Senator Carona's Email Update
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February 29, 2008

What's New . . .

In January, Governor Rick Perry announced the creation of the Task Force on Higher Education Incentive Funding. In the announcement, Governor Perry stated he would like to see a shift from "funding institutions solely based on students enrolled, to funding based more on the quality of students produced." The Task Force will submit a report to the Governor, Speaker of the House, and Lt. Governor by July 15. The report will make recommendations on how to spend $100 million in incentive funding that was approved during the 2007 Legislative Session and make recommendations relating to the establishment of a system of incentive funding for higher education. The Task Force is comprised of eight members: the Commissioner of the Higher Education Coordinating Board, five members appointed by the Governor, one member appointed by the Speaker of the House, and one member appointed by the Lt. Governor.

Over the past month, 1.1 million Texans voted online to help select our state's new general issue license plate design. Voters were able to select one of five new designs or the current design. The overwhelming winner was "Lone Star Texas" which received over 455,000 votes. Texas law requires that license plate designs be chosen by the Texas Transportation Commission, and the Commission approved the new design during their February 28 meeting. Manufacturing of the new plates will begin in early 2009.

The Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee held a hearing in Austin, on February 5. We continued our oversight of homeland security, taking testimony from our state's experts on a number of current efforts and initiatives. Steve McCraw, Director of the Governor's Office of Homeland Security, talked about gangs and the criminal threat, and expressed appreciation for my initiatives in this area. One interesting subject that came up is the question of who enforces traffic laws on toll roads. In our area, the NTTA contracts with the Texas Department of Public Safety; this is not the case in some other areas, so we will look into the best way to provide uniform and appropriate law enforcement on these roadways.

Later, the committee was joined by the Senate Finance Committee in asking the Texas Department of Transportation about reports that, facing a critical funding shortage, the Department will shift funding from new highway and road construction to maintenance of existing roads. At the hearing, TxDOT officials said a $1.1 billion accounting error was a significant factor in making this decision. Committee members, myself included, aggressively questioned this accounting error and why the agency has yet to issue over $9 billion in bonds approved by the Legislature and voters. I want TxDOT to issue the debt already authorized and put the money into construction of our backlog of highway projects.

Also meeting that day was the Legislative Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Projects. This committee was created by SB 792, which the Legislature passed in the 2007 Legislative Session, to address many concerns with public/private partnership arrangements known as Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) in toll projects. At the hearing, I was elected to chair this committee. Amadeo Saenz, Executive Director of the Texas Department of Transportation, testified about the history of CDAs and their use in Texas. Many members expressed serious concerns with CDAs to Mr. Saenz and questioned whether such agreements are the best solution to our state's infrastructure needs. The committee will hold future meetings in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex, Houston, and San Antonio.

In other news related to the Texas Department of Transportation, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Speaker of the House Tom Craddick have asked the State Auditor's Office to conduct a review of the Texas Department of Transportation. The request was sparked by TxDOT's projection that the agency will face a $3.6 billion shortfall by 2015.

The Texas Public Safety Commission (governing body for the Department of Public Safety) approved an incentive plan for drivers who have not paid mandatory surcharges for traffic violations assessed under the Driver Responsibility Program, which was created during the 2003 Legislative Session. Under the Program, additional fines are assessed against drivers who violate certain traffic laws. Statistics show that compliance is spotty at best, as indicated by the state's collection of only around a third of the fines assessed through the Program. The newly approved incentives will offer a 10%-25% reduction in fines for those who maintain a clean driving record and make their payments on time; fines will now be able to be paid in installments over three years. While I voted for the bill, I do not think this sends the best message to those who have already paid in full. My committee will also be looking at this program over the interim.

The Public Utility Commission has approved a 20% discount for low-income customers living in deregulated service areas. (SD 16 residents who are served by Garland Power and Light are not eligible for the discount, since they are not in a deregulated service area.) Individuals making less than 125% of the federal poverty level, which is $26,500 for a family of four, will be eligible for the discount from May through September. The discount is funded through a surcharge that was added to electric bills. The surcharge and the discount program were originally created when the state went to a deregulated retail electric market in 1999, and, although the discount program was suspended in 2003, the surcharge has continued to be collected and used in other areas of the state budget. The Legislature reestablished the program during the 2007 Legislative Session.

Focus . . .

In recent months, the State Board of Education (SBOE) has been reviewing curriculum standards for Language Arts. In light of this, I would like to explain the State Board of Education's role in setting the state's public education policy, discuss its complementary relationship with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), as well as highlight some of the key distinctions between the SBOE and TEA.

The State Board of Education is composed of 15 members elected from roughly equally populous areas of the state; one member is appointed chair by the Governor. Each member also serves on one of three committees: the Committee on Instruction, the Committee on School Finance/Permanent School Fund, and the Committee on School Initiatives. The Chair, Vice Chair, and Secretary of the SBOE, in consultation with the other members, are responsible for making committee assignments. These committees usually meet in advance of full board hearings to address much of the detailed policy issues and then report to the full board for consideration.

One of the main duties of the SBOE is setting curriculum standards. In addition to setting standards for the four core academic areas of Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies, the Board also sets standards for elective areas. The Board updates curriculum standards approximately every ten years. Currently, the Board is revising Language Arts curriculum and will revise the Science curriculum, later this year. Prior to the adoption of new curriculum standards, teams of educators from across the state work to develop new standards, which they recommend to the Board. As is the case with the new Language Arts standards, the SBOE may also contract with private entities to assist in the development of new standards. Once the recommended standards are presented to the Board, they can adopt them or make further revisions before final adoption.

Another of the Board's main duties is overseeing the textbook adoption process. As a part of this process, the SBOE reviews the books for their coverage of essential knowledge and skills and factual errors. Books that cover each element of essential knowledge and skills and have no factual errors are placed on the conforming list; books that cover at least half of the essential knowledge and skills and have no factual errors are placed on the non-conforming list. The Board may also reject books. Books may be rejected due to failure to correct factual errors, failure to cover essential knowledge and skills, or content that conflicts with the goals of the public school system. School districts may purchase books from either the conforming or non-conforming lists, using state funds; books that are rejected are not eligible to be purchased using state funds. School districts pick the books and order them through the TEA, which are then delivered by the publishers to the districts.

In contrast to the SBOE, which is an elected body, the Texas Education Agency is a state agency headed by the Commissioner of Education, who is appointed by the Governor. And while the SBOE is a policymaking body with well defined purview and responsibilities, the TEA has a broader array of charges, including implementing state and federal legislation. One of the agency's main functions is distributing $18 billion in state and federal funds annually; the agency is also responsible for the annual redistribution of approximately $1 billion of local funds collected through recapture. Another key role of the Agency is working with each school district to administer the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills Test (TAKS).

An important factor in the relationship between the State Board of Education and the TEA is that the SBOE does not have any full-time staff, while TEA employs approximately 900 full-time employees. For this reason, the TEA assists the SBOE with many of its responsibilities. An example of such assistance is how the TEA and SBOE work together on determining the passing grades for the TAKS test. The TEA oversees the administration and development of the test and SBOE uses this information to set the passing rate.

Two other areas in which the SBOE and TEA work closely are the regulation of charter schools and management of the Permanent School Fund, an endowment established for the benefit of Texas public schools. The Board is responsible for the initial approval of charter school applications. Since there is a cap on the number of charter school applications that may be granted, the Board appoints a team of educators and other individuals from throughout the state to score charter school applications with assistance from TEA staff. Those applications with the highest score are then granted a charter. Once the charter has been granted, the Commissioner of Education is responsible for approving amendments to the contract, as well as renewals and revocations of contracts.

Regarding management of the Permanent School Fund, which is the second largest education endowment in the country with a current value of $26 billion, the SBOE sets an allocation plan, in which they direct a percentage of the Fund into bonds, stocks, real estate and other types of investments. TEA staff is then responsible for investing the Fund's assets in accordance with the plan with assistance from outside managers for certain parts of the fund, such as international investments.

Did You Know . . . ?

The Department of Public Safety, in conjunction with ALLTEL, Verizon, Cingular, and Nextel, have established a statewide, wireless phone number to report non-life threatening situations while out on the road. Customers of these companies can dial *DPS (377) free of charge to speak with a DPS representative, who will dispatch a State Trooper or other peace officer. These calls are free of airtime charges and are answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Student Opportunity . . .

In an effort to increase the number of individuals who attend college, the Higher Education Coordinating Board has developed the College for Texans website. The website offers an array of services and information for prospective college students and their families, including free SAT, ACT and GRE test preparation services, information on financial aid and scholarships, as well as career planning tools.

In Closing . . .

Primary election day is upon us. If you did not vote early, you may vote at your precinct polling location from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 4th.


John Carona
State Senator - District 16

Capitol Office District Offices
P.O. Box 12068
Austin, TX 78711
512-463-3135 (fax)
8080 N. Central Expy.
Suite 1440, LB 44
Dallas, TX 75206
214-378-5739 (fax)
5401 N. Central Expy.
Suite 300
Dallas, TX 75205
214-953-1886 (fax)