Month: <span>August 2014</span>

Education commissioner needs to advocate for schools


You would expect Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick to want to appeal Judge John Dietz’s latest ruling that the state’s school funding system is unconstitutional, inadequate and unfair to thousands of Texas children. You would expect that because neither Abbott nor Patrick gives more than a half pint’s worth of lip service for public education, even though they are running for the state’s top two offices.

Further appeal would spare both Abbott and Patrick from having to comprehend real solutions that actually would benefit students, and it would again delay the day of reckoning for a legislative majority that prefers to drag its feet than fulfill its responsibilities.

But what business does the state education commissioner have encouraging an appeal and a waste of additional millions of tax dollars? That is what Commissioner Michael Williams did very soon after Dietz had issued his decision on Thursday.

“Texas is committed to finding solutions to educate every student in every classroom,” Williams said, despite the obvious fact that many political candidates and members of the Legislature are anything but committed to that goal. He also said, “This is an issue that will again be resolved by the Texas Supreme Court.”

Williams is correct that the Legislature, not a single judge, should make school finance decisions. But nothing in the state constitution or state law requires the Legislature to sit back and wait on an expensive appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. The sole purpose of an appeal would be to buy time and hope that a Republican Supreme Court weakens Dietz’s strong ruling, while thousands of Texas school children continue to be shortchanged.

Williams should step up, be a strong advocate for school kids and admit that the trial judge and the 600 school districts that sued the state over funding are correct. The school funding system is abysmal and needs to be fixed now – not two or three years from now.

Just a few days ago, Williams had the gall to blame low STAAR scores on teachers, despite the fact the curriculum and the test aren’t fully aligned and the more-difficult test was introduced as the legislative majority was slashing $5.4 billion from school budgets, causing 11,000 teacher layoffs and thousands of overcrowded classrooms.

The education commissioner was making teachers the scapegoats for a problem he is helping to perpetuate. He, too, has become very good at lip service, and now he is encouraging the legislative majority to keep dodging its responsibility.

When selfishness trumps school safety


This is back to school day in Austin ISD and as a parent – believe it or not — at Doss Elementary School, I was pleased this morning to see a police officer on a motorcycle on hand to slow down the traffic on Far West Boulevard – or so I thought.

Far West is not an idyllic residential lane. It is a major thoroughfare that runs alongside the school. Doss is a very overcrowded campus – at least two new portables were moved in over the summer – and on-street parking is limited. It also is a school that, despite the perils of Far West, encourages children to ride their bikes to school, and there have been a couple of close calls.

Traffic is slowed by a very capable (and brave) crossing guard, but sometimes she can use some help with drivers who regard the school zone as little more than an inconvenience on their way to work. A cop on a motorcycle can work wonders, especially on the first day of school, when for about 15 or 20 minutes the school zone is pretty chaotic.

But this particular officer wasn’t working wonders with Far West traffic. Instead, he was patrolling a large, mostly empty, private parking lot across the street, shooing away parents who dared to try to park there for five or 10 minutes to walk their kids across the street to class. I hope I and other taxpayers weren’t paying him.

Even if he was off-duty and had been hired by the tenants of the shopping center, it was outrageous to watch him drive around, guarding a private parking lot, when he should have been making sure children got to school safely.

If the shopping center tenants paid him, shame of them. The main tenants include Far West Optical, which doesn’t open until 9 a.m., one hour after the Doss tardy bell rings, and Eye Vet, which opens at 8, the same time classes start, which means parents already would be clearing out of the lot before most customers arrive.

I suspect this scenario may have been playing out in many other school neighborhoods in Austin and throughout urban Texas, where parking is increasingly becoming scarce. And, in some cases, there may be justification for businesses declaring their parking lots off-limits.

But this isn’t the case at Doss, where the bad neighbors should reconsider their selfish stance and make a real contribution to school safety, a temporary parking haven for parents who are simply trying to get their kids to school in one piece.

I was told later that there may have been a second motorcycle officer at Doss keeping an eye on Far West. I didn’t see him, but, even so, the first officer could have found better use of his time than guarding a private parking lot that was attractive only to Doss parents at that time of morning. Maybe he could have been slowing traffic in another school zone.


When counting is more valuable than cutting


Although the race for state comptroller, which also will be on the ballot in November, hasn’t been receiving nearly as much attention as the races for governor and lieutenant governor, the new holder of that office will be critical for public education. And, the race offers a clear-cut choice between someone who can count and someone who prefers to cut.

The comptroller is responsible for making the crucial revenue estimates that tell the Legislature how much tax money it will have to spend each session on public schools and other budgetary needs. In other words, the comptroller needs to be able to accurately count very big numbers.

The current comptroller, Susan Combs, has had some trouble with that function. Her several-billion-dollar under-estimate of revenue available to lawmakers during the 2011 session encouraged the legislative majority to slash $5.4 billion from public school budgets. Combs isn’t running for reelection.

Running to succeed her are Democrat Mike Collier, a respected, world-class accountant with a strong background in financial analysis, and Republican Glenn Hegar, an ideological state senator who brags about voting for the school budget cuts and jumps whenever he expects the Tea Party to bark.

Hegar told a Tea Party group some months ago that he was “proud” to have voted against the education cuts. Remember, those cuts cost 25,000 school employees, including 11,000 teachers, their jobs.

Hegar also has entertained the idea of abolishing all local property taxes, which sounds great to Tea Partiers and a disaster to everyone who values public schools, health care and a host of other important services that receive a lot of funding from property taxes. Hegar has suggested property taxes could be replaced with higher sales taxes, but I don’t think he bothered to try to count as high as the sales tax would have to fly to make up the difference.

Does anyone really want to pay a sales tax of 20 or 25 percent? I don’t think so.

Does anyone really want Glenn Hegar in charge of figuring out how much money the Legislature can spend on their children’s schools?

Check out Mike Collier.


Running against public schools


Despite his long career on the taxpayers’ payroll, Attorney General Greg Abbott is running for governor as an anti-government candidate. Yes, that’s inconsistent, but it’s hardly unique. More significantly, if you are anti-government, you are anti-public education, because one of the single biggest responsibilities of state government is public education.

Now, if Abbott and dozens of legislators and legislative candidates have their way, education won’t be a major state government responsibility much longer because public school funding will continue to be cut in favor of privatization, and thousands of school kids and educators will be out in the cold.

Abbott already had been defending the $5.4 billion cut from public school budgets by the legislative majority three years ago.

Then, more recently, he ratcheted up his anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric by suggesting, at a meeting of red-meat conservatives in Fort Worth, that he would be open to repealing the state’s main business tax. Although a spokeswoman has since said that Abbott didn’t really mean what he wanted his audience to think he meant, he told the RedState Gathering, “Think how many more jobs we could attract to Texas if we also had no business franchise tax.”

A more realistic translation, though, would be, “Think how many more teachers we can lay off, how much larger our classes can get and how large our dropout rate can grow.”