Another first…

Downtown HoustonThis past spring I taught Texas Government for the first time. Per my usual routine, I spent numerous evenings and weekends preparing the course content. After writing my presentation outlines, I search for supplemental materials such as maps, pictures, diagrams, graphs, political cartoons, video clips, and podcasts that I ask my students to interpret. In addition, I create a number of assignments. For example, I asked students to interview either a local public official or a full time employee of a nonprofit organization in the area. There’s a real learning curve that accompanies building a course like this because I haven’t lived here very long.

Just when you feel comfortable with the level of knowledge that you’ve attained, you’re quickly reminded that there’s always so much more information to digest on everything from institutions to policies. Nevertheless, this is to be expected in an expansive state that is home to powerful industries (click here for a list of companies), four major cities, and tens of millions of residents. Not only do we have a distinctive past that shaped popular attitudes and the current political system, but we’re also undergoing a demographic shift that will have multiple implications. Thankfully, I’ve found some invaluable resources (e.g. Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection, Texas Beyond History, The Texas Tribune, Houston Matters, Texas Standard) to enrich the experience students have in my class.

Now, one of the institutional characteristics that has me wondering is how our legislature meets every other year for only 140 days. Yes, serving in the Texas House of Representatives and Senate is a part time job with a very low salary. Operating within these constraints is bound to affect who’s able to serve in the office along with the types of laws that are enacted and which interests are advanced or ignored. Furthermore, our state constitution is longer than most others around the country, in part, because it has 484 amendments. Here voters get to play a direct role in that process.

Then, there’s a facet of our political culture that intrigues me: many Texans are skeptical of the federal government (especially when a liberal Democrat occupies the White House), i.e. they view outside intervention with disdain. This manifests itself in how state officials responded to the expansion of Medicaid, the creation of a state insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s executive action on immigration, and the refusal to adopt Common Core standards in education. Local control is a bedrock principle that many embrace and espouse. However, our lawmakers in the capital quickly abandoned this principle when Denton, Texas banned hydraulic fracturing last fall. In response, the legislature passed, and Governor Abbott signed, a bill that invalidated the ordinance in May. So, we don’t like it if federal officials impose their will upon us, but it’s totally acceptable for state officials to impose their will upon local governments, i.e. override how ‘the people’ voted? This inconsistency has me confused.

On a lighter note, my students really impressed me with what they learned from the interviews they conducted. Both class discussions yielded a great deal of insight into what motivates people to serve in public office or choose a career working on a social issue. The variety of individuals they spoke to included: a school board member, school district superintendent, fire chief, county sheriff, and a state representative as well as employees from the United Way and Habitat for Humanity to mention just a handful. Most of the essays that I read exceeded my expectations. Some offered solid analysis that explored the personal stories shared. I found this assignment to be an incredibly positive way to end the regular school year.

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