Texas Gubernatorial Candidate Wendy Davis spoke to a gathering of Panhandle Press Association members in Dumas on Friday, April 4. Following her prepared remarks, Davis had time to answer a few questions posed by the newspaper editors and publishers in attendance.
Here is a transcript of that Q&A session:
One of the hidden powers of the Texas governor is the power of appointment. There have been some suggestions about what it takes to get appointed. Can you tell us your philosophy?
Yes. I think what we’ve seen in the last decade or so has been an appointment philosophy that’s based more on political contribution than on particular skill. I don’t mean to demean people who are working in our state agencies today. But I think we have to refocus our efforts and make sure that we are putting the best and brightest people in place—even people who we might not always agree with—and give them the reins to do what they need to do in those agencies.
I applaud your education theme. Are you a proponent of Common Core?
I actually voted against Common Core in the last legislative session. I think the standards we’ve set in Texas in many instances exceed those of the Common Core, and that we’ve set our own path as Texans tend to want to do, and I believe we should continue to do that.
For a long time Texas was known as having one of the stronger sets of Sunshine Laws in the nation, but over the past 15-20 years, every session has seen increased intents to skin back on some of those protections. As governor, how would you preserve the people’s access?
First and foremost, we have to refocus our efforts on ethics. It’s been a long time since Texas has revisited our ethics legislation and made sure the transparency taxpayers deserve is there. When you look at the financial reporting forms and the other (inaudible) forms that we as candidates are expected to supply, they don’t give a great deal of information. I think taxpayers want to know more about our backgrounds and where we receive our financial benefits.
We also know that in the state as a whole, there is a lack of transparency. I was proud to serve in the last two legislative sessions as the vice chair of a committee that looked at increasing transparency in the state—a committee on open government, and champion legislation that really helped to shine a new light.
For example, in the last session, I passed a bill requiring an audit for the first time ever in the 10-year history of the Texas Enterprise Fund—not because I don’t believe in that fund, I absolutely do, and I have a long history of economic development in my time on the city council and in my time in the Texas Senate—but because I believe that taxpayers can’t really feel good about the use of taxpayer money to secure public/private partnerships if they don’t know whether the private partner actually held true to their promises in terms of investment they would make and the jobs they would create. I know our taxpayers would want to know if they didn’t hold true.
I also have advocated very strongly that we review the long history of the way we give tax incentives in this state, to shine sunshine on that, and to put under sunset review each of those so that we know whether they still make sense for us. Any taxpayer dollar should demand in return an examination of whether it’s still making sense for us.
On public school funding, what kind of legislative changes do you think will be required, and how will the way we fund education change?
When we go back into the next legislative session, we will go back with what looks like between a $3- and $5-billion surplus, according to revenue estimates which have been updated…. So I think we start obviously in a very good place to set our priorities in a way that will reflect a greater investment in some of the things we’ve been talking about in the public education arena. In the long term, I think that the court is likely to instruct us to examine once again the way our schools are funded, particularly the equity in school funding in the state.
I expect that similar to a bill I filed last session asking that we review the funding formula, the weights that determine how we fund our school districts will be revisited in a way that will finally update those. As I said earlier, they have not been revisited since my 31-year-old daughter was born. That’s an important part of what we’ll need to do.
We also have what will be an historic amount of money in the Economic Stabilization (Rainy Day) Fund. It is expected it will likely hit a double-digit number in the next few years. As decision makers, I think we’ll have an opportunity to talk about whether we should dedicate more of that to education. Right now there is a dedicated percentage that goes to fund our public schools, and depending on what the legislature believes the funding needs of our school districts are, I think we will have an opportunity to revisit that conversation.
I do think we have to be very focused on not just throwing money at the problem and simply saying we need to add more. Instead, we need to be very focused on where the dedication of increased resources will best serve us.
Steve Murdoch’s analysis, after all of his thoughtful reasoning, distills down to a single very important recommendation, and that is investment in early-childhood education. That single investment is likely to be the best investment we can make to turn around where we find ourselves today, with 18 percent of our adults not having a high school diploma and with projections that by 2040, 30 percent won’t have a high school diploma. Our workforce demands that we fix that.
Certainly in these last two legislative sessions, we heard a great deal from industry who came to our public education committee and told us, “You’ve got to do a better job of training the workforce that we need.” Making sure we have high school students who graduate and are already trained in a specific field will be an important part of that.
You’ve spoken about public education and need for early-childhood education. Every community in Texas is served by a community college. For years, we’ve seen cuts after cuts to higher ed in general and to community colleges in particular.
My personal experience dictates that I am a strong supporter of the community college system. I found my way back into higher education as a young single mom literally because someone threw a brochure on my desk at work for Tarrant County Community College and I started looking at it, and saw that I could take classes to become a paralegal.
The wonderful thing about community college is that once a person has an opportunity to go is that our dreams change. Often, we set a higher bar when we leave than when we entered. There are so many fantastic stories that can be told of people who began their educational careers in a community college classroom and were able to do something really important in their lives as a consequence of the education that they received.
Right now, we’ve got some great partnerships happening between our community colleges and our high schools, and our business community, where the business community is defining the workforce demands that they have, and the community colleges and high schools are working together to make sure that they fill those demands through their educational offerings.
As a state, it would be unadvised for us not to fully support that to the extent that we can, and I know that in the last legislative sessions, our community colleges have suffered from budget cuts. We should restore those.
We also are seeing greater and greater challenges in the affordability of our four-year college systems, and there are so many—not just low-income families, but middle-income families—who are really struggling with the ability to pay for their children to receive a college education without taking out a tremendous amount in student loans and debt that many find very hard to pay after they graduate.
The state, of course, in 2003, deregulated the tuition in our university system, and with that came a huge withdrawal of funding. Of course, the consequence was that families were expected to pay more because the universities have to have the resources they need to function.
I do think we need to revisit as a state what our partnership with our universities looks like and determine whether we have set the balance in the right place, and whether the state needs to do more to help make college more affordable. We also have to look once again at the kind of financial aid we offer in this state. We were able to make some headway in that regard in this last session. There was a deep cut to financial aid in 2011, and I hope that as we reconvene in 2015, we as a Legislature—Democrats and Republicans alike—can revisit what we can do to help increase financial aid we offer to students across the state.
How do you view standardized testing. What is a happy medium?
I think we’re finding a better medium in high school. As you know, we dramatically reduced those standardized tests down from 15 EOC exams to 5. We still need to revisit the STAAR exam itself and determine whether it’s really the right way to be testing our students learning, and whether they are progressing.
Testing really should measure student improvement so that we can determine whether our teaching methods are helping in the way they should. But also, so that we can determine whether students really are improving and whether that student may need a little extra attention.
That’s really what standardized testing was developed to achieve, but it’s gotten out of whack and there is far too much emphasis put on it in Texas. We hear from far too many teachers and parents and children who undergo tremendous stress as a consequence of that testing. Because of NCLB, we have not been able yet as a state to relieve some of the testing burdens in our middle and lower classrooms.
It is incumbent upon this next governor to work as we can with the federal administration to find some relief from what has really been over-burdensome testing that NCLB has left for us.
Read more about Wendy Davis’ speech to the Panhandle Press Association in this week’s e-edition.