Rick Perry

Will the Supreme Court support public schools?


Legislative budget writers, according to a news report, plan to put $2 billion of their $20 billion windfall in reserve as a possible down payment should the state eventually lose an appeal of last week’s school finance decision. There are at least two things wrong with that plan.

The first, of course, is that spending, maybe, $2 billion somewhere down the road is too little, too late. The Legislature should spend $5.4 billion – right now – to restore the funds – more than $500 per student – cut from public schools two years ago. Some $20 billion — an $8.8 billion surplus and $11.8 billion in the Rainy Day Fund – is already available. The money belongs to the taxpayers, and it is enough to restore the 2011 cuts to education, health care and other critical services – and tackle some water and highway needs — without raising another single dime from taxpayers.

The second problem is that, even if the state leadership persists in making school children deal with overcrowded classes for another year or longer – the likely time for an appeal to run its course – there is no guarantee the ultimate arbiter, the Texas Supreme Court, will do the right thing and uphold the state constitution. The governor and the legislative majority are trying to buy more time with an appeal. And, they may like their chances before a court, stacked with Perry appointees, that often has let ideological considerations trump the law.

Many public education advocates – heartened by a strong ruling from state District Judge John Dietz that the school finance system is inadequate and unfair – are optimistic the Supreme Court will agree that the state isn’t spending enough money to adequately teach all Texas students. I hope they are right.

But, remember, school district plaintiffs thought they had won a victory from the Supreme Court in the previous school finance suit in 2005. But the result of that ruling was the 2006 law that ordered deep cuts in school property taxes, which the state has never fully paid for. The 2006 law didn’t improve education funding. It worsened the financial plight of hundreds of school districts.

In that earlier ruling, the Supreme Court warned that the state may soon have to increase funding, but it also suggested that improved “efficiency” – whatever the legislative majority may decide that means — could be the key to better schools.

Only four Supreme Court members who voted for the 2005 ruling are still on the court – Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and Justices Nathan Hecht, Phil Johnson and Paul Green. Justice Don Willett, then a recent Perry appointee, was on the court but abstained from the decision.

Four new justices have since joined the court. Three are Perry appointees, and if they agree with Perry’s view that it’s OK to under-fund the public schools, then public education in Texas will be in even deeper trouble. The fourth newcomer, Justice John Devine, was elected last year on a campaign that promoted the Ten Commandments but said little about public education. For all we know, Justice Devine may believe that all children should be home-schooled.


Which is the biggest emergency: education or tax relief?


Now that Gov. Perry has manufactured a new use – tax relief – for the Rainy Day Fund, you can be sure his special interest political supporters will be all over themselves trying to get their hands on it. Technically, the constitution allows spending Rainy Day money for anything the Legislature decides to spend it on, including tax relief. But I say “manufacture” because the voters of Texas, when they approved the Rainy Day Fund more than 20 years ago, didn’t have tax relief in mind. They approved it as a savings account to be used to help state government bridge temporary, financial emergencies.

The governor and his allies in the legislative majority started trying to redefine the fund two years ago, when trying to explain why they left several billion dollars of taxpayer money sitting in it while inflicting $5.4 billion in cuts on public schools. The savings account should be reserved for hurricanes or other natural disasters, Perry claimed, while presiding over the biggest political disaster to befall Texas’ public schools in his lifetime.

Now, the fund has a balance approaching $12 billion, and Perry isn’t talking about hurricanes anymore. But he still intends to shut out the school children. He wants to use $3.7 billion from the fund to begin playing catch-up on highway and water needs and $840 million to help pay for about $1.8 billion in tax relief. Perry has indicated that at least part of his proposed tax relief would be to ease the business burden of the under-performing franchise tax. In other words, the franchise tax, which already falls several billion dollars short of meeting the schools’ needs each budget cycle, would contribute even less.

The Texas Association of Business, one of Perry’s biggest political supporters, already has its hand out for the lion’s share of any tax reductions. This is the same group that claims to be a strong supporter of education but has not said a word about restoring school funding, even though its members have much to gain from strong public schools. The business group’s leadership, instead, is more interested in imposing standardized tests on children than in repairing the damage to classrooms.

If you believe a quality education is more than a test score, and if you want the Legislature to restore the school budget cuts, you have to tell your own legislators. The money is there. In addition to the Rainy Day Fund, the Legislature is operating with a general revenue surplus of $8.8 billion. Combined, that is enough to meet the governor’s priorities, meet other pressing needs and repair education funding – now.

There is no need to wait for a final ruling in the school finance lawsuit, which is at least a year away, although that is a favorite excuse of some legislators who don’t want to do the right thing. Make sure your state representative and your state senator hear from you. If you don’t know who they are, click on this link, http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/Home.aspx.

Then type in your address, and you will get their names and contact information. Let them hear from you – early and often. You can bet they will be hearing a lot from the “tax relief” crowd.



Rick Perry: bad news for education


As could be predicted, Gov. Rick Perry’s address to the Legislature today was less a state of the state than it was a recitation of the governor’s political philosophy – in other words, bad news for Texas students and educators.

At one point, Perry bragged, “Our graduation rates are at an all-time high…but we can’t let up.”

He was referring to a federal report, published late last year, that Texas had one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country. What he didn’t say, however, was that the report was based on the 2010-11 school year, the last academic year before he and the legislative majority slashed $5.4 billion from public school budgets. The cuts impacted crucial dropout prevention programs, such as full-day pre-kindergarten, and have resulted in overcrowded classrooms and diminished learning environments for thousands of children.

Perry said lawmakers needed to start focusing on the individual child. That, of course, is hollow rhetoric from a governor who joined with the legislative majority to cut more than $500 from the educational funding for each child in Texas public schools. That was how the $5.4 billion in cuts divided up.

Despite the governor’s talk, he and the legislative majority already have “let up” on their commitment to the public schools. They cut funding in 2011, and now the governor and key budget writers say they have no intention of restoring the lost money, even though an improved economy enables them to do so. Instead, Perry favors draining away more tax dollars from public schools for private school vouchers.

The governor also continues to misstate the purpose of the Rainy Day Fund, which now has a balance of $11.8 billion, more than enough to restore funding for education and take care of other state needs. To hear Perry tell it, the Rainy Day Fund was designed to help the state recover from natural disasters, such as hurricanes, when, in fact, it was intended to help address temporary, financial emergencies, such as the Legislature encountered two years ago.

Now, it should be used to help the state dig out of an educational funding disaster that the governor and the legislative majority have created.

Perry says he doesn’t want to dip into the fund to meet “ongoing expenses.” But restoring money that he cut from public schools two years ago is not an ongoing expense. It is damage repair.

Instead of repairing damage to education, however, Perry would rather inflict more.



Business group seeks tax cuts instead of school money


The Texas Association of Business (TAB) loves to hold news conferences and issue press releases about improving quality in the public schools, but now it’s time for the organization to put its money where its rhetoric has long been.

The legislative leadership has announced budget proposals that fail to restore the $5.4 billion slashed from public education two years ago. And, Gov. Rick Perry – the budget-cutter-in-chief and a longtime beneficiary of TAB’s political support – is even promoting the idea of using a vastly improved revenue picture to reduce taxes instead of repairing the damage to public schools.

Is the TAB leadership lining up with educators and other people who actually do support the public schools and demanding that the funding that was cut last session – more than $500 per student – be restored? That would be the right thing for TAB to do, of course, since our state’s employers – like our children – have much to lose if the governor and the legislative majority were to be allowed to continue to hack away at public education.

Alas, TAB has been silent on the budget cuts. But TAB President and CEO Bill Hammond has quickly endorsed the governor’s tax-cut idea and has jumped to the head of the line with his hand held out. According to the Quorum Report, Hammond is proposing his own plan for about $4 billion in tax cuts for business, including reductions in the franchise tax.

Keep in mind this is the same franchise tax that already has been notoriously underperforming and has never come close to replacing the revenue lost to the local school property tax cuts that the governor engineered in 2006. Hammond’s proposal would dig an even deeper budgetary hole for the public schools.

If Hammond really wants to help the cause of public education – and the future of Texas’ business community – he should demand that the Legislature bust its artificially low spending cap and, if necessary, dig into the $11.8 billion Rainy Day Fund to restore the cuts to the schools, health care and other important state services that were inflicted in 2011.

Hammond needs to understand that strong public schools require a lot more than demanding, as he frequently does, that students be bombarded with high-stakes standardized tests.