The Regional Chamber of Commerce hosted an insightful Legislative Hour with State Senator Kelly Hancock and State Representative Eric Johnson. I found Rep. Johnson's advocacy for full-day pre-K for qualifying families particularly compelling. (This is not the same thing as universal pre-K, which would mean any family gets free pre-K for their children independently of means - a nice thing in a perfect world, but unrealistic at this time).
Rep. Johnson spoke with great passion and poise about the critical time of third grade, where the transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" occurs, which makes the current statistics of 82% of African American and over 70% of Hispanic third-graders reading below proficiency level particularly worrisome. (I'm not sure which survey he was specifically referring to, but this U.S. News article has similar numbers.) If students aren't able to read correctly by the time the transition occurs, it will become so much more difficult to bring them up tos speed. Rep. Johnson repeatedly emphasized his determination to use data-driven practices, i.e., practices that have been demonstrated to work elsewhere (maybe out of state), in driving policy.
State Rep. Johnson and State Sen. Hancock also talked about many related issues, such as how to fund education and the controversial rainy day fund (apparently not getting used for that, which has been dividing legislators - read here for details), General Revenue and Biennial Appropriations, the importance of oil and gas to the state revenues and the problems related to the low price of the barrel as well as two lawsuits of importance to the state, one concluded (Southwest Royalties) and one pending (AMC).
As the granddaughter of a survivor of the Armenian genocide on my mother's side and of a single mother who raised two children on minimum wage in the French-occupied part of Berlin after the war on my father's side (which meant that some days my dad only had one slice of bread to eat), I have no doubt that education is what helped my parents get out of poverty. I'm not sure if people in the U.S. today would be able to do what my parents did in Europe because of the heavy price of higher education, but giving every kid a chance is a step in the right direction. The first step is, of course, to help every kid read proficiently so that he can take his chance later on if he wants, when he reaches an age where he can decide those things for himself.
Rep. Johnson was quick-witted, engaging and friendly toward State Senator Kelly Hancock in spite of their ideological differences. A Harvard grad with graduates degrees from Penn and Princeton, he came across as a highly personable and articulate politician who could think fast and make his point across clearly and concisely while allowing himself a touch of humor here and there. I'm sure he'll continue to represent District 100 well and fully expect him to have a nationally prominent career. He certainly deserves it.
The speakers also mentioned the arrivals of new companies in the state and the need to evaluate whether the exemptions they are receiving are working and having the intended effect. For instance Toyota is moving its headquarters to Plano and Facebook is building a new data center in North Fort Worth. The New York Times i ran an article about the state tax incentives about four years ago and that article continues to raise timely questions. It is a rather long but thought-provoking article that asks about the trade-off between companies gaining and schools losing in those tax package deals aiming at attracting businesses. More general information about state tax incentives is available here.