Month: <span>November 2014</span>

Vouchers are not an education solution


The opening round of what has become a biennial legislative fight over private school vouchers took place this week before the Senate Education Committee, and predictably the pro-vouchers witnesses included parents with tales of woe about how public schools in their communities weren’t meeting their children’s educational needs.

Just as predictably, committee Chairman Dan Patrick was there, playing the role of the empathetic lawmaker who not only understood their plight but also was prepared to do something about it because he was on their side. And, he has said, his heart especially goes out to those low-income kids who just aren’t making it in inner-city schools.

Stow the violins, folks, and let’s rewind this drama.

Patrick, who will become lieutenant governor in January, is not the champion of school children he purports to be. In fact, his legislative agenda has been harmful to public education in Texas.

For starters, he was an outspoken part of the legislative majority that slashed $5.4 billion from school budgets in 2011. Then, in 2013, he voted against the entire state budget, including all education funding, and now wants to dig public schools into a deeper financial hole.

What the pro-voucher or “school choice” crowd views as failures of the public education system can be attributed to two main factors. One is inadequate funding from the Legislature, and the second is an annual enrollment growth of about 80,000 students, many of whom are from low-income families where survival is a more pressing goal than reading, writing or arithmetic.

Thousands of these children lack health care, are not properly fed and many don’t speak English. They require many support services, in addition to education, that Texas simply doesn’t provide very well. And, tight-fisted, short-sighted legislators, such as Patrick, make their plight worse. These legislators expect public schools to work miracles with these kids, yet they not only persist in cutting funding for educational programs, they also refuse to expand Medicaid coverage and skimp on providing other services the children need.

Now, Patrick is once again trying to peddle private school vouchers – or tax-credit scholarships – as a solution. In truth, vouchers would take much-needed tax revenue from public schools where the vast majority of Texas students will continue to be educated, including thousands of those low-income, inner city kids about whom Patrick claims to be so concerned. The beneficiaries from Patrick’s plan would be private school owners, the businesses and financial institutions involved in the “tax credit scholarship” transactions and a relative handful of students, many of whom already are attending private schools and whose parents would get a tuition break with everyone’s tax dollars.

Texas historically has spent less money educating its children than most states, and thanks to the 2011 budget cuts now spends several hundred dollars less per child than it did four years ago.

If Patrick really wants to help those inner city kids – and all other Texas students – he would take the lead in drafting an overhaul of the current school finance system, which a state district judge has ruled inadequate, unfair and unconstitutional. A strong Texas economy is pumping billions of extra tax dollars into the state treasury, including the Rainy Day Fund, which means education funding could be significantly improved without raising anyone’s existing taxes.

But so far, Patrick has proposed tax cuts that would make it harder to fund our schools, peddled vouchers and engaged in some public hand-wringing over public education, while ignoring real solutions.



The debate should be about school funding, not tax cuts


The several billion dollars in new revenue that the state’s strong economy has generated offers the Legislature a great opportunity, but even before the session convenes that opportunity already is in jeopardy.

Leaders who want to move Texas forward would use the money, or at least part of it, to increase the state’s investment in education and other critical services without raising anyone’s taxes. The two top state leaders who were elected last week, however, seem poised to keep Texas in neutral – or drive it into a ditch – by limiting the debate to tax cuts.

Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick is promising to cut both local property taxes and the state’s main business tax, the so-called margins tax, both major sources of revenue for public education. Some legislators already have pre-filed bills to abolish the margins tax by phasing it out. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott is being more cautious but has indicated he will support cuts in either or both taxes because he also is placing a priority on “tax relief.” The goal, Abbott said, is to generate job creation.

The single biggest job creator, however, is education. So, what about school relief? Relief from things like crowded classrooms, rising health care premiums for educators, below-average teacher salaries and cutbacks in pre-K and other critical programs? There has been nothing but silence from Abbott and Patrick on those concerns.

The margins tax was engineered by Gov. Rick Perry as part of a partial tradeoff for lower school property taxes back in 2006. Its under-performance as a revenue-raiser contributed to the financial emergency that resulted in the legislative majority cutting $5.4 billion from public school budgets in 2011. But many businesses, particularly professional and service-oriented companies, resent the margins tax because it slapped them with tax bills they didn’t have to pay under the old franchise tax.

These businesses are pushing for significant cuts in or an outright repeal of the margins tax, even though repealing the tax would cost state government almost $5 billion a year in revenue, according to an article in The Dallas Morning News this week. That loss would dig deeply into the state’s anticipated surplus.

One notable exception to the attack on the margins tax is the Texas Association of Manufacturers, which represents property-heavy industries that prefer the margins tax to the former franchise tax because they paid more taxes under the franchise tax. This group, instead, is pushing for reductions in the property tax.

The best way to reduce local property taxes is for the state to increase its share of education funding. In essence, though, the tax-reduction debate being promoted by Patrick and Abbott has become a debate over greed within the business community, boiling down to how each individual industry believes it can benefit from specific tax cuts.

Lost in this debate is the future of Texas’ public schools. Texas spends less on public education per student than most states, and it is spending less per child now than it did before the 2011 budget cuts, even though enrollment continues to grow by 80,000 students a year.

The future of Texas schools will determine the future of Texas, including the future of the business community. School districts should not be forced to continue cutting corners when state government is enjoying a multi-billion-dollar surplus, both in general revenue and in the Rainy Day Fund.

A state district judge has ruled the school finance system inadequate, unfair and unconstitutional, and the state has the resources to fix it – now. But politicians who are driven by ideology, such as Patrick and Abbott, don’t want to have that conversation. Neither do business leaders who are eager to sacrifice the quality of their future employment pools in exchange for some short-sighted tax cuts.


Strong economy offers opportunity for schools, but…


Almost overlooked in all the post-election news yesterday was an announcement that continues to predict a strong budgetary outlook for the Legislature next year. Whether public school students will benefit from the promising forecast, however, remains to be seen.

State Comptroller Susan Combs reported that state sales tax revenue for October totaled $2.41 billion, an increase of more than 12 percent from the amount collected in October 2013, according to an item buried among all the election coverage in The Dallas Morning News.

Sales tax receipts for September were 7.9 percent higher than during the same month a year earlier. And receipts for the previous fiscal year, which ended Aug. 31, were up 5.5 percent. Meanwhile, the Rainy Day Fund balance has hit $8.4 billion and will continue to grow, fed by rising severance tax revenue from the oil and natural gas production boom.

This means the Legislature, when it convenes Jan. 13, will have billions of additional dollars to spend on state needs without raising anyone’s taxes, thanks to the state’s strong economy. Lawmakers will have enough money to immediately begin drafting an adequate and fair school finance system, as recently ordered by a state district judge.

What the Legislature actually does with the additional billions, however, will be decided by the officeholders elected on Tuesday, including a new governor and a new lieutenant governor, who so far seem more inclined to waste the opportunity.

In his role as attorney general, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott already has announced the state will appeal the school finance decision, denying much-needed, extra resources for school districts and their students for at least another year. And, Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick, who voted for $5.4 billion in school budget cuts in 2011 and voted against the entire state budget in 2013, is calling for local property tax “relief.”

What Patrick apparently doesn’t realize is that the best way to provide relief from local school property taxes is for the state to pay more for public education, and the revenue outlook offers a great opportunity to do that and, at the same time, do what’s right for 5 million school children.