Monthly Archives: March 2010

At the back of the line

Almost every day, it seems, there is another headline or two about how more school districts – large and small are trying to grapple with deepening budgetary problems.

A recent sampling – but by no means an allinconclusive list – includes Austin ISD, Fort Worth, Arlington, El Paso, North East in San Antonio, Fort Bend, Carrollton Farmers Branch, GrapevineColleyville, La Marque, Conroe, CypressFairbanks, Aldine, etc., etc. The problems are all over the state.

School boards are looking at a number of unpleasant options, including larger classes, hiring freezes and teacher and staff layoffs. Many teachers may have been getting the bad news this week since deadlines are approaching for districts to inform contract employees whom they don’t intend to rehire for the next school year.

Some school officials say these are the toughest financial times for schools in years, and undoubtedly the recession is partly to blame. So are expanding enrollments and rising expenses, like transportation and utility costs.

But much of the blame also can be traced back to 2006, when the Texas Supreme Court ordered another overhaul of the school finance system. Gov. Rick Perry, who then (as now) was in the middle of a reelection race, responded by joining with Republican legislative leaders to insist that local property taxes be lowered.

The cuts were minimal for most homeowners. But collectively they took a huge bite from school districts – and still are – since the governor and the Legislature didn’t close the funding gap with enough state revenue. A package of revenue increases – mainly a new business tax – enacted in 2006 now falls about $4.6 billion a year short of replacing the lost property tax revenue. Numberscrunchers call it a “structural” shortfall in the state budget.

Most homeowners have long since forgotten their fleeting “relief” from property taxes, but educators and the children they teach are still suffering the consequences of the state’s misguided budgetary policy, a policy that shoved schools to the back of the line.

With the Legislature expected to face a budgetary shortfall between $11 billion and $15 billion next January, the outlook for a significant improvement in school funding isn’t bright. But educators – and anyone else who cares about the public schools – have to keep trying.

And, November’s election affords you an opportunity to make some changes in state government, especially at the top.

Who is “tearing down” Texas?

All is sunny and bright in Rick Perry Land. Just ask him. But the real Texas has some real problems, including a serious dropout rate – one of the worst in the country – that continues to plague our public schools, despite the best efforts of educators to turn it around.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill White pointed out that problem in an address in Austin over the weekend and, as reported by the Austin AmericanStatesman, called for some “realism and honesty” on the part of state leaders.

In Perry Land, meanwhile, the incumbent governor was giving a group of middle school math students some welldeserved congratulations for their accomplishments, while patting himself on the back for imposing “increased accountability” on the school kids and their teachers.

But Perry continued to ignore the dropout problem –even though a recent study by the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M has projected that the dropout rate for the class of 2012, this year’s high school sophomores, could be as high as 22 percent. The negative implications for the state’s future economy and social services are enormous.

Perry instead accused White of trying to “tear down” Texas, when, in truth, the only candidate for governor who is “tearing down” Texas right now is Rick Perry, and he has been doing that by neglect for most of his nineplus years in office.

Perry’s education legacy, in addition to high dropout rates, includes:

• An annual, $4.6 billion structural shortage in funding for the public schools.
• Perpupil expenditures on instruction that are below the national average.
• Teacher pay that is below the national average.
• Inadequate resources for bilingual education in a state where Hispanics will soon be the majority.
• An overreliance on highstress standardized testing that destroys the learning environment.
• A political alliance with a Rabid Right bloc of State Board of Education members intent on driving the public schools back into the Middle Ages.

Yet, the governor persists in preaching “accountability” at everybody but himself.

Bill White is not “tearing down” Texas. He is pointing out critical problems that need to be fixed in Austin so that future generations of Texans will have a chance to have something to brag about.

We’re teachers, not black helicopters

It already has been wellestablished that political advertising is limited only by imagination, not truth. And provoucher candidate Van Taylor’s imagination is working overtime in his Republican runoff campaign against Mabrie Jackson for an open legislative seat in Plano. This is the District 66 seat being vacated by veteran state Rep. Brian McCall.

Taylor has unleashed negative mailers against Jackson, claiming that “liberal” outsiders are trying to hijack the district’s voters on her behalf. One handout includes a picture of paratroopers dropping from the sky over the headline, “Liberal special interests are invading Plano!”

I want to assure the good folks of Plano, however, that there is no need to call 911 or the National Guard. Their lives, liberty and property are safe from Mabrie Jackson and her supporters.

Taylor’s assault on the truth was prompted by Jackson’s support from two proeducation and proteacher groups, TSTA and Texas Parent PAC, whose members are much more likely to find excitement in a PTA meeting or a parentteacher conference than in leveling suburban North Texas.

Taylor’s mailers allege that Parent PAC is a proDemocratic group funded by trial lawyers, when, in fact, Parent PAC has a broad base of support from about 900 contributors. They include teachers, school superintendents, business people, attorneys, homemakers, retired Texans and others, both Democrats and Republicans, from all over the state, including Plano. The one thing they all have in common is an interest in improving the public schools.

TSTA also has both Democratic and Republican members from throughout Texas, including Plano, and contributes to both Democratic and Republican candidates. Our members are teachers and other education professionals who also want to improve public education.

Jackson, a businesswoman, is the daughter of a retired Plano ISD teacher. Unlike Taylor, she opposes spending our limited tax dollars on vouchers for private school tuition.

Jackson also has won the editorial endorsement of The Dallas Morning News, which was more than a little concerned about Taylor’s comment to the newspaper that, if elected, he would “starve state government.”

Starving state government means starving, among other critical services, the public schools, a preposterous statement to make in a state that already lags behind most other states in what it spends, on average, to educate a public school student. The statement is even more unsettling coming from someone, like Taylor, who also wants to take public tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers.

Rearranging the same ol’ chairs

There is one thing you can almost always count on from most state legislators. They know how to throw out a good cliché, as Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro did yesterday during the umpteenth round of legislative handwringing over how to pay for the public schools.

“Rather than rearranging the chairs on the Titanic, which we have been doing all these years, why don’t we take them off the deck and look at things from a completely different perspective?” she told a special legislative committee on school finance, according to a report in The Dallas Morning News.

Shapiro, RPlano, apparently meant that the Legislature needs to find a better way to fund public education. We’ve heard that many times before, but with a revenue shortfall projected between $11 billion and $15 billion for next year’s legislative session, she also acknowledged a major part of the problem “There is no money.”

Sen. Dan Patrick, RHouston, quickly announced – also for the umpteenth time – that he wants to “fix” local property taxes, a major source of school funding. Property taxes are an easy political target, but the cuts that the Legislature ordered in those local taxes four years ago have heightened the school funding problem, and whatever savings that homeowners realized then have since been mostly eroded.

There are funding options out there, but there is little will among the current state leadership to tap into them to overhaul the school finance system, even as Texas continues to lag behind most other states in perpupil funding for instruction and inequities among school districts worsen.

State leaders are solidly against a personal income tax. And even if they weren’t, voters – who would have the final say over that option – likely would reject it. A legislative committee will look at closing some sales tax exemptions, but many of those are very popular and won’t be repealed easily.Lawmakers aren’t likely to expand the new business tax either. In fact, they increased the exemptions to the business tax only last year, even though it falls about $9 billion short each biennium of covering the revenue losses from the 2006 property tax cuts.

Despite a widespread public misperception, the lottery contributes only a very small percentage of the education budget, and that amount is offset by general revenue anyway. Expanded gambling in Texas, meanwhile, remains a pieinthesky proposition.

There will be no significant boost in education funding without a new revenue stream. Without new revenue, lawmakers are likely to tinker with things like class sizes and administrative overhead but avoid a real fix. They will keep using the same wornout chairs – until another lawsuit is filed and another court order puts the state back under the gun.