Texas Association of Business

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.



Missing the point on graduation rates


Whether you greeted it with applause or skepticism, the recent report crediting Texas with one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country will have a very short shelf life if the powers that be in Austin don’t stop undermining the public schools.

After the U.S. Department of Education released a study crediting Texas with a graduation rate of 86 percent, Gov. Rick Perry’s appointee, Education Commissioner Michael Williams, declared in an op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman: “Our public schools are delivering a high-quality education. Thanks to hard work from teachers, administrators, students and parents, more Texas students are earning a high school diploma than ever before.”

Williams failed to point out, however, that the graduation rate was based on the 2010-11 school year – before the governor and his legislative allies cut $5.4 billion from public school budgets, resulting in the loss of 11,000 teaching jobs. Consequently, thousands of children in overcrowded classrooms didn’t keep receiving as much individual attention as many need to stay on a successful track to graduation. Pre-kindergarten and other important dropout prevention programs also fell victim to the budget ax.

Yes, teachers, administrators and students are working hard, and they will continue to work hard. But the resources they need to keep succeeding at a high level – manageable class sizes, up-to-date textbooks and facilities – were cut back. The 2010-11 graduation rate cited in the federal report also was based on the old TAKS test, not the more difficult STAAR tests that legislators imposed on students and teachers even as they were slashing funding for classrooms. How long will Williams – or his successor – be able to keep bragging about graduation rates without a strong commitment to public education from the governor and the legislative majority?

Williams needs to use his position as state education commissioner to demand that commitment, beginning with a restoration of the funding cuts. But, so far, Williams has had little to say about funding public schools. Instead, he has joined the governor in advocating for private schools. Both are among state “leaders” who would drain even more tax dollars from public education to fund a private school voucher program. If Williams is as proud of the public schools as he says he is, why take more steps to weaken them with privatization?

Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, a Capitol insider who apparently thinks standardized tests are more important than adequate education funding, also wrote an op-ed about the graduation report. But he questioned the accuracy of it, coming as it did behind other estimates indicating a much lower graduation rate.

“In order to focus appropriate attention on this issue, a more honest reporting of the numbers would be helpful,” Hammond wrote in Texas Weekly. “Educators must not be allowed to take their eye off of the problem. A falsely optimistic report shouldn’t stop educators from working towards programs that graduate kids with diplomas that mean something.”

Business has much to gain from a strong public education system, and if Hammond and his group are trying to correct the biggest problems facing the public schools today, they need to start by looking in the mirror. The biggest problems facing the public schools today are an inadequate and inequitable funding system and the push for privatization. And, the Texas Association of Business has been a longtime political and financial supporter of Gov. Perry and the budget-cutters and education profiteers in the Legislature.

Perhaps Hammond should do more than bemoan poor test scores and worry about graduation rates in underfunded schools. Perhaps he should work to convince the governor and his other political allies to provide the resources necessary to educate a workforce that will benefit the Texas economy and the businesses he represents.





Whining in the wind over education “reform”

Self-styled education “experts” are a dime a dozen and contribute about that much to educational quality in the public schools. Although that description could apply to a number of individuals and groups cluttering the political landscape these days, I am referring specifically this time to the Texas Association of Business (TAB) and the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).

TAB and TPPF are members of a group calling itself the Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workforce, which is trying to convince the Legislature to save the ill-timed and highly unpopular STAAR testing program. Many parents and educators, on the other hand, believe Texas school children would be much better off if the Legislature were to toss STAAR onto the trash heap next session. And, more than 850 school districts have signed a petition criticizing the state’s over-reliance on standarized, high-stakes testing.

It simply is wrong to base a school accountability system on a single collection of high stakes tests, which is what STAAR does. And it is made worse by the fact that STAAR, a higher hurdle than the TAKS tests it replaced, was imposed on teachers and school children as the legislative majority was slashing $5.4 billion — or more than $500 per student — from school funding. In other words, lawmakers demanded more success from children and teachers while cutting back on the resources – smaller classes, up-to-date books, teaching aides – that help them succeed.

Yet, to hear TAB, TPPF and their allies tell it, you would think that the demise of STAAR would be the end of educated civilization, at least in Texas. Their alliance held a news conference in Austin yesterday and plans others around the state in advance of the legislative session. TAB President and CEO Bill Hammond defended the state’s effort to hold local schools “accountable” for the performance of their students.

Hammond’s declaration to the contrary, the future of public education in Texas does not rest on children’s passing rates on STAAR. Texas already has great teachers and strong school administrators. The future of public education in Texas rests on the commitment of the state leadership in Austin to quality public schools that are adequately and equitably funded. That is why the Texas State Teachers Association continues to protest the budget cuts, and that is why 600 school districts have sued state government over education funding.

Have TAB, TPPF or their allies tried to hold the governor and the legislative majority accountable for their lack of support of public schools? No. In fact, in their own hypocritical fashion, they have done a lot to undermine public schools. TAB is a long-time supporter of Gov. Rick Perry and many members of the legislative majority, which voted last session to cut $5.4 billion from public education and may try to squeeze more money out of classrooms next year. They like Perry’s insistence on keeping taxes low, even at the expense of education and other state services. And, TPPF promotes government privatization for the benefit of its members, and it encourages all the budget-cutting. In TPPF’s view, the more privatization and profiteering at the expense of public education, the better. TAB and TPPF also propose the siphoning of more tax dollars from public education to support a private school voucher program.

TAB and TPPF are part of the problem. Neither group knows the first thing about education “reform.” So, keep that in mind as they continue their whine-song over STAAR. If they really want to improve the public schools – and the rank-and-file TAB business membership should demand it –they should demand that the governor and the legislative majority start restoring school funding.

Otherwise, they are whining in the wind.