Monthly Archives: September 2011

Promoting Big Brother, not education

The recent furor over the San Antonio teacher who called a tea party leader a “Nazi” makes me realize I haven’t been fully depicting the tea party movement. I usually call the tea party an antigovernment group, and that’s true, but only up to a certain extent.

The movement is decidedly antigovernment when it comes to critical public services that are vital to millions of Texans, such as education and health care. Tea partiers want to starve the public schools and dismantle what’s left of the fragile public safety net for the poor and infirm. If you can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, or don’t even own a pair of boots, you better get out of the way or get trampled.

At the same time, however, some tea party leaders are promoting a bigger role for government as, well, Big Brother. They want government, even school teachers, to weed out what they consider undesirables and do the impossible – halt the march of history.

What prompted the Nazi comment during a public forum in San Antonio last week were demands by tea partiers that school teachers report undocumented immigrant students to authorities for deportation. That idea struck the school teacher as a “Nazi” tactic.

His choice of word, for which he has publicly expressed regret, was unfortunate. But it is absurd for the tea party to demand that teachers act as immigration agents. Teachers are paid (most of them are underpaid) to teach, not to march up and down school hallways, clicking their heels together, demanding that children produce citizenship papers.

Compounding the tea party’s affront was the fact that this particular educator teaches in Edgewood ISD, one of the poorest districts in the state. And, it was made even poorer when Gov. Perry and the legislative majority, yielding to tea party demands, slashed $5.4 billion from the public education budget.

And, whether tea partiers like it or not, no less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court has decreed that school districts must teach undocumented children – not assist in their deportation.

According to the newspaper article linked below, the right wing has gone viral over the Internet against the Edgewood teacher, who essentially was exercising his constitutional right of free speech in a public forum on his own time.

Since some students attended the forum, the tea party leader to whom the “Nazi” label was applied accused the teacher of “indoctrinating students in a very liberal manner.”

Nonsense. He was simply expressing his opinion in an overheated political exchange.

Despite the furor, Edgewood ISD doesn’t intend to fire the teacher. And, there is absolutely no reason that it should. Fortunately, the First Amendment doesn’t make exceptions for antagonizing rightwingers. At least, not yet.

How would these tax breaks play?

As most of us know, Gov. Rick Perry doesn’t really care what school districts, their employees and most taxpayers think. If he did, he wouldn’t so eagerly have taken an ax to school district budgets.

Now, another financial issue posing additional millions in potential losses to many districts and local taxpayers has bubbled to the surface, and once again the schools may find themselves at the mercy of a governor who is largely deaf to their budgetary concerns.

This issue has to do with whether Texas refineries qualify for a tax break that would hurt a number of local governments, mainly school districts, scattered about the state. The question has been pending for about four years before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and it has attracted renewed media attention in the AP story linked below.

Since 2007, Valero Energy has been seeking tax refunds for six of its refineries for the installation of pollutioncontrol equipment it believes should be tax exempt under state law. The TCEQ initially denied the request, on the recommendation of its staff, but after Valero appealed has been reconsidering its initial ruling.

Meanwhile, according to the AP, other refineries have applied for a similar break with potential refunds totaling $135 million, most of which would have to be paid by school districts, if the TCEQ ultimately agrees with the refineries. And, who knows how many additional refineries would join the line then.

The lost money would be bad enough for schools and local taxpayers under normal conditions, and it would be particularly disastrous in the wake of the governor’s and legislative majority’s slashing of $5.4 billion in state aid from public school budgets.

According to the story, Pasadena ISD alone would have to refund as much as $11.3 million to two refineries. That is about as much money as 200 teachers (at the average Texas salary) are paid each year. Losing that much most likely would force more teacher layoffs and other needless costcutting steps at a time when teachers, students and parents already are being squeezed.

The three TCEQ commissioners who will make the final decision are all Perry appointees, and they can be expected to do what the governor wants.

Perry, of course, loves to dole out tax breaks and other forms of corporate welfare, especially to big political contributors. Since he has been governor, Perry has received more than $140,000 from the Valero political action committee, according to the campaign finance watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice. And he has received almost $14 million from the energy and natural resources industries, many of whose members operate refineries. In return, he is a big booster of the energy and petrochemical industry. Just yesterday, he asked President Obama to delay implementing stricter antipollution standards that the industry opposes.

But the tax break issue is taking a long time to be resolved, and Perry may prefer to let it drag out a bit longer now that he is running for president. Taking millions of dollars from the public schools to pay for a big tax break for contributors would be sure to generate more unfavorable national media attention at a time when Perry, as he puts it, already is beginning to feel like a piñata.

But, then again, who knows?

Voting for football and (we hope) classrooms

This will be a discussion of how Texans weigh their priorities, and at the outset I want to acknowledge the obvious. Parents can value football, band and other extracurricular activities for their children while also valuing the classroom and teachers. I know. My son is in a high school marching band, and I also enjoy the activity that takes place on the field before and after the halftime show.

Two years ago, the parents and other taxpayers of Allen ISD, a rapidly growing school district in suburban Collin County (near Dallas) voted 63 percent in favor of a $119 million bond issue to build a $60 million football stadium plus a fine arts auditorium and a new service center for the district.

The 18,000seat stadium, which is still under construction, will include a highdefinition video scoreboard, an indoor golf practice area, a practice room for wrestling and, according to The New York Times, “enough parking for every car in Dallas, or close.” In its headline earlier this year, The Times dubbed the stadium a “$60 million palace.” Allen school officials, however, noted the old stadium was woefully overcrowded and could no longer accommodate the district’s growth and its strong Friday night fever.

Allen’s residents obviously agreed with their school officials and overwhelmingly agreed to raise their property taxes to pay for the new complex.

Now, Allen’s taxpayers have another choice to make. Thanks to the state cuts in education funding, Allen ISD estimates it will lose $21 million over the next two school years. The district already has taken a number of costcutting steps, including a salary freeze, staff reductions (including 44 teachers) and larger classes.

In case you are wondering, no, the district can’t transfer any money from the stadium project to the classroom. The voters specifically approved the bonds for the stadium and construction of the other two facilities.

Also, in case you are wondering, Collin County, in which Allen is located, voted overwhelmingly (64 percent) last November to reelect Gov. Rick Perry, the architect of the education budget cuts. And, Collin voters elected legislators who voted for the reductions.

To avoid even more cuts in educational services, Allen ISD wants to raise the district’s tax rate for operations by 13 cents per $100 valuation. That would put the district’s total tax rate at $1.67, including the separate debt service taxes (to pay for things like the stadium) that voters already have approved.

The new, 13cent tax increase also must be approved by voters in a tax ratification election set for Oct. 8. Early voting started this week. According to the school district, the increase would raise $10 million a year, which would help the district hire additional teachers to meet student growth and slow the increase in class sizes.

If voters reject the tax increase, the district warns that another 80 to 100 teachers could lose their jobs by the end of this school year, classes will get even larger, bus routes and crossing guard services will be reduced, tutoring will be cut back and officials will delay the scheduled opening of one new elementary school.

The district estimated the higher tax would cost the owner of the average valued home ($220,000) an extra $266 a year. Allen, as you can see, is more affluent than most Texas communities.

“Look, football has always been a big deal here,” Allen ISD’s athletic director Steve Williams told The New York Times, in discussing voter support of the bond issue. “This is Texas. But this bond project is about much more than football. It’s about our school, our community.”

In many ways, the Oct. 8 tax ratification election also is a referendum on Allen’s schools and the future of the community and its kids. Will Allen voters step up this time?

Like it or not, quality requires money

The Economist article about education “reform,” linked at the bottom of this post, tries to make the point, I think, that teachers’ unions overemphasize the importance of government spending in the development and maintenance of quality public schools. The article, however, meanders around the world and is a bit contradictory.

For example, it cites a couple of success stories in which a crucial factor has been, well, money.

The article identifies four “secrets” of educational success – decentralization, a focus on underachieving pupils, a choice of different sorts of schools and high standards for teachers.

In arguing the importance of decentralization – allowing individual schools to determine what works best for their students – the article applauds the accomplishments of educators in Ontario, Canada, which it credits with having “one of the world’s bestperforming schools systems.”

It also notes that Ontario’s “efforts were not cheap.”

No kidding. Since 2004, according to the article, total funding (that would be government spending) for education in the province has increased by 30 percent.

In praising the importance of “decent teachers” – nothing wrong with that – The Economist notes that an emphasis on better teacher quality is a “common feature of all reforms.”

“Countries like Finland and South Korea make life easier for themselves by recruiting only elite graduates, and PAYING THEM ACCORDINGLY,” the article continues. (The caps are mine. The money comes from government spending.)

I am not going to try to summarize the entire article. But it also praises charter schools without making it clear that those experiments, at least in the United States, have been no more successful, on average, than traditional public schools. And, it notes America’s experimentation with merit pay for teachers, “often in the teeth of opposition from the teachers’ unions.”

The article ends by noting that developing better teachers “should be made the priority.”

What is doesn’t say, however, is that you don’t make better teachers a “priority” by underpaying the vast majority while giving a handful raises or bonuses based on arbitrary standards, such as student test scores, that don’t fairly or fully assess a teacher’s value or contribution.

In Texas’ case, it is preposterous to talk “merit pay” when the average pay for all teachers is a subpar 31st in the nation, almost $7,000 below the national average. And, that was before the new budget cuts kicked in.

The Economist article also neglected to discuss the importance of class size to student learning, particularly in the lower grades, where many Texas classes are now getting bigger because of the budget cuts.

Sure, government funding is a factor in educational quality. There hasn’t been an education “reform” broached yet that doesn’t cost money, in some form or fashion. And, you certainly don’t “reform” education by slashing $5.4 billion from the public education budget, as our state “leaders” recently did in Texas.