EDITOR’S NOTE: With the announcement of State Rep. Jim Pitt’s retirement, a new legislator will be representing Ellis County next year in Austin. This is the third in a series profiling the candidates seeking the District 10 seat and how they plan to fill the shoes of an iconic Texas lawmaker.
With a proven track record of success in both business and public service, Duke Burge isn’t your typical political candidate.
Yes, he’s outgoing, likable and thoroughly enjoys talking to people.
But when it comes to getting things done, the Midlothian resident is quick to cut to the chase, roll up his sleeves and get to work.
As founder and president of Waxahachie-based Computer Solutions, Inc., one of the fastest growing IT companies in the United States, Burge doesn’t care much for pretense, platitudes and appearances. With Burge, what you see is what you get — meaning he is always ready to listen and discuss, but he’s not afraid to speak up and speak out when he disagrees.
“I love people. I truly do,” he said. “But when I talk with someone — whether I’ve known them my whole life or I just met them — you’re always going to get the same Duke Burge. It’s the only way I know how to be. I’m always going to be honest with you. I’m always going to listen to you. I’ll agree with you on the things we agree about and I’ll straight up tell you if I disagree. And if I make a mistake, I own up to it and take responsibility for it.”
Having served for 13 years on the Board of Trustees for the Midlothian Independent School District — including two stints as its president — Burge is very familiar with complex government issues, funding and the impact those decisions have on the taxpayers. He is also well versed on the inner workings of state and federal government, having testified numerous times before the Texas State Legislature and U.S. Congress on multiple issues, primarily education legislation and its impact on local school districts.
Perhaps of all four candidates in the race, Burge brings the most experience in terms of working with the Legislature.
And while education is high on his priority list, it’s not his top priority.
“The biggest challenge facing the state of Texas is illegal immigration,” Burge said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Illegal immigration impacts every single other issue our state is facing and it is the number one challenge to Texas. It impacts education. It impacts health care. It impacts infrastructure needs, and for the folks living along our border, it is having a tremendous impact on public safety.”
While securing the borders and adopting immigration policy is the job of the federal government, Burge said the federal government has done a poor job, if not irresponsible job in both sectors.
“This is a problem that needs to be solved and if the federal government isn’t going to do its job, Texas needs to step up and solve the problem in our state and send Washington the bill,” he said.
In addition to securing the border, Burge said the immigration policy has got to be reformed.
“I am not for amnesty and I am not for an accelerated track to citizenship,” he stressed. “But we have a substantial amount of undocumented workers in Texas who crossed the border to work. They are honest, hard-working, decent folks just trying to make a living for their families. Why we can’t have a streamlined workers permit like Canada has is beyond me. If we did, these folks could legally cross our border to work in Texas, then go home to their families. Because of the system we now have, our government encourages illegal immigration and then we encourage them to illegally bring their families here. It has to stop.”
When the subject is changed to education, Burge leans forward in the chair and begins to cover the width and breadth of his 13-years worth of experience on the Midlothian ISD Board of Trustees.
He is quick to point out the complexities of the issue, that begin with the vagueness of the one-sentence line in the Texas constitution guaranteeing all Texans the right to a free and equitable public education and the Legislature's inability during the past 20 years to define “equitable.”
He then shifts to standardized testing and the negative impact it’s had on every district in the state of Texas.
“I have no problem with setting accountability standards,” Burge said. “We need to make sure that we’re accountable to our students and our taxpayers and our students are learning.”
“But what has happened,” Burge said, pausing for emphasis, “is the tests have taken over the curriculum.”
He added that the tests have become punitive and districts have been forced to teach to the test instead of allowing teachers to do what they do best — “teach and inspire,” he said.
To solve the problem, Burge said testing can no longer be the primary measurement of a district’s success.
“Standardized testing should be a benchmark to allow the district to see what it's doing well as well as the areas where it needs to place more emphasis,” he said. “For accountability purposes, I don’t really have an issue with End of Course testing to ensure our students have received the education they should be receiving for high school graduation. But we have to stop teaching to a test and we have put education back in the hands of our local school boards and teachers.”
A strong proponent of local control, Burge said that education works best when local school boards, parents and taxpayers have the control to operate their districts.
“Every district is different,” he said. “What works in San Antonio probably won’t work in Dallas and what works in Austin probably won’t work in Midlothian or Waxahachie or Avalon. I do have a major issue with lawmakers in Washington and lawmakers in Austin deciding education policy based on a one-size-fits-all formula. It hasn’t worked. It doesn’t work and it will never work. We need to eliminate or greatly reduce state mandates and restore local control.”
As for solving the state funding issue for public education, Burge shakes his head and admits he does not have “the magic answer” that has eluded the Legislature for the past two decades.
Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his cellphone.
“I will tell you that technology is part of that solution, though,” he said, using his phone to demonstrate its easy accessibility to information.
“Education is different today than it was when you and I went to school,” he said, still holding up his cellphone. “You and I are technology immigrants. We’ve had to learn how to use this. For our kids and our grandkids, this has always been part of their life. We had textbooks and the limited research material in the library. With this, they have access to all the information they will ever need with just a few keystrokes.
“We certainly have to teach them cognitive reasoning skills and how to discern what is legitimate information and what isn’t — because there is a lot of bad information on the Internet. But technology is changing the face of education. Will there be brick and mortar schools in the future? I don’t know. Our schools are already using technology to create virtual classroom environments. While I don’t have the entire answer to solving our state’s problem with school finance, I do know that technology will be playing a leading role in that solution,” he said.
When asked about filling the shoes of Jim Pitts, Burge quickly points out that the next State Representative from District 10 will begin their career as a freshman lawmaker.
“I’m going to share my philosophy on public service,” Burge said, leaning forward in his chair again in an effort to make his point. “Our nation has too many politicians and not enough statesmen. We need more statesmen. Jim Pitts was a statesman. It’s OK to disagree — but you can do it in a respectful manner. I consider myself a statesman. If I’m elected, I’ll go to Austin and work with my colleagues to find solutions in an open, transparent manner.”
When asked to describe his policies, Burge smiles.
He’s not big on labels.
“My record speaks for itself,” he said. “I’ve got a 13-year record of votes on the Midlothian ISD Board of Trustees, as well as my service on numerous city boards and commissions that have helped create economic development for Midlothian, improved education for our students all while lowering taxes for residents.
“If you need to put a label on me, I am certainly a fiscal conservative. I believe in lower taxes and as a business owner, I know first-hand that lower taxes help spark economic growth and create job opportunities. I will tell you that if elected I will work hard to prevent the Legislature from ever getting into a position where raising taxes is even an option and I will tell you that I am against raising taxes,” he said. “But I will also tell you that I cannot predict the future and foresee every possible scenario. And because of that, I’m not going to tell you that I will never vote for legislation that will result in a tax increase.
“All three of my opponents will tell you they are a fiscal conservative, just as I am. All four of us are against tax increases. But for any of us to look a voter in the eyes and say we will never vote for a tax increase is a little disingenuous, especially when just about every piece of legislation passed by the Legislature comes with a price tag. As the State Representative for District 10, I will work hard to make sure that price tag doesn’t require new funding mechanisms while also working to reducing the funding mechanisms currently in place. But I will always tell you the truth, and truth is, I can’t predict every scenario. I will promise you that I will work to solve the problems facing Texas and I will do so in an open, transparent manner and in a statesman-like manner that will make District 10 proud. It’s the only way I know,” Burge said.
Burge has resided in Midlothian since 1993 and is married to life-long Midlothian resident Dawn Proffitt Burge.