Monthly Archives: November 2010

The streets beckon

As the House’s chief budget writer has made painfully clear, there will be a human side to the budget cuts that Republicans were promising during their recent, very successful campaign season. “We will have to throw some people out in the street,” Rep. Jim Pitts of Waxahachie replied when asked, at a recent briefing for a local Tea Party group, what would happen if the state got out of the Medicaid health care program.

Interestingly enough, the Tea Partier who asked the question has a friend on Medicaid (imagine that!) and may not have liked the answer. But, he and many other Texans (including some newly elected legislators) who may have thought the state budget is an overinflated balloon full of pork, gravy and inefficiency are beginning to get a more realistic math lesson.

I am not going to argue that there isn’t waste somewhere in a $182 billion biennial state budget because Gov. Perry alone wastes money every time he leaves the state on an “economic development” junket. But the truth of the budgetsetting process, as Ross Ramsey points out in an article in today’s Texas Tribune, is that the Legislature has unrestricted control over less than half of the total, or about $80.6 billion in the current budget. The remainder includes federal funds designated for specific purposes or funds dedicated by the state constitution for specific programs.

And, most ($73.3 billion) of the $80.6 billion directly controlled by the Legislature is for public and higher education and health and human services. Even if the state doesn’t drop out of the Medicaid program – and I don’t think it will – sick people are going to be booted out of hospitals and otherwise deprived of medical care if state leaders persist in bridging a looming revenue shortfall with spending cuts alone.

Do the math. A shortfall as high as $20 billion or more, which has been the persistent prediction, is onefourth of $80.6 billion.

Does that mean kids also are going to be kicked out of public schools? Maybe, but not to the extent envisioned by Leo Berman, Debbie Riddle and other lawmakers who would boot all the children of undocumented immigrants out of public classrooms. The federal courts already have decided that issue in favor of the immigrant children, at least for now.

If the Legislature stays on its announced path, many educators will lose their jobs, classrooms will become more crowded – making learning more difficult – more textbooks will be outdated and many children will be riding morecrowded buses because routes will be canceled or consolidated.

And, more children will end up on the streets because the dropout problem also will worsen under the anticipated budget cuts. To meet Perry’s directive, the Texas Education Agency already has had to propose cutting millions from dropout prevention programs. More classroom crowding and less individual attention from overextended teachers also will result in more student failures and increase the dropout rate.

Pitts needs to give more math lessons.

AISD board doesn’t get it

Granted, paying Austin ISD Superintendent Maria Carstarphen an extra $25,000 in bonuses this year would have only a negligible impact on the district’s budgetary woes. But, symbolically, the bonus stinks. (I am speaking not only as an employee of TSTA but also as an AISD parent and taxpayer.)

For one thing, Carstarphen can make a very nice living in Austin on her $275,000 base salary, while many of the district’s teachers (who are paid far less and don’t get fat bonuses) are taking extra jobs during the school year simply to make ends meet.

Moreover, the bonus comes as AISD is considering significant cutbacks to its basic educational programs, including teacher layoffs. One option discussed at last night’s board meeting would eliminate a planning period for middle and high school teachers, a step that would trim an estimated 90 to 300 teaching positions.

The superintendent has enormous responsibilities, but the teachers are the heart of the school district. They will determine if the superintendent meets her bonus criteria, which include higher student scores on standardized tests, improved attendance rates and boosting AISD’s accountability rating.

Maria Carstarphen can make long, impassioned speeches about educational quality, but the teachers – and their planning periods – help her deliver the goods.

Expecting the worst

As headlines from around the state continue to remind us, Texas’ public school budgets are in for more shrinkage, even as enrollments will continue to expand. Superintendents around the state are scrambling to identify potential budget cuts – including educators’ jobs – in anticipation of major reductions in state revenue next year.

So, I was a little surprised last week to notice a news item that the Dallas ISD was considering an expansion of its prekindergarten classes into a fullday program. How, I wondered, was the district going to pay for it?

Well, as it turns out, several Dallas school board members were wondering the same thing and, during a meeting late last week, told Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who had made the recommendation, that he was getting ahead of himself.

It didn’t make much sense, they said, to expand a program that may have to be cut back in only a few more months, if the Legislature, as anticipated, chops away at the education budget.

Good idea, bad timing.

Time to go

With a little luck, this will be the last time I ever will feel inclined to write about that expertinherownmind, Cynthia Dunbar, who this week is participating in her last scheduled meeting as a member of the State Board of Education.

Dunbar did the schoolchildren of Texas a favor by declining to seek reelection this year, but only after several years of working hard to undermine the quality of Texas’ public schools with her own religious and political beliefs. She was a leader of the rightwing bloc that, most recently, tried to rewrite social studies curriculum standards to incorrectly depict the United States as a Christian theocracy with limited historical contributions from anyone who wasn’t white.

At yesterday’s board meeting, Dunbar offered what the Austin AmericanStatesman called a “parting gift” to her fellow board members – a resolution declaring the U.S. Department of Education an unconstitutional bureaucracy with no authority over Texas schools. The board didn’t act on the resolution, and we can hope the new board, after it takes office with five new members in January, also will decline to waste time on the measure.

The board can’t wish away the Department of Education anymore than Dunbar can wish away the separation of church and state principle, although she and her colleagues have mightily tried.

Also bidding farewell to the board this week is Dunbar’s philosophical comradeinarms, Don McLeroy, who was unseated last spring by moremoderate Republican Thomas Ratliff.