state representative

UT lecturer Ramey Ko has announced he is running in the March election for the Texas House of Representatives.

Photo Credit: Emily Ng | Daily Texan Staff

A UT professor is running for state representative in House District 50, saying he seeks to end “political meddling” from the state in University affairs when in office. 

UT lecturer Ramey Ko will be running in March for a seat formerly held by state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, who stepped down in June to head Google Fiber’s operations in Austin. The district encompasses parts of Austin, Round Rock, Pflugerville and Manor. 

A lawyer and municipal court judge, Ko teaches a course on Asian Americans and the law in the Center for Asian American Studies.

Born in Denton, Texas to Taiwanese immigrants, Ko said his first political act was at the age of 11 when he sent a three-page letter to President George H.W. Bush asking him to do more to protect the environment.

Although UT’s campus is not located in HD 50, Ko said the University is a “crown jewel” for Travis County and many Austin residents are in HD 50. Ko said budget cuts and increasing tuition rates are issues he hopes to combat by running for office.

Public funding to UT made up 47 percent of the school's budget in 1984. In 2012, it made up 17 percent of the budget. Average in-state tuition per semester has also increased from $3,500 in 2004 to $4,895 this year since UT’s tuition was deregulated in 2003, according to the University Budget Office. 

“Professors are uncertain about their futures, students don’t know if they’re going to have sufficient financial aid, the cost of attending UT has skyrocketed in the last decade,” Ko said. “Part of my job as a legislator is going to be to fight for UT, to make sure we have the resources we need to remain a top institution.”

Ko criticized what he called the absolutist mentality of some lawmakers. He said the state’s current relationship with UT is preventing it from producing a workforce able to work in cutting-edge fields and benefit the state’s economy.

“If we politicize the running of our universities, it produces bad scholarship and administrative problems – it’s a not a good path to go down,” Ko said. “To me, there’s an obvious connection between investing in education and building a strong economy. Texas was an oil and gas state for a long time, but it can’t stay that way forever.”

Gary Susswein, spokesman for the University, said Ko would not be able to teach during legislative sessions if elected.

However, Ko said he hopes to make arrangements to stay involved with the University, citing his love of teaching and students. 

“[Teaching] keeps me in touch with the pulse of the University,” Ko said. “And as a legislator who represents Travis County, that’s going to be part of my job.” 

Ko said student voters could realize their political potential in the coming years, saying young people were often unaware of the tremendous political influence they can have by devoting their energy to elections.

“The media often says that young people don’t vote, that we don’t pay attention,” Ko said. “And while that may be true sometimes, students have had huge impacts in the past."

Correction on June 21: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Ramey Ko was running in the Nov. 5 special election to fulfill the remainder of Strama's term. He is actually running in the 2014 March primary. 

Follow Alberto Long on Twitter @albertolong.

Texas House Representative Mike Villarreal, in his 7th term as San Antonio’s District 123 representative this session, is also currently pursuing his PhD at the UT Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. His focus at the LBJ school is in education policy, and he hopes to apply that to a teaching career in his future. 

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Though Texas Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, is a UT doctoral student, his interest in supporting higher education in the legislature is rooted in years of research and a passion for supporting future generations.

Villarreal is in his seventh term as a state representative. A Texas A&M and Harvard alumnus, he is currently pursuing a doctorate in public affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he says he hopes to apply his concentration in education policy to a teaching career in the future.

“My focus at the LBJ School is on education policy,” Villarreal said. “Most of my courses are training me, honing my econometric skills, and I think from this experience I’m going to achieve my dream of teaching and writing in the areas that I legislate in.”

Aleksandra Malinowska, public policy graduate student at the LBJ School, is in the same cohort as Villarreal, and said he is a positive force both in and outside the classroom.

“He does have a perspective and so he brings it into a lot of our theory classes,” Malinowska said. “He’s able to inform us on current things that are happening. He’s always discussing about how the theory we’ve learned, he can put into practice. He’s hosted dinners at the Capitol before and he’s a truly nice person.”

After completing his master’s degree at Harvard, Villarreal said he launched a grassroots campaign in 1999 for state representative, opposing a candidate supported by previous legislators in the San Antonio area and several other members of the local political community. One major facet of his campaign involved going door-to-door passing out surveys for community members to fill out about their thoughts and needs.

“I went one door at a time for nine months,” Villarreal said. “I knocked on 4,000 doors. I lost a whole lot of weight. It was a grueling experience, but it was a wonderful community-building experience.”

On election night, Villarreal said, he won by a single vote.

During this legislative session, his agenda is focused primarily on education and tax policies as a way to invest in the future of Texas, Villarreal said.

“Number one on my agenda is to try to fight for greater investment in higher ed [sic], in public ed, but also to make some reforms,” Villarreal said. “I think that if I’m going to be an advocate saying that we need to invest more, I also need to be willing to get under the hood and figure out how to make our public institutions that deliver this service more [effective].”

Villarreal said he is proposing various education reforms, including altering the way TEXAS grants are awarded to university students and funding full days of pre-kindergarten, as opposed to the current practice of half days.

“We know that in the entire education pipeline, you get your biggest bang for your buck early on,” Villarreal said. “If you start delivering quality early education to three and four-year-olds, the costs of educating them decreases in later years.”

Villarreal said many of the policies he strives for come directly from heavily researched numbers. Jenna Cullinane, public policy graduate student, said the ability for Villarreal to take his research from the LBJ School and directly apply it to legislation is a positive connection.

“It’s really not research just for research’s sake,” Cullinane said. “It’s research with a purpose. I think the fact that he’s a legislator doing this degree is pretty great because he takes what he’s learning and can apply it directly.”

Villarreal said he is grateful for the experience of going back to school and draws personal inspiration from the students and faculty he sees when he is on campus.

“It just brings joy to be surrounded by scholars and students and walk across campus and see all the young students who are the future of Texas,” Villarreal said. “Whenever I come back from UT, I feel optimistic about the future — that we’re going to be alright. So when I come [to my office], I’m trying to do my best to make sure that we leave this state in a better way than we found it for the next generation.”

Printed on Friday, January 18, 2013 as: Legislative Learning 

A state representative told a UT alumnus last week to go to Afghanistan if the United States was not sensitive enough for him, and said Wednesday that she stands behind her statement.

State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, made the remark after UT alumnus Abdul Pasha, now in his second year at South Texas College of Law, responded to Rep. Riddle’s Facebook status bemoaning the military’s sensitivity training. Pasha posted a link to an examiner.com article about the training and instructions to “go educate yourself.” Riddle told Pasha to act like an American and stand up for the military.

“If you can’t do that then go where people are sensative [sic] enough for you — I guess that would be Afghanistan,” Riddle wrote on the thread.

The conversation, originally reported by The Horn, began when Riddle posted a status about her disappointment that soldiers would receive sensitivity training before going to Afghanistan. Riddle defended this position and said the training was unnecessary and insulting to American soldiers who possess the common sense necessary to conduct themselves appropriately.

Pasha, 23, said he moved with his family from Pakistan to the United States in 1999 and considers himself an American. He said he thought Riddle was kidding when he first read the comments directed toward him.

Pasha, a Muslim, said he was particularly offended when Riddle wrote: “Ok, Abdul, I guess it is ok that the Muslims kill and torture people when they get their feelings hurt.”

“If they don’t want to be politically correct that’s fine, but don’t spew hate,” Pasha said. ”Don’t spew fear or violence against Muslims. Political representation means you are representing your entire district, and she is the leader of that district.”

Riddle said she has plenty of friends who are Muslims and who also think sensitivity training for the military is unnecessary, and said she was not interested in being politically correct at the expense of speaking her mind.

“If you want to inject a huge amount of political correctness in this, I’m not the gal you want to talk to,” Riddle said. “I think being real and honest is what people expect when they elect someone. The public, especially my constituents, appreciate the honesty and they appreciate the candor.”

Stephen Ollar, president of the UT Student Veteran Association (not to be confused with the Student Veterans Association), who has served in Afghanistan and in Iraq, said sensitivity training is needed as evidenced by instances of gross insensitivity by soldiers abroad, such as marines caught urinating on a dead body. He said even small breaches destroy the rapport with Afghan officials that is crucial to the military’s success.

“Winning over the populace when you’re fighting an insurgency is the most important thing you can do to win a war,” Ollar said. “If you aggravate those people you basically deprive yourself of that type of intelligence. And that’s what we keep doing, unfortunately, because we have these young men out fighting these wars who don’t have a lot of personal experience in life who do things to shoot the military in the foot.”

Ollar said everyone comes into the military from different backgrounds, and behavior that one soldier might find acceptable, another would find flawed. He said it’s crucial that everyone be on the same page.

A state representative and his new bill are stirring the debate on evolution in classrooms. Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, said he believes the possibility that human life began by chance would be like going to a casino slot machine and hitting the exact winning tumble hundreds of times — once for every person in the world. “No one doubts that within a species you can have changes,” Zedler said. “The question becomes, is there some change from one species to another without causation?” Zedler has recently introduced legislation to protect students and education professionals who question the theory of evolution from discrimination. His bill presents intelligent design, an idea that states an intelligent being is responsible for life’s origin, in opposition to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Zedler said he filed the bill because of the reports of dismissals and disciplinary actions against professors who mentioned a theory other than evolution in their presentation, citing “Slaughter of the Dissidents” by Jerry Bergman, a book that documents such cases. “What it’s about is freedom,” Zedler said. “When we think of universities and colleges we think about academic freedom, the ability to take a position and express it as long as we have the academic evidence to back it up.” Zedler’s bill would allow legal recourse for professors dismissed from their jobs or students who were reprimanded because they questioned evolution. Richard Heineman, a natural sciences professor and evolution specialist, said no one in his department would likely be hired unless they believed in evolution. Heineman teaches a class on Viral Evolution where the class experiments with viruses that infect bacteria, called bacteriophages, and changes their environments and genetic makeup to test the theory of evolution. Heineman said he does not speak about theories like intelligent design in his class because it’s not a scientific approach to the question of how life began. “When we talk about it, we talk about it as an example of the difficulties people have in applying scientific [explanations] to issues,” Heineman said. Biology sophomore Kylee Walter said she learned about intelligent design briefly in high school but never in any of her biology classes at UT. Although Walter said she never saw a faculty member at UT get ridiculed or attacked for mentioning intelligent design, she saw students get ridiculed for expressing belief in it. Walter said a bill like Zedler’s would be beneficial to students and professors.

82nd Legislature

A state representative and his new bill are stirring the debate on evolution in classrooms. Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, said he believes the possibility that human life began by chance would be like going to a casino slot machine and hitting the exact winning tumble hundreds of times — once for every person in the world. “No one doubts that within a species you can have changes,” Zedler said. “The question becomes, is there some change from one species to another without causation?” Zedler has recently introduced legislation to protect students and education professionals who question the theory of evolution from discrimination. His bill presents intelligent design, an idea that states an intelligent being is responsible for life’s origin, in opposition to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Zedler said he filed the bill because of the reports of dismissals and disciplinary actions against professors who mentioned a theory other than evolution in their presentation, citing “Slaughter of the Dissidents” by Jerry Bergman, a book that documents such cases. “What it’s about is freedom,” Zedler said. “When we think of universities and colleges we think about academic freedom, the ability to take a position and express it as long as we have the academic evidence to back it up.” Zedler’s bill would allow legal recourse for professors dismissed from their jobs or students who were reprimanded because they questioned evolution. Richard Heineman, a natural sciences professor and evolution specialist, said no one in his department would likely be hired unless they believed in evolution. Heineman teaches a class on Viral Evolution where the class experiments with viruses that infect bacteria, called bacteriophages, and changes their environments and genetic makeup to test the theory of evolution. Heineman said he does not speak about theories like intelligent design in his class because it’s not a scientific approach to the question of how life began. “When we talk about it, we talk about it as an example of the difficulties people have in applying scientific [explanations] to issues,” Heineman said. Biology sophomore Kylee Walter said she learned about intelligent design briefly in high school but never in any of her biology classes at UT. Although Walter said she never saw a faculty member at UT get ridiculed or attacked for mentioning intelligent design, she saw students get ridiculed for expressing belief in it. Walter said a bill like Zedler’s would be beneficial to students and professors.

Sex education in Texas public schools will become more comprehensive if student lobbyists and a state representative get their way. About 75 students from across Texas assembled at the Capitol on Tuesday to advocate for what they call age-appropriate, evidence-based sex education in public schools, as opposed to the abstinence-only policies currently in place. Mackenzie Massey, president of UT’s Texas Freedom Network Student Chapter, helped organize the event to promote a bill authored by Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio. Under the bill, public schools will teach abstinence-only as the most effective way to prevent teen pregnancy. Schools will also have to present information about the effectiveness of methods including condoms and oral contraceptives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved for reducing the risk of sexually transmitted infections and preventing pregnancy. “This legislation will make sex education medically accurate, focusing on both abstinence and contraception,” Massey said. At the event, Castro encouraged students to be a voice for their peers and claimed this piece of legislation to be the most important bill legislators consider this session. Castro also explained that under Education Works, schools would have the option to opt out of teaching sex education altogether, and parents who do not approve of comprehensive sex education could pull their children out of classes that teach it. “We have tried the abstinence-only policy for quite a while, and the numbers speak for themselves. It just doesn’t quite work in Texas,” Castro said. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Texas had the third-highest teen birthrate in the nation in 2006. For every 1,000 teens between the ages of 15 and 19, there are 63.1 live births. Mississippi has the highest rate, at 68 live births per 1,000 teens. But the conservative think-tank Family Research Council claims abstinence education successfully reduces self-reported sexual involvement among students. “In light of recent studies showing the positive health benefits of abstinence education, it is unfortunate that Congress has zeroed out abstinence education in favor of sex-ed programs that advocate high-risk sexual behavior when it is children and young teens who suffer the consequences,” Perkins said. Under former President George W. Bush’s administration, states that taught abstinence-only sex education in public schools could receive federal funding for their programs. According to the CDC, Texas received more abstinence-only funding than any other state, but has the highest repeat teen pregnancy rate. In 2010, Congress redirected the funds to states that promote comprehensive sex education. Since that decision, Texas has had to fund its sex education solely on a state level. If Castro’s bill passes, the state could again receive federal funding, he said.