Month: <span>March 2015</span>

Yes, budget cuts have consequences


As legislators, Glenn Hegar and Ken Paxton were champion budget-cutters. They voted to slash $5.4 billion from public schools in 2011 and, to the delight of their right-win constituencies, hacked their way through numerous other budgets as well.

Now, Hegar is the new state comptroller, and Paxton is the new Texas attorney general, and guess what? They aren’t slashing away at budgets anymore. Instead, they are complaining about how their past budget cuts have hurt the facilities and working conditions at the agencies they now head. Their plight would be amusing, were it not so serious for everyone else.

“Duh, no fooling,” is my message to both. But why did it take a slap of reality for these two tea party darlings to pull their heads out of the sand and realize that budget cuts have consequences?

In recent articles in The Texas Tribune and the Austin American-Statesman, Paxton complained about elevators that didn’t work and leaking roofs damaging computer servers, while Hegar said he was concerned about “basic sanitation” and an employee who had to get rabies shots after coming in contact with one of the bats flying in her building.

I feel for the employees in their agencies and am concerned about how Hegar’s and Paxton’s tight-fisted attitude as legislators is affecting the quality of their agencies’ public services now.

I also am concerned about how the Legislature’s “deferred maintenance” policy has resulted in deplorable and unsafe living conditions in mental health hospitals and the Texas School for the Deaf.

And, I am concerned about how those school budget cuts of four years ago, although partially restored, are still affecting educators and students in overcrowded, under-equipped classrooms. And, don’t forget the thousands of former teachers and school employees who lost their jobs.

I am not concerned about Hegar and Paxton, but I hope their complaints as agency heads bring better results than their politics as legislators did.



Two school privatization bills up for hearing


School privateers will be out in force later this week when Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor trots out the first two pieces from his package of bad education bills. And what, you may ask, are school privateers? They are the folks, usually claiming to be education “reformers,” who measure reform by the amount of school tax dollars it can divert into their pockets, not how it can strengthen learning opportunities for Texas children.

The two bills scheduled for a committee hearing on Thursday – SB894 to plunge head-first into expanded online learning in Texas and SB6 to impose an A-F grading system on public schools – are cause for privatization salivation.

The online learning bill would remove important state restraints on the virtual learning industry even in the face of new research warning that accountability for instructional quality in online programs is lagging while private profits are expanding – with taxpayer dollars.

Under present law, school districts can refuse to pay for more than three electronic courses per year per student and can deny a student the opportunity to enroll in an online course if the district offers a substantially similar classroom course. As introduced, SB894 would repeal those safeguards and eliminate a $400 cap that current law sets for each individual online course.

The bill also would open up fulltime online programs to more students, including kids in kindergarten through second grade, and would end a moratorium on the establishment of new fulltime, online public schools. In effect, it’s a voucher bill for online schools.

Nationwide, according to the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, some 400 fulltime virtual schools enrolled more than 263,000 students in 2013-14. Private companies operated about 40 percent of those virtual schools and nearly 71 percent of all students. But 28 percent of the virtual schools weren’t rated for accountability or performance, and of the 285 schools that were rated, only 41 percent were considered academically acceptable.

It’s time for Texas to put the brakes – or, at least, apply more accountability standards – to virtual schools rather accelerate their creation.

The second objectionable bill, SB6, would apply letter grades, A-F, to individual schools under the state’s accountability system. This is an effort to transfer the blame for school failings to administrators and teachers who continue to deal with under-funding and budget cuts from the legislative majority. It also would more easily single out “failing” schools for takeover by corporate charters or other privatization efforts, rather than provide these neighborhood schools the resources they need for student success. The bill is part of the three-step privatization process – under-fund public schools, declare them a failure and them privatize them.

Virtual learning and A-F campus grading, by the way, were pioneered in Florida under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, where they remain part of the lore of Florida’s fictitious “education miracle.” In reality, the grading system is a mess, partly because the state keeps changing grading standards and partly, as the Florida Education Association points out, the system has been used to “shame and blame” students and teachers rather than as an effective diagnostic tool for teaching.





Policymakers, not schools, deserve the failing grade

Whenever Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick opens his mouth about education, it’s risky to take his words at face value, but here goes. At a Capitol news conference the other day, when Patrick and other Senate leaders were promoting a package of education “reforms” that would do next-to-nothing to improve learning opportunities, Patrick declared:

“148,000 students, approximately, today are trapped in 297 school campuses across our state that have been failing for more than two years.”

OK, assuming the man didn’t pull the figure out of thin air, let’s compare that to the total public school enrollment in Texas, which, according to the Texas Education Agency, was 5,151,925 during the 2013-14 school year. Simple math indicates that the “trapped” students, as Patrick calls them, account for only about 2.9 percent of the total enrollment, fewer than three out of 100 kids.

Under any valid performance measure, this means the state’s public schools and educators, overall, are doing a very good job, despite the lackluster support they have been receiving in recent years from state leaders such as Patrick.

No one wants any child to be deprived of access to an excellent education. But the parent trigger, achievement school district, private school vouchers and other unproven gimmicks that Patrick and his cohorts are promoting are exercises in futility that wouldn’t help the children they allegedly are trying to help.

Most of the failing schools are in low-income neighborhoods, where poverty – not the schools and not their teachers – is the biggest obstacle to success. Academic studies have consistently shown the negative influence of poverty on education, and Texas has one of the highest poverty rates and the highest percentage of adults without a high school diploma in the country.

Yet, Texas policymakers like Patrick continue to under-fund public education. Low-income children need adequately and fairly funded, neighborhood public schools and community support services, not privatization.

Patrick and several of the senators supporting the privatization package voted to cut $5.4 billion from public school budgets in 2011. And, Patrick, as a state senator, voted against all education funding and all other public services when he voted against the entire state budget in 2013.

One of the bills Patrick is backing would grade all Texas schools from A to F. This is nothing more than an effort to blame and embarrass local educators for the Fs that a bunch of state policymakers, beginning with Patrick, really deserve.



How to cut property taxes and fund schools


Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other legislative leaders who insist on reserving several billion dollars of available state revenue to cover tax cuts before addressing education and other needs probably are right about one thing. Many Texans want lower property taxes.

But the same gang chooses to ignore something else that is equally true. They and other state officeholders of like mind are the main reasons property taxes are so high. They caused the problem they allegedly are trying to correct.

During the 2013-14 school year, local property taxes accounted for the largest share – 48.4 percent – of total public education funding in Texas. State government contributed 40.5 percent, and 11.1 percent came from the federal government.

For years the legislative majority has been passing most of the buck for school funding to local taxpayers and then complaining that local property taxes are too high, trying to suggest that local officials are somehow to blame for a problem largely created in Austin. The state’s neglect of school funding reached a low point in 2011, when the legislative majority slashed $5.4 billion from public schools, money that still hasn’t been totally restored.

The state’s neglect is the reason a state judge found the school funding system unconstitutional last year, an order the state is appealing instead of trying to address.

School districts collect the greatest amount of property taxes, and the best way to cut those taxes is for the Legislature to increase state funding for public education. I don’t mean a mere tradeoff for lower property taxes. I mean an increase, an amount that will at least finish restoring the money cut in 2011 and keep up with enrollment growth (about 80,000 kids a year) and inflation.

Because of a strong economy, the Legislature has enough money to do that this session without raising state taxes, but the shortsightedness and misplaced priorities personified by Dan Patrick and his fellow tea drinkers could very well fritter the opportunity away.

Patrick is backing a $4.6 billion tax-cut package that would include reductions in local property taxes and the state franchise, or margins, tax. Even though thousands of Texas’ smallest businesses are exempt from paying the margins tax, business leaders have been whining about it ever since its enactment in 2006.

Some of these same business leaders also purport to support a strong public school system. But it’s not difficult to figure out what their real priority is, and it isn’t adequate education funding.