Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

The Dallas Morning News. Nov 17, 2019.

So we’re better than Mississippi? Not anymore.

Sometimes we learn things the hard way when mistakes come back to haunt us years later. What seemed like good ideas can become anvils on future progress.

For years, Texas pointed with pride to student gains on the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress tests as a sign that this state had committed to improving outcomes. A decade ago, test scores for African American eighth- graders in reading showed steady gains, and Texas was outpacing the nation.

Those days (and gains) are now gone. In fact, the 2019 NAEP scores are troubling. Reading scores of African American eighth-graders in Texas now have fallen behind the nation as a whole and behind even Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the country.

So what gives? Put simply, Mississippi didn’t so much surge ahead, though it made some gains. Instead the Magnolia State is now beating Texas because the Lone State State’s scores plummeted.

For anyone who cares about educating the next generation of Texans (and Americans), this ought to be a wake-up call. Part of the problem here is money. We’re thinking of a $5 billion cut in state education earlier in the decade that only now is being restored in Texas. But that’s also not the entire story. There’s also been an erosion of accountability at the state and federal levels.

It seems to us that the most significant change occurred in 2015 when the federal government passed the Every Student Succeeds Act to give states more freedom on setting goals for school districts, turning around low-performing schools and administering standardized tests. It was considered a replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act, which imposed stricter regulations on how states were expected to hold schools accountable for educating students.

We’d argue that those changes were a bit of a mixed bag. We like the new A to F accountability system for rating and evaluating schools and districts, but our ultimate test here is whether scores for all students are going up.

We don’t see it as a coincidence that Texas’ decline and a decline in NAEP scores nationally seem to track the loosening of federal accountability standards. The performance of eighth-graders generally declined in reading from 2017 to 2019, after a decade of stagnation in educational progress. Students in 31 states performed worse in eighth-grade reading than they did in 2017, and for the lowest performing students who struggle the most there has been scant progress over the past 30 years.

This reversal of progress has broad implications, especially in Texas where many schools have economically disadvantaged populations to educate. Lifting kids from poverty requires proficiency in basic skills such as reading. When tests taken at the end of the middle school years reveal a downward trend line, it means that fewer students will be prepared for college or a job in the workforce.

To put it more starkly, when talking about education, we’re really talking about the future of people’s lives. Reading is crucial in today’s world in terms of having a meaningful working life, and in many other aspects of life. Reading is connected to health, civic engagement and even a person’s likelihood of going to prison. We’re passionate about ensuring that every student has a shot at a legitimate education because we understand that a good education seems to underpin every other aspect of society that matters.

We’ve long stood behind fundamental reforms and innovative policy ideas. We’ve backed tax ratification elections to provide schools with more funding, we’ve supported merit-pay programs for teachers, we’ve stood behind charter schools, we’ve encouraged officials to think outside of the box, we’ve called for accountability efforts to drive change, and we came out in favor of philanthropic efforts to support our school systems.

We’ve taken such positions with one goal in mind: ensuring that our school systems are serving every child. And to be honest, when we look at the NAEP scores we have to say that, as a state, we are not doing well enough. We can point to some progress being made, but to see such slippage is to also see that as a whole the world is not improving fast enough for our kids. Backsliding only compounds the problem for students.

Regardless of what is causing test scores to fall, we need officials in this state to see the downward trend is unacceptable.

Our collective failure is failing the next generation of Texans.

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Houston Chronicle. Nov 17, 2019.

Harris County can’t afford repeat of Election Night debacle

What happened on Nov. 5 was a debacle, the result of a comedy of errors that left the outcome of hotly contested elections, including the race for Houston mayor, in flux for almost 12 hours after the polls closed. Voters in Houston and in the county deserve better than this extraordinary delay, and it’s critical that the Harris County Clerk Diane Clerk Diane Trautman avoid a repeat disaster in next month’s runoff contest.

Harris County voters are used to late Election Night results. The county’s size and rapidly aging voting technology have led to delays in reporting before, so election watchers have learned to be patient. But after hours staring at the same results — virtually unchanged from the early voting numbers reported shortly after 7 p.m. — it was clear that the delays earlier this month weren’t business as usual.

A last-minute change in how votes were counted led to the hold up. Trautman, whose department runs local elections, blames the Texas Secretary of State’s Office for issuing a last-minute advisory that effectively scrapped the reporting system the county had implemented.

That system worked like this: Ten sites, dubbed “rally stations” and placed at geographically strategic locations throughout the county, would receive the memory cards with results from individual precincts and then transmit those results to the central counting location via an encrypted internal network.

The state, however, views that mode of transmission as a security risk and claim it would put the county out of compliance with the law, though county officials in turn said it had been previously approved and was used in the May election. Trautman said she continues to seek clarification from the state but has so far been unsuccessful.

Going forward, the county will accept the state’s ruling and amend its approach.

“I don’t want the cloud of any kind of legal question over the election results or the canvas,” Trautman told county commissioners Tuesday. “It’s not fair to the voters of Harris County.”

Meanwhile, state officials stand by the decision that the county’s system violates the law and stresses that its Oct. 23 advisory to that effect had provided the county ample notice to change the way it counted the votes. That advisory states that unofficial results can be transmitted electronically as the county planned but only after first making a copy of the memory cards, or “mobile ballot boxes,” that contain results from each voting location.

The county claims that while the advisory is dated Oct. 23, they were not made aware of it until five days before the Nov. 5 Election Day, meaning they did not have time to purchase the equipment required to make duplicate memory cards even if they had wanted to — not and still guarantee compatibility with the current voting system.

Instead, the county switched to a contingency plan it had prepared in case of a natural disaster. Memory cards would be be delivered to the rally stations as before, but once gathered they would be physically taken to the central counting location. That plan did not work as intended.

Because voters were still in line at 200 polling locations by closing time and were still voting past 8 p.m., the cards from those locations could not be delivered to the rally stations. That idled law enforcement escorts tasked with transporting them until all the cards were accounted for. Incredibly, most cards weren’t at the central location until after 2 a.m., officials said.

Only then could about 2,000 cards be checked for any data corruption, and then fed, one by one, into the counting system.

It’s a wonder they got done before 7 a.m.

That’s flatly unacceptable — and so is the fact that so little information could be reported incrementally throughout the night, before final results were known — leaving most voters in the dark as to who won until they woke up Wednesday morning. It’s clear there was a serious lack of communication between Harris County and the state, and both need to do better in the future. But it’s the county clerk’s job to get local elections right, so the responsibility ultimately lies with Trautman.

For her part, Trautman says she feels the night was a success, aside from the delays. Perhaps in the long run, she’s right. Voters had smooth experiences at the polls, and there is no cause to doubt the tallies her office reported. But that should not remove the urgency in fixing the problem for the future.

To her credit, she has been accessible: She faced the media for about 30 minutes the day after the election and took questions from county commissioners last week. The state, so far, has stood by initial statements and said no more. Officials’ refusal to explain their role in the delays is inexcusable.

Most important, Trautman’s office is developing a new plan that will speed up election night reporting and remain in compliance with the state’s rules. That gives Trautman a chance to redeem herself in less than a month, during the Dec. 14 runoff.

Harris County voters will be watching — hopefully not past midnight.

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Amarillo Globe-News. Nov 17, 2019.

Upcoming census requires participation of everyone

With the calendar soon turning over to a “0” year, it’s time once again for the important business of conducting a nationwide census, an activity mandated to take place every 10 years in an effort to get a complete count of the country’s population.

The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section II) stipulates the census take place, and the results are used for numerous purposes, including determining the number of seats each state will hold in the House of Representatives. For example, Texas gained four seats in the House as a result of the 2010 census. The information gathered in the census also dictates how billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed each year for critical public services such as hospitals, schools, roads, bridges and emergency response, according to information from the U.S. Census website.

The first census began just more than a year after the inauguration of George Washington and before the second session of the first Congress ended. Data from the six-question survey was overseen by then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson with the 1790 census assigned to marshals of U.S. judicial districts. Although questions beyond obtaining the count have been ruled constitutional, the goal of the census is to count each person one time only in the right place.

A complete and thorough count is critical. Once finished, information can be used by residents to support community initiatives involving legislation, quality-of-life and consumer advocacy; businesses use the information to inform decisions about where to build factories, offices and stores. These new businesses, in turn, contribute to a community’s job growth. Local governments leverage the data to not only ensure public safety but also plan new schools and hospitals. Real estate developers and city planners also benefit from the info, using it to plan new developments and improve neighborhoods.

With the new year now just mere weeks away, census officials have ramped up their efforts to educate people about upcoming milestones and why the census matters so much.

“We’re trying to educate our public about the upcoming 2020 census,” said Elva Yanez, Dallas Regional Census Center partnership specialist, during a recent presentation in Amarillo. “It happens every 10 years, and it’s rolling around really fast. We’re trying to make sure everyone gets counted.”

Toward that end, the Census Bureau recently launched a handful of public service announcements as part of its approach to build awareness of the upcoming census. The PSAs, designed for television, radio and online, look to answer typical questions around census activities such as why young children are often undercounted (estimates suggest 1 million young children were missed in the last census) and how to complete a census form.

According to census officials, data ultimately determines how almost $700 billion is spent on funds that support state, county and community programs.

The census is scheduled to be available by mid-March with efforts on gathering a complete count ending July 31. For the first time, respondents can participate online. Officially, Census Day is April 1.

“It’s very simple, takes only about 10 minutes and is 10 questions, and you can still respond by phone and by mail,” Yanez said in our story. “And if none of that occurs, that is when census takers will come to your door and ask to assist.”

The emphasis from those responsible for accumulating the information is for people to self-respond, assuring residents that individual responses are kept private and no personal information is solicited.

“Whenever an individual responds, it is confidential,” she said. “We cannot share with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement); we cannot share with immigration or any other government agencies.”

Individual responses also cannot be used against people to determine their eligibility for federal assistance. Likewise, census representatives do not ask for Social Security numbers, bank or credit card account numbers, money or donations or anything on behalf of a political party.

In other words, they have one job to do – count people.

Certainly, society has grown more complex and complicated in the 200 plus years since the 1790 census, and the job of obtaining a complete count is more challenging than ever as the country has grown in number (estimated 330 million people these days), diversity (basic census information is now available in more than a dozen languages on the organization’s website) and mobility.

That said, those factors make the job more critical than ever before. We encourage everyone to do their civic duty and comply with the census process, filling out forms in a timely manner by whichever method is most convenient and answering census questions.

The community that ultimately benefits from these efforts will be your own.———

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.