Monthly Archives: May 2013

Trying to shed light on education foes

 

Yesterday, the House passed and sent Gov. Rick Perry a bill designed to help teachers, parents and others who value public schools learn a bit more about who is paying for political efforts to undermine public education in Texas. Some political pundits around the Capitol, though, already are predicting the governor will veto the bill. And, they may be correct because the measure likely would step on the toes and inconvenience many of the governor’s own political backers.

The bill, SB346, would require certain nonprofit groups that actively engage in political advocacy to publicly report their larger financial donors to the Texas Ethics Commission. The bill was sponsored by two moderate Republicans. Its apparent targets include conservative groups such as Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, which use emails, phone calls and similar tactics to bully and stir up opposition in Republican primaries against moderate legislators who dare to waver from the hard, right-wing ideological line.

They were behind the defeat two years ago of an amendment in the House that would have earmarked $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to restore part of the $5.4 billion in education budget cuts. The House approved the bipartisan amendment one day. But after an overnight email and phone blitz threatening retaliation in the Republican primary, a number of Republican legislators switched their votes the next day and helped defeat the amendment.

They also helped defeat several moderate Republicans in primary races last year and have tried unsuccessfully to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus because, in their eyes, he is “too moderate.”

Moreover, they are able to conduct their ideological scorched earth campaign without having to report who is backing them financially. For all we know, it may be a handful of ideological, multibillionaire businessmen who, for selfish reasons, want to destroy sound government environmental and economic regulations and replace public schools with new opportunities for online vendors, for-profit charter operators and private schools.

Whatever their motives, they have been influential in the right-wing attack on public education that continues today. And, they are hiding behind a reporting exemption that doesn’t apply to most other players in the political process. The Texas State Teachers Association, for example, supports candidates in legislative and school board races, but it does so through a political action committee whose contributions and expenditures are publicly reported.

This is not a partisan bill. It also would apply to Democratic-leaning groups that also may try to conceal their contributors. It is interesting, however, that the measure was sponsored in the House and the Senate by Republicans who obviously are tired of the intimidation tactics and their anonymous donors.

The fate of the bill, which was approved earlier in the session by the Senate, is now in Gov. Perry’s hands. It will be interesting to see what the governor does with it, since it clearly could force some of his conservative supporters to be more transparent in their activities. If you like the bill, contact his office – he has a website — and urge him to sign it.

Wrong-headed politics blocking full education funding

 

The reason that many legislators don’t want to spend any money from the $12 billion Rainy Day Fund on public schools is because they want to hoard your tax dollars. This would enable them to go back home and brag to a small – but loud – number of constituents that they had “saved” the fund.

These constituents refuse to believe that a growing state like Texas requires a wise investment of tax dollars in critical programs, services and infrastructure. They also claim our public schools are fat with waste, despite $5.4 billion in budget cuts two years ago, and would love to divert tax dollars to private schools. And, unfortunately, they are influential in many Republican primary races.

But the “official” reason among the legislative leadership for not spending Rainy Day dollars to help restore all the education funding is that the savings account shouldn’t be used on “recurring” expenses. This is a false argument, but so far it and the political hoarder mentality have succeeded in blocking any attempt to dip into the Rainy Day Fund for schools. It also, so far, has blocked efforts to spend Rainy Day money on future water projects because of pushback from education advocates.

With the regular legislative session nearing an end, it is time for the predictable threats of a special session from the governor, and Gov. Perry is right on schedule, threatening to call lawmakers back into a special session this summer if they don’t approve a water funding plan. Unfortunately, he has said nothing about attaching a similar priority to education.

Legislators are on track to restore part of the $5.4 billion cut from schools in 2011, but without dipping into the Rainy Day Fund they could be as much as $2 billion or more short of restoring the entire amount.

Using Rainy Day money to help fill the entire $5.4 billion hole would not be a “recurring” expense. It would be a one-time repair. But failure to fill the entire hole would give school districts a “recurring” budgetary shortfall, created when the Legislature refused to fund enrollment growth for the past two years, or about 170,000 children.

In truth, the constitutional amendment that created the Rainy Day Fund and was approved by Texas voters in 1988 includes no prohibition against spending the savings account on recurring needs. And, the Legislature – under both Republican and Democratic control – has spent Rainy Day savings over the years on a number of recurring expenses, including public education, retired teacher health care, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Child Protective Services.

In 2003, the Republican-dominated Legislature even spent Rainy Day money to create the Texas Enterprise Fund and in 2005 to fund the Emerging Technology Fund. Gov. Perry has used both those funds to dole out millions of tax dollars to private businesses. The funds have been recurring expenses, and, in the minds of many, recurring boondoggles.

Perry claims they have been important economic development tools. But the biggest, most effective economic development tools the state has are its public schools.

The bottom line is there is more than enough money in the $12 billion Rainy Day Fund to begin paying for water projects AND restore cuts to public schools AND have money left over for future emergencies.

The math is simple. The politics are not.

 

 

Education privateers posing as “reformers”

 

In the continuing legislative debate over education policy, “reform” continues to be the most abused and deliberately misused word in the political jargon. Reform is not simply change, folks. Reform is change for the better, and many of the educator meddlers hijacking the word are not trying to make our public schools better. They are trying instead to squeeze personal profits from public schools at the expense of taxpayers and school children.

One of the latest such groups to emerge this session is Texans for Education Reform, which has as much interest in truly reforming education as Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) has had in truly reforming our judicial system – and that would be none. The fact that the two names are similar is no coincidence.

Some of the key business players in Texans for Lawsuit Reform are now involved in Texans for Education Reform. To protect the business interests and enhance the personal fortunes of its members, Texans for Lawsuit Reform has succeeded in winning state laws and court decisions all but shutting courthouse doors to Texas consumers. Average Texans seriously injured on the job, maimed by a careless surgeon or defrauded by a crooked business owner now have a much more difficult – sometimes impossible – task winning compensation through the state’s judicial system. That’s because Texans for Lawsuit Reform has spread millions of dollars in campaign contributions among Gov. Rick Perry, legislators and judges and has flooded the Capitol with lobbyists.

Now, some of these same players – under the guise of Texans for Education Reform – are at the Capitol. But are they advocating for more education funding, smaller classrooms, better teacher pay and other basics that actually would improve the learning environment? No.

Lawsuit-turned-education “reformers” such as Richard Trabulsi and Leo Linbeck are now pushing school privatization schemes. These include an expansion of charter schools and expanding online learning to private vendors, which would give their privateering colleagues more opportunities to rake in tax dollars as charter school operators, online “educational” gurus or whatever. Texans for Education Reform supposedly is not involved in the push for private school vouchers, but Linbeck has advocated for vouchers in the past.

This is not the time to expand charters, mainly because traditional public schools – which are where the vast majority of students are educated – are still struggling from the budget cuts of two years ago, and the funding still hasn’t been completely restored. What’s more, the state can’t even effectively regulate the charter schools it already has, including weeding out bad charters that never should have been granted in the first place. Online learning can be an important educational tool, but it can’t replace classroom teachers, many of whom lost their jobs because of the budget cuts.

TLR founder Richard Weekley is on the Texans for Education Reform board. The board president is former Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro. Her main legacy as an education “reformer,” in case you don’t recall, was heaping an increasing number of standardized tests – including STAAR – on Texas school children and teachers.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform has done a pretty effective job of shutting down courthouses in Texas. Let us not give Texans for Education Reform an opportunity to take the first steps toward doing the same thing to public schools.

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