Monthly Archives: July 2010

Mediocrity may become more elusive

In yesterday’s post, I noted how Texas was struggling to obtain mediocrity in one key indicator of the state’s future economic health – access to college educations for our young people. Now, it looks as if mediocrity may be getting farther out of reach.

As reported in today’s Austin AmericanStatesman, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, following the instructions of Gov. Rick Perry and legislative leaders, has drafted a plan for reducing its budget by 10 percent. And, guess what?

One of the biggest hits would come in student financial aid, a category already underfunded in Texas. The new budget plan would cut financial aid by as much as $108 million during the next biennial budget period.

This is only a recommendation because the final budget will be written by the Legislature next year. But with lawmakers facing a projected revenue shortfall of $18 billion and student financial aid making up most of the Coordinating Board’s budget, students and their families – lowincome and middleincome alike have reason to be concerned.

The need for financial help already exceeds the grants and loans available, and the need will continue to rise, partly because of the economy and partly because of two state policy decisions, which actually conflict with each other.

One policy, dating back to 2000, is a concerted effort by the state to increase college enrollment so Texas can attain parity among the 10 largest states. That goal has been at least partly thwarted by the second policy – the decision by Perry and legislative leaders in 2003 to transfer more of the responsibility for college funding from elected legislators to students and their parents.

Under the socalled tuition deregulation law enacted that year, the cost of attending Texas’ statesupported universities has soared, even as student aid has lagged behind.

As I have noted before, Perry and legislative leaders talk a good game on education. But, dusting off an old cliché, talk is cheap, much cheaper than their commitment to it.

Being envious of average

State Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes may be part of the Rick Perry administration, but he hasn’t drunk all the Rick Perry KoolAid, at least not the election year flavor that claims Texas is the “envy” of the nation.

Consider Paredes’ recent report to Texas A&M regents about the state’s efforts to improve access to college enrollment, the socalled “Closing the Gaps” initiative that began in 2000, the year Perry first moved into the governor’s office. At this point, Paredes admitted, the state is not driving for the gold standard, but for mediocrity.

“All we’re trying to do by the year 2015 is to get parity with collegegoing rates in the 10 largest states. That’s all,” he told the regents. “Our aspiration in this initial effort is to become average.”

Paredes’ comments were reported in the BryanCollege Station Eagle.

The Closing the Gaps goal was to increase higher education enrollment in Texas by 630,000 by 2015. By fall 2009, enrollment had increased by about 400,000, and most of that had occurred in community colleges, Paredes reported.

Coincidentally, a new report by the College Board, which administers the SAT and AP tests, ranks Texas 40th among the states and the District of Columbia in the percentage of residents between the ages of 25 and 34 who have associate degrees or higher. Texas’ 27 percent was well below the 41 percent national average.

Experts attributed Texas’ poor finding to a large number of firstgeneration college students and a large number of lowincome students who can’t afford to stay in school.

Thanks to everincreasing tuition, even middleincome students are having trouble paying their university bills, a problem that threatens to worsen next year in the face of the state’s anticipated $18 billion revenue shortfall.

Paredes wants to address the middleincome problem by basing state financial assistance to students on merit as well as need. That idea may be worth exploring, but the major problem is that needbased grants aren’t funded enough to meet all the demand from lowincome students and are likely to fall even shorter because of the deficit.

The big question is: Will Texas stretch high enough to become average?

Here are links to the two articles:

Talking Aplus but delivering Dminus

Anyone doubting that our alleged state leaders in Austin who love to talk Aplus on public education are still delivering Dminus should take a look at the 2010 edition of TSTA’s survey on teacher moonlighting and morale. If you haven’t seen it, check it out on our website:

It already has received some media coverage, with most of the attention focused on the 40.8 percent of teachers who have to take extra jobs during the school year to make ends meet and the 46.7 percent who have considered leaving the teaching profession.

Both figures are the highest since TSTA started commissioning the biennial survey by Sam Houston State University 30 years ago, and they represent a strong indictment of state government’s inferior support of the public schools.

Another survey item that hasn’t received much attention but is another strong indictment in itself is the finding that the teachers who responded to the questions spent, on average, $564 a year out of their own pockets for supplies and other schoolrelated expenses. That’s about $63 a month during the ninemonth school year.

A lot of people incur occasional, workrelated expenses for which they don’t bother – or forget – to seek reimbursement. But most professionals make more than teachers. Many professionals make much more. And teachers have to spend their own money because the state has a policy of inadequately funding public education.

The average annual salary for respondents to the TSTA survey was $50,019, and they had worked, on average, 17.7 years to reach that level. Overall, the average teacher salary in Texas is $47,157, based on the 20082009 school year, the most recent data available. That is 34th among the states.

Texas has approximately 330,000 public school teachers. If each one is spending $564 a year from his or her own pocket on workrelated expenses, that’s a tidy $186 million subsidy for the taxpayers.

Less means what it says

I know virtually nothing about Robert Nelsen, the president of the University of TexasPan American, but he understands math, particularly subtraction.

After listening to countless newspaper editors, corporate CEOs and governors blab about “doing more with less” during years of downsizing and budget cuts, it was almost refreshing to notice Nelsen pointing out the obvious – “less is less” in an article in the McAllen Monitor over the weekend.

The article, nevertheless, was a sad recitation of the program and job cuts in store for UTPan American and other campuses in the Rio Grande Valley, stemming from spending cuts ordered by state leaders in anticipation of next year’s $18 billion revenue shortfall.

According to a recent report, the supply of school teachers, nurses and civil engineers from UTPan American and the nearby University of TexasBrownsville already is failing to meet the Valley’s annual job openings. And that shortfall likely will worsen as Nelsen has all but ruled out curriculum expansion, including programs in the fastgrowing medical industry.

Thanks to deregulated tuition, UTPan American students will pay 4.9 percent more in tuition and fees this year, while the university suffers an anticipated reduction of $21.8 million in state funding.

“My biggest concern is in doing less, we have to make certain that we always keep the student at the forefront in every decision we make,” Nelsen told the newspaper. “It’s easy to not do that.”

And, it’s a lot easier, unfortunately, in Austin.