Month: <span>October 2013</span>

The me-first approach to tax-subsidized education


Many parents’ interest in education doesn’t extend beyond the quality of their own children’s schools, a fact reinforced by an email I received recently from the parent of a student (or students) now attending a new BASIS charter school in San Antonio. In this parent’s viewpoint, BASIS represents what is right with education, and Texas public schools – at least the ones he or she has observed – represent what is wrong.

Perhaps unwittingly, though, this middle-class parent pretty well summarizes the problems that tax-subsidized, corporate-style charters such as BASIS pose for Texas’ public education system and thousands of low-income, struggling children who will never see the inside of a BASIS classroom. Remember, low-income, disadvantaged children – the face of Texas’ future — were supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of charter opportunities. At least, that is how charter advocates, such as Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, sold the idea of charter expansion.

BASIS was organized as a “non-profit” in Arizona but is operated by a separate, for-profit company organized by its founders. I have written a few, earlier blog posts about problems associated with this chain, and this parent responded in BASIS’ defense. Here are some significant points from the parent’s email and my responses:

# BASIS parent: Charters can operate on less funding than traditional public schools because they “tend to have parents who care about their kids’ education and who find ways to fill in via donations, volunteer work, etc.”

Response: Charter schools, on average, receive more state funding per student for operating expenses than traditional public schools in Texas do. Charters get $8,341 per student in average daily attendance, compared to $7,662 for traditional public schools, the Texas Education Agency reports. Regular public schools get more ADA overall – an average of $8,811 compared to $8,341 for charters – because the state assists some districts with capital expenditures. But a new state law soon will allow some charters to use the backing of the state’s Permanent School Fund to lower their borrowing costs. And, charters also tap into tax dollars in other ways, which will be discussed a little later in this post.

Meanwhile, low-income kids who are left in the public, neighborhood schools the charters raid have parents who also care about their children’s education. But many of those parents can’t afford to make donations and can’t get time off from work to volunteer at their schools. Many low-paid, hourly wage-earners who miss a day of work lose their jobs.

# Parent: Charter schools are not “encumbered” by bureaucracy and unions.

Response: In truth, administrative overhead represents a very small percentage of most school district budgets, and there are no union contracts in Texas public schools because Texas is a “right to work” state.

# Parent: BASIS doesn’t provide school buses. If charter parents can drop off and pick up their kids, why can’t most parents in public schools, except for “proven” hardship cases?

Response: Many low-income Texans don’t have cars and don’t live on public bus routes. Public schools are required to serve all children in their districts. They can’t cherry-pick, as BASIS has a reputation for doing. So they need school buses.

# Parent: BASIS’ lunch program is “run by parent volunteers and catered by local restaurants at higher prices.”

Response: Again, most poor people don’t have time to volunteer at school and certainly can’t afford the “higher” restaurant prices. A subsidized school lunch for low-income children is required by federal law for public schools and is often the only meal that many of these children get each day.

# Parent: “BASIS doesn’t have a library. There are tons of public libraries in the area. So why should they?”

Response: Who pays for these public libraries? The taxpayers, of course, the same taxpayers whose money is being used to feed the profits of BASIS’ operators.

# Parent: “Do they (neighborhood schools) really need so many fields and playgrounds?…BASIS has no real playground and only a minimal gym for grades 5-12. They rent space at local sports courts for sports as needed and sometimes go to a local park for PE.”

Response: Again, the same taxpayers who are subsidizing BASIS also are paying for those neighborhood parks. And, yes, public schools need playgrounds and other exercise areas. Physical education is an important part of the public schools curriculum, and not every public school is conveniently located near a park.

# Parent: “There has been significant effort in recent decades to mainstream special needs kids. Some of this has been beneficial, and some of it has been ridiculous. When the cost to mainstream a child who really would do better in a special education classroom becomes exorbitant, the schools need a way to push back without getting sued.”

Response: BASIS already has a record of pushing back against special needs kids. In August, the Washington Post reported, the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into a complaint that a BASIS school in Washington, D.C., discriminated against students with disabilities. The newspaper also reported that several students with disabilities had dropped out of BASIS only a few months after enrolling. They were pushed back into the same public schools that already had lost hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to the BASIS charter.

The BASIS parent complains of local public schools that are inadequate for above-average children, are stuck in “old paradigms” and could learn a thing or two from how charters “stretch” their budgets.

Some of those “old paradigms” are required by laws and regulations from which charters are exempt. And, we see how corporate-style charters stretch their budgets – by raiding neighborhood schools for tax dollars and using other public facilities. Meanwhile, the programs these parents find inadequate in the public schools are largely the result of years of under-funding and budget cuts by a governor and a legislative majority that prefer privatization. I wonder: who have the BASIS parents been voting for?




Moody’s warns of charter financial threat to school districts


Advocates of charter schools argue that taking students and tax dollars from traditional public schools and turning the revenue over to corporate-style charters doesn’t hurt neighborhood schools. Public school supporters who already knew that argument was wrong have now been joined by no less a financial authority than Moody’s Investors Service.

In a new report, Moody’s warns that growing charter enrollment is threatening school districts in economically weak urban areas. The implications are particularly troubling for Texas, which is under still another court order to fix an inadequate and inequitable school finance system. If poor, struggling school districts are going to suffer additional financial setbacks because of charter schools, as Moody’s suggests, an inequitable school finance system will become even more unfair to Texas students and taxpayers alike.

Remember, the Legislature, while in session last spring, restored part of the $5.4 billion in school funding cut two years ago. It did little, though, to improve an outdated, inequitable and still-underfunded school finance system, while the legislative majority was enacting a new law to raise the limit on charter operators in Texas from 215 to 305 over the next several years.

Although they technically are public schools and receive tax dollars, many of these charters are not operated by school districts. Some are organized by outside interests as “non-profits” but are managed by for-profit operators eager to rake in public money.

Some advocates argue that charter schools don’t undermine traditional public schools because the tax dollars the charters receive is based on the number of students they enroll. Charter boosters claim the public schools don’t “need” that money anymore because their enrollment has dropped. But that argument misses the point that school districts can’t simply reduce their costs based on the number of students they lose to charters. The districts lose revenue, but they have fixed costs that remain unchanged, including building maintenance, bus routes and other expenses that can’t be reduced proportionately.

As Tiphany Lee-Allen, one of the Moody’s authors noted, “Shifts in student enrollment from district schools to charters, while resulting in a transfer of a portion of district revenue to charter schools, do not typically result in a full shift of operating costs away from district public schools.”

The Moody’s report also noted that a school district that already is under financial pressure is particularly vulnerable to charter school growth. It cites examples of public schools in Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., where charters have made big inroads.

Now, with the change in state law, more corporate-style charter operators will attempt to move into Texas.

Last month, state Education Commissioner Michael Williams approved four new charter applications. At least two – Carpe Diem Schools, seeking a campus in San Antonio, and Great Hearts Academies, planning a campus in the Dallas area – bring with them a history in Arizona and other states of cherry-picking the best and/or more affluent students while taking tax dollars from thousands of other children in traditional neighborhood schools. Williams’ decision will be reviewed by the State Board of Education next month.–PR_284505?WT.mc_id=NLTITLE_YYYYMMDD_PR_284505%3c%2fp%3e



Merit pay plan unfair and backwards


The administrators running Waco ISD have their heads in the sand. They are considering a so-called “merit” bonus plan that would reward teachers for good test results but miss the boat on how student achievement is accomplished.

You can read the Waco Tribune story linked below for more details. But essentially every campus in the district that met state standards on STAAR tests would receive $10 for each student at the school, and the principal would determine how to use the money. It could be spent on instructional materials, staff development or merit pay.

The merit pay option apparently would be limited to teachers whose students either did well on STAAR or Advanced Placement tests, while ignoring other teachers who didn’t administer the tests but who definitely contributed to student success.

For example, K-2 teachers, according to the story, wouldn’t be eligible for the bonuses because students don’t take STAAR tests until the third grade. The superintendent suggested those teachers – if they felt overlooked – could transfer to a STAAR tested grade. That type of thinking ignores the reality that few third-graders would pass STAAR tests without the hard work of K-2 teachers who begin building children’s critical learning foundations. Failing to reward the contributions of K-2 teachers would be unfair — and preposterous.

These so-called merit, incentive or performance pay plans ignore the reality that education is a cumulative, collaborative effort to which the entire faculty – K-2, art, music and others whose subjects aren’t tested on STAAR or AP – contribute.

Merit pay is a cheap non-fix, a backwards way of trying to reward teachers in a state where the average teacher pay is more than $8,000 below the national average and many teachers are struggling to make ends meet. TSTA’s recent moonlighting survey showed that 44 percent of teachers have to take extra jobs during the school year and about 60 percent are seriously considering leaving the profession.

Instead of toying around with these minimal, unfair merit proposals, school administrators and board members in Waco and throughout Texas should be demanding that their legislators give all Texas teachers the professional pay they deserve.

The Waco superintendent admitted that the merit idea was “not a perfect system.” It isn’t even close.



While teachers moonlight, Rainy Day Fund keeps growing


For the legislative majority to feign poverty as a reason for short-changing public education is short-sighted. It also is disingenuous, and if that word is too long, it is dishonest.

With the economy improving, the Legislature this year restored most of the funding that was slashed from the public education budget two years ago, and that was a step appreciated by thousands of teachers and other education workers. But school funding is still behind where it was during the 2010-11 school year, and school enrollments have increased by 80,000 to 85,000 students each year since then.

And, the Legislature could – and should – have provided more education funding last spring by dipping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Many legislators – those who actually want to give the public schools more than lip service – tried. But they were outgunned by a majority fueled by stingy, short-sighted ideological politics, which would rather bleed school districts – and the professionals who work in them — in favor of charters, home-schooling or maybe even one-room schoolhouses. The latter, 18th century alternative to education certainly would match the 18th century mindset that apparently thinks we already spend too much money on public schools.

In truth, Texas never has spent too much money on public schools and, at present, isn’t spending enough and isn’t spending what it does spend in a fair and equitable fashion. That’s why Texas is under a court order – again – to fix the school finance system. That’s why Texas ranks near the bottom of the states in per-pupil funding and teacher pay. And, that’s why 44 percent of Texas teachers, an all-time high, according to a new TSTA-commissioned survey, find it necessary to take extra jobs during the school year to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, the Rainy Day Fund sits in the bank, growing and growing with tax revenue from the oil and gas boom. According to new projections by the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, a business group, the fund could reach its maximum percentage of the state budget – or $16.1 billion – by 2017. Even if constitutional amendments that would tap into the fund for water and highway spending pass during the next two years, the fund would still have $11.6 billion by 2017, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Those water and highway amendments were approved by the Legislature despite right wing opposition. But efforts to tap into the Rainy Day Fund for schools fell short, even though an educated workforce also is critical to the state’s future. The money in the Rainy Day Fund belongs to the taxpayers, folks. The fund wasn’t created to simply grow and give right-wingers bragging rights for some misguided notions of “stewardship” or to save for some unknown, future emergency when we already have pressing needs now.