Month: <span>November 2012</span>

How significant were the funding cuts?


The absurdity of the state “leadership’s” neglect of the public schools was highlighted again this week during additional testimony in the long-running trial of the school finance lawsuits brought by several hundred school districts. This time Austin ISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen was on the witness stand, challenging an assertion by an assistant state attorney general that the $5.4 billion in state education cuts imposed in 2011 were not very significant.

I am not blaming the lawyer for posing such a preposterous question. He, after all, is paid to defend state laws, and there is little defense for an indefensible school finance system. Anyway, according to a report in the Austin American-Statesman, Carstarphen was ready for him.

The state cuts, she said, cost AISD $60 million over the past two years, even though the district will give the state $135 million of locally collected property tax revenue this year to share with poorer districts. Even though AISD is considered one of the state’s wealthier districts, it also has a growing enrollment of economically disadvantaged students, who have social and educational needs that require extra money to meet. Almost two-thirds of the district’s enrollment is low-income, and many of those students have limited English skills

Even with the budget cuts and an overall growing enrollment, AISD has to accept special needs students because they are entitled to a public education. Unlike a private school, AISD can’t cherry pick. And, it can’t limit its enrollment simply because the governor and the legislative majority sharply reduced its funding.  If Austin voters were to agree to raise their local school taxes to the maximum allowed by state law, that would raise less than half of the money lost to the state cuts, Carstarphen testified.

Why, the state lawyer asked, doesn’t the district spend more of its reserve funds to cover the state cuts? Carstarphen pointed out that the district needs much of that money for cash flow purposes and is trying to save some of it to protect a modest teacher pay raise.

The superintendent refrained from asking the state lawyer why the governor and the legislative majority didn’t dig deeper into the Rainy Day Fund to avoid or soften the cuts to school districts. That savings account, which is controlled by the Legislature, now is nearing $8.1 billion and will continue to grow.

“We do not have the resources we need to be successful with all students,” Carstarphen said, echoing the warnings of numerous other superintendents throughout the state. Statewide, more than 25,000 school jobs were lost during the 2011-12 school year alone.

But the governor and some legislators are not listening. Instead, they are promoting private school vouchers — which would steal more money from the public schools – and, perhaps, more charter schools and tougher testing, none of which would improve educational opportunities for the vast majority of Texas children. They are dancing in a separate universe.



The bottom line for schools is funding


If you try hard enough, you can design a poll to get just about whatever response you want. But even then, there usually is more than one way to read the results.

Texas Families First, a group that wants to siphon tax dollars for private school vouchers, apparently believes that a new survey it commissioned will help promote its pro-voucher cause with legislators. Its questions were written with that goal in mind. Sure enough, the survey cites some support for vouchers, a finding that the group touted in a press release. The group also happily announced that 80 percent of Texas voters favor local control, a typical response for almost any question about local control, a mythical concept easily adapted to fit just about any agenda, depending on who’s in “control.”

However, in the same poll, a 74 percent to 23 percent margin of respondents said they wanted to increase funding for public schools. Texas Families First didn’t include that fact in its press release because it didn’t fit with the group’s privatization scheme. But better funding is the bottom line for improving public schools, folks, and most Texans realize that.

What the poll really reflects is a growing unhappiness among all Texans over the lousy job that the governor and the legislative majority are doing with the public education system. In the public’s view, almost anybody else could do better.

Last year’s budget cuts saw thousands of students crammed into crowded classrooms.  Electives were cut back, some neighborhood schools were closed and some parents even had to pay for their children to ride school buses. And, ignoring the concerns of parents and educators, the legislative majority raised the stakes on standardized testing while refusing to give students and teachers the resources they needed to adequately prepare for them.

Meanwhile, more and more Texans are watching their local property taxes being shipped off to distant school districts because the legislative majority refuses to overhaul an inadequate and inequitable system of school funding.

You bet people want to take responsibility for the public schools away from the crowd now running the statehouse. And, the unhappiness with the legislative majority feeds easily into the “local control” tradition that has been fostered in Texas for years by the existence of 1,000-plus local school districts.

The best way that Texans can restore the confidence in their local schools is to regain control of the Legislature, and that will not happen overnight. But people can start by contacting their state representatives and state senators now and demanding that education spending be restored, high stakes testing be slowed down and school vouchers and other privatization schemes be rejected.

Through its poll, Texas Families First is promoting private school vouchers as a “last resort” for low-income children trapped in failing schools. For every child that received a voucher, however, several hundred more poor children would continue to go to traditional public schools. That is where our tax dollars and focus need to stay trained.




Signaling another rough ride for public schools


It is still early, but if pre-session budget-strutting by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is any indication, public schools will be in for another rough ride during the upcoming legislative session, at least in the Senate.

The Legislative Budget Board voted yesterday to cap the spending growth rate for the new state budget, which will be written after legislators convene on Jan. 8, at 10.71 percent. This limit is determined by the estimated growth in Texans’ personal income, and it helps determine how much the Legislature spends on public education and other programs.

Considering all the budget-slashing that went on during the 2011 session, that cap is tight enough. But Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, pledged to tighten the limit even more – to less than 10 percent, a level based on inflation plus population growth. Gov. Rick Perry favors a similar, tighter standard, which also is favored by his and Dewhurst’s favorite audience — the tea party-types who would shrink state government, even at the cost of more damage to public schools and other basic services.

Comptroller Susan Combs hasn’t updated her revenue estimate for the Legislature yet, and, so far, House Speaker Joe Straus is declining to engage in any budgetary posturing. But Dewhurst and Perry apparently will continue to preach belt-tightening to the point of suffocation, even though the state economy and tax collections are markedly improving. The Rainy Day Fund has swelled to at least $8.1 billion and, according to the most recent report from the comptroller, state tax collections are running $5 billion ahead of earlier projections.

Moreover, the Legislature has a lot of ground to make up, including $5.4 billion – more than $500 per student — cut from public education last session, even as enrollment in public schools continues to increase by about 80,000 children a year.

Even with the tighter cap, Dewhurst, according to the San Antonio Express-News, contends the Legislature can still “fund our priorities.”

But Dewhurst apparently finds political pontificating easier than simple math. And, his priorities obviously aren’t the same as millions of Texas parents and educators who really hope the Legislature will stop trying to squeeze the life out of public schools.



How to make it tougher for jobless teachers


Sometimes, it is an abuse of the word to refer to Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst as “leaders,” but call them what you will, they are at it again. With a long list of real-life, major concerns, including public school funding, in serious need of state attention, Perry and Dewhurst are off in political La-La Land, imagining another problem that doesn’t exist.

I am referring to their endorsement yesterday of the “kick-‘em-while-they’re-down” proposal to require Texans who lose their jobs to undergo drug testing before receiving unemployment benefits. It was bad enough that Perry and Dewhurst championed the budget-cutting that resulted in the loss of 25,000 school jobs last year. Now, they want to humiliate teachers and other people seeking a little help while they look for work.

Unemployment compensation is not welfare, folks. To be eligible, you have to have a satisfactory work record and be actively looking for a new job. The vast majority of people seeking temporary jobless benefits have earned their unemployment compensation through hard work. They are not drug-abusers, as Perry and Dewhurst suggest.

The idea of making life even tougher for struggling Texans seems particularly insensitive, coming as it is from a multi-millionaire (Dewhurst) and a double-dipping governor who is paid more than $240,000 a year, including salary and retirement benefits, and lives rent-free  in a state-owned mansion.

But both men, it seems, would rather continue to pander to supporters who view government as a  profit center for the well-heeled – private school vouchers, lucrative testing contracts, etc. – while weakening the public safety net for everyone else.