David Dewhurst

Campaigning for an education apocalypse


After observing the race for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor teeter ever more precariously over the abyss on the right edge of the flat Earth, I am surprised that at least one of the four contenders hasn’t gone to court to officially change his ballot name to Attila.

The latest chapter, which unfolded last night in a televised debate from Dallas, made it crystal clear – as if we didn’t know already – that the needs and realities of public schools, students and teachers are merely an afterthought— or worse — for these guys.

The incumbent, David Dewhurst, already was on record asserting that Texas teachers are paid a “very fair salary,” despite the fact that teacher pay in Texas lags more than $8,000 behind the national average. If he and his GOP opponents get their way, the gap will worsen, teachers will pay even more than the $700 they now pay, on average, out of their own pockets each year for classroom supplies and their classes will get larger.

Dan Patrick, the self-styled “educational evangelist,” in truth would plunder neighborhood schools – and most Texas children – of financial resources to line the pockets of private schools and private charter operators for the benefit of a handful of mostly cherry-picked students.

Judging from the debate and general campaign rhetoric, nothing much separates Dewhurst, Patrick and the other two GOP contenders – Jerry Patterson and Todd Staples – from each other. And, that is bad news for public education.

All four committed or recommitted last night to teaching creationism in Texas schools, an idea struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 because it “impermissibly endorses religion.”

These four candidates are running for the second highest office in Texas, folks, an office with tremendous influence over legislation. Candidates for that office should be promoting investment in a public education system that will be the key to Texas’ future in the 21st century, not endorsing ideological detours or schemes to plunder neighborhood classrooms.

Instead of sounding like serious candidates for high office, these guys, as my TSTA colleague, Ed Martin notes, sound more like the “Four Horsemen of the Republican Apocalypse.”… An apocalypse for public education, in the destructive, not revelatory, sense.

School Security Act? Let’s wait for the details


I can say at least one positive thing about the proposed Texas School District Security Act that was outlined yesterday by three legislators, including Senate leaders Tommy Williams, a Republican, and John Whitmire, a Democrat.  The positive part is this. It would bolster the presence of licensed peace officers at school campuses instead of attempting to arm teachers, as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was proposing a couple of weeks ago.

Although it is an improvement, this proposal, however, may not put an end to Dewhurst’s half-baked idea.

Since the actual legislation has yet to be drafted, there still are many unknowns about the proposed school security law. But I sense a couple of potential problems. The first is equity and fairness. The plan, as explained by the senators and State Rep. Dan Huberty, would allow voters in school districts to raise local property or sales taxes to pay for enhanced security.

That may make it easier for some wealthy districts to increase security for their students. But what about property poor districts, which for years have been struggling for more equity in school funding? Their students are no less worth protecting from potential danger, but the reality is those districts and parents may not be able to afford the greater tax burden. Maybe the sponsors can figure something out.

The second problem with this proposal is that it strongly signals that the legislative majority still is unwilling to increase the state’s commitment to public education funding, beginning with a restoration of the $5.4 billion cut from school district budgets two years ago. The new security plan would be paid for with local tax dollars, not state money.

Let me make clear that the legislative majority doesn’t include Sen. Whitmire, one of the proposed security act sponsors. Whitmire voted against the school cuts last year and has been a long-time advocate for public education and educators. But his co-sponsor, Sen. Williams, the new Senate Finance Committee chairman, voted for the cuts and now is sponsoring a proposed budget that would fail to restore the money.

“I know just how tight state and local budgets are these days,” Williams said.

Most local school district budgets are tight, thanks in large part to the cuts in state aid imposed in 2011. But the Legislature is sitting on an $8.8 billion surplus and a Rainy Day Fund balance of $11.8 billion. That is more than enough money to restore the education cuts and take care of other pressing state needs.

The only thing “tight” about the Legislature’s budgetary outlook is the unwillingness of the legislative majority to do the right thing for the education of Texas school children. The quality of that education will go a long way toward determining their future economic security.


Excuses to the contrary, the money for schools is there


Don’t be misled by exaggerated hand-wringing and political pandering, folks. The Legislature has the money to restore the $5.4 billion cut from public schools two years ago – and then some. The only thing lacking is the political will to do the right thing, and when the will is weak, politicians will come up with excuses.

According to Comptroller Susan Combs’ official revenue estimate for the legislative session that begins today, general revenue tax collections for the current budget cycle were $8.8 billion more than she projected when the cuts were imposed in 2011. Additionally, she projected the Rainy Day Fund to swell to $11.8 billion by the end of the upcoming budget period.

Gov. Rick Perry and the legislative leadership should be making plans now to share that extra wealth with the people who made it possible – the taxpayers of Texas. It is our money, and it is more than enough to restore the education cuts, additional cuts made to health care programs and close a hole in the Medicaid budget. There even would be enough to set aside part of the Rainy Day fund as an endowment toward future water needs, as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has proposed, and still save some money for a future fiscal emergency.

But, instead, we continue to hear excuses, particularly for treating the Rainy Day Fund as if it were an untouchable, sacred political cow rather than a valid revenue option intended to help Texas deal with short-term financial emergencies. Only recently, House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts still was suggesting the legislative majority wasn’t prepared to spend Rainy Day money to repair the public education budget.

“There’s not the will (among legislators) to spend Rainy Day funds for recurring expenses,” he told The Dallas Morning News.

Replacing money slashed from the public schools two years ago, however, is not a “recurring expense.” It is damage repair, this is an emergency and the money – the taxpayers’ money – is there.

Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston, who voted against the education cuts last session, offered some sound advice in the same newspaper article for parents and other taxpayers who are sick and tired of the political game-playing by the legislative majority. Parents and others who value the public schools “need to be screaming and hollering and emailing us, starting on Jan. 8 and keeping it up to the end of the session,” he said.

Turner is right, folks. Get in their face and stay there.



Signaling another rough ride for public schools


It is still early, but if pre-session budget-strutting by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is any indication, public schools will be in for another rough ride during the upcoming legislative session, at least in the Senate.

The Legislative Budget Board voted yesterday to cap the spending growth rate for the new state budget, which will be written after legislators convene on Jan. 8, at 10.71 percent. This limit is determined by the estimated growth in Texans’ personal income, and it helps determine how much the Legislature spends on public education and other programs.

Considering all the budget-slashing that went on during the 2011 session, that cap is tight enough. But Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, pledged to tighten the limit even more – to less than 10 percent, a level based on inflation plus population growth. Gov. Rick Perry favors a similar, tighter standard, which also is favored by his and Dewhurst’s favorite audience — the tea party-types who would shrink state government, even at the cost of more damage to public schools and other basic services.

Comptroller Susan Combs hasn’t updated her revenue estimate for the Legislature yet, and, so far, House Speaker Joe Straus is declining to engage in any budgetary posturing. But Dewhurst and Perry apparently will continue to preach belt-tightening to the point of suffocation, even though the state economy and tax collections are markedly improving. The Rainy Day Fund has swelled to at least $8.1 billion and, according to the most recent report from the comptroller, state tax collections are running $5 billion ahead of earlier projections.

Moreover, the Legislature has a lot of ground to make up, including $5.4 billion – more than $500 per student — cut from public education last session, even as enrollment in public schools continues to increase by about 80,000 children a year.

Even with the tighter cap, Dewhurst, according to the San Antonio Express-News, contends the Legislature can still “fund our priorities.”

But Dewhurst apparently finds political pontificating easier than simple math. And, his priorities obviously aren’t the same as millions of Texas parents and educators who really hope the Legislature will stop trying to squeeze the life out of public schools.