Rick Perry

School funding still comes up short


No doubt about it, $3.9 billion is a lot of money. But anyone who may think that it is going to take the state off the hook in the school finance lawsuit is engaging in wishful thinking. Either that, or they are betting the Texas Supreme Court eventually will undercut public schools with an ideological decision perpetrating the myth that money doesn’t make a difference in educational quality.

TSTA and other public school advocates are pleased that the Legislature restored $3.9 billion of the $5.4 billion cut from public education in 2011. And, we are grateful to the parents and school employees who contacted their legislators and helped ensure the partial recovery. But the appropriation is still $1.5 billion less than schools were receiving two years ago, while enrollment has grown by about 170,000 statewide since that time – and is still growing. And, the Legislature left $8 billion of taxpayer money unspent in the Rainy Day Fund.

Assuming Gov. Rick Perry doesn’t figure out a way to veto any of the $3.9 billion – and that may be a rash assumption – the next decision-maker to be heard from in the school funding drama will be state District Judge John Dietz of Austin, the presiding judge in the school finance lawsuit brought against the state by more than 600 districts.

Dietz ruled in February that the state wasn’t spending enough money for schools to do their jobs successfully and wasn’t appropriating money among districts in a fair and equitable way. But he delayed issuing a formal, written decision until after the Legislature had another chance to address funding and other educational issues.

During the regular session, which ended on Memorial Day, lawmakers also reduced the end-of-course (EOC) exams for high school students under the STAAR regime from 15 to five, partly in response to school district complaints in the lawsuit but also to parental outrage over too much testing.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick predicted the extra money and testing reductions could affect Dietz’s final ruling. “I believe the judge needs to revisit the issue,” Patrick was quoted in The Dallas Morning News over the weekend.

But I doubt that the judge will be overly impressed by the Legislature’s work product. Remember, he estimated in February that it may take an extra $2,000 per child – or another $10 billion or $11 billion a year in state funding – to meet all state standards. And, the Legislature didn’t come close to meeting that figure. Moreover, more than 60 percent of public school students are low-income, with many requiring more funding for remedial programs.

As Dietz remarked back then,” There is no free lunch.”

Once Dietz issues his final ruling, the state will appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, many of whose members view the world – and state government’s responsibility – quite differently from the trial judge.

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A couple of weeks ago, I posted an item about SB346, which had been approved by both the House and the Senate, to require certain nonprofit groups that actively engage in political advocacy to publicly report their donors to the Texas Ethics Commission. It would have helped teachers, parents and others who value public schools to learn more about who is paying for political efforts to undermine public education.

I say “would have helped” because, in case you haven’t heard by now, Gov. Perry vetoed the bill. He said it would have had a “chilling effect” on the democratic political process.

In truth, it would have enhanced the democratic process. It would have forced the public disclosure of wealthy ideologues who finance bullying tactics against legislators, often to the detriment of most mainstream Texans. The veto wasn’t much of a surprise, but it was wrong, nevertheless.

Wrong-headed politics blocking full education funding


The reason that many legislators don’t want to spend any money from the $12 billion Rainy Day Fund on public schools is because they want to hoard your tax dollars. This would enable them to go back home and brag to a small – but loud – number of constituents that they had “saved” the fund.

These constituents refuse to believe that a growing state like Texas requires a wise investment of tax dollars in critical programs, services and infrastructure. They also claim our public schools are fat with waste, despite $5.4 billion in budget cuts two years ago, and would love to divert tax dollars to private schools. And, unfortunately, they are influential in many Republican primary races.

But the “official” reason among the legislative leadership for not spending Rainy Day dollars to help restore all the education funding is that the savings account shouldn’t be used on “recurring” expenses. This is a false argument, but so far it and the political hoarder mentality have succeeded in blocking any attempt to dip into the Rainy Day Fund for schools. It also, so far, has blocked efforts to spend Rainy Day money on future water projects because of pushback from education advocates.

With the regular legislative session nearing an end, it is time for the predictable threats of a special session from the governor, and Gov. Perry is right on schedule, threatening to call lawmakers back into a special session this summer if they don’t approve a water funding plan. Unfortunately, he has said nothing about attaching a similar priority to education.

Legislators are on track to restore part of the $5.4 billion cut from schools in 2011, but without dipping into the Rainy Day Fund they could be as much as $2 billion or more short of restoring the entire amount.

Using Rainy Day money to help fill the entire $5.4 billion hole would not be a “recurring” expense. It would be a one-time repair. But failure to fill the entire hole would give school districts a “recurring” budgetary shortfall, created when the Legislature refused to fund enrollment growth for the past two years, or about 170,000 children.

In truth, the constitutional amendment that created the Rainy Day Fund and was approved by Texas voters in 1988 includes no prohibition against spending the savings account on recurring needs. And, the Legislature – under both Republican and Democratic control – has spent Rainy Day savings over the years on a number of recurring expenses, including public education, retired teacher health care, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Child Protective Services.

In 2003, the Republican-dominated Legislature even spent Rainy Day money to create the Texas Enterprise Fund and in 2005 to fund the Emerging Technology Fund. Gov. Perry has used both those funds to dole out millions of tax dollars to private businesses. The funds have been recurring expenses, and, in the minds of many, recurring boondoggles.

Perry claims they have been important economic development tools. But the biggest, most effective economic development tools the state has are its public schools.

The bottom line is there is more than enough money in the $12 billion Rainy Day Fund to begin paying for water projects AND restore cuts to public schools AND have money left over for future emergencies.

The math is simple. The politics are not.



What good is a water fund without good schools?


House Bill 11 deserves a watery grave. Yes, that is a bad pun for the water bill that was shot down in the Texas House last night on a procedural point. And, yes, Texas needs to start spending more money developing future water resources, which HB11 would have done. But Texas also needs to start spending more money on its public schools, and HB11 would have failed to do that.

HB11 would have taken $2 billion from the $12 billion Rainy Day Fund to establish a revolving account for future water-supply projects. But, ignoring the priorities of most Texas voters, sponsors refused to include any additional funding to complete the restoration of the $5.4 billion cut from public school budgets two years ago.

What good would it be to spend money on water projects if you don’t have enough well-educated architects, engineers and managers to design, build and operate them?

Despite what Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas Association of Business and other government privateers think, the answer to a quality educational system doesn’t start with standardized tests for third-graders. It starts with adequately funded schools, and proposed budgets in the House and the Senate still fall short of repairing all the damage from the education cuts inflicted in 2011.

The Senate has approved SJR1, a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide if they want to spend $4.9 billion of the Rainy Day Fund for roads and water projects and $800 million for public education. But that amendment doesn’t seem likely to win House approval, and – with the regular session ending in four weeks – there is talk of a summer special session because Gov. Perry wants money for water.

If only he had the slightest bit of enthusiasm for funding schools as well, this problem could be more quickly resolved.

Without using the Rainy Day Fund, the House has approved a budget that would restore $2.5 billion of the lost $5.4 billion and has approved a separate bill that would add another $500 million. Without SJR1, the Senate’s budget would restore only $1.5 billion of the education funds, although Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams has pledged to add another $1.4 billion made possible because of increasing property wealth.

The final version of the new state budget – and how much money it includes for public education – will be negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee while legislators continue to disagree over the Rainy Day Fund.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston, a strong advocate for dipping into the Rainy Day Fund for schools as well as for water, raised the point of order that torpedoed HB11 last night. And, according to a bipartisan poll commissioned by TSTA earlier this session, most Texas voters agree with him.

Some 66 percent of voters said lawmakers should use the Rainy Day Fund to restore public school funding. That includes 39 percent who chose education funding over water (5 percent) or roads (4 percent) plus 27 percent who believe Rainy Day money should be spent on all three needs.

As the poll shows, most Texas voters have their priorities straight. But they continue to be ignored by many of their alleged “leaders” in Austin.



Trying to undermine, not “reform” public schools


Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond is at it again, pretending to advocate for strong public schools while doing his best to undermine them. His latest effort is an oped in today’s Dallas Morning News, in which he complains about District Judge John Dietz’s recent ruling in the school finance case that public schools are inadequately funded.

He particularly takes issue with Dietz’s suggestion that it will require an additional $2,000 per child, at least, to fully fund all the state’s requirements for the public schools.

Not only is Hammond’s reasoning wrong, but so are his alleged “facts.”

He claims Texas already is spending $10,000 per student and claims that Texas has been “spending more money on education for a decade, even including last session’s cuts.” Both parts of his assertion are flat wrong.

In the 2010-11 school year, Texas spent $9,446 per child in average daily attendance. Following the $5.4 billion in budget cuts imposed by Gov. Rick Perry and the legislative majority in 2011, spending per child plunged to $8,908, placing Texas 45th among the states and the District of Columbia, according to estimates and rankings by the National Education Association (NEA). That was a cut of more than $500 per child while school enrollment across Texas was growing by about 80,000 a year. Adding another $2,000 per child, as Judge Dietz suggested, wouldn’t even bring Texas up to the national average of $11,463 per child.

Adding insult to his factual errors, Hammond and the Texas Association of Business have been longtime political supporters of Gov. Perry and many of the legislators who voted for the cuts, which cost 11,000 teaching jobs in the 2011-12 school year alone and crammed thousands of students into overcrowded classrooms. TAB continues to support Perry and many of the other education-cutters today.

Now that the Legislature has an $8.8 billion surplus and a Rainy Day Fund balance of $11.8 billion – more than $20 billion – to help write a new state budget, Hammond and TAB should be joining with the Texas State Teachers Association and other public school supporters – real as opposed to pseudo – and demanding that their buddies in the governor’s office and the legislative majority restore the school funding.

Hammond reminds us that tax dollars – no fooling — are our money. But regardless how the Texas Supreme Court eventually may rule on an appeal of Judge Dietz’s ruling, the 2011 school budget cuts can be restored right now without raising one extra dime of taxpayers’ money.

TAB apparently isn’t interested in restoring school funding. Instead, Hammond was first in line with his hand held out when the governor proposed that some of the $20 billion could be spent on special interest tax breaks instead. Hammond proposed cuts in the business franchise tax, which already is under-performing and was a major cause of the financial problems that resulted in last session’s budget cuts.

TAB’s idea of strengthening the public schools is to demand that students, beginning in third-grade, continue to be subjected to a battery of high-stakes standardized tests that do little more than rob students and their teachers of valuable classroom learning time. TAB also insists that schools be more “efficient” as if efficiency can be manufactured out of thin air as school budgets are cut and teachers are fired.

Hammond proposes at-will employment of teachers and classroom size flexibility. School districts already have both. What they don’t have, as Judge Dietz has soundly concluded after weeks of hearing evidence, is enough money to assure that all of Texas’ children will have enough resources to succeed.