Jason Stanford: Lobbyists always find a way
It’s funny how loopholes are always just big enough to accommodate a lobbyist. In Texas, the Legislature recently banned lobbyists for testing companies from serving on education accountability advisory boards, but Bill Hammond, a lobbyist representing Pearson’s interests, is serving on an accountability panel. It may sadden you to know that Texas is messing with ethics, but fear not: It appears no one is listening to Hammond anyway.
The high-stakes testing mania started in Texas, led by Sandy Kress, a business-friendly Democratic lawyer, linked test scores to accountability. Kress became George W. Bush’s testing guru in Austin and then in Washington before becoming a lobbyist for Pearson.
But back in Austin, lawmakers treated Kress like a regular citizen who happened to know something about education. Rick Perry appointed him to state boards on which Kress advocated for more testing, higher stakes, and tougher penalties. When he offered expert testimony, he rarely identified himself as a testing company lobbyist, instead citing his role on the state advisory panels.
When the backlash against over-testing came in 2013, the lawmakers turned on Kress, the guy who got them into this mess. In the law rolling back testing requirements, the Legislature included a ban on testing lobbyists from serving on advisory boards. Kress could only turn to one place for support: Bill Hammond, a politically influential lobbyist and president of the Texas Association of Business.
Pearson was a member of the Texas Association of Business, but Hammond really seemed to be relishing the fight. When a group of mothers angry about over-testing organized and started bending ears and twisting arms at the Capitol, Hammond accused school administrators of going “about scaring mom.” He might as well have patted them on their heads and told them to get back in their kitchens.
To complaints that the rigorous exams were preventing almost a quarter of the Class of 2015 from graduating, Hammond hired a plane to circle the capitol pulling a banner that read, “Is 37 percent correct on Algebra too hard?”
Somehow, belittling Texas moms and mocking their children did not work. The Legislature passed testing relief, so it struck some as a little strange last year when the Texas Education Commissioner put Hammond on the Accountability Policy Advisory Committee. Hammond, after all, was a lobbyist who indirectly represented Pearson and was certainly not shy about speaking up for their interests.
“It does violate what the Legislature intended when it didn’t want industry people running the show,” said Craig McDonald of Texas for Public Justice, an ethics watchdog group.
The good news is that Hammond seems peeved about what the APAC recommended recently. According to H.D. Chambers, an APAC member and a superintendent of a suburban Houston school district, Hammond argued that 15 percent of Texas schools should be labeled as failing.
“I want parents and taxpayers to have the truth, so that they can know the true condition of our schools,” said Hammond. “They should be able to make decisions based on facts, not politics.”
But Hammond’s 15 percent failure rate would be the third level of politics imposed on the accountability rating. For a school to avoid failure, an arbitrary number of students (55 percent in this case) would have to pass the test, passing being set at another arbitrary number, such as the 37 percent Hammond thought was too easy.
All this makes some question what Hammond is doing on the advisory board at all, including McDonald, who wants the Legislature to “tighten the language” in the ban on testing lobbyists to include Hammond. “The literal definition of being a registered lobbyist is not a good enough firewall in this instance,” he said.
“I would like for the Legislature to ensure that no outside influence related to the testing industry has any impact on accountability policy in the state of Texas,” said Chambers.
In the end, Hammond is more successful at getting on the accountability committee than is he in getting his way. Hammond wants a guarantee that an arbitrary percentage of Texas schools will be labeled as failures, but so far the only one who has failed is Bill Hammond. Almost makes you feel sorry for the guy.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JasStanford. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.