school security

When you don’t want to pay for schools, talk nonsense


There are many obstacles to public education in the Texas Legislature, and one is Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, who opened his mouth this week in a committee hearing on improving school security and delivered nonsense.

Nonsense, of course, is not a rare commodity in the halls of the state Capitol, but Huffines’ refusal to acknowledge the reality of budget-strapped school districts was particularly galling.

A study committee, of which Huffines is a member, was discussing how putting more counselors and psychologists in public schools could help prevent school violence. Experts believe expanded mental health services for students could help identify and address potential problems before they erupt in another school shooting or some other outburst of violence.

Largely because of state under-funding, however, most school districts have a serious shortage of counselors and psychologists. According to testimony before the committee, Texas has about 12,500 school counselors and 1,934 school psychologists to serve about 5.4 million students.

That’s about one counselor for every 430 students, and one psychologist for every 2,800 students. Moreover, many of those counselors are spending much of their time helping kids pass STAAR tests and college entrance exams to the exclusion of about everything else.

Huffines, however, denies that funding is a problem. He is an ally of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick who believes that public schools don’t need more money and instead should give up some of their funding for privatization schemes like vouchers.

“School districts are capable, certainly have the authority to hire more counselors,” Huffines said. “The Legislature doesn’t necessarily need to be involved. It could be involved, but this issue could also be taken at the ISD level because they have complete discretion.”

Yes, senator, districts have the discretion to hire more counselors by firing more teachers and cramming more kids into overcrowded classrooms. Or maybe they could start charging kids to ride the bus or double the price of school lunches – for those children who can afford to pay.

Or maybe they just could quit buying textbooks and computers. Do they really need textbooks or computers when they have discretion?

School districts also could raise local property taxes, something that Huffines would be sure to attack them for.

Discretion can’t close the state funding gap. Only the Legislature can do that, and as long as people like Don Huffines are in the legislative majority, that won’t happen.

Huffines purportedly represents state Senate District 16 in Dallas County. Fortunately, District 16 voters who really value public education will have some discretion – real discretion — in the November election. They can Vote Education First and replace Huffines with Nathan Johnson.

Nathan Johnson is an education advocate and school volunteer who has been endorsed by TSTA-PAC. He will fight for adequate funding for public schools and not pretend that “discretion” alone can pay for increased school security or other education programs.

Texas senators agree on the need for school mental health services, but can they fund it?



Who is going to pay for more school counselors?


In his recently announced school safety plan, Gov. Greg Abbott recognizes the potential importance of school counselors in preventing campus violence. But I wonder if he ever gave school counselors a second thought before the Santa Fe shootings. As governor, he certainly hasn’t made much of an effort to pay for them.

At present, Texas doesn’t even require schools to have counselors. We are one of 20 states that don’t. So, our schools on average have 684 students for every counselor, the fifth highest student-to-counselor ratio in the country, according to information from the American School Counselor Association that was reported in the Texas Tribune.

As the state’s share of public education funding has steadily declined under Abbott, school districts have had to cut corners on counselors and a lot of other important student programs. And many of the counselors who districts have been able to hire are focused on academic issues, including STAAR-crazed student assessments, leaving little time for student behaviorial screening.

Abbott hints that he may recommend the Legislature increase funding for more counselors, but he also may prefer to leave the lion’s share of that big-ticket item to school districts and local property taxpayers. In the meantime, he suggests changes in funding restrictions so districts can “pool (existing) resources to better prioritize students’ emotional and mental health needs.”

If the governor is serious about this proposal, he will come up with a plan for increased state funding to help districts hire the additional thousands of counselors who will be needed for student behavioral as well as academic issues.

After Santa Fe shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott wants to put more counselors in schools. Educators say that’s not enough.


Abbott has a school safety plan. Now what, governor?


Gov. Greg Abbott has a school safety plan. Now what? More specifically, how is he going to pay for it? Or maybe more to the point, who is going to pay for it?

So far, Abbott has identified about $110 million, including federal funds. But his proposals, if adopted and carried out to any meaningful degree, will cost billions, a very pricey proposition for a governor who has been tight-fisted about education spending.

Here are a few of the big ticket items:

# Improving the infrastructure and design of Texas schools to reduce security threats. Texas has more than 8,700 school campuses. Not all of them will be redesigned or “hardened,” as the security people say, but if the governor’s plan is carried out, many will be, and some may get metal detectors at several thousand dollars apiece. This item alone could easily cost many times the $110 million the governor has identified.

# Hiring more professionally trained school security guards, a worthwhile, but recurring expense that many school districts and local taxpayers may not be able to afford.

# Hiring more school counselors to improve school mental health services and identify students who may pose a danger to themselves and others. This idea also can save lives, but thousands of additional counselors are needed across Texas, and, like the security guards, they will have to be paid and receive benefits every year, year in and year out.

There are other costs, including training costs that would be associated with the governor’s proposed expansion of the school marshal program to arm more teachers and school employees, which TSTA opposes.

Twenty of the governor’s proposals, half of the 40 pieces of his plan, will require funding, according to an analysis by the Texas House Democratic Caucus. And so far the governor hasn’t identified a funding source for 13 of those 20.

Phillip Martin, the caucus’ executive director, also pointed out that most of the funding the governor has proposed, $62.1 million, comes from federal grants for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program. Congress appropriated some of this money for school safety but also intended for some of the funding to pay for STEM education for girls, minority students and low-income kids.

Abbott needs to begin making plans now for the Legislature to raise substantial amounts of state funding to carry out his plan. School districts and local taxpayers alone simply cannot afford the cost associated with it, partly because the governor and his legislative allies have persisted for years in under-funding public education.

Part of the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s multi-billion-dollar savings account, can be used to help school districts improve the security of their facilities. The Rainy Day Fund is taxpayer money, and Abbott needs to quit hoarding it.

For the longer term, the governor needs to insist that the School Finance Commission come up with an improved, adequate school funding system, not only to improve school security but also to improve learning opportunities for all of Texas’ school kids. And if he is still in office in January, he needs to demand that the Legislature enact it.

Otherwise, the school safety plan will amount to little more than playing politics in an election year.





No school marshals in Dallas ISD


Freshman state Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas has spent a lot of time bragging on himself for sponsoring the new, so-called “school marshal” law, a legislative response to the tragic Connecticut school shootings. So have many of his colleagues who voted for the bill, but the Dallas ISD police chief, for one, knows the law is mostly a political product – and a potentially dangerous one at that.

The law allows school districts to designate certain teachers or other school employees who have concealed handgun licenses to bring guns to school, allegedly to beef up campus security.

As reported in the Dallas Morning News, DISD Police Chief Craig Miller testified against the bill before a legislative committee and repeated his opposition today in remarks at a regional crime commission meeting.

“I question giving a teacher a couple weeks training with a gun and saying go out there and do the job,” he said, obviously aware that trying to defend a school campus against a heavily armed, maniacal intruder is difficult, even for professional police officers.

Realistically, for many teachers, it would be almost impossible.

The “school marshal” program is optional, and Miller said DISD will not participate in it. The district, instead, has invested several million dollars in cameras, buzzers, electronic card readers and other security measures for campuses.

Many small districts don’t have campus police or enough money for effective security measures. Their only option may be the school marshal law.

But adding guns to campuses by arming teachers is much less a realistic answer to protecting children and school employees than it was a political effort by some legislators to “address” a horrendous shooting tragedy without offending the National Rifle Association.