Editorial Roundup: Texas

Dallas Morning News. May 6, 2022.

Editorial: Gov. Greg Abbott has gone too far on migrant children

He is wrong politically, legally and morally.

Gov. Abbott, you have gone too far.

Gov. Abbott, you have gone too far.

When you made securing the border a key public initiative and spent billions of dollars in taxpayer funds, we were reluctant to criticize you, despite questionable execution of your plans and thin results in return.

We agreed with you time and again that the federal government has done too little for too long to slow the flow of thousands of migrants a day across the southern border. We called for better enforcement and greater resources for the humane and timely processing of asylum claims.

But we cannot accept this cruel and short-sighted suggestion that Texas should challenge long-established law that requires the state to provide a public education to unauthorized immigrant children.

You are not wrong, governor, that the federal government should share in the cost. The burden should not fall squarely on taxpayers in border states. Had you stopped there in your comments and thoughts, you likely would have had our support.

But in the safe embrace of right-wing radio, where going too far is never far enough, you revealed a far more concerning thought — one that would be harmful to children, to Texas, to the United States and to the home countries that immigrants fled in fear of violence and in hope of a life not defined by threats and poverty.

You are wrong, governor, politically, legally and morally that Texas should challenge Plyler vs. Doe and attempt to upend the precedent requiring the education of unauthorized immigrant children.

Politically, you wandered well outside the mainstream, where we believe most Texans will not follow you. Further, you lent credence to precisely what Justice Samuel Alito, in his leaked draft opinion overturning Roe vs. Wade, went to great pains to write would not happen, and that is the idea that long-established precedents of the court would be subject to the same scrutiny being given to Roe.

Conservatives who oppose Roe can now watch you be cited as the first example of that very thing happening.

Legally, you failed to recognize that Justice William Brennan and a court majority were correct in their interpretation of the law in Plyler that immigrant children are indeed people “in any ordinary sense of the term” and are entitled to protection under the 14th Amendment.

Brennan was also right when he wrote that education plays “a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society.” It is a basic tool by which “individuals might lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all.”

Morally, you have called on Texans to turn our backs on those who can most benefit, not only themselves but Texas and the world, from education. The large majority of Texans will not accept that.

We believe in a secure border. We believe in the right of nations to enforce the law when it comes to immigration.

But, governor, at long last, sir, enough is enough.

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Fort Worth Star Telegram. May 7, 2022.

Editorial: STAAR test agony is here again: Why Texas should reassess how it measures schools

When the pandemic hit, 1 million kids in grades 3 through 8 opted out of taking the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR. Last year, kids took the test but it was not used to keep schools accountable. This year, about 4 million public school students will resume taking STAAR tests, most of them this month.

While state law requires that students take STAAR tests, their original purpose when implemented during the 2011-12 school year, was to “measure the extent to which students have learned and are able to apply the knowledge and skills defined in the state-mandated curriculum standards.”

As policymakers and educators grapple with making up for what was lost in the pandemic, it’s time to ask if the tests serve their purpose — especially given the added stress they cause for parents, students and teachers.

Student performance, among several other factors, contributes to a school’s accountability rating. But that can have a cost.

Students are well aware that the test affects their educational path. For example, in high school, if a student fails a STAAR test, he or she must take it again. This can happen even if the student had a passing average in the class for the year.

But a student’s success regarding a course is weighed on one test — which seems unfair and far from the STAAR’s original purpose. According to the Texas Education Agency, one helpful caveat is that a high school student can substitute a STAAR test with an SAT or ACT.

Before a student can graduate high school, he or she must pass all five STAAR tests or the substitutes. If the student is a poor test-taker, like many sharp students are, this sets him or her up for failure.

And how does it help determine how well a school is doing?

To complicate matters, in middle school, if a student fails a course but passes the STAAR test, the teacher and principal will discuss whether the student should be promoted. According to the TEA, if a student below grade 8 fails the STAAR, he or she cannot be held back a year.

We need ways to hold schools accountable to a student’s progress, and rating a school does help the state to know where to allocate funds. However, there are some obvious problems with tying these to the STAAR test.

Consider the 2020-21 school year: Some kids took the STAAR tests; about a million did not. It couldn’t really measure student progress or determine where funding should go, but now, it will.

Even though the test is supposed to reflect the previous year’s learning, with so much weighing on this one test, it motivates teachers to teach to the test and it hardly seems equitable to evaluate a child’s progress.

Consider what one student wrote about testing in the Austin Chronicle last year: “In my experience of taking the STAAR, test questions do not test on comprehension but rather closest correct answers. … The STAAR test limits students’ analysis of a piece and focuses on a unidimensional take of a piece. Additionally, this makes it harder for teachers to cover the curriculum because they are forced to spend time teaching test-taking techniques rather than the content.”

Administering STAAR tests is expensive, too — one contract with Pearson Education, which writes the tests, costs the state $90 million per year. That’s a lot of money just for evaluations. We can see where history, for example, might need a Texas-specific test but did we really need to fashion our own test for subjects such as math, reading and science?

Next year could be difficult, too. Under state law, 2022-23 testing will move entirely online, something with which even this tech-savvy generation may struggle.

The STAAR test has strayed from its intended purpose and between the cost and the stress, we’re not sure it’s the best way to keep schools accountable. The state should consider overhauling the accountability regime, especially to ensure it’s measuring the effect of the pandemic.

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Houston Chronicle. May 6, 2022.

Editorial: Texas’ tampon tax is discriminatory. Period.

Texas already has a laundry list of less-than-essential items exempt from the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax, from yachts to male libido enhancers. Yet, when advocates suggest adding something as essential as tampons to that list, lawmakers start acting like a dinner guest trying to avoid picking up the check.

“‘We’re dealing with COVID; the budgets are already very tight; it’s going to be hard to have any kind of sales tax exemption,’” says Sahar Punjwani, with Texas Menstrual Equity Coalition, recounting excuses her youth-led group got from lawmakers. “It’s like, ’Well, if you’re not invested in making any sort of revenue off of those pretty mundane items that aren’t essential to health or wound care or anything like that, why are you so invested in making money off of a basic necessity?”

Texas is one of a slim majority of states — 26 in all— with a sales tax on menstrual products, even as a national effort to undo the so-called “tampon tax” continues to build momentum. In February, Michigan became the latest state to do away with its 6 percent tampon tax after its governor signed a bipartisan bill into law applicable to tampons, panty liners, menstrual cups, sanitary napkins and other products connected with the menstrual cycle. New York, Florida and Nevada have all dropped their tax on menstrual products in recent years, as have Britain, Australia and India.

After Punjwani realized the Michigan bill passed in part due to a 2020 lawsuit challenging the legality of the state’s tax on menstrual products, the Fort Bend County native and University of Chicago sophomore started organizing. Last year, the menstrual equity coalition found a law firm, Baker Botts LLP, that would represent them pro bono. Then last April, Punjwani took a trip to Doyle’s Pharmacy in Houston. She purchased $21.63 worth of tampons, panty liners and sanitary pads, kept her receipts, and submitted her claim for a $1.78 refund to the state Comptroller’s Office. In February, the comptroller denied her claim.

The coalition is protesting that ruling, and is requesting a hearing to argue that menstrual products qualify as tax-free “wound care” items such as band-aids or gauze. The state tax code’s “wound care dressing” exemption is defined as “an item that absorbs wound drainage, protects healing tissue, maintains a moist or dry wound environment...or prevents bacterial contamination.”

That’s similar to how Dr. John Irwin, an OB-GYN and clinical associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine, describes a tampon: “As a threshold matter, menstrual products used by women during their monthly menstruation cycles absorb wound drainage (menstrual blood) created by the tissue damage in the uterine cavity, much like a Band-Aid absorbs blood and drainage from an open, raw wound.”

Case closed? Not quite. Despite the clear similarities, tax experts say the Comptroller’s Office has consistently denied wound care refunds for taxes paid on tampons. The comptroller can’t legally issue a policy that contradicts state tax law, and the Legislature has been absent on changing the statute with respect to menstrual products. State Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, has filed a bill to end the tampon tax in every legislative session since 2017. None have made it to the floor.

Such inertia is not only frustrating but, on its face, discriminatory. The legal argument is simple: Women menstruate, therefore they are disproportionately affected by the sales tax on menstrual products. Continuing to tax those products, while giving items such as male libido enhancers and prostate vitamins a free ride, is the kind of blatant inequity that Punjwani’s protest is aimed at and that the state should remedy. Laura Shoemaker, one of the attorneys representing the coalition, plans to exhaust every administrative avenue before deciding whether to move forward with a lawsuit.

While Texas lawmakers have passed carve-outs for a host of seemingly arbitrary items — cowboy boots, anyone? — there are many exemptions with solid public policy rationales. Groceries, for instance, are not subject to sales taxes. Medical supplies, prescription drugs, and manufacturing equipment are also tax-exempt.

The perception that tampons are somehow less necessary than these items is a reflection of how we talk, or don’t talk, about menstruation. The stigma around periods has a chilling effect for many women and girls, forcing some into “period poverty” — defined as inadequate access to menstrual hygiene products and education. While research on menstrual health is limited, a 2019 study published in “Obstetrics and Gynecology“ found nearly 64 percent of low-income women in St. Louis, Mo., could not afford menstrual hygiene products in the previous year. A third of the women surveyed used cloth, rags, tissues, toilet paper, even children’s diapers, instead. The current economic climate, with rising inflation squeezing household budgets, only exacerbates this problem.

Opponents of ending the tampon tax argue doing so would rob the state of critical sales tax revenue. Let’s put that into perspective: The state estimates $20 million in lost revenue, a tiny sliver of the roughly $36 billion Texas raked in from sales tax receipts in the 2021 fiscal year. The minimal lost revenue fails to take into account the potentially positive economic impact of putting more money in the pockets of women who have to regularly purchase these items. It’s estimated that over the course of her lifetime, the average American woman will experience 450 periods and pay between $100 and $225 in sales taxes.

We support the spirit of Punjwani’s protest. The comptroller should rule that tampons qualify as wound care items worthy of a tax refund. Better yet, lawmakers should end the tampon tax during the 2023 legislative session, when Howard plans to file her bill again.

It might well take a lawsuit, such as the one filed in Michigan, to get the Legislature to take this issue seriously, but it shouldn’t have to. Why fight another costly lawsuit with taxpayer dollars just to preserve a regressive tax on menstrual products that contributes a tiny fraction of state revenue?

Let’s be honest. It’s not really about the money. It’s about a simple lack of interest by those in power, mostly men who aren’t affected by the tax and can’t be bothered to care. It’s high time that changed.

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Lufkin Daily News. May 4, 2022.

Editorial: Roadside Safety: With construction projects ramping up, motorists need to move over, slow down, reduce distractions to prevent tragedy

With the return of warm weather and sunny skies, road construction projects are ramping up statewide.

Two weeks ago, Texas Transportation Commissioners approved more than $253.1 million for construction projects statewide, with more than $28.3 million approved for the Lufkin District. Earlier this week, crews performed overnight mill and inlay work on state Highway 94 at the loop.

That’s why this is the time of year when the Texas Department of Transportation tries to bring awareness to distracted driving and work zones by asking motorists to slow down and stay alert when driving through them to protect themselves and others.

In 2021, traffic crashes in the state’s work zones claimed the lives of 244 people — a 33% increase over the previous year, according to TxDOT statistics. Drivers and their passengers accounted for the majority of those who died in work zone crashes statewide last year, but 195 motorists or vehicle passengers also were killed, along with 38 pedestrians, four bicyclists and three roadside construction workers. Speeding and driver inattention were among the leading causes of crashes.

In the nine-county Lufkin District, there were 172 traffic crashes in work zones, resulting in 11 fatalities and six serious injuries, according to Rhonda Oaks, public information officer for the district.

Distracted driving statistics are no better, Oaks said. Fatalities attributed to distracted driving increased 17% in 2021 compared to 2020.

“The grim facts are that 2,934 people died and another 431 were seriously injured because someone wasn’t paying attention,” she wrote in a recent column.

In the Lufkin District, distracted driving crashes totaled 615, resulting in eight fatalities and 46 serious injuries in 2021.

“It’s cause for tremendous concern that the number of people killed on our roadways reached a 40-year high last year and fatalities in our work zones rose dramatically,” said TxDOT executive director Marc Williams. “It’s important for drivers to remember that driving conditions in work zones can be especially challenging because of extra congestion, slow-moving heavy equipment, temporary barriers and vehicles that make sudden stops. That’s why it’s crucial for everyone to give driving their full attention and drive a safe speed in areas where construction and maintenance are underway.”

TxDOT offers these five tips for driving safely through a work zone:

1. Slow down. Follow the posted speed limit and adjust your driving to match road conditions.

2. Pay attention. Avoid distractions, keep your mind on the road and put your phone away.

3. Watch out for road crews. The only protective gear they wear is reflective clothing, a hard hat, and safety boots. Always follow flaggers’ instructions and be mindful of construction area road signs.

4. Don’t tailgate. Give yourself room to stop in a hurry, should you have a need. Rear-end collisions are the most common kind of work zone crashes.

5. Allow extra time. Road construction can slow things down. Count on it and plan for it.

Roadside safety extends to complying with the state’s Move Over/Slow Down law requiring drivers to move over a lane or reduce their speed to 20 mph below the posted speed limit when approaching a TxDOT vehicle, emergency vehicle, law enforcement, tow truck or utility vehicle stopped on the roadside with flashing lights activated.

Traffic fines double in work zones when workers are present and can cost up to $2,000, while failure to heed the Move Over/Slow Down law also can result in a $2,000 or more fine.

“If you have ever stood on the side of the road with vehicle problems, you know what it feels and sounds like to have vehicles rushing by you, knowing that tragedy is only inches away. Our workers feel that way every day,” Oaks said. “With only a barricade or orange cones separating them from moving traffic, they are vulnerable to distracted drivers or those who choose to speed through a work zone.”

Let’s all do our part to eliminate distractions and show a little courtesy when driving through these dangerous work zones.

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Victoria Advocate. May 4, 2022.

Editorial: State tax-cut propositions won’t save enough to cover the damage inflicted on our schools

For too long, state lawmakers have taken snipes at public schools. From the 1970s through the 2010s and beyond, funding formulas have been revised, lawsuits filed and temporary cuts made permanent.

Now, legislators are asking you to do their work. They’re drafting voters, already fed up with taxes and inflation, to be the front-line soldiers in their war on education.

Two constitutional amendments would reduce school property taxes for the elderly and disabled as well as increase the homestead exemption for school property taxes.

The overall effect is taxes collected by local school districts, like the Victoria Independent School District, would be reduced. In theory, the state would make up this shortfall.

That’s the gist. Sounds great on first blush. Until you read into it.

Proposition 1 would basically reduce the taxes for the disabled and seniors to match the reduced levels others already enjoy. Sounds fair. But it opens the door to further tax cuts.

And Proposition 2 would increase the homestead exemption for local school taxes from $25,000 to $40,000. Sounds like a great idea at a time of high inflation and fuel prices that are pushing upward like an uncapped gusher. But in reality, it’ll save the average homeowner a whopping $175 a year. That’s under $15 a month, on average — about four gallons of that gushing gasoline. Four gallons.

Meantime, school districts, like VISD, will be out that $175 from each home in the district, until the state makes up the difference, if it makes up the difference.

Lawmakers are selling this shoddy bill of goods at a time when the economy looks grim and some voters might like to hang on to scarce dollars.

But the tax scheme is just another volley of bombs at an already embattled system. And the state has a history of failing to pick up education costs, as about a dozen lawsuits by school districts dating to the previous century would show. These propositions won’t be any better. Proposition 1 could run up a bill of over $700 million between 2024 and 2026 and Proposition 2 would be a $1.6 billion ding in the state budget from 2023 to 2026, according to some government figures.

Legislators concocted a scheme to use federal COVID stimulus money to cover some of the bill, but they’re technically not allowed to do so and are suing the federal government to win that ability. If the state loses, so do school districts.

So on May 7, this Saturday, don’t become a conscript for a war that will only make our kids the losers. Not over a few gallons of gas a month, or the chance you’ll save our seniors even less than that. It’s just not worth it.

END