Month: <span>February 2013</span>

Spare the tears and restore the school cuts


Listening to Sen. Dan Patrick lament the plight of poverty stricken children in Texas’ public schools almost made me want to pull out a violin and provide some appropriate teary-eyed accompaniment. But there were a few problems with that.

One, I didn’t have a violin. Two, I don’t know how to play one, anyway. And, three, violin music in a Senate Finance Committee meeting probably would have violated Senate rules.

Patrick was pleading with other committee members to include a contingent appropriation of $2 million to create a new regulatory panel for charter schools if he is able to win passage of his SB2, which would lift the cap on charters. The committee postponed action on the request, but not before Patrick went into rhetoric overdrive.

“It’s about the poor children in this state who have no hope for quality education,” he said, referring to his charter proposal.

Now, I submit that if Sen. Patrick really were concerned about providing a quality education for low-income children, he wouldn’t have voted with his colleagues in the legislative majority two years ago to slash $5.4 billion from public schools. The cuts included pre-kindergarten and other dropout prevention programs, which are particularly critical for disadvantaged children. Another result was thousands of low-income children being forced into overcrowded classrooms, losing some of the invaluable individual attention they need from their teachers. Other children lost reading specialists, and the list goes on.

Now, Patrick wants to attack the problem by expanding charters, an iffy proposition for students and Texas taxpayers, but an excellent financial opportunity for private operators of charter schools.

“Sometimes, we have to do the right thing,” Patrick declared.

Right on, but if only the senator recognized what the “right thing” is. The “right thing” for the senator and his colleagues to do now is restore the $5.4 billion they cut from public school students – rich, poor and middle class alike – two years ago and quit trying to experiment with unproven privatization schemes. On average, the cuts have cost each child about $1,062 in lost educational support over the past two years.

Patrick joined other members of the Senate Finance Committee in voting to restore $1.5 billion. That is a step in the right direction, but they need to restore the remainder. And, they have enough money to do so without raising anyone’s taxes.


Jeb Bush: peddling school privatization


Leading off the dog and pony show before the Senate Education Committee this morning, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suggested that poverty was just an “excuse” for failures in the public schools. Bush, of course, doesn’t exactly have a clear comprehension of poverty, but it is not an excuse for tens of thousands of Texas schoolchildren. It is a reality, and it does interfere with a child’s education. When families are struggling to survive, the first priority usually isn’t a kid’s homework or, for many families, even keeping a kid in school.

More than half of the children in Texas public schools are “economically disadvantaged.” That means they are poor. And many of them are still struggling to learn English. Yet, Bush’s answer to their educational needs is to keep cramming standardized tests down their throats, take tax dollars away from their neighborhood public schools and give the public money to private school owners in the form of student vouchers or scholarships.

That was Bush’s approach in Florida while he was governor, and now he is traveling around the country claiming it worked. In reality, it may have produced some immediate improvements, but over the long haul it hasn’t turned around Florida’s educational system. The state’s high school graduation rate is nothing to brag about, large numbers of graduates still need remedial help in math and reading, and state- commissioned studies have found no evidence that low-income students who receive vouchers to attend private school do any better at reading or math than Florida kids in public schools.

And, there are other problems. If you want to read more, click on the link at the end of this post for a good news article about the illusion-versus-reality of Bush’s education legacy.

Bush, indeed, may want to improve public education. But he is not the successful education “reformer” he claims to be. Instead, he is a promoter of school privatization. His misnamed Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) and its affiliate, Chiefs for Change, are conduits for letting their corporate donors – a who’s who of education profiteers – connect with and privately influence state policymakers on expanded testing, expanded online learning, private school vouchers and other privatization raids on public tax dollars.

The foundation has had some success – tapping into untold millions of education tax dollars — in several other states, and now it is trying to promote privatization efforts in Texas.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick was all too willing to feature Bush as a star witness to promote Patrick’s voucher and charter expansion goals. Instead of wasting time on such unproven schemes, though, Patrick and his colleagues in the legislative majority should be restoring the $5.4 billion they cut from public school funding two years ago. Because of those cuts, per-student spending in Texas has plunged by $1,062 since the 2010-11 school year, according to National Education Association rankings.

Texas now is 49th – near the bottom of the barrel – in per-student spending among the states and the District of Columbia. Only Arizona and Nevada spend less. Thousands of Texas students have been forced into overcrowded classrooms, dimming their learning opportunities. And, many of those students are poverty-stricken.

Bush said “reforms,” such as accountability testing, need to be imposed on public schools to assure that students can become upwardly mobile, become financially more secure than their parents.

Public schools were making students upwardly mobile long before the privateers came along. But millions of Texans, and not just poor people, have seen their family incomes become frozen or recede in recent years, and that is not the fault of the public schools. That is the fault of federal regulatory and economic policies that have favored the wealthiest 1 percent of the country’s residents, while squeezing the middle class and everyone else. Jeb should have given the upwardly mobile lecture to his brother, George W., while W. was still in the White House.



Charter proposal avoids the real issue


If Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick thinks school districts have too many unused buildings – and apparently he does – he should look in the mirror. Some new buildings, particularly in fast-growth districts are empty because school districts couldn’t afford to staff and open them after Patrick and his colleagues in the legislative majority cut $5.4 billion from public school budgets two years ago.

In his new leadership position – and with $20 billion in surplus and Rainy Day money for lawmakers to work with – Patrick should be leading the charge to get the funding restored. But, no, he is talking about diverting even more money from public schools to a private school voucher program. And, with SB2, he would lift the cap on charter schools and require school districts to turn over unused buildings to private charter operators for an annual “rent” of $1.

Patrick would take public school buildings, constructed with local tax dollars approved by local voters, and give them to private companies operating charter schools with little or no local oversight.

Several charter school operators and other advocates, of course, testified for SB2 before the Senate Education Committee today. I watched part of the hearing and was struck by how one charter advocate missed the point when he suggested more charters could help Texas address the school dropout problem.

But dropouts aren’t lining up for charter schools. The relevant issue is preventing kids from dropping out in the first place. And, the best way to address that problem is for the state to focus its resources on traditional public schools, which is where the vast majority of children – both those who drop out and those who graduate — attend school. And, remember, the budget cuts for which Patrick voted included full-day, pre-kindergarten and other programs designed specifically to discourage kids from dropping out.

Various studies have shown that charters, on average, are no better or worse than traditional public schools. Some have been successful in Texas, but others have failed miserably – academically, financially or from poor management. This is not the time for the Legislature to give the charter industry a blank check on creating new charters while traditional public schools are still struggling from budget cuts.




Trying to undermine, not “reform” public schools


Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond is at it again, pretending to advocate for strong public schools while doing his best to undermine them. His latest effort is an oped in today’s Dallas Morning News, in which he complains about District Judge John Dietz’s recent ruling in the school finance case that public schools are inadequately funded.

He particularly takes issue with Dietz’s suggestion that it will require an additional $2,000 per child, at least, to fully fund all the state’s requirements for the public schools.

Not only is Hammond’s reasoning wrong, but so are his alleged “facts.”

He claims Texas already is spending $10,000 per student and claims that Texas has been “spending more money on education for a decade, even including last session’s cuts.” Both parts of his assertion are flat wrong.

In the 2010-11 school year, Texas spent $9,446 per child in average daily attendance. Following the $5.4 billion in budget cuts imposed by Gov. Rick Perry and the legislative majority in 2011, spending per child plunged to $8,908, placing Texas 45th among the states and the District of Columbia, according to estimates and rankings by the National Education Association (NEA). That was a cut of more than $500 per child while school enrollment across Texas was growing by about 80,000 a year. Adding another $2,000 per child, as Judge Dietz suggested, wouldn’t even bring Texas up to the national average of $11,463 per child.

Adding insult to his factual errors, Hammond and the Texas Association of Business have been longtime political supporters of Gov. Perry and many of the legislators who voted for the cuts, which cost 11,000 teaching jobs in the 2011-12 school year alone and crammed thousands of students into overcrowded classrooms. TAB continues to support Perry and many of the other education-cutters today.

Now that the Legislature has an $8.8 billion surplus and a Rainy Day Fund balance of $11.8 billion – more than $20 billion – to help write a new state budget, Hammond and TAB should be joining with the Texas State Teachers Association and other public school supporters – real as opposed to pseudo – and demanding that their buddies in the governor’s office and the legislative majority restore the school funding.

Hammond reminds us that tax dollars – no fooling — are our money. But regardless how the Texas Supreme Court eventually may rule on an appeal of Judge Dietz’s ruling, the 2011 school budget cuts can be restored right now without raising one extra dime of taxpayers’ money.

TAB apparently isn’t interested in restoring school funding. Instead, Hammond was first in line with his hand held out when the governor proposed that some of the $20 billion could be spent on special interest tax breaks instead. Hammond proposed cuts in the business franchise tax, which already is under-performing and was a major cause of the financial problems that resulted in last session’s budget cuts.

TAB’s idea of strengthening the public schools is to demand that students, beginning in third-grade, continue to be subjected to a battery of high-stakes standardized tests that do little more than rob students and their teachers of valuable classroom learning time. TAB also insists that schools be more “efficient” as if efficiency can be manufactured out of thin air as school budgets are cut and teachers are fired.

Hammond proposes at-will employment of teachers and classroom size flexibility. School districts already have both. What they don’t have, as Judge Dietz has soundly concluded after weeks of hearing evidence, is enough money to assure that all of Texas’ children will have enough resources to succeed.