For Strama, Education Interests Hit Close to Home

Bidness as Usual


This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.

State Rep. Mark Strama was not the lone dissenter in the Texas House during Tuesday’s almost 10-hour debate on House Bill 5. But the Austin Democrat did prove to be the bill’s most tenacious critic.

After offering eight amendments for consideration, he cast one of only two no votes against the comprehensive education legislation, which includes a provision aimed at allowing high school students the opportunity to pursue career training by reducing the number of math and science courses they must pass to graduate.

Strama detailed his objections to the bill — which focused on the threat that reducing the number of advanced courses high school students must complete to graduate posed to their ability to succeed in higher education and the workforce — in several speeches on the House floor and in a lengthy entry on his blog the next day.

What he did not mention is that whether students enroll in challenging courses and the number of state exams they must take could affect his livelihood. The lawmaker owns four Austin-area Sylvan Learning centers, a national franchise that offers test preparation and tutoring services. His wife, Crystal Cotti, serves as their executive director.

In an interview during a break in the debate Tuesday, Strama said he was rarely asked whether his business posed a conflict of interest with his work as a legislator.

“There are people on the floor who make a living from the insurance industry, there are some who make it from practicing law, there are some who make it in payday lending, there are some who make it in gambling,” he said, “I make my living helping kids get better in school.”

Indeed, Strama joins a number of Texas lawmakers who have advocated for a policy changes closely connected to their professional interests. The practice can be difficult to avoid — and it’s one that the Texas Constitution does not prohibit — in a part-time Legislature where members receive meager state stipends to do a job that often consumes more than just the five months every other year they spend in Austin.

Strama’s example “highlights some of the glaring holes” in the state’s ethics regulations, said Craig McDonald, the director of the liberal watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

When they take votes related to their professional lives, legislators can provide insight into the practical effects of policy, he said — but along with that expertise comes potential conflicts. And the state’s weak disclosure laws, which require elected officials to report their sources of income only within broad ranges in personal financial statements, he said, do not do much to ward off those concerns.

“Those conflicts disclosed in the back of some form that the public never looks at do not disappear and lawmakers have to face them day in and day out during the legislative process,” said McDonald.

Strama said his position on the education bill was “absolutely” informed by his experience in the field —  he also described what he learned from the family tutoring business in a June op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman — but he added that he had not considered how it could affect on his pocketbook.

“HB 5 might be great for my business because there will be less pressure on schools to offer free resources within the school environment for kids,” he said. “I don't know which way it cuts.”

HB 5 is widely supported by many educators, industry and trade groups who say it provides needed flexibility that will keep students engaged in their education and help fill gaps in the workforce. But the measure also drew fierce opposition from state education officials and other business organizations including the Texas Association of Business and the Austin Chamber of Commerce. 

Among the changes to the legislation Strama proposed Tuesday was an amendment that focused on increasing the likelihood that students would complete the advanced courses they would need to be prepared for college. Instead of opting into a “distinguished plan” that would add the fourth years of math and science that education researchers have linked to college success, he argued in favor of automatically placing all students on that track when they entered high school.

As he introduced the amendment, which counted House Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, among its supporters, Strama cited the gains African-American and Hispanic students have made under the state’s current plan that requires four years of courses in math, science, English, and social studies.

“When we assume every child in the system is capable of college prep work, far more students rise to that challenge,” he said.

In a letter circulated to lawmakers before the House took up the legislation, La Raza and Education Trust, two national advocacy groups, echoed Strama’s criticism. Though several of Strama's colleagues rose to argue in favor of his amendment, it ended up failing 50 to 97.

Strama announced in February that he would not seek re-election to the House and is mulling a run for Austin mayor. He said growing up in a politically involved family has taught him to be at ease navigating conflicting relationships.

His uncle Dick Trabulsi is the president of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a powerful player at the Capitol, and his brother Keith Strama is a lobbyist whose clients include ExxonMobil.

The representative said he had often found himself voting against their interests in policy matters.

“I've just had to live with those relationships all my life and I'm pretty comfortable making my own decisions about what is best for the state of Texas independent of those interests,” he said. “And I really have no idea how this legislation helps or hurts my business, but it could help it, and I'm going to vote against it.”

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