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Bluster from non-education experts

 

First, the pro-voucher crowd trotted out economist-for-hire Arthur Laffer, who issued a mostly political, pie-in-the-sky report claiming that private school vouchers would coat Texas’ future in gold. Laffer’s report was promptly discredited by a serious, academic review concluding that it was “unsuitable as a basis for public policy decisions.”

The Austin American-Statesman had a more succinct description – “hogwash.”

Undeterred, though, the folks who insist on wasting public money on school privatization then presented someone else who knows very little about public schools — former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm — as a star, lead-off witness at yesterday’s Senate committee hearing on vouchers. Gramm admitted he hasn’t set foot in a classroom in years. But what he didn’t know about public schools (a lot), he more than made up for in corn-pone bluster and misstatements of fact.

You may recall that Gramm spent his fairly long career on the taxpayers’ payroll bashing government, and yesterday’s testimony was more of the same, except this time he zeroed in on public schools. He claimed Texas’ public schools were a failure, when, in fact, the vast majority of public schools are successful, thanks to thousands of hard-working, under-paid educators.

Only recently, the Texas Education Agency announced that Texas has one of the highest overall graduation rates in the country – 88 percent for the class of 2013 – and the highest graduation rates in the country for Hispanics and African Americans. And, some 95 percent of Texas school districts are meeting accountability standards.

Yet, there was Gramm – with voucher advocates fawning all over him – castigating public schools with a broad brush. He tossed in a couple of trite remarks about how much he supposedly appreciated teachers, but in truth he was insulting teachers, since teachers are the heart and soul of the very public schools he was condemning.

Yes, some schools – particularly in low-income neighborhoods – and struggling, and they are struggling because the legislators at the head of the voucher movement refuse to begin work on an adequate and fair method of state education funding. Nor, do they care much about providing low-income families with the health care and other support services so important to the educational climate for children, the vast majority of whom will remain in public schools, with or without vouchers.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the chief voucher advocate in Austin, has made a career of advocating and voting for budget cuts, just as Gramm, when he was in Washington, prided himself on battling government spending.

Now, they want to divert tax dollars from public schools to a handful of kids attending private schools and then proclaim themselves champions of education. Hogwash.

 

 

Latest voucher bill still a bad idea

 

By tightening up on their legislation a bit, private school voucher advocates are trying to convince us that they really do want to help low-income children. But the facts remain the same. Few poor families, if any, would benefit from vouchers, but opportunistic business people eager to get their hands on some tax dollars would be lining up at the trough.

SB276, the original voucher bill by Sen. Donna Campbell, was wide-open in that it set no income restraints for a voucher recipient. It has been supplanted now by SB4 by Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, who is carrying all of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s bad education privatization ideas – and there are a lot of them.

Both SB4 and SB276 are scheduled for a hearing tomorrow before the Senate Education Committee, but SB4 is the voucher bill “blessed” by the lieutenant governor. TSTA and other public education advocates oppose both.

SB4 would restrict most voucher recipients to children from families with incomes within 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines, but it also would let a first-grade or kindergarten student receive a voucher regardless of family income. The maximum voucher per child would be about $7,000 per year under the bill’s limit.

That’s about the average price of tuition for a private elementary school in Texas but almost $2,000 a year less than the average tuition for a private high school. Even most of the average-priced private schools, though, would remain out of reach of families from low-income neighborhoods because most private schools don’t provide transportation and wouldn’t be required to under either voucher bill.

More significantly, the best private schools in Texas charge $26,000 or more a year in tuition, keeping them way out of reach of low-income families, even those armed with a voucher. But the vouchers would siphon funding from the neighborhood public schools that the children will continue to attend.

SB4 also would create tax credits for businesses and other organizations that contribute money for vouchers in the form of “scholarships.” This is still a voucher, folks, and the tax credits would still reduce funding that should be spent on public schools, where the vast majority of Texas children will continue to be educated.

Good private schools don’t need to swell their enrollments with tax-paid vouchers. Most of these schools pride themselves on small classes and already have waiting lists.

But vouchers would spur the creation of a bunch of fly-by-night private “schools” eager to take vouchers (your tax dollars), under-pay teachers and take their chances that an under-funded Texas Education Agency would be unable to shut them down.

Many of these alleged “schools” would be little more than storefronts with substandard facilities, under-equipped classrooms and your tax dollars enriching the latest education privateers.

 

 

Understand it — money does matter

Some people may not get it, or maybe they just refuse to acknowledge it, but when it comes to educational quality, money counts.

Rob Eissler didn’t seem to get it four years ago when, as chairman of the House Public Education Committee, he voted to cut $5.4 billion from public school budgets. That cost 11,000 teaching jobs, forced cuts in critical pre-K programs and crammed thousands of students into overcrowded, under-equipped classrooms, harming the learning environment for many children.

Education spending in Texas is now recovering, thanks in large part to local property taxes and rising property values, but Texas still has a long way to go. We still rank in the lower third among the states in per-student funding.

Eissler is a lobbyist, not a legislator, now, but he is still missing the boat.

“It is not how much you spend, but how well you spend it,” he told The Dallas Morning News.

In truth, educational quality is affected by how much you spend AND how well you spend it. And, as a state judge ruled last year, the Legislature is still failing its constitutional duty on both counts.

 

 

Want some more cuts in education spending?

 

Pressing the case for his potentially dangerous proposal to put tighter limits on state spending, Sen. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills noted this week that Texas voters are conservative.

Judging from last year’s election results, most Texas voters apparently are. But the relevant question revolving around Hancock’s proposal is not political philosophy. The relevant question is whether voters and the people they elected to Austin are short-sighted. Being conservative and being short-sighted are not necessarily the same thing.

Hancock’s proposal, however, is incredibly short-sighted. It wouldn’t have any effect on this year’s budget deliberations, but, if adopted, it could result in billions of dollars being cut from future appropriations for education and other public needs.

The Legislature and Texas voters approved a so-called “spending cap” in the 1970s, still in effect today, that limits increases in general revenue spending – about one-third of the total budget – to an economic factor based on projected increases in Texans’ personal income.

Hancock proposes to make the cap more restrictive, apply it to a larger portion of the budget (including federal funds) and require a three-fifths vote of both the House and the Senate to exceed it. The current spending cap can be exceeded by a simple majority vote.

Were Hancock’s tighter spending limit in effect today, it would cut about $19 billion from the Senate’s current, proposed budget, Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, told the Senate Finance Committee.

(And you can bet your pension that a large chunk of that $19 billion would come from public schools and universities.)

Fortunately, Hancock’s proposal is not in effect, at least not yet. The committee didn’t act on it this week, but the session isn’t over yet either.

As reported in The Dallas Morning News, Hancock said his spending limit would “reflect our modern economy and ideology.”

It obviously reflects an ideology, but, if adopted, it could devastate some school districts and send our future economy down the tubes.

 

 

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