Month: <span>January 2013</span>

Rick Perry: bad news for education


As could be predicted, Gov. Rick Perry’s address to the Legislature today was less a state of the state than it was a recitation of the governor’s political philosophy – in other words, bad news for Texas students and educators.

At one point, Perry bragged, “Our graduation rates are at an all-time high…but we can’t let up.”

He was referring to a federal report, published late last year, that Texas had one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country. What he didn’t say, however, was that the report was based on the 2010-11 school year, the last academic year before he and the legislative majority slashed $5.4 billion from public school budgets. The cuts impacted crucial dropout prevention programs, such as full-day pre-kindergarten, and have resulted in overcrowded classrooms and diminished learning environments for thousands of children.

Perry said lawmakers needed to start focusing on the individual child. That, of course, is hollow rhetoric from a governor who joined with the legislative majority to cut more than $500 from the educational funding for each child in Texas public schools. That was how the $5.4 billion in cuts divided up.

Despite the governor’s talk, he and the legislative majority already have “let up” on their commitment to the public schools. They cut funding in 2011, and now the governor and key budget writers say they have no intention of restoring the lost money, even though an improved economy enables them to do so. Instead, Perry favors draining away more tax dollars from public schools for private school vouchers.

The governor also continues to misstate the purpose of the Rainy Day Fund, which now has a balance of $11.8 billion, more than enough to restore funding for education and take care of other state needs. To hear Perry tell it, the Rainy Day Fund was designed to help the state recover from natural disasters, such as hurricanes, when, in fact, it was intended to help address temporary, financial emergencies, such as the Legislature encountered two years ago.

Now, it should be used to help the state dig out of an educational funding disaster that the governor and the legislative majority have created.

Perry says he doesn’t want to dip into the fund to meet “ongoing expenses.” But restoring money that he cut from public schools two years ago is not an ongoing expense. It is damage repair.

Instead of repairing damage to education, however, Perry would rather inflict more.



School Security Act? Let’s wait for the details


I can say at least one positive thing about the proposed Texas School District Security Act that was outlined yesterday by three legislators, including Senate leaders Tommy Williams, a Republican, and John Whitmire, a Democrat.  The positive part is this. It would bolster the presence of licensed peace officers at school campuses instead of attempting to arm teachers, as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was proposing a couple of weeks ago.

Although it is an improvement, this proposal, however, may not put an end to Dewhurst’s half-baked idea.

Since the actual legislation has yet to be drafted, there still are many unknowns about the proposed school security law. But I sense a couple of potential problems. The first is equity and fairness. The plan, as explained by the senators and State Rep. Dan Huberty, would allow voters in school districts to raise local property or sales taxes to pay for enhanced security.

That may make it easier for some wealthy districts to increase security for their students. But what about property poor districts, which for years have been struggling for more equity in school funding? Their students are no less worth protecting from potential danger, but the reality is those districts and parents may not be able to afford the greater tax burden. Maybe the sponsors can figure something out.

The second problem with this proposal is that it strongly signals that the legislative majority still is unwilling to increase the state’s commitment to public education funding, beginning with a restoration of the $5.4 billion cut from school district budgets two years ago. The new security plan would be paid for with local tax dollars, not state money.

Let me make clear that the legislative majority doesn’t include Sen. Whitmire, one of the proposed security act sponsors. Whitmire voted against the school cuts last year and has been a long-time advocate for public education and educators. But his co-sponsor, Sen. Williams, the new Senate Finance Committee chairman, voted for the cuts and now is sponsoring a proposed budget that would fail to restore the money.

“I know just how tight state and local budgets are these days,” Williams said.

Most local school district budgets are tight, thanks in large part to the cuts in state aid imposed in 2011. But the Legislature is sitting on an $8.8 billion surplus and a Rainy Day Fund balance of $11.8 billion. That is more than enough money to restore the education cuts and take care of other pressing state needs.

The only thing “tight” about the Legislature’s budgetary outlook is the unwillingness of the legislative majority to do the right thing for the education of Texas school children. The quality of that education will go a long way toward determining their future economic security.


Business group seeks tax cuts instead of school money


The Texas Association of Business (TAB) loves to hold news conferences and issue press releases about improving quality in the public schools, but now it’s time for the organization to put its money where its rhetoric has long been.

The legislative leadership has announced budget proposals that fail to restore the $5.4 billion slashed from public education two years ago. And, Gov. Rick Perry – the budget-cutter-in-chief and a longtime beneficiary of TAB’s political support – is even promoting the idea of using a vastly improved revenue picture to reduce taxes instead of repairing the damage to public schools.

Is the TAB leadership lining up with educators and other people who actually do support the public schools and demanding that the funding that was cut last session – more than $500 per student – be restored? That would be the right thing for TAB to do, of course, since our state’s employers – like our children – have much to lose if the governor and the legislative majority were to be allowed to continue to hack away at public education.

Alas, TAB has been silent on the budget cuts. But TAB President and CEO Bill Hammond has quickly endorsed the governor’s tax-cut idea and has jumped to the head of the line with his hand held out. According to the Quorum Report, Hammond is proposing his own plan for about $4 billion in tax cuts for business, including reductions in the franchise tax.

Keep in mind this is the same franchise tax that already has been notoriously underperforming and has never come close to replacing the revenue lost to the local school property tax cuts that the governor engineered in 2006. Hammond’s proposal would dig an even deeper budgetary hole for the public schools.

If Hammond really wants to help the cause of public education – and the future of Texas’ business community – he should demand that the Legislature bust its artificially low spending cap and, if necessary, dig into the $11.8 billion Rainy Day Fund to restore the cuts to the schools, health care and other important state services that were inflicted in 2011.

Hammond needs to understand that strong public schools require a lot more than demanding, as he frequently does, that students be bombarded with high-stakes standardized tests.



The attack on public schools continues


The Legislature’s revenue picture has improved by billions of dollars over the past two years, including an $8.8 billion surplus for the current budget period and a Rainy Day Fund balance approaching $12 billion, but the alleged state “leadership” is still stuck in reverse. The initial budget plans to emerge in the Senate and the House fail to restore the $5.4 billion slashed from public education in 2011 and, according to some experts, fall short of funding all the enrollment growth anticipated over the next two years.

As Paul Burka noted today in his Texas Monthly blog, these proposals don’t represent public policy. They are driven by ideology, an ideology that wants to privatize education for the relatively small number of Texans who can afford it and force everyone else’s children into home schools or cram them into the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear.

“This is absolutely nuts,” Burka wrote, and I am sure thousands of Texas parents and educators would agree.

Remember, the 2011 cuts were more than $500 per student at a time when public school enrollment in Texas is increasing by 80,000 to 85,000 students a year. Texas students, who have suffered from larger classes and diminished opportunities, deserve to have the damage to their learning environments restored. And, the money is there.

The final shape of the next public education budget is up to you, the educators, parents and other taxpayers who truly value the public schools. There is time to overhaul the initial drafts before the final state budget is written this spring, but that won’t happen if you don’t insist upon it. Contact your legislators and keep contacting them.

Keep reminding them that nostalgia for the 19th Century has no place in 21st Century budget-setting.