Saturday, April 25, 2009

PISD Board Candidates

This short post will just list the candidates for the Plano ISD Board of Trustees candidates seeking election to the board in the May 9, 2009 elections.

There are two seats open on the Board, Place 6 and Place 7. Voters vote for both seats, although candidates stand for only one seat.

Place 6
Place 7

I have already endorsed Missy Bender for Place 7 where the choice is clear and easy. For place 6, I find it difficult to choose between Marilyn Hinton and Nathan Barbara. They both seem equally good, and they are far better choices than their opponents. I hope to post a more thoughtful recommendation for Place 6 in the next few days.

Updated 2009-05-07 17:26CDT: I added link to my opposition to some candidates, and I corrected the link to Nathan Barbera's website.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Missy Bender for PISD place 7

I unequivocally and enthusiastically support Missy Bender for a second term on the Plano Independent School District Board of trustees. Usually when deciding who to vote for, I end up searching for the candidate that I find least objectionable. This case is different. Bender is exactly who I want to see on the school board.

Serving all children

Missy Bender appears to share my contention that certain aspects of the Texas implementation of No Child Left Behind is not fully compatible with PISD's mission of providing the best education to each child. She is an advocate of using annual progress for each child as a more meaningful measure than merely counting how many children meet some minimum standard. As she says on her website she is especially proud of the school district's approach to tailoring instruction to each child.. This means that the gifted child and the child with learning disabilities will get the education that is appropriate for them.

This position is not as uncontroversial as it may seem when stated this way. We must remember that resources (time and money) is finite, and every dollar and hour spent one way is not spent some other way. Every resource that goes into providing the best for children who are not near the cusp of passing the TAKS diminishes PISD's chances of receiving higher state accountability ratings. To a significant degree, PISD is faced with a choice between concentrating on accountability ratings and providing the best education to all children.

Ideally there would be no conflict, but there is. Ms. Bender and the present board have been working to improve the accountability system so that it will not punish districts like Plano for doing what is right for our children. Some candidates may begrudge the effort that the school board puts into lobbying the Texas legislature, but both budget constraints and concerns as well as accountability issues cannot be addressed without working to prevent Austin from doing even more damage.

Competence, intelligence, and professionalism

The combination of legal, regulatory, financial and management issues that the Board has to cope with is daunting. A board member needs not only a solid grasp of the facts, but an understanding of how they interact. Bender demonstrates obvious intelligence and a deep understanding of the subtleties of the issues, and she simply radiates competence. Finally, she is not ideologically driven. Her passion is for solving the real problems the district faces in workable pragmatic ways.

So for those eligible to vote in the May 9, 2009 PISD elections, please vote for Missy Bender for place 7. In a posting that I am still working on, I will have a recommendation for Place 6, where the choice between the candidates is not so clear.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

No votes for the spammer

Before I go into detail about why I am encouraging people to vote against Steve Navarre for Plano Independent School District board of trustees, place 6 in the May 9, 2009 elections, I would like to state what I find admirable about him.

Some things to admire

Steve is working hard to get people who don't normally pay attention to the PISD Board to care about these elections. People should care and learn about the candidates and what the school board does and has been doing. Steve's campaign is getting people to pay attention and so is a success for democracy.

Mostly I admire Steve's readiness to inform voters about how he feels and things about many of the issues facing the school board. The websites of the other candidates contain little more that biographical information and statements of a few truisms. Steve, on the other hand has been been publicly taking positions on issues that may lose him votes (as he has lost mine) as well as win him some. This is an an extremely admirable and courageous thing to do.

The simple fact of the matter is that when we look at what an office seeker stands for we find reasons to vote against the person. So on the whole, the more explicit someone is about positions on real issues that distinguish them from others, the more votes they lose. This is why such great programs like Project vote Smart face an uphill struggle with their political courage test.

Am I being fair?

What all this means is that when I urge people to vote against Steve Navarre, I need to take extra care in determining whether I'm being fair to him or whether I'm falling into the trap of opposing the candidate who's been most forthright in his views. Of course this is not something I can objectively say about my own judgment, but I have gone to great lengths to give Steve the benefit of the doubt.

My first contact with Steve was when I saw his blog post in which he gives all of the expected answers to the Eagle Forum questionnaire. Those answers showed every sign of being an ideologue who is more concerned with doctrine and litmus tests than with dealing with the real issues that face Plano. (I'll say more about why some of those answers not only bother me, but should bother everyone no matter where they are on the political spectrum later.) I told him politely that I very much appreciate his openness about his positions, but that I would not be voting for him based on them. Steve offered to meet with me, and he gave me a great deal of time. We had a very pleasant and useful conversation. I greatly appreciate that. With respect to that particular questionnaire he tried to reassure me that he wasn't the knee-jerk ideologue those answers make him appear. Indeed, he told me things that would be anathema to the Eagle Forum and similar groups. Whether he would like to say those publicly, I will leave to him.

The Steve Navarre that I had coffee with back on March 9 was probably not going to get my vote, but he wasn't going to have me vocally oppose him either. But I have been following his blog and press reports and have come to feel that his way of thinking and approaching issues would be destructive to education in Plano.

Political divisiveness

Plano is a conservative city and Steve is a conservative candidate; there is nothing wrong with that. But Steve has latched on to issues that have little to do with managing a top-rank school district to bolster his conservative credentials. Whether it is tea parties or comments about fiscal conservatism he is trying to communicate to voters that he is a true conservative instead of addressing the real issues that face PISD. It is as if he is running in a Republican primary instead of running for school board. I, for one, would much rather see Steve in the state legislature than on the school board.

This makes me suspect Steve's political ambitions. I strongly get the impression that he is shooting for the state legislature and that the PISD board is nothing more than a stepping stone. It's fine to have ambitions, but this all suggests to me that he would use a position on the school board to grab attention and play populist. We wouldn't see him sweating over the details to work out policies in the face of complex and conflicting constraints. This is what he's done in the campaign, but I fear that if is on the board he would continue in the manner of his campaign.

Stirring things up

Those who know me, would consider it extremely hypocritical of me to criticize anyone for rocking the boat. But Steve's campaign, to the extent that it's addressed school board issues, has been a campaign against the current school board. Although I certainly don't agree with everything that the board has done, and I certainly think that it is fully proper for a candidate to raise those issues, he is going beyond just criticizing specific decisions to suggesting that the board has been systematically fouling up. Could Steve work with the rest of the board if he really believes what is implied by his campaign?

It is routine for people to campaign as political outsiders and then manage to work with the insiders once elected, but Steve has not shown the capacity for the detail oriented, collaborative work that will be required. Furthermore, the suspicion that he is a partisan candidate in what should be a non-partisan race makes him more of a political insider than is good for Plano Schools.

Spamming and integrity

Because I personally like Steve and appreciate what he's done to raise interest in this election, I was originally going to stay relatively quiet about my reasons for not voting for him. But what sparked me to write this posting was when I learned that he spammed teacher at And he topped that of by giving the thoroughly discredited free speech argument for spam.

From an April 12 article in the Dallas Morning News.

Navarre's complaint is the second salvo he has fired at the district in the past week. He previously claimed that district officials tried to bully him and restrict his free speech rights when they told him to cease sending e-mails to teachers at work. Last week, Navarre sent e-mails to hundreds of Plano teachers about an upcoming campaign rally. E-mail addresses for Plano ISD teachers are available on the district's Web site.

Let me digress slightly to clarify this point. Spam is not like junk postal mail. This is because for junk postal mail, the sender bears most of the cost, and sending to 100,000,000 recipients is nearly a thousand times more expensive than sending to 1,000 recipients. With spam, that isn't the case. The recipients' systems bear most of the cost of the spam, and the sending costs are not really constrained by the number of recipients. These seemingly pedantic differences make all of the difference. To provide an exaggerated example, my right to free speech does not grant me the right to wrap this message around a brick and throw it through your window. Likewise it does not grant me the right to spam you with it.

This also makes a difference in how things scale to use the geeky parlance. When Steve spammed, he did so because he thought he had a good cause and felt he had trouble getting his message out. Now imagine if everyone who thought that they had a good cause (whether saving your soul or saving the whales) felt free to send everyone email enlightening them about the good cause. If a sizable fraction of the population behaved that way, email would become entirely unusable. Even just a few dozen spamming operations on the planet account for a majority of the email sent; imagine if everyone felt free to advertise their cause that way. A good place to start in judging whether some behavior is appropriate or not is to ask yourself what would happen if everyone (or a lot of other people) acted the same way.

Ten years ago, someone might could be forgiven for spamming out of such naiveté. But not any more. This spamming is a major character issues, and the free speech defense of it shows a lack of understanding of issues ranging from free speech to economics to what's been happening on the Internet. This is not the reason that most people should vote against Steve Navarre, and it is not why I am voting against him; but it is what brought me to the point of going public with my opposition.

What to cut? Lobbying?

Like so many candidates, Steve is shy about saying what he would actually cut in the budget. I've complained about this before. The one thing that he does mention is junkets to Austin. As a budget item, this is an odd thing to attack for reasons that I'll get to, but mostly it seems designed to paint a picture of the current board living high off of taxpayers' money. As if school board members enjoy lobbying Texas legislators.

There are two big problems facing Plano schools. One is budgetary. The other is with academic accountability ratings. To a very substantial extent the sources of these problems lie in Austin.

In addition to the peculiarities of school financing in Texas, the ever increasing tide of unfunded requirements flowing from the state capital is exceedingly costly. If lobbying efforts by the PISD board makes even a small dent in that, it is money very well spent. Unfortunately, we can't really know which bills were prevented by lobbying efforts (they may have failed anyway), but given the over all numbers that get proposed, get through, and what they cost us it is well worth the effort to lobby in Austin.

Every school board candidate says that they believe school districts should have more local control. We'll if you are going to fight against interference from the state capital, that is where you need to do it. I should also mention that Steve's support for a group that would put curriculum constraints on districts state wide that really ought to be locally decided.

The other big problem is that state academic accountability measures are very poorly suited to a large district with above average students. Let me mention just one way Plano is poorly served by these measures.

In rating a district, a great deal of weight goes on measuring lowest performers in the district. But statistically if you have two districts, say Bigcity and Smalltown, which have the same intrinsic quality in every respect and the same average measures, the bigger school district will have a much higher change of having an outlier fall below the minimum.

Plano has more children score perfectly (100%) on the TAKS tests than it has children failing it. But those top scores play no role other than be be listed "commended". Statistically speaking, a system with a low ceiling and largely based on numbers passing minimum standards will punish large districts that attempt to provide an excellent education to all students.

As I argued in my endorsement of Missy Bender there is a conflict between working toward improving our accountability ratings and actually providing the best education to all students. The path to eliminating that conflict goes through Austin.

So the one things that Steve goes on record for saying he'd cut are things that, unfortunate as the case may be, the district really does need to be doing to address our biggest problems. My fear is that Steve actually knows this, but is doing whatever he can to try to make the current board look bad so that he can run as the outsider candidate.

The other Place 6 Candidates

I have yet to make up my mind whether to support Marilyn Hinton or Nathan Barbera for Place 6 on the PISD board. In another post I have links to everyone's campaign sites.

I reject Rama Lavu for a few of the reasons I've mentioned about Steve Navarre. What little we know about Rama Lavu makes him look like a partisan operative (this time a Democrat) who has no real interest in PISD but is presumably just running so that he gets some name recognition for a future run for some other elective office. As far as I've been able to tell, Rama Lavu has not seriously campaigned. I am sorry that I'm forced to speculate on his motives based on so little information, but what else can I do when so little information is provided.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Liars, guts and money

Once upon a time conservatives believed in fiscal responsibility. Maybe that time was never real and is only a myth, but it is a nice myth. If those days ever really did exist, it was before Ronald Reagan became President. Ever since then, conservatives have shifted from fiscal responsibility to cutting taxes. For some odd reason, they seem to think that those two are the same. But they would rather see whopping deficits than to ever publicly support a tax increase. They seem to think that cutting taxes will lead to budget sanity by magic.

What has sparked this particular rant at this particular time is that I've received yet another communication from a local politician running for Plano City Council. And yet again, I was told that what set this guy apart was that he was a true conservative who would deal with the city's budget problems without raising taxes. This, of course, doesn't set any candidate apart. They all say the same thing.

What would you cut?

Just as all of these candidates say the same things about themselves, I ask them the same question: What would you cut? With the exception of Susan Plonka, the answers have all been the same. They have all said that they will work to eliminate waste in the current budget. Each candidate it happy to tell you what they won't cut, as exemplified by this report of a candidate forum.

Correcting a $13 million budget shortfall is going to require noticeable cuts in several city departments. Anyone who genuinely believes that trimming waste in unspecified areas is going to solve this problem is someone I would consider unsuitable to be managing such a budget.

Vote for liars

When these people (and this goes for people on the left as well as on the right) claim that they can deal with a major budget shortfall by eliminating wasteful spending here or there, they are either lying or they believe that budget problems can be solved by magic. If faced with a choice between the two, I would have to vote for the cowardly liars. The liars may lack the guts to tell voters the truth, but at least once they are safely in office, they will support real spending cuts and taxes as needed to address the problem. The magical thinkers will just dig us deeper into the hole.

Self deception and delusion about spending, budgets and taxes is not a good starting point. Yet that is the starting point of candidate after candidate. Even the candidates who will privately admit to supporting some cuts (or taxes) do their best to conceal this virtue. Of course voters are largely to blame here. Candidates who tell the truth don't last long. And that is why we are stuck with trying to sort out the liars (for whom we should vote) from the delusional ideologues (whom we should avoid).

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

In defense of low standards

I have in several places pointed out that what Texan's seem to think are high standards in education are typically very low when compared to the standards used by other states in the USA. And I will continue to do this for as long as I feel that people in Texas don't grasp how low the standards really are. But my argument here is that for some purposes, low standards are absolutely appropriate.

If we want to set some educational proficiency standard that we seriously expect all (or the overwhelming majority of) children to meet then we have to recognize that there are real differences in capabilities among individuals. That minimum standard should be well below what the average individual can achieve. The crucial fact about education is that one size does not fit all, but we do have to ensure that every child achieves some minimal proficiency. For this we need to allow minimum standards to be minimum.

Of course we should expect much more than the minimum from most children. A school in which every child meets a true minimum but little more is certainly failing to serve its students. Unfortunately the incentives in the current implementation of the No Child Left Behind program largely do direct schools to try to achieve the minimum for most students and provide little incentive to go beyond that. The temptation among many reformers is to raise the minimum standards. Unfortunately that will just have the consequence of leaving more children far behind, either through drop-outs or reclassification of children into exempt categories. Let's keep minimum standards as minimum standards.

If we want to establish incentives for schools to help all children, not just those near the minimum then we need to add something to the mix. We should measure schools by the year-on improvement of all children. If a high achieving student (who already meets the minimum standard) improves greatly, that should be to the school's credit. Likewise, a low achieving student (who doesn't meet the minimum standard) improves greatly than that should also be the the school's credit. Likewise, lack of improvement for either should count against the school. With incentives like these, then every child will be most improved irrespective of whether they also reach the minimum standard.

So the bottom line is that it is a good idea to keep the minimum standards minimum as long as those standards don't become the primary standards by which schools are judged.