Legislating From a Gravity Well

Austin has a lot of names. It's the Live Music Capitol of the World, it's the Bat City, the CapCity, its constantly trying to stay weird. My favorite, though, is one of the lesser known ones: Austin is the Velvet Coffin.

It's one that speaks to how easy it is to lose a lifetime here, to jump from one good time to the next and suddenly 24 is 37 and not much has changed but the bars you go to. Time passes frenetically in Austin; there is always something to do, and it is easy to be seduced into getting nothing done.

Juxtaposed to this perpetual good times engine is the Texas Legislature, currently in the middle of its biennial grind. At the time of this writing, its day 72 of 140, and as is often the case at this point in a session, little of note has actually happened. There has been plenty of sound and fury, but bills are only just beginning to make their way toward votes before the entire House and Senate bodies. The real action is just beginning.

Some of the loudest sound and fury has surrounded education reform, though it remains to be seen whether this is a fight our Legislature is willing to commit to. Make no mistake, it needs to. I've outlined why and how Texas should overhaul its education system in this blog before. But we are in very real danger of letting the fight for meaningful reforms -- specifically, school choice reforms that serve our most vulnerable populations of school children, those who come from low income families and those with special needs -- spend another two years sinking into its own velvet coffin.

There is a national perspective that Texas is a bastion of radical conservatism. A more realistic way to view the state is to think of it as conservative with a small "c". We are often slow to change, hesitant to try new ideas, even new ideas that have been tested with positive results in other states (Florida, for example, has been running a massively successful special needs scholarship program for over a decade). Our legislature, when it comes to education, is not the Wild West where anything goes. It's often more the front porch of a country store, where rockers move slowly and breeze pushes through the wind chimes: occasional loud arguments but few real changes.

This is not to say education reform here is an unwinnable fight. The wonderful thing about working in education policy is that ultimately, everyone has the same goal: doing what's best for Texas students. Polarization on what "best" ultimately means has almost without fail lead to gridlock in which reform is rarely even attempted. The more dialogue there is between defenders of the status quo and reform advocates, the better. But we are on a clock. The state is losing generations of learners (in 2011-2012, 26 percent of Texas students dropped out of our schools), and we must change something if we intend to correct that.

It's creeping toward summer here. Summer is river floats at the Guadalupe Horseshoe with a six (or twelve) pack; it's the Luling Watermelon Thump, its blockbusters at the Alamo Drafthouse. It's a spectacular time and we'll all fall in love with this city a little more for it. What we cannot do is let the 83rd Texas Legislature close on May 27th without taking serious steps to address the needs of students not currently being met by Texas schools. We need reform now, in 2013, not 2015 or beyond. With so many students' futures at stake, we must not let education reform get lost in Austin for another two years.