans would not take that point of view, but they think, well, the media wants to blame it on us. What’s new?”

Being on the wrong side of history has created a strange sense of aggrieved victimhood among Republican candidates and rank-and-file voters. The Republican platform has become a symphony of dog whistles, but Republicans think the real problem is the angry snarling of the attack dogs. In his much-discussed New York Magazine cover story, Jonathan Chait wrote, “This is the only context in which they [Republicans] appear able to understand racism.”

December 21, 2013Republicans’ vision is so clouded that they can only identify their heroes after they’ve been martyred. Conservatives didn’t make Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson their poster boy until A&E suspended his show when he made anti-gay remarks in GQ. Republican politicians didn’t bring bags of Chic-fil-A to photo ops until until liberals boycotted the restaurant, again over anti-gay remarks.

Not long ago, conservatives were not just offensive but on the offensive. In 1988, Lee Atwater’s Willie Horton’s ad was less a dog whistle than an air raid siren warning white voters that Michael Dukakis was letting black rapists out of prison. In 2004, 11 states passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. And as recently as 2011, Alabama passed the toughest anti-immigration bill in the country, cracking down on unauthorized immigrants in schools, the workplace, and in rental housing.

But now conservatives are playing defense. It took years to turn the tide for blacks, women, and Hispanics, but attitudes about gays and lesbians flipped in an instant. In 2010, Congress repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. A year ago June, the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, and now same-sex couples can get married in 17 states. America got religion on gay rights in a hurry, making it unique among the civil rights struggles.

“One of the things that is different is how fast we have moved and how far we have moved so quickly,” said marriage equality attorney David Boies at the Civil Rights Summit, who noted it took a decade after Brown v. Board of Education to pass the Civil Rights Act.

Atwater apologized on his deathbed in 1991 for using racial prejudice to inflame voters, but present-day conservatives make a virtue of finding themselves on the wrong side of history. They flaunt their victimhood to rally their troops to yet another lost cause. These conservatives would sooner cast themselves as heroic victims than apologize for resorting to bigotry.

Republicans believe so deeply in their own victimhood that the world only makes sense in the reflection of a fun house mirror. When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed anti-gay legislation, Rush Limbaugh said she was “being bullied by the homosexual lobby in Arizona and elsewhere.” When you’re afraid of gay bullies, you’ve already lost.

When LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, he said that the South was lost to Republicans. The Democrats may have lost the South, but by seeing themselves as the victims of every single civil rights battle the country—and not the last defense of discrimination—the Republican Party has lost its mind. But even bullies need a hug every now and then.

On Apr. 9, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column.

Teaching writing wrong

exceptionalismIf you have a seventh grader, then you know that he or she just got done taking a standardized test for writing. The good news is that our country’s education policy recognizes that writing is a necessary skill in the information era. The bad news is that because of the way we administer and grade the writing standardized tests, we’d have a better idea of whether our kids can write if we looked at their texts.

The problem is not that we expect our children to learn to write essays. The problem is that we expect these essays to come in a standard format that lends itself to mass-scale scoring and apples-to-apples comparisons. So to really make sure our children never learn to write well, Pearson looked to the one place no one would look to for clear, helpful writing—the legal profession.

In Texas and in the 17 states in which Pearson—the world’s largest testing company—designed the Common Core tests, students took a writing test on a page filled almost entirely by a rectangular box filled with 26 lines. At the bottom of the page was the warning, “Students may not write outside the box.” You might think 26 lines is an arbitrary limit to place on a student’s thoughts until you realize that each page of a legal pleading is also 26 lines.

These are not the five-paragraph essays we learned with the introduction, three supporting points, and conclusion. Our children—mine included—are being taught that good writing is filling in the box and using all 26 lines.

My seventh-grader took the writing test this week and had to write three essays. One of his prompts was “What are the benefits of laughter?” When he told me what he wrote, he said that he organized his points like a real essay, but he didn’t indent the paragraphs because his teacher told him not to. His essay was a solid block of words.

The problem wasn’t the teacher. Besides being handsome and funny, my seventh-grader is in an honors program. The fault lies with the graders Pearson hires to evaluate the millions of essays written by 13-year-olds every year. You would like to think that for the hundreds of millions of tax dollars we pay them every year that Pearson would hire retired teachers, laid-off journalists, or starving graduate students. You would probably also like to believe in the Easter Bunny.

Todd Farley knows better. He wrote a funny insider memoir called “Making the Grades:  My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry.” Because states needed millions of essays graded on unrealistic deadlines, corners were cut. They hired graders off Craig’s List. They hired raging drunks, burnouts, and folks who spoke English—badly—as a second language.

In the blur to meet deadlines, essays that used all 26 lines got the better scores, and teachers learned to game the system. When state officials learned what was happening, they passed regulations to ensure that trained professionals had sufficient time to fairly evaluate student essays. And then the Chicago Cubs won the Super Bowl and the Republican Party demanded Obama’s face be carved into Mount Rushmore.

What actually happened is that Pearson, which remains largely unregulated despite effectively running education in our country, programmed machines to grade essays. They promise this will be even cheaper than hiring human morons, and we’ll get the results more quickly.

In 2012, an MIT professor found that an electronic grader designed by the Education Testing Service is just another video game with hidden cheats. Longer essays with bigger words got better grades than succinct, well-argued essays. Worse yet, the computers could not discern truth and assumed any fact was correct. Your child could fill up 26 lines about Obama’s Kenyan birthplace and get a good score. We’re training children to write like lawyers for Fox News.

One of the benefits of laughter is that it helps you accept what the testing industry is doing to our education system, but the joke’s on us. We want to make our children “college and career ready,” but all they’re learning to do is game the system. Great. More lawyers.

What it means when Abbott cites a white supremacist

snake handlersAfter unsuccessfully mansplaining equal pay for three weeks, Greg Abbott, the Republican frontrunner for Texas governor, finally changed the subject by citing the work of a “white nationalist” in opposing universal pre-K. “Oops” doesn’t quite cut it, but this is more than a simple gaffe. Using Murray’s research could lead Republicans toward education policies that rely more upon eugenics than on equality.

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Murray a “white nationalist” who uses ” racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.” The difference between Murray and a cross-burning white supremacist is that his sheets have a higher thread count, and Abbott is not alone in using Murray’s discredited research. Paul Ryan cited Murray when he blamed poverty on lazy black men.

When top Republicans cite someone whose research “proves” white men are intellectually superior to women and minorities, it is probably because they agree with his conclusions. As in 2012 when Republicans kept parsing rape, citing Murray reveals an emerging conservative belief that not everyone can be educated.

This would reverse a generation of egalitarian Republican policy started by George W. Bush, who said he wanted “high standards for all our children and all our schools.” Leaving aside their miserly opposition to equitable and sufficient education funding, Republicans have tried since the 1990s to prove that they could “fix” schools that predominantly taught black and Hispanic students.

The problem is that they tried to use standardized tests to achieve this, which makes as much sense as trying to grow by measuring yourself against a wall. Hold everyone to the same standards, and they will magically achieve them, closing the achievement gap. This is proof by assertion, a “build it and they will come” trope.

We built it, but they didn’t come. Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig and Jennifer Jellison Holme at the University of Texas at Austin discovered that three factors predict—with alarming accuracy—test results and therefore school ratings: the child’s race, ethnicity and class. In fact, Dr. Vasquez found that Texas had become more segregated than before we set out to close the racial achievement gap, especially when you considered the growing population of Texans who spoke Spanish as a first language.

From this we might conclude—as many Republicans seem ready to—that certain people just aren’t “college material.” This new breed of Charles Murray-citing Republicans apparently believes that the truth is self-evident and that we are not created equal. In the face of overwhelming patterns in test scores, a belief that sufficient instruction and support can lift any mind into the light seems hopelessly naïve. We’ve tried that, they will argue, and we’ve failed.

Liberals argue that we have to address inequality, and while I agree with that, we also have to question whether we are measuring progress with the right yardstick. Maybe standardized tests that consistently demonstrate higher achievement for wealthy whites than poorer minorities prove not a disparity in innate ability but in unequal opportunity. This is exactly why we need universal pre-K, not to mention expanded access to summer school opportunities and better prenatal care. Now is the time to put out more ladders, not pull up the few we have.

And we need to stop substituting accountability for equity. As a Texas Democrat, you won’t catch me saying this often: George W. Bush was right. We need to hold everyone to the same high standards regardless of their skin color, zip code or tax bracket. There is nothing Americans cannot do if given the resources and opportunity. But we cannot measure our progress with tests that don’t tell us anything we can’t learn from the census.

The danger of justifying petty public policies by referencing the work of a racist is that taxpayers might give up on forming a more perfect union. The entrenched racial achievement gaps are not cause to forfeit this fight. The war is just, but that doesn’t mean we are fighting it the right way.

How Texas women can win on equal pay

April 8 is an important date for Texas women. It’s not a school holiday, and for men, it’s just another Tuesday. But for Texas women, April 8 is the day they will have finally earned as much as the men did in all of 2013, making it the perfect day to go on strike to make a point about equal pay.

You think it’s OK to pay women less than men for the same work? Fine. Try to keep the economy going on a Tuesday in April without them.

As Greg Abbott’s latest self-inflicted controversy enters its third week, the political class is beginning to ask whether the Republican frontrunner has an undeserved reputation for political acumen. After tolerating the “abortion Barbie” slur, palling around with Ted Nugent, and comparing South Texas to a “third world country,” Abbott is coming across as a Clayton Williams character starring in a Texas comedy, equal parts absurdist and petty.

And though Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has refused to rule out having the senate study equal pay to death before the next legislative session, Republicans are standing by their man for the most part, but it’s not working. Their problem isn’t just that their explanation is long and complicated. It’s that their reasoning is full of hooey. Put simply, conservatives are fine with gender discrimination being against the law, but they are against anyone do anything about it.

Let me be fair to Attorney General Abbott and assume he thinks his wife and daughters deserve equal pay for doing the same work as a man. The problem arises when you try to square the circle of him opposing both gender discrimination and a state equal pay law.

Unlike 42 other states that have equal pay laws, Abbott says Texas does not need one because gender discrimination is banned in the state constitution and under federal law thanks to Barack Obama. If Abbott is telling the truth, he is asking us to believe he is ceding sovereignty to Washington because Obama is in charge. This should be our first clue that Abbott’s not playing it straight.

Second, Abbott’s claim that we don’t need a state equal pay law ignores that Texas already has an equal pay law, albeit a particularly useless one. If a woman finds out that she is the victim of gender-based pay discrimination within 180 days of getting her first paycheck, she can sue. There are thongs that cover more than this law. Most times, the details come out later, and the law does nothing to protect a woman who faces discrimination that occurs more than half a year on the job.

Perhaps the glut of balderdash we enjoy in Texas politics has rendered us insensitive to how galling it is that Abbott expects us to believe him. Taking him at his word requires us to believe that Abbott is a simple, unlearned man who knows less of the law than a half-educated columnist. Frankly, I’m insulted.

In reality, Abbott knows exactly what the state equal pay law does not cover. In Prairie View A&M University vs Chatha, Abbott argued before the Texas Supreme Court that the clock had expired on a female professor who claimed pay discrimination and the federal law did not apply. Abbott is arguing for a status quo that does nothing to protect most Texas women. But to be fair women are used to being told things are bigger than they actually are, even their legal protections.

The truth is that Republicans don’t want more lawsuits because the lawyers are mostly Democrats and the defendants are mostly Republicans. That should not matter to women voters however, because Abbott says he knows what women want.

“Women are going to be a powerful voice in this election,” Abbott said last October. “I’m proud to say there is nobody in the state of Texas who has done more to fight to help women than I have in the past decade.”

Poor Abbott. He can’t help it.

Beth Cubriel, executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, was onto something when she said, ”Men are better negotiators.” Where we go from here depends on Texas women. A general strike by women to prove a symbolic point about equal pay will never happen, of course. April 8 pales in importance to November 4 when women will get to prove they are better negotiators than Republicans think they are or the fools Abbott takes them for.

This column appeared in The Austin American-Statesman on Mar. 31, 2014.

A Bill Hammond-sized loophole

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 7.03.06 PM It’s funny how loopholes are always just big enough to accommodate a lobbyist. In Texas, the legislature recently banned lobbyists for testing companies from serving on education accountability advisory boards, but Bill Hammond, a lobbyist representing Pearson’s interests, is serving on an accountability panel. It may sadden you to know that Texas is messing with ethics, but fear not: It appears no one is listening to Hammond anyway.

The high-stakes testing mania started in Texas led by Sandy Kress, a business-friendly Democratic lawyer linked test scores to accountability. Kress became George W. Bush’s testing guru in Austin and then in Washington before becoming a lobbyist for Pearson.

But back in Austin, lawmakers treated Kress like a regular citizen who happened to know something about education. Rick Perry appointed him to state boards on which Kress advocated for more testing, higher stakes, and tougher penalties. When he offered expert testimony, he rarely identified himself as a testing company lobbyist, instead citing his role on the state advisory panels.

When the backlash against over-testing came in 2013, the lawmakers turned on Kress, the guy who got them into this mess. In the law rolling back testing requirements, the legislature included a ban on testing lobbyists from serving on advisory boards. Kress could only turn to one place for support: Bill Hammond, a politically influential lobbyist and president of the Texas Association of Business.

Pearson was a member of the Texas Association of Business, but Hammond really seemed to be relishing the fight. When a group of mothers angry about over-testing organized and started bending ears and twisting arms at the capitol, Hammond accused school administrators of going “about scaring mom.” He might as well have patted them on their heads and told them to get back in their kitchens.

To complaints that the rigorous exams were preventing almost a quarter of the Class of 2015 from graduating, Hammond hired a plane to circle the capitol pulling a banner that read, “Is 37 percent correct on Algebra too hard?”

tunnelSomehow, belittling Texas moms and mocking their children did not work. The legislature passed testing relief, so it struck some as a little strange last year when the Texas Education Commissioner put Hammond on the Accountability Policy Advisory Committee. Hammond, after all, was a lobbyist who indirectly represented Pearson and was certainly not shy about speaking up for their interests.

“It does violate what the legislature intended when it didn’t want industry people running the show,” said Craig McDonald of Texas for Public Justice, an ethics watchdog group.

The good news is that Hammond seems peeved about what the APAC recommended recently. According to H.D. Chambers, an APAC member and a superintendent of a suburban Houston school district, Hammond argued that 15% of Texas schools should be labeled as failing.

“I want parents and taxpayers to have the truth, so that they can know the true condition of our schools,” said Hammond. “They should be able to make decisions based on facts, not politics.”

But Hammond’s 15% failure rate would be the third level of politics imposed on the accountability rating. For a school to avoid failure, an arbitrary number of students (55% in this case) would have to pass the test, passing being set at another arbitrary number, such as the 37% Hammond thought was too easy.

All this makes some question what Hammond is doing on the advisory board at all, including McDonald, who wants the legislature to “tighten the language” in the ban on testing lobbyists to include Hammond. “The literal definition of being a registered lobbyist is not a good enough firewall in this instance,” he said.

“I would like for the legislature to ensure that no outside influence related to the testing industry has any impact on accountability policy in the state of Texas,” said Chambers.

In the end, Hammond is more successful at getting on the accountability committee than is he in getting his way. Hammond wants a guarantee that an arbitrary percentage of Texas schools will be labeled as failures, but so far the only one who has failed is Bill Hammond. Almost makes you feel sorry for the guy.

This column was syndicated by Cagle Cartoons on Mar. 31, 2014. 

Don’t look now, but “Education Spring” is arriving

NCLB“Education Spring”—the rise of public education advocates against the business-backed privatization movement—is spreading across the country and has finally reached Washington. But if you’re wondering why standardized testing is causing such a stink these days (after all didn’t we manage OK with the SAT, ACT and other tests?) all you have to do is go back to where this all started in Texas. Providing cautionary tales to the rest of the country is a public service we provide here. You’re welcome.

Here’s the rub: No Child Left Behind, an outdated law begging for replacement, requires every eighth grader to pass a standardized test in math. Texas also requires students taking Algebra I to pass a state standardized test, and many children take Algebra I in the eighth grade, which means many Texas eighth graders have to pass two math tests, only one of which actually counts. The other is just to satisfy NCLB, which was based on an earlier Texas law in the first place.

The state education agency asked the federal education agency for permission not to double-test eighth graders. Texas is where high-stakes testing was born, so when Texas is asking for relief you know things have gotten a little out of hand. But this month Sec. Arne Duncan denied the request, which means next month hundreds of thousands of Texas 14-year-olds will learn an important lesson, but not one about math.

Giving one child two tests in the same subject to satisfy a federal law that never worked and no one wants anymore is a bi-partisan failure. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama are fundamentally wrong that we can use standardized tests as a measuring stick to make our children, in effect, taller. The only thing we accomplish by double-testing eighth graders is revealing not just that the emperor has no clothes but he’s sleeping off a bender in a dumpster.

Everywhere you look Education Spring is breaking out. The anti-test rebellion that started in Texas two years ago has spread to other states. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 179 bills dealing with K-12 testing have been introduced. A bipartisan bill in the Virginia Assembly backed by teachers unions and the new governor, would cut the number of tests from 34 to 26. New York has capped how much time schools devote to testing while Missouri reduced it.

And in California, state officials won a standoff with Sec. Duncan over their insistence that it made no sense to collect data that compared the apples of an old test to the oranges of a new test.

March was a big month for the pushback against high-stakes testing as it finally breached the walls of congress. On Mar. 6, Reps. Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) introduced a bill to move from annual testing to “grade-span” testing, or testing once every few years. This would save millions of dollars, reduce testing abuse, and free classrooms to innovate new ways to educate children. Obviously, it has no chance of passing.

Another Arizona Democrat—Rep. Raúl Grijalva—became the first to support the Network for Public Education’s call for congressional hearings into the “misuse and abuse of standardized tests.” Since the federal education budget rivals what we spend on defense, it might be nice to examine what we’re getting for all our tax dollars.

But none of that is what is grabbing the national headlines with it comes to education. That honor goes to Hillary Clinton, who just announced she will attend a higher education conference early this week with ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sec. Duncan at the George W. Bush presidential library. The public education advocates opposing test-based reforms are going to need a lot more firepower to convince Hillary she’s hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Even so, few expected the mutiny against high-stakes testing to get this far. But if angry parents can convince Texas legislators to offer testing relief where they previously only preached the empty gospel of rigor, then anything is possible. It’s been a long, cold winter, and at long last Education Spring might be arriving.

On Mar. 24, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column.

Greg Abbott’s been “extremely busy” lately

ladyThe best thing Texas Republicans can say about this week is that no one has told a rape joke yet. More than a week has passed since Attorney General Greg Abbott refused to say whether he would sign an equal pay law as governor, and the issue won’t die no matter how many female apologists he trots in front of cameras. Can you believe it? Texas women apparently want to be paid the same as men for the same work. There’s just no making some women happy.

This all started a couple Sundays ago when Abbott said that Texas did not need an equal pay law because the federal Lilly Ledbetter rendered that moot. This was despite the fact that as attorney general he defended a state university against a professor who claimed pay discrimination, demonstrating exactly why states need their own equal pay laws.

With Abbott unwilling to directly answer a straightforward question, the controversy has dragged on long enough to draw comparisons to Clayton Williams, Ann Richards’ opponent in 1990 who was something of a Republican pioneer in rape jokes when he compared it to bad weather. “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it,” said Williams.

Abbott has chosen a different tactic, though it’s not working any better. First, Cari Christman of Red State Women went on the same local Sunday-morning show on which Abbott made his non-responsive response about equal pay. Presumably, Christman’s role was to show that conservative women support Abbott for his lack of support, which is kind of like when Republicans get a black surrogate to go on TV and explain why Paul Ryan isn’t a racist just because he quotes racists to insult the “urban” poor.

All Christman succeeded in doing was proving that conservative women can screw things up just as much as the conservative male politicians they defend.

This is verbatim, folks, down to the awkward pauses:

“Well, if you look at it, women are…are…extremely busy. We lead busy lives whether working professionally, whether we’re working from home…and…and…and…times are…are extremely…extremely busy.  It’s just a busy cycle for women and we’ve got a lot to juggle and so when we look at this issue we think: what’s practical? And…we want more access to jobs.  We want…we want to be able to go to…get a higher education degree at the same time that we’re working or raising a family,” she said. “That’s commonsense and we believe that that real world solution is a more practical way to approach the problem.”

Obviously, what “extremely busy” women want is access to jobs but not necessarily jobs where they would get equal pay on account of how busy they are.

Somehow, this failed to quell the uprising. Into the breach leapt Beth Cubriel, the executive director of the Republican Party of Texas who went on television to set this matter to rest.

“Men are better negotiators,” said Cubriel. “I would encourage women instead of pursuing the courts for action to become better negotiators.”

Funny thing

According to state campaign finance reports, Cubriel makes more than $4,000 a year less than her predecessor at the Republican Party of Texas who was, you guessed it, a dude. But it’s her fault she isn’t paid as much as a man. Maybe she would have realized this sooner if she weren’t so “extremely busy.”

And while it’s true that you get what you ask for, sometimes you have to ask for it in a courtroom. That’s what the Founding Fathers said, and these days it even applies to women.

The question remains in front of Abbott, and it’s nothing like bad weather. It won’t blow over, and he can’t use female surrogates to shield himself from having to summon the courage to give an honest answer to a real question. When it comes to equal pay for women, it’s time for Abbott to man up and say what he really believes.

On Mar. 19, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column.

With pre-K, we’re all smart enough to be president

Once upon a time, before Netflix and Tumblr, we could not waste hours on the Internet binging on television and reposting Supernatural gifs. In those dark times—before DVRs and streaming movies—getting sick meant having to watch whatever was scheduled on daytime television. We lived like animals.

That’s how I ended up in bed in Oct. 2000, watching George W. Bush’s appearance on Oprah in which he confessed to feeling intellectually outclassed at prep school.

I can't think of a single thing to say“Were there many times you thought you weren’t smart enough?” asked Oprah.

“No—eventually, I realized that smarts are not only whether or not you can write well or whether or not you can do calculus but smart also is instinct and judgment and common sense and there’s a lot of folks in my state whose instincts and judgment and common sense I respect a lot. They may not have even have ever gone to college, so smart comes in all different kinds of … different ways,” said Bush.

Word for misplaced word, Bush’s soliloquy is exactly the opposite of what we should tell our children. To form a more perfect union, we need to embrace that smarts aren’t instinct and people skills but mastering complicated subjects such as calculus. That’s why I am proud to have helped elect San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who risked his future to fund pre-K with higher taxes.

One of the cool things about working for Julian Castro—and for that matter, his identical twin brother Joaquin, the congressman—is that he is smart in a way we wish those who governed us were. He and his brother grew up working class in San Antonio and got into Stanford University before getting their law degrees at Harvard.

The surprising thing about their exclusive educations is that they contend that the kids they grew up with were just as smart as the people they went to college with. That’s why in 2012 Mayor Castro pushed for pre-K because, he said, “with high-quality, full-day pre-k, all things being equal, a student is more likely to succeed, graduate from high school and go to college.”

Pre-K is the new black in Democratic platforms. Barack Obama included $750 million in his 2015 budget  to kick start universal pre-K, and Wendy Davis is making expanded access to pre-K a centerpiece of her gubernatorial campaign. Castro, Obama, and Davis all point to longitudinal studies showing long-term educational benefits and compounded financial returns on taxpayer investment.

But a no-brainer to a Democrat is a Republican’s excuse not to think. In 2011, Rick Perry and the Republican-led legislature cut pre-K funding by $288 million, and now about two-thirds of poor Texas children don’t have access to pre-K.

Now that everyone has realized we have the money to pay for it, some conservatives are claiming pre-K doesn’t work. Russ Whitehurst, a former U.S. Department of Education official under George W. Bush and now of the Brown Center for Educational Policy, is trotting around an analysis of a pre-K experiment in Nashville.

“Not one of the studies that has suggested long-term positive impacts of center-based early childhood programs has been based on a well-implemented and appropriately analyzed randomized trial,” Whitehurst claimed, which would be shocking if it were true, but about the only thing correct in that sentence is the spelling.

my whole brain went what the hellAs W. Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research laid bare in the Washington Post last month, Whitehurst mischaracterized some studies, ignored others, and presented conclusions that were “appallingly inaccurate for someone who claims to be an expert,” wrote Barnett. I only have a liberal arts degree in Russian, but even I felt bad for Whitehurst after reading Barnett. It’s that obvious.

Why would conservatives misrepresent facts—OK, lie—to discredit early childhood education? Maybe they see having to pay taxes for pre-K as funding day care for poor, minority kids—something I saw argued in Mississippi when they were debating whether to have kindergarten. Maybe they think 4-year-olds should not just have equal opportunity handed to them as if it’s their American birthright. Maybe they are just cheap.

Or maybe they want to preserve the status quo in which a child born to a patrician political dynasty has more opportunity to succeed in American than do identical twins raised on San Antonio’s west side. But if we can live in a world of unlimited entertainment possibilities, why can’t we do the same for educational opportunities?

On March 17, 2014, The Austin American-Statesman published this column.

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One aspect of pre-K that I was not able to get into was the encroachment of the accountability movement into early childhood education. I’ve written about this recently, specifically my worries about Sandy Kress lobbying for Rupert Murdoch’s education tablet company to get money for pre-K testing. You can a very serious report from the University of Virginia here or a good article from the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss here. She wrote the oft-quoted line, “[K]indergarten is the new first grade when it comes to academics.”

I asked Mayor Castro about the concerns about imposing accountability on 4-year-olds. Here’s what he had to say about how San Antonio’s pre-K experiment is handling testing:

“We incorporate age-appropriate assessments that are not the stress-inducing tests that have befallen a lot of states including Texas. I believe there are appropriate kinds of assessments for pre-K. I believe in Texas tests have been overused and the high-stakes nature is not good, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have assessments that are appropriate at that age.”

Sounds good, though as I’m sure he’d agree, we need to keep an eye on this.