One of our readers brought to our attention Walter Shapiro’s in-depth analysis as to why Hillary Clinton’s expected campaign for the Democratic nomination for President in 2008 may be "unstoppable". Here is what Mr. Shapiro has to say in his story for Salon.
Here at DallasBlog, we have been covering from the beginning the story of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan convert to Christianity, who faces a possible death sentence for his religious beliefs. I have a short viewpoint posted today on that very subject (link here).
SteveD, a national security analyst who contributes occasionally to DallasBlog, has some interesting insights into the situation in Afghanistan and the problem of trying to change a tribal society into a pluralistic democracy. Here is what SteveD has to say:
This is a very sad situation, but should not come as a surprise. While some aspects of the Taliban regime were resented, especially in comparatively modern Kabul, the Taliban were respected and appreciated across the Pashtun parts of Afghanistan because they imposed sharia law, strict adherence to Qur'an, and an end to constant tribal strife, violent banditry, and turf battles between mujaheddin warlords. The majority of Afghani Pashtuns want order and security above all, and they believe the only way to secure it is through Islamism. While minorities may not want to live under the Taliban, even many of them are staunchly Islamist and expect the civil authorities to enforce sharia on believers and dhimmify non-believers.
This is what the Qur'an demands -- there can be no tolerance of apostasy, there is no higher authority than Allah and the Qur'an, and non-believers have no right to meddle in the affairs of what is still by constitution an Islamic state. The fundamental failure of the US' policy in Afghanistan was that the US did not help the Northern Alliance take control of the country and leave. Instead, American lives and great amounts of money and effort were expended in trying to make a primitive, tribal, reactionary country into a modern nation-state complete with a pluralistic democracy. The effort has failed, because pluralism and democracy are incompatible with Qur'an and sharia. The Islamist tribal chiefs, mullahs, and imams still rule the country in cooperation with the drug producers and smugglers. Afghanistan is no different in this regard than Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, or Iran, amongst others. Even officially secular countries like India and Turkey, and Buddhist Thailand and Burma, have or have seriously considered laws that prohibit conversion ("apostasy") from the dominant religion of the country on pain of death.
Looks like the sorry state of schools in New Orleans and the trauma of relocating is having an affect on TAKS scores in Texas.
Only 58 percent of Katrina evacuees in third grade passed the reading portion of the test, compared with 89 percent of all students. In fifth grade, 46 percent of evacuees passed the reading portion, versus 80 percent among all students. The TEA estimates that the state will spend up to $350 million educating Katrina evacuees this school year.
DallasBlog talked with John Sharp yesterday in Dallas about the status of the proposed re-structuring of the school finance system. Sharp is Chairman of the Governor’s Commission on school finance. The Commission is expected to officially announce next week the full details of its plans to lower property taxes by one-third paid for by a 1% expanded business franchise tax. Sharp told DallasBlog that the plan would be "revenue neutral" and, in fact, would be an overall tax cut since at least $1 billion in surplus funds would be used to further reduce property taxes. When asked what effect this property tax reduction would have on the "Robin Hood" redistribution of property taxes from some local districts to others, the former State Comptroller indicated that it would end the Robin Hood system for most of the school districts which currently fall under it.
Here in North Texas, the property owners in the following districts are subject to double taxation because of Robin Hood: Park Cities, Coppell, Plano, Richardson, Carrollton-Farmers Branch, McKinney and Allen. The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) is expected to join that list next year unless the current system is changed.
Sharp addressed the concerns of the critics of the tax restructuring who maintain that an expanded business franchise tax at a 1% level will quickly be raised to higher levels. Sharp acknowledged that the comments of News columnist Bill McKenzie on the opinion pages of the Dallas Morning News were not helpful last week when McKenzie immediately called for the business tax to be set at much higher rate -- 3%, rather than the 1% the Sharp Commission is recommending. McKenzie’s comments in the News were not well-received by companies that had agreed to support the Sharp Plan on the basis that the tax rate would remain low.
Sharp’s view is that it is hard enough to get any expanded business tax passed with 18 major law firms opposing it, led by Vinson & Elkins. He believes that any attempt to raise the rate from above the agreed upon 1% would be vigorously opposed by businesses across the board, including those companies that have signed on to the Sharp Commission plan. Of course, the legislature could provide built-in protections to prevent any increase in the business tax percentage from happening. But Sharp maintained that those questions were beyond the purview of the mandate of his Commission, and would have to be addressed by the Governor and the legislature in the special session.
Another concern expressed about the Sharp proposal is how can property owners be assured that the one-third cut in property taxes won’t be taken away by local school districts raising property taxes back to their existing levels within a few years, as they did when property taxes were cut by the 1997 Texas Legislature. Again, Sharp deferred the issue of how to deal with "property tax creep" to the legislature; but he did say that the cap would be lowered, thus providing one level of protection for property owners.
State Representative Jim Jackson, who was present during the discussion, indicated that the legislature could require voter approval prior to increases in local property tax levels. Jackson would like to see at least $2 billion of the budget surplus used to lower property taxes, even more than that being proposed by the Sharp Commission. There is rising speculation that the surplus is much larger than the $4.3 billion figure previously acknowledged by the Comptroller, Carole Strayhorn, thus allowing for a greater cut in property taxes than the $1 billion mentioned by the Sharp Commission.
Jackson also noted that, if you increased the sales tax by 1/2 cent, expanded the business franchise tax along the lines called for by the Sharp Commission, and used at least $2 billion of the surplus to reduce property taxes, you could completely eliminate "Robin Hood" once and for all. Rep. Jackson, a former Dallas County Commissioner who took Kenny Marchant’s seat in the state house is seen by political observers as becoming increasingly influential in Republican leadership circles in Austin.
Sharp indicated that the principal opposition to his plan is coming from major law firms who avoid any tax under the current system. (Here is our link to the previous DallasBlog story on that issue which includes the list of 18 law firms who are members of that opposition coalition). Sharp did note that manufacturing firms have signed on in support of his Commission’s proposal to change the existing business tax system in Texas. Manufacturers in Texas see this new approach to business taxation as a much needed remedy to the existing franchise tax which discriminates against capital-intense corporations.
Sharp declined to comment on the dispute between Gov. Perry and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst over what issues should be considered in the upcoming special session, but he did acknowledge that relations between himself and the current Lt. Governor (whom Sharp ran against in 2002) remain cool.
Overall, Sharp sounded cautiously optimistic that school finance reform could be passed by the Texas legislature in the April special session.
So apparently a film production company (I didn't catch the name) is putting together a documentary based on the longtime best-selling business management book Good to Great, and they were in town this week profiling a certain Dallas-based organization and its leader.
The doc will focus on four corporate organizations and two public sector entities. So who do you think it was in Dallas they were spotlighting? EDS? Southwest? Trammell Crow? Belo? *snicker*
Nope. T'was no less than Chief David M. Kunkle and the Dallas Police Department. The Good to Great producers see a lot they like in the chief's two years at the helm. Take a bow, chief.
Nate Crain (middle)The DallasBlog has learned that Nate Crain has decided not to run for Chairman of the Texas Republican Party this June.
Instead, Crain will chair Congressman Pete Sessions’ campaign to get elected Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). If Sessions is elected, he will oversee the recruitment and election of Republican Congressional candidates for the 2008 election cycle.
Crain has been very critical of the current leadership of the Texas GOP, particularly citing what he calls the poor financial condition of the state party. Jeff Fisher, the Executive Director of the Party, has vigorously denied those charges. For now, at least, the Texas GOP race will be between Tina Benkiser and Gina Parker.
Today, we are posting guest commentaries by two Texas Republican leaders who have opposing views on the state of the GOP. Joe Solis is the SREC member from the 26th State Senatorial District in San Antonio. He also is the CEO of Luxor Insurance Services. Denise McNamara is a successful businesswoman and the National Committeewoman from Texas. Both are respected conservatives, and each has a very different take on the state of the Texas Republican Party.
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn is refusing to pay Gov. Perry's lobbyists' bills in Washington. In 2003, Perry cut the staff at the Office of State-Federal Relations, which works to get federal funding for state projects, and outsourced some of the work to lobby firms -- to the tune of $1.2 million through 2007. Strayhorn is declining to pay the rest of one $330,000 contract which runs through August 2007, of which $52,500 has been paid. The governor's office calls the move a publicity stunt. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Speaker Craddick have distanced themselves from the contracts, saying they were the governor's decision. Craddick has even said he opposes he opposes them. See the story at dallasnews.com under Texas/Southwest news.
Maybe somebody should look at all state funds being used for lobby activities, including the millions of dollars the University of Texas system spends to lobby the State Legislature.
School districts from Denver to Houston have been devising ways to improve student performance by providing a mix of incentives to teachers, with some districts recently announcing their plans to implement incentive programs that involve merit-pay. The main thing that the plans have in common is that they link teacher merit-pay with test scores. Today, the Wall Street Journal reported on the progress that performance-based incentive plans are making.
According to the WSJ:
“Yesterday, the Teaching Commission, a group that studies educator training and improvement, released a report saying governors in 30 states have proposed changes in how teachers are paid, including the use of performance bonuses. The report says that increasing use of performance pay is a sign of progress.”
The WJS also mentions some of the other incentives offered by merit-pay plans at schools in places like Lake Charles and Minneapolis. Some schools have matched mentors with less experienced teachers. By signing up for performance-based programs, teachers could gain helpful tips on how to improve their teaching. Experienced teachers that sign up to be mentors would be given incentives as well.
According to the WSJ, “Districts hash out details of their own pay plans, but they can’t participate unless the teachers agree. So far, Minneapolis and eight other public school districts have signed up for the program, which was put in place last year; the state has received letters of intent from 134 others. Various plans offer bonuses ranging from as much as $600 per teacher for test-score gains to as much as $3,000 a year for veteran teachers who agree to be mentors.”
While some teachers unions continue to oppose merit-pay proposals, claiming that performance measures set by school administrations are often arbitrary, others, like the American Federation of Teachers, have been warming up to “alternative compensation measures”. The WSJ reports that, last year, a teacher’s association in Colorado endorsed a system where teachers can get extra pay for earning national teaching certificates and for filling hard-to-staff positions.
Many those teachers unions that are in opposition to merit-pay are chiefly against basing bonus-pay on test scores. Because some teachers unions have been able to block performance pay measures, it would help if merit-pay programs had mechanisms to help teachers get better, according to some experts.
It might be interesting to see what the results would be if merit-pay programs for teachers were implemented alongside performance incentives for principals at the same schools. Recently, DallasBlog reported that DISD trustees are considering giving performance incentives to principals at area schools. The performance incentives would involve awarding principals that meet or exceed goals set by the district. Determining which principals are meeting or exceeding expectations would be based on two criteria: student performance (primarily test scores) and leadership.