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The coronavirus’ looming hit on school finances was unexpected; Abbott’s and Patrick’s hit was premeditated

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have made comfortable governmental careers for themselves by attacking government, appealing to people who wish government would go away.

Guess what? Government was the first thing many of Abbott’s and Patrick’s admirers, among other people, thought of when they suddenly found themselves without jobs after the coronavirus disaster struck Texas. They started flooding state government’s unemployment website and phone lines.

Eventually, Texas will begin to rebuild after the pandemic subsides, but it won’t be easy, and the coronavirus may return next year. The economy has been hammered, and it will be difficult for many people as well as governments to recover. These include local governments – the cities and counties that are providing emergency services as well as the normal daily services that people take for granted, the hospital districts that are providing care to COVID-19 victims and the school districts that are continuing to teach children under difficult, challenging conditions.

The coronavirus will cost local governments untold millions in lost sales tax revenue because of the business closures and reduced economic activity during the emergency, but this is only the second economic disaster to recently strike local governments in Texas, including school districts.

The first disaster was planned and carried out by Abbott, Patrick and their anti-government allies in the Legislature about this time last year, long before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. Last spring, Abbott and Patrick, et al, were ramming through the Legislature a law that will sharply restrict the other major source of revenue for local governments – property taxes.

The new law will limit the ability of cities and counties to increase revenue from property taxes, excluding taxes on new construction, by more than 3.5 percent a year, without local voter approval. Local officials warned the governor and legislators, even before anyone anticipated a pandemic, that the limit would severely restrict their ability to provide normal public services, but the anti-government governor and lieutenant governor wouldn’t listen.

The same law will limit the ability of school districts to increase property tax revenue by more than 2.5 percent a year, and school districts will not be allowed to ask voters for an exception, even though property taxes are their only local revenue option.

It is true that the Legislature increased state funding for schools by several billion dollars last year, but that soon will be gone. Next year’s legislative session instead will probably be cutting state spending to deal with its own revenue shortfall stemming from the pandemic. In addition to the loss of huge amounts of sales tax revenue – state government’s main tax source – oil and gas tax revenues also have fallen. Driving and gasoline consumption have been sharply reduced during the health emergency, and world oil supplies also are keeping prices low.

All this means educators and students may be left holding a very depleted bag of resources. The pandemic was unforeseen, but Abbott’s and Patrick’s folly was premeditated.

Clay Robison

The emergency use of online learning encourages the peddlers of privatization

Crises and emergencies bring out the heroic best in people, but, unfortunately, they also bring out the opportunists. Hurricanes and tornadoes often are followed by the price-gougers, overcharging victims for bottles of water, gasoline and other necessities. Now we have the COVID-19 pandemic, and the peddlers of education privatization are circling.

First, we had Education Secretary Betsy DeVos renaming and proposing vouchers in the form of “microgrants.” Now, we have a proposal from the Koch-funded Mercatus Center for lawmakers to allow school districts, in response to the pandemic, to “repurpose taxpayer resources meant for bus routes, food service, and facility maintenance, to name a few, and use this spending to purchase education services from online providers.”

In other words, since thousands of school districts around the country are immersed in virtual learning while buildings are closed during the current emergency, why not keep it up? Or, so this proposal recommends. Stop spending tax dollars on buses and bus drivers, cafeterias and cafeteria workers and maintenance employees and spend it to beef up virtual learning instead. Mercatus also gives a plug to K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, two private virtual providers eager to dig more deeply into state tax dollars.

In its proposal, Mercatus cites regulatory and technical obstacles to virtual schooling. But as the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) points out in it’s analysis, it ignores the limitations of virtual schooling, which many Texas educators and parents are discovering now. NEPS also discusses reasons why policymakers for the long term should never try to replace the teacher in the classroom and the support staff on campus with computers. Reasons such as:

  • The broader purposes of schools, including socialization and nutrition. Those free and reduced-price school lunches are the only meals many school kids get each day.
  • Quality. NEPC cites research on the “consistently and troublingly low” learning outcomes of online schools.
  • Equity. Online schools amplify inequities that worsen the disadvantages of some students, including the many low-income kids who don’t have home computers and Internet access at home.Students with special needs. Virtual schooling is frequently inaccessible to students with special needs and can be an obstacle to their needed access to therapeutic services and their federal right to learn in the least restrictive environment.
  • Fraud, waste and abuse. Education tax dollars are too precious to waste on opportunistic entrepreneurs who often promise more than they deliver.

A computer can be a valuable supplemental education tool, and online learning is a reasonable education alternative during the current emergency, when school buildings are closed to protect public health. But over the long term, computers can’t effectively replace teachers or provide students the important socialization and support services that school campuses do.

Clay Robison

In a crisis, trust the experts, not the nattering nabobs of nonsense

Millions of Americans don’t want to hear the truth. They would rather listen instead to echoes of their own interpretations and distortions of the truth. The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic is showing just how absurd – and deadly – that bone-headedness can be.

Americans of all political persuasions can be guilty of preferring spin to truth, but the coronavirus has brought out the worst in the nattering nabobs of nonsense on the right who daily entertain their listeners and readers with the conspiracies and fantasies they think their audiences want to hear and read. Radio and TV commentators Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity were among several of their crowd downplaying, dismissing and ridiculing the warnings of experts as the coronavirus was beginning to loom as a for-real threat over the United States.

“A review of hundreds of hours of programming and social media traffic from Jan. 1 through mid-March – when the White House started urging people to stay home and limit their exposure to others – shows that doubt, cynicism and misinformation about the virus took root among (President) Trump’s boosters in the right-wing media as the number of confirmed cases in the United States grew,” reporter Jeremy W. Peters writes in The New York Times. (See article)

It is unknown how much the right-wing media’s misinformation influenced Trump’s own initial attempt to downplay the seriousness of the virus, but his political base includes their audiences.

More recently, Peters writes in the article linked below, as the coronavirus pandemic has expanded in the U.S. and the number of deaths has increased, the right-wing commentators have changed tactics and started blaming liberals — for what, I am not sure. As far as I know the virus is apolitical. It attacks liberals, conservatives, moderates, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, independents and know-nothings.

And, of course, there is blame for the media, the mainstream media, that is.

“It’s so unfair. It’s so unfair,” Trump said last week in an interview with Hannity on Fox News. “If we could only have a fair media in this country, our country.”

The media are contracting this virus too, Mr. President, and so are educators, the people who actually believe in science and health experts. So quit whining.

(An explanatory note: For those who may not know, the late Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s first vice president and attack dog, used the phrase, “nattering nabobs of negativism,” to attack the mainstream news media who dared to criticize Nixon back in the Watergate era. Agnew resigned in October 1973, less than a year before Nixon did, and pled guilty to tax evasion to avoid being indicted on kickback and bribery charges for schemes dating back to when he was Baltimore County executive and governor of Maryland. I never thought I would find inspiration in Spiro Agnew, but he did have a way with words.)

Clay Robison

Whom do you trust? Dan Patrick or the scientists?

Science versus politics is a familiar war in Texas and the rest of the country. Some obvious examples: Evolution versus the State Board of Education, climate change versus much of the political establishment and the anti-vaxxers who have helped measles make a comeback in the classroom.

More recently, as the coronavirus pandemic has raged, we have had the infectious disease expert versus the denier-in-chief. Politely, but persistently, Dr. Anthony Fauci has repeatedly corrected President Trump’s optimistic and misleading statements about the health emergency, using scientific facts and projections to counter the president’s desperate attempt to rescue a reelection campaign while COVID-19 cases are beginning to soar and the economy is tanking.

And now we have Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Trump’s chief point man in Texas, chiming in on the side of absurdity, urging a resumption of life-as-normal when life for most people right now is anything but normal. Let’s defy the pandemic and the warnings of scientists and put everybody back to work and rescue the economy, he says.

What he really means is let’s reopen schools, restaurants, bars and other businesses, boost the stock market and help Donald Trump get reelected. Like the president, Patrick is dangerously putting politics over science and, most importantly, over countless lives.

“Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country. Don’t do that. Don’t ruin this great American dream,” he said on Fox News the other night, echoing similar comments by Trump.

We all wish Patrick were correct, but most of us know better. We all would like people to be able to go back to work today. But we also know that would lead to an even greater health and economic disaster, assuming the scientists and health experts are correct. And I will trust the scientists and health experts any day over opportunist political ideologues like Patrick and Trump.

“We’ll take care of ourselves,” Patrick said, knowing full well that, as lieutenant governor, he will have no difficulty getting the best medical treatment available should he contract the virus. Millions of his constituents are not so fortunate. Five million Texans don’t even have health insurance, in part because of the inadequate health care Patrick hasn’t lifted a finger to improve.

He and Trump are playing a very dangerous political game with Americans’ health.

—Clay Robison