school budget cuts

Neglected special ed kids are the victims of elections


Elections can have devastating consequences, and I am not talking about Donald Trump. I am talking about the tens of thousands of Texas children who have not been getting the special education services to which they are legally entitled and the people responsible for their neglect.

The fault does not lie with teachers, principals or school superintendents, and it only partially rests with the Texas Education Agency, which arbitrarily imposed an artificially low cap on special education enrollments 12 years ago and then tried to deny it after news of the outrageous act hit the fan.

The ultimate blame rests with Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, former Gov. Rick Perry and the legislative majority that for years now has been deliberately under-funding Texas’ public schools. TEA imposed the “de facto” special education cap in 2004, the year after Perry and the legislative majority made deep budgetary cuts to avoid raising state taxes and then ignored the consequences suffered by real people, including vulnerable special education kids, who have to rely on public services.

The same political mindset was in charge in 2011, when even deeper budget cuts, including $5.4 billion to public education alone, were imposed. While the legislative majority bragged about holding the line on taxes, disabled children and their parents, foster children and a host of other vulnerable Texans continued to suffer – out of sight and out of mind, as far as the budget-cutters were concerned.

Now, thousands of special education parents are outraged, while Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick and many of their colleagues in the legislative majority continue to resist calls for adequate school funding, even as they continue to win elections. Patrick claims vouchers are the answer, but they are not. Most private schools won’t accept students with significant special needs, and those that do charge tuition much higher than a voucher would cover.

State government is spending less to educate each public school student than it did 10 years ago, and on average is spending $2,700 less on each student than the national average.

The hundreds of special education parents who have been venting their anger at public hearings with state and federal bureaucrats this week have taken an important first step. Now, they need to take that anger where it really belongs — to the state Capitol — and direct it at the elected officials who ultimately are responsible for the neglect their children have been suffering.

Elections have consequences for real people, and so do budget cuts. Real people have to demand the help their children need, and they need to demand it from the elected officials who can do something about it but have been refusing to do so.




TEA’s excuses on special education not convincing


The Texas Education Agency tried to cover its bureaucratic posterior and transfer the blame to school districts for leaving tens of thousands of special education students without the required services to which they are entitled under federal law. But all the rhetoric in TEA’s “don’t blame us” letter to the federal government doesn’t change the fact that the agency was in the very middle of the mess.

TEA denied that its “Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System” for special education was a cap on enrollment, but the fact remains that it resulted in districts limiting special education enrollment to 8.5 percent of students, a significant drop from the 12 percent of students receiving such services when the monitoring system was started in 2004.

The agency also said that the policy was not designed to save money, even though 2004, not so incidentally, was one year after the legislative majority had imposed budget cuts to deal with a budgetary shortfall. The legislative majority followed those cuts with $5.4 billion in additional education cuts in 2011, and millions of school children – including special education kids – continue to suffer the consequences.

TEA told the U.S. Department of Education that it “does not have any specific evidence indicating there has been a systematic denial of special education services to eligible students with disabilities.”

Yet, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle, which broke the story about the shameful policy, determined that as many as 250,000 children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, mental illnesses, speech impediments, blindness and deafness have been denied needed services.

The agency’s explanation doesn’t look like it will change the resolve of House Speaker Joe Straus and other legislators to address the issue. State Sen. Jose Menendez of San Antonio, for one, still plans to file legislation to force an end to the policy.

“I think it’s preposterous that they refuse to own up to this arbitrary cap,” Menendez told the Chronicle. “And if they can’t own up to it, how can I trust them when they say they’re going to eliminate it. If they can’t admit that it was wrong, how can I trust that they’ll fix it?”

Ending the policy is a good step. Lawmakers also need to increase education funding to discourage similar bureaucratic moves in the future.




Lt. Gov. Patrick crusading to under-fund schools, deny basic services


WFAA-TV caught Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick doing what he does best, which isn’t representing the best interests of school kids, educators and other Texans. What Dan does best is being hypocritical, and in this case he was publicly berating a Republican county judge who is simply trying to provide necessary public services to the people who live in his South Texas county – something Patrick doesn’t really care about.

Patrick, in his patented demagogic fashion, lectured the judge for testifying at a Senate committee hearing in Arlington that he needed to temporarily raise local property taxes to replace revenue lost to dropping oil prices. Rural Atascosa County, which the judge represents, was heavily dependent on oil production, which has been drastically curtailed. And now public services – including the local sheriff’s department, jail and courts – are running low on money, the judge explained.

But our lieutenant governor did not express concern that the county judge needs to make sure local law enforcement has the funds to protect and serve his community. Patrick instead is on a crusade – he has been ever since he was a showboating talk radio host in Houston years ago – to strictly restrict how much cities, counties and school districts can increase property taxes. The idea perhaps would be easier for local officials to take if Patrick also had the desire to offer better financial support from Austin, but he doesn’t. In fact, he has a history of reducing support from Austin.

As a state senator, for example, Patrick voted to cut $5.4 billion from public school budgets in 2011 and voted against the entire state budget (including all state funding for school districts, counties and other local governments) in 2013. And one of his top priorities during his first session as lieutenant governor last year was to reduce state business taxes, while public schools and other important state needs remain under-funded.

The county judge wasn’t the only recent victim of Patrick’s hypocrisy. The lieutenant governor also has been lambasting university regents for raising tuition, even though universities say higher tuition is necessary to fill shortages in appropriations from Patrick and his colleagues in the legislative majority.

Patrick is a showman, but Texas needs more than that in the state’s second highest office.




Letting political ideology gut public education


Sam Brownback is not a well-known name in Texas, but he is about as huge an obstacle to public education as, say, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is in the Lone Star State. As governor of Kansas, Brownback already has inflicted great harm on public education in that state and apparently is determined not to stop until he can herd kids into one-room school houses and equip them with slate tablets.

That may be all the ravaged Kansas education budget can afford when he and his legislative cohorts are through trying to repeal the 20th century.

State funding for public education in Kansas has slipped so badly under Brownback’s watch that some schools have closed and several districts ended classes early last year to save money. We can hope that this doesn’t eventually happen in Texas if the Texas Supreme Court reverses a lower court order for the Legislature to enact an improved and constitutional school finance system. The state’s appeal of the lower court decision is still pending before the high court in Austin.

In a similar case in Kansas, The New York Times reported, the Kansas Supreme Court has determined that cuts in education funding violate that state’s constitution, and the court has ordered the state’s public schools to be shut down altogether if the state doesn’t provide more money to poorer districts by June 30.

The Kansas Legislature has enacted a plan to provide more money to those districts. But, facing the possibility of another, more-far reaching decision on school funding, the governor and his conservative legislative cronies – who also are unhappy over some other recent court decisions — are mounting a drive to unseat Supreme Court justices at the polls.

For the governor and his allies, political ideology obviously trumps the separation of powers doctrine that is such an important part of constitutional law in the United States. Sadly, they also are letting their slash-and-burn, small-government ideology gut public education.

If the Texas Supreme Court also orders Texas’ leaders to quit under-funding our public schools — and who knows if it will – our governor, lieutenant governor and many of our legislators are likely to be unhappy as well. But their potential unhappiness is much less important than the future of Texas school children.