Month: <span>February 2013</span>

Money to restore school cuts is there, backbone is lacking


Many of the legislators who voted two years ago to slash education funding by $5.4 billion – or more than $500 per student – continue to claim state government is poverty-stricken and refuse to take steps to restore the funding. The only thing poverty-stricken about the legislative majority, however, is its lack of political will to fully support local public schools and the children educated in them.

These legislators need some political backbone, folks, and the most effective way for them to attain that quality is with frequent reminders from their constituents that the cost of a strong public education system – and, with it, a strong economic future for our children – is a larger investment in under-funded public schools NOW.

In his school finance ruling last week, State District Judge John Dietz of Austin said state funding of public education clearly was inadequate and unfair. He had no firm dollar figures but suggested it may take at least an additional $2,000 per student to meet all state standards. Right now, Texas is spending about $8,900 per child, following the budget cuts. That puts Texas 45th among the states and the District of Columbia. Dietz’s suggested increase would carry an additional cost of $10 billion to $11 billion a year, and it would still leave Texas a few hundred dollars short per child of the national average.

That price tag is the main reason the state leadership will appeal Dietz’s ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, a process that will take at least a year. In the meantime, though, it is time for the legislative majority to restore the $5.4 billion cut two years ago. With an $8.8 billion surplus and $11.8 billion in the Rainy Day Fund – more than $20 billion — lawmakers have enough money to address the education issue, as well as funding for Medicaid and other important needs.

But their constituents – beginning with educators and parents – need to keep demanding that their legislators do the right thing.

If you can, attend the Save Texas Schools march and rally at the Capitol on Feb. 23. Check this link for details.

Also, contact your legislators and make sure they know in no uncertain terms that you expect them to restore the cuts and that you will be watching. If you don’t know who your state representative or state senator is, click on this link and type in your address to find out who they are and how to contact them.

Then contact them – early and often. The future of your local public school depends on it.

Will the Supreme Court support public schools?


Legislative budget writers, according to a news report, plan to put $2 billion of their $20 billion windfall in reserve as a possible down payment should the state eventually lose an appeal of last week’s school finance decision. There are at least two things wrong with that plan.

The first, of course, is that spending, maybe, $2 billion somewhere down the road is too little, too late. The Legislature should spend $5.4 billion – right now – to restore the funds – more than $500 per student – cut from public schools two years ago. Some $20 billion — an $8.8 billion surplus and $11.8 billion in the Rainy Day Fund – is already available. The money belongs to the taxpayers, and it is enough to restore the 2011 cuts to education, health care and other critical services – and tackle some water and highway needs — without raising another single dime from taxpayers.

The second problem is that, even if the state leadership persists in making school children deal with overcrowded classes for another year or longer – the likely time for an appeal to run its course – there is no guarantee the ultimate arbiter, the Texas Supreme Court, will do the right thing and uphold the state constitution. The governor and the legislative majority are trying to buy more time with an appeal. And, they may like their chances before a court, stacked with Perry appointees, that often has let ideological considerations trump the law.

Many public education advocates – heartened by a strong ruling from state District Judge John Dietz that the school finance system is inadequate and unfair – are optimistic the Supreme Court will agree that the state isn’t spending enough money to adequately teach all Texas students. I hope they are right.

But, remember, school district plaintiffs thought they had won a victory from the Supreme Court in the previous school finance suit in 2005. But the result of that ruling was the 2006 law that ordered deep cuts in school property taxes, which the state has never fully paid for. The 2006 law didn’t improve education funding. It worsened the financial plight of hundreds of school districts.

In that earlier ruling, the Supreme Court warned that the state may soon have to increase funding, but it also suggested that improved “efficiency” – whatever the legislative majority may decide that means — could be the key to better schools.

Only four Supreme Court members who voted for the 2005 ruling are still on the court – Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and Justices Nathan Hecht, Phil Johnson and Paul Green. Justice Don Willett, then a recent Perry appointee, was on the court but abstained from the decision.

Four new justices have since joined the court. Three are Perry appointees, and if they agree with Perry’s view that it’s OK to under-fund the public schools, then public education in Texas will be in even deeper trouble. The fourth newcomer, Justice John Devine, was elected last year on a campaign that promoted the Ten Commandments but said little about public education. For all we know, Justice Devine may believe that all children should be home-schooled.

Which is the biggest emergency: education or tax relief?


Now that Gov. Perry has manufactured a new use – tax relief – for the Rainy Day Fund, you can be sure his special interest political supporters will be all over themselves trying to get their hands on it. Technically, the constitution allows spending Rainy Day money for anything the Legislature decides to spend it on, including tax relief. But I say “manufacture” because the voters of Texas, when they approved the Rainy Day Fund more than 20 years ago, didn’t have tax relief in mind. They approved it as a savings account to be used to help state government bridge temporary, financial emergencies.

The governor and his allies in the legislative majority started trying to redefine the fund two years ago, when trying to explain why they left several billion dollars of taxpayer money sitting in it while inflicting $5.4 billion in cuts on public schools. The savings account should be reserved for hurricanes or other natural disasters, Perry claimed, while presiding over the biggest political disaster to befall Texas’ public schools in his lifetime.

Now, the fund has a balance approaching $12 billion, and Perry isn’t talking about hurricanes anymore. But he still intends to shut out the school children. He wants to use $3.7 billion from the fund to begin playing catch-up on highway and water needs and $840 million to help pay for about $1.8 billion in tax relief. Perry has indicated that at least part of his proposed tax relief would be to ease the business burden of the under-performing franchise tax. In other words, the franchise tax, which already falls several billion dollars short of meeting the schools’ needs each budget cycle, would contribute even less.

The Texas Association of Business, one of Perry’s biggest political supporters, already has its hand out for the lion’s share of any tax reductions. This is the same group that claims to be a strong supporter of education but has not said a word about restoring school funding, even though its members have much to gain from strong public schools. The business group’s leadership, instead, is more interested in imposing standardized tests on children than in repairing the damage to classrooms.

If you believe a quality education is more than a test score, and if you want the Legislature to restore the school budget cuts, you have to tell your own legislators. The money is there. In addition to the Rainy Day Fund, the Legislature is operating with a general revenue surplus of $8.8 billion. Combined, that is enough to meet the governor’s priorities, meet other pressing needs and repair education funding – now.

There is no need to wait for a final ruling in the school finance lawsuit, which is at least a year away, although that is a favorite excuse of some legislators who don’t want to do the right thing. Make sure your state representative and your state senator hear from you. If you don’t know who they are, click on this link,

Then type in your address, and you will get their names and contact information. Let them hear from you – early and often. You can bet they will be hearing a lot from the “tax relief” crowd.