Month: <span>March 2013</span>

An ideological contortion over vouchers


Earlier this week, the Indiana Supreme Court stretched the bounds of “indirect” government services to uphold Indiana’s school voucher law. “Stretched” actually may be too modest a description. Twisting themselves into an ideological contortion may be a more accurate depiction of what the justices did.

Indiana already has one of the broadest voucher programs in the country, and the court ruling may have encouraged religious and other private schools – and their supporters in the Indiana Legislature — to dig even deeper into taxpayers’ pockets.

The Indiana justices rejected claims that the voucher law violated that state’s ban on the use of state funds for religious institutions. The court said the prohibition applied to the direct expenditure of tax dollars. But it held that the constitution didn’t prohibit religious schools from receiving indirect government services, “such as fire and police protection, municipal water and sewage service, sidewalks and streets,” and it lumped vouchers into that category.

Uh? What do fire and police protection and sidewalks have to do with enriching private school owners?

Fire and police service and sidewalks and streets benefit the entire community and should be classified as public services or expenditures. But publicly funded vouchers that end up in the bank accounts of private schools are a different animal. They are direct expenditures of tax dollars to a private, special interest. Sure, students and their families initially are awarded the vouchers, but they are only temporary guardians. That money doesn’t stay in their pockets very long.

If private school vouchers are an “indirect” public service – and they aren’t – then let legislators pick their favorite hometown industries and start doling out tax dollars for any company that may be short of cash this month. Vouchers aren’t sidewalks, folks. Any taxpayer can walk on a sidewalk, but not everyone can get vouchers.

The lawsuit was brought by the Indiana State Teachers Association, which argued that vouchers drained money from public schools. Even more money is likely to be drained now. A spokesman for a pro-voucher group said 530,000 Indiana students – many from middle class families — qualify for vouchers, but a smaller number is actually enrolled. The court ruling, however, may encourage pro-voucher legislators in Indiana to dig deeper into the public trough – and undermine public schools.

-From Education Week





Don’t feel good about the Senate education budget


Despite all the well-scripted posturing, a few things were missing yesterday from the state Senate’s “Kumbaya” session over SB1, its budget plan. There was no music and dancing to go with the choreographed exchange of political back-patting and backside-covering. And, there wasn’t a decent budget either.

As we were reminded ad nauseam, SB1 is an “improvement” over the budget drafted during 2011, but that isn’t saying much, since the 2011 document ravaged education, health care and other important state services. SB1 would restore some of that funding, but it still would leave thousands of public school students in overcrowded classrooms, thousands of struggling college students without enough financial aid and thousands of low-income Texans without health care.

Calling SB1 an “improvement” is kind of like saying living in a leaky tent is an “improvement” over living on a park bench when you have enough money to buy a house. In the case of SB1, budget writers left $12 billion of taxpayer money sitting untouched in the Rainy Day Fund, more than enough money to fully restore the education and health care funding and meet other state needs with raising any additional taxes.

As approved by the Senate, 29-2, SB1 would restore only about one-fourth of the $5.4 billion – or $1,062 per student – slashed from public schools two years ago. Only Sens. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and new arrival Sylvia Garcia of Houston, both Democrats, dared to break with the Senate’s go-along-to-get along clubbiness and vote against the bill. Davis also made an articulate argument about how the measure “fails Texas children.”

Freshman Sen. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, the Tea Party and Texans for Lawsuit Reform darling, may still be learning her way around the Capitol but she has quickly learned one of the moldiest clichés of the statehouse’s right wing. She dissed the idea of “throwing money” at education. In truth, Texas has never “thrown money” at education, but before the privatization champions took over the Capitol, the Legislature tried to do a decent job of budget-writing.

Defending his budget, Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams of The Woodlands tried to dispute the severity of the education cuts and suggested that tapping into the Rainy Day Fund to restore all the cuts – which he called “ongoing operations” – could harm the state’s credit rating.

The cuts are severe on their face. About 5 million students are enrolled in Texas’ public schools. That means each student’s share, on average, of the $5.4 billion in cuts, spread over two years, is about $1,000. The National Education Association calculated the average per-pupil cut at $1,062, using Texas’ own data.

Texas’ per-pupil spending is more than $3,000 below the national average and ranks Texas 49th among the states and the District of Columbia. That poses a larger threat to the state’s economy and its future credit rating than spending part of the Rainy Day Fund to repair the damage to students’ learning opportunities.

The next step in the budget-setting process is the House. Ultimately, the final budget will be written by a House-Senate conference committee later this spring. More than two-thirds of Texans, according to a recent bipartisan poll commissioned by TSTA, support using the Rainy Day Fund to restore education funding, and that support crosses partisan lines. If you are among that majority, you need to let your state senators and state representatives know – and keep reminding them. If you don’t who your lawmakers are, click on the following link and type in your address to find how who they are and how to contact them.



Education-by-lottery is, indeed, a bad idea


As Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick continues to wring his hands over the plight of children on charter school waiting lists, the Austin American-Statesman reported a couple of interesting facts about charters today.

Citing the Sunset Review Commission, the newspaper noted that charter schools account for 71 percent of schools facing sanctions for failing to meet academic or financial standards. And, almost 18 percent of charter schools were considered “unacceptable” in 2011, almost four times the rate of traditional public schools.

Those figures make me wonder something. How many of those 100,000 Texas students who Patrick claims are on charter school waiting lists are refugees from bad charter schools? I bet more than a couple of dozen.

Fortunately – so far, anyway — not everyone on the Senate Education Committee likes Patrick’s SB2, which would essentially give the charter industry – with its bad apples and good apples alike – carte blanche to expand.

According to the article, Harmony Public Schools, the state’s largest charter operator, claims a waiting list so large that students selected are determined by lottery, which Patrick thinks is a shame.

“A parent and a student who believe they are in a failing school should not be relegated to having their name pulled out of a bingo-type or lottery mechanism where names pop into a little cup,” Patrick said. “That is no way to run an education system.”

Amen, Mr. Chairman. That is exactly the point against your approach to improving educational opportunities. No child should have to depend on the luck of a lottery – or being cherry picked — to get a chance at a quality education. But that is a fact of life for charters and will remain so, with or without SB2.

All these privatization schemes to the contrary – most charters are run by private operators – the vast majority of Texas children will continue to be educated in public schools. And, before charter schools are expanded, the Legislature at the very minimum needs to restore the $5.4 billion in public education budget cuts that Patrick voted for two years ago.

Tomorrow, the Senate will consider a budget proposal that would restore only $1.5 billion, about one-fourth of what was cut. That is not enough. It is a disservice to the school children of Texas to refuse to repair all the damage to their public schools, especially when $12 billion of taxpayer money is sitting in the Rainy Day Fund. That is more than enough money to restore all the public education cuts without adding a dime to anyone’s taxes.

Chairman Patrick needs to really help out the school children, all the school children, not simply expand the education-by-lottery business.


Public schools don’t have waiting lists


The Rev. Sen. Dan Patrick, self-styled education “evangelist,” has said variously that either 100,000 Texas students, families or parents are on waiting lists for charter schools. The Austin American-Statesman’s fact-checkers at PolitiFact Texas rated the claim as “mostly true.”

We still don’t know for sure, though, because state regulators don’t keep those figures. Instead, they came from the Texas Charter Schools Association, which surveyed its members, and is a strong supporter of Patrick’s SB2 to lift the state’s cap on charters. As PolitiFact Texas pointed out, federal law prohibits the association from collecting students’ names and addresses. So, we don’t know if numbers were inflated or how many would-be charter enrollees were duplicated, showing up on more than one school’s waiting list.

A much more critical figure, in any event, is 5 million. That is the number of students enrolled in Texas’ public schools. And, there is absolutely no debate over how long the public schools’ waiting lists are. There aren’t any because, unlike charters, most public schools don’t cherry pick. They take all comers in their districts, regardless of academic or behavioral record, family income, special needs or ability to speak English.

Public schools don’t keep waiting lists. They just keep moving in more portable classrooms. And, public schools are where the vast majority of Texas children will continue to be educated, including the low-income children that Sen. Patrick professes to want to help the most.

Those low-income children – who account for more than half of all public school students in Texas – also took the brunt of the $5.4 billion in school budget cuts that Patrick voted for two years ago. As Senate Education Chairman, Patrick needs to rearrange his priorities and lead a campaign to restore the funding cuts to public schools before he tries to expand the number of charters or siphon away more public education money for private school vouchers, which he also has made a priority.