Monthly Archives: July 2012

There is no free lunch for schools

Whether they like it or not, suburban Austin voters in Williamson County are about to be reminded there is no such thing as a free lunch. This Republican-dominated county voted overwhelmingly (almost 59 percent) to re-elect Gov. Rick Perry two years ago, presumably because most voters liked his conservative, anti-tax record and rhetoric. The county also voted for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst by a wide margin and elected two Republican state representatives, Charles Schwertner and Larry Gonzales.

True to form, Perry demanded deep cuts in the public education budget. The legislative majority, including Schwertner and Gonzales, obeyed and slashed $5.4 billion from public school funding, while leaving more than $7 billion unspent in the Rainy Day Fund. Dewhurst guided the budget through the Senate by engineering a parliamentary maneuver to overpower opposition.

Consequently, school districts throughout Texas, including Williamson County, have responded by laying off teachers, cramming children into overcrowded classrooms and, in some cases, even closing schools. Hutto ISD in Williamson County decided to close one elementary school this summer.

Perry, Dewhurst, Schwertner, Gonzales and others brag about holding the line on state taxes, but they have simply passed the buck. To avoid even deeper cuts in educational services, many school districts have been asking local voters for property tax increases, and Williamson County is no exception.

Voters in Hutto ISD rejected a local tax increase last year, but budget-strapped school trustees are trying again. They have scheduled a Sept. 1 election to raise school maintenance taxes by 13 cents per $100 valuation, twice the increase they sought last year. If this election also fails, other cuts to Hutto schools will be looming.

Other Williamson County districts – including Georgetown, Taylor and Florence — also are considering tax elections, as reported in the story linked below.

No, folks, there is no such thing as a free lunch. But elections do have consequences.

http://www.statesman.com/news/local/more-school-districts-are-considering-tax-elections-2425078.html

Spinning our wheels on student aid

Even as many low- and middle-income students struggle to enroll or stay in college this fall, state administrators are signaling that the under-funded pool of state financial aid won’t get much better any time soon.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has asked the Legislature, when it meets next year, to appropriate $580.8 million for Texas Grants, the state’s main financial aid program for low-income students, over the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years. Granted, that would be a $21.2 million increase over the current two-year budget period, but it would still fall about $800 million short of providing what is considered full funding for the program, $1.4 billion. And, the $21.2 million increase would come from transferring money from other grant and loan programs – in other words, by shorting other students. The result is inevitable. Some bright Texas high school students will be denied the opportunity to continue their education in the fall following their graduation.

The Texas economy is improving, but the political will of the state leadership in Austin remains stingy toward education, health care and other public services that would keep Texas moving forward. Even as financial aid remains extremely tight, tuition continues to increase at many universities to make up for cuts in university appropriations. And state agencies are under orders to submit hold-the-line appropriations requests to legislative budget-writers.

Meanwhile, the Coordinating Board is nearing a 2015 deadline for its Closing the Gaps program. The goal is 1.6 million in enrollment at all public and private colleges in Texas. Enrollment, according to the Austin American-Statesman story linked below, had reached 1.5 million last fall, but it was very uneven among demographic groups.

Hispanic men had the lowest enrollment rate, 3.8 percent, well below the 5.7 percent goal for each group. That is particularly problematic because this group is one of the fastest growing in Texas and includes a high proportion of young people in need of financial aid.

“We’ve got to keep our foot on the accelerator,” said Coordinating Board Chairman Fred W. Heldenfels IV.

He may think his foot is on the accelerator, but the transmission knob is stuck in “reverse.”

http://www.statesman.com/news/local/states-financial-aid-program-to-fall-well-short-2423009.html

Cruz and Dewhurst: Both bad news for Texas schools

Word that the clown princess of the tea party movement, Sarah Palin, is coming to Texas tomorrow to campaign for Ted Cruz in the Republican runoff for the U.S. Senate is still another reminder that the health of Texas’ public schools isn’t even an afterthought in that race. Despite the right-wing interest and media attention the race is generating, choosing between Cruz and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is a choice between Tweedle Bad and Tweedle Worse, and I am not sure which is which.

Cruz is full of right-wing wind and rhetoric and is a darling of voters who think government should disappear and education be turned over to profiteers and home-schoolers. He lacks a record of elected service and, if we are lucky, will never have one.

Dewhurst, of course, does have a record of elected service as presiding officer of the Texas Senate, but he hasn’t been a leader, certainly not for public education. He had enough votes in the state Senate during last year’s legislative session to insist that the state spend more of the Rainy Day Fund to soften budget cuts to the public schools. But pandering to the tea party-types in anticipation of his U.S. Senate race, he cratered and let Gov. Perry and the House majority slash $5.4 billion from public education while leaving more than $7 billion (at least) of Rainy Day funds unspent. In an appearance in Houston earlier this week, Perry called Dewhurst his “faithful, loyal conservative partner.”

While Cruz and Dewhurst are hogging all the media attention trying to out-crazy each other among Republican primary voters, someone who really supports the public schools and has the record to prove it, Paul Sadler, is in a runoff race for the Democratic nomination for the same U.S. Senate seat. Sadler, a former chairman of the Public Education Committee in the Texas House, has been out of office for several years, but while in Austin he was a successful leader for teacher pay raises, health care and other education improvements. He has the strong support of TSTA and, if he wins the Democratic nod next week, will offer voters in November a far superior choice to either Cruz or Dewhurst.

Although the public schools are primarily driven and funded by state and local governments, the federal government is playing an increasingly active role in educational policy and budgets. So, choosing the next U.S. senator will make a difference for Texas classrooms.

Before I forget, and lest anyone think I am giving Sarah Palin too much credit, I will acknowledge that the tea party movement has at least two clown princesses – Michele Bachmann being the second – and too many clown princes to count. And before this goofy Republican runoff is over next week, who knows? Bachmann also may join the parade of right-wing celebrities trooping to Texas with anything but strong public schools on their minds.

Pray for the public schools, folks, and pray that Sadler is on the ballot in November. And vote for him.

State has money for school funding, but lacks will

The latest update from the state comptroller reinforces what has been obvious for months. State government has more than enough revenue to undo about $2.5 billion in state budget cuts for the public schools that will kick in during the upcoming school year. Despite reservations expressed in the newspaper article linked below, it is clear that the state has enough money to restore school funding, avoid further school layoffs and early retirements and start reducing the size of overcrowded classrooms – right now.

Money isn’t the real problem and never has been. What is missing is the political will to do the right thing, and that begins with Gov. Perry, who still refuses to call the Legislature into special session to make the extra appropriation. Perry, instead, prefers to travel the state peddling his own version of snake oil, a socalled “state budget compact” that would further reduce spending for public education, health care and other important services, despite an improving economy and growing collections from existing taxes.

According to the latest report from Comptroller Susan Combs, state government will raise at least $5 billion in unanticipated general revenue during the current budget period. That is in addition to at least $7.3 billion – and probably more – that will be in the Rainy Day Fund. Yet, Perry insisted last year that the Legislature leave those Rainy Day funds untouched while slashing $5.4 billion from the public education budget.

It is clear that state government has enough money to restore funding for the public schools and close a big gap in the Medicaid budget – with room to spare.

Several months ago, TSTA urged the governor to call lawmakers into special session to spend $2.5 billion of the Rainy Day balance (about half of the total education cuts) to save funding and jobs for the 201213 school year. But Perry has refused, even as state coffers continue to fill and classes grow larger with increasing school enrollment.

Instead, the governor will continue to get rightwing legislators and legislative candidates to sign his “budget compact.” The most recent was Rep. Sid Miller, who signed the document earlier this week in Copperas Cove. Miller’s signature was no surprise, since he voted for the education cuts, including more than $15 million to his own school districts last year and an untold additional amount for 201213. Now, he can’t wait to slash some more, which is why Republican voters would be doing themselves – and their schools – a big favor by voting for Miller’s opponent, J.D. Sheffield, in the July 31 runoff in House District 59.

http://www.statesman.com/news/texaspolitics/texasbankingon5billioninextrarevenue2418766.html