Month: <span>January 2015</span>

$18 billion is a lot of money, but…


Now we know, officially, following the comptroller’s revenue estimate, that the Legislature will have $18 billion in new money to spend on public needs during this session. Wow, that’s a lot of money, you might say, more than enough to improve school funding, particularly since both the incoming governor and lieutenant governor are talking about putting priorities on education.

Yes, $18 billion is a lot of money, enough for the Legislature to provide a significant increase for education funding without raising anyone’s taxes. But getting a decent share of it for public schools, health care and other critical public needs will remain a tough fight, given the tea party’s tightened hold on the state Capitol.

For starters, ultra-conservatives may insist that the Legislature keep about one-third, maybe as much as $8 billion, of the extra money in the bank to comply with a constitutional spending cap that has become a political rallying standard for legislators intent on shrinking state government rather than adequately funding public services.

Further, despite their talk about education, both Gov.-elect Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick – backed by such influential groups as the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Association of Business — have made it clear they want to use a big chunk of what’s left of the $18 billion to lower business and property taxes.

Throw in demands for improving highway funding and increasing appropriations for higher education and other programs, and the political realities of the revenue picture worsen even more. Remember, the legislative majority cut $5.4 billion from public education in 2011 and restored only about $3.4 billion two years ago. It will require $2 billion to finish restoring the school money cut in 2011 and additional billions to meet the growing needs of an enrollment increasing by 80,000 to 85,000 students per year.

As reported by the Austin American-Statesman, Patrick said the comptroller’s revenue estimate was enough “to secure our border, provide property and business tax relief while focusing on education and infrastructure.”

That comment reinforces Patrick’s priorities of border security and tax cuts. Based on his legislative record and his 2014 election campaign, Patrick’s primary interest in education is not adequate and fair funding for public schools but diverting tax dollars from public schools for vouchers and other unproven privatization schemes.

The new comptroller, Glenn Hegar, also predicted the state’s Rainy Day Fund will swell to $11.1 billion by August 2017, but tea party legislators will likely fight any effort to tap into that savings account for public education.

Public education advocates are prepared to fight to squeeze every possible dollar for Texas neighborhood schools and school children, and you can help. Contact your legislators and make them know, in no uncertain terms, how important your public schools are to you and demand adequate funding. If you don’t know who your state senator or state representative is, click on the link below to learn who they are and how to contact them.

We all know $18 billion is a lot of money, and it offers an opportunity for education that shouldn’t be wasted.




Legislature has obligation to public, not private, schools


For many years now, accountability has been the favorite buzz word used by groups and legislators opposed to adequately funding our under-funded public schools. Now, in the curtain-raiser on the latest effort to divert tax dollars from public schools for private school vouchers, accountability has been replaced with “competition.”

Some of the usual suspects – the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Association of Business – were lined up in support as state Sen. Donna Campbell unveiled her voucher bill yesterday. The measure would provide state funding to students to attend accredited private schools of their families’ choice.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, Campbell and researcher Arthur Laffer brushed aside questions about whether the state’s low investment in public education contributed to under-achievement problems they allegedly are trying to address with vouchers. The Legislature still hasn’t fully restored all of the $5.4 billion cut from public school budgets four years ago, thousands of classrooms are still overcrowded and Texas spends, on average, less per student than all but a few other states. Plus, a state district judge has declared the school funding system inadequate, unfair and unconstitutional.

Never mind all that, the pro-voucher crowd claims. All public schools need in order to perform better, Laffer claimed, was more “competition” from private schools – private schools that, under Campbell’s bill, wouldn’t even be held to the same academic and financial standards as public schools. And, the voucher advocates want to take even more money from those public schools, which is where the vast majority of Texas school children will continue to be educated.

Campbell said the Legislature has a “moral obligation” to help children trapped in poor or under-performing public schools.

What the Legislature really has is a moral obligation to uphold the Texas Constitution. And a major constitutional obligation of legislators is to adequately and fairly fund the public schools, not weaken them by diverting  public tax dollars to private school coffers.


The privatization of public universities


States, including Texas, are increasingly taking the “public” out of public universities, according to a new study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The GAO doesn’t necessarily characterize its findings that way. The government study determined that students and their families now pay public colleges and universities more in tuition than states do in tax revenue. And, I would argue that this buck-passing is becoming a form of privatization.

You can read more about the study by clicking on the link to a Houston Chronicle article at the end of this post. Nationwide, state funding for public colleges increased by 12 percent between 2003 and 2012, while median tuition at the schools jumped by 55 percent during the same period, the study determined.  In 2012, tuition accounted for 25 percent of public colleges’ revenue, while state funding accounted for 23 percent.

“These (tuition) increases have contributed to the decline in college affordability as students and their families are bearing the cost of college as a larger portion of their total family budgets,” the GAO report pointed out.

The study didn’t compare Texas to the national findings, but it did discuss tuition deregulation, the policy that the Texas Legislature enacted in 2003 to allow university governing boards to set tuition independently of legislative control. Since then, a student’s average cost to attend a state school in Texas has more than doubled to $3,951 a semester.

While a legislative majority has persisted in under-funding higher education for the past 12 years, appointed university regents – who don’t have to answer to voters – have repeatedly raised tuition to cover the funding gap.

Some Texas legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, want to change the law to re-impose legislative control over tuition, but I am not overly optimistic that will happen this session. The responsibility for state university funding ultimately belongs to the Legislature, but many lawmakers have been content to pass the buck and let regents take the blame for tuition increases.