Wendy Davis

A strong school system needs more than more of the same


This analogy may be an overextended stretch into the dramatic, but Texas’ growing public education system reminds me a little of the Titanic. It is an ambitious, enormous venture with serious, basic flaws. The Titanic sank too easily and didn’t have enough lifeboats. Our education system is not adequately or fairly funded and, like the Titanic, is on a collision course with trouble.

As attorney general, Greg Abbott continues to defend the indefensible school finance system, including $5.4 billion in budget cuts, despite a judge’s strongly worded ruling that school funding is inadequate, unconstitutional and overdue for a real remedy. As a candidate for governor, Abbott issues little more than hollow statements about making Texas education No. 1 in the country without offering anything that would realistically bring that about.

Abbott represents “status quo-plus,” as The Dallas Morning News noted in an editorial this week, and for Texas school kids and educators that means more crowded classrooms, more standardized tests and more experimentation with school privatization for a select few students, while a growing number of parents fume and worry.

If Abbott were captain of the Titanic, as the old cliché suggests, he would be busily rearranging the deck chairs, oblivious to the iceberg looming ever closer.

Wendy Davis wants to avoid the iceberg, and, as governor, would set a new course for Texas schools, beginning with a realistic school funding plan to meet the challenges of a public education system growing by 80,000 students a year. She will work to expand crucial pre-kindergarten programs that will determine classroom success for thousands of children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

She will cut back on standardized tests, promote college readiness and treat teachers and other school employees as the professionals they are, including efforts to begin moving teacher pay toward the national average.

Davis has been accused by some, including The Dallas Morning News, of not knowing – or avoiding – how she would pay for these needed educational improvements. Some have suggested that, as governor, she would promote a major tax increase. In truth, she won’t because, one, the conservative Legislature won’t pass a major tax increase, and, two, higher taxes aren’t necessary to begin accomplishing what Davis wants to do.

Billions of additional dollars will be available from existing taxes, the comptroller’s office told the House Ways and Means Committee a couple of weeks ago. Sales tax revenue has been increasing by about 5.5 percent a year, thanks to the strong economy, and the Rainy Day Fund balance is sitting at $8.4 billion and will soon grow to double digits.

“I will set a vision,” Davis said during her second debate with Abbott. A vision that is strong enough to see the iceberg coming – and do something about it.

When excuses about school funding fail, some people lie


If you really want to do something, even if it is difficult, you try to do it. If you don’t want to do something, even if it is important, you try to avoid it with one excuse or another and hope it goes away. If you are publicly put on the spot about your procrastination, then you may squirm, mislead or even lie.

Clearly, Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor, doesn’t want to do anything to improve education funding for Texas’ 5 million public school students. So, the first sentence above doesn’t apply to him. He has chosen the second route.

When state District Judge John Dietz issued a strongly worded opinion declaring that the state’s school finance system was inadequate, unfair and unconstitutional, Abbott immediately made plans to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.

With a little luck, Abbott figures, the Supreme Court eventually will overturn Dietz’s ruling, to the delight of the legislative majority and of Abbott himself, whose campaign promises to improve public education contrast sharply with the fact that he continues to defend $5.4 billion in school budget cuts. Or, an appeal, at the very least, would give Abbott some relief before Election Day from pesky questions about how he, as governor, would address a school finance issue he has no intention of trying to address.

When Democratic nominee Wendy Davis asked Abbott during last week’s gubernatorial debate whether he would try to settle the school lawsuit, Abbott replied that a law enacted by the Legislature in 2011 prohibited the attorney general from seeking a settlement.

In truth, that law simply provides that the Legislature would have to approve a settlement negotiated by the attorney general. The law does nothing to prohibit Abbott from seeking a settlement. Nor, does it require him to continue wasting tax dollars on an appeal while Texas school children continue to be shortchanged of the resources they need to succeed.

Abbott either deliberately lied during the televised debate, or he isn’t competent enough to know the state law governing his office.

Davis, as governor, will advocate for an adequate and fair funding system for all students and take advantage of increased tax collections in a strong economy to pay for it.

Last week, the comptroller’s revenue estimator told the House Ways and Means Committee that sales tax revenue increased by 5.5 percent last year and is expected to experience similar, strong growth this year. That means billions of additional tax dollars for state needs. Additionally, the Rainy Day Fund is at $8.4 billion and is expected to reach double digits within a few more months.

Financially, there is no excuse for the state not to begin working on a strong school funding plan now. Abbott lacks the political will to either lead on the issue or get out of the way.


Fighting the testing plague


Sen. Leticia Van de Putte renewed the war on the testing plague yesterday. She vowed to significantly cut back on standardized testing in the public schools and give students more time to actually experience the joy of learning, rather than the dread of bubbling the wrong bubble.

That goal alone (plus the fact that she is fighting to save Texas from Dan Patrick) is enough of a reason, although there are many more, to vote for Van de Putte for lieutenant governor this November.  So, you teachers who are sick of teaching to the test and you parents who are sick of your children being sick of testing, applaud Leticia – and then vote – because testing advocates don’t want to release their stranglehold on Texas classrooms.

Even as Van de Putte and gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis are fighting against excessive testing, the Texas Education Agency is getting ready to launch in about 70 school districts this fall a teacher evaluation system that will be partly based on test scores. State Education Commissioner Michael Williams agreed to the program as a condition for getting a U.S. Department of Education waiver from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

School districts had to agree to participate because the education commissioner has no authority under state law to force districts to base teacher evaluations on test scores. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, one of the state’s largest school districts, declined the commissioner’s offer to take part.

The election of Van de Putte and Davis could go a long way toward heading off legislative approval of such an evaluation scheme because Williams is likely to try to get the Legislature to endorse a similar plan.

Much research in recent years has discredited using standardized test scores – or so-called value-added measures (VAM) – to evaluate teachers. The process gives an incomplete and unfair picture of a teacher’s performance, researchers have concluded, although so-called education “reformers,” including the Obama administration, persist in trying to ram it down our throats.

If these misnamed “reformers” get their way, testing will become even more stressful – for both teachers and students – and further erode the time that children need for real learning. That threat makes Van de Putte’s stand even more welcome.



No defense for Abbott on education


You could say that Democrat Wendy Davis put Republican Greg Abbott on the defensive in the first exchange over education of their gubernatorial race. But, in truth, Abbott already had put himself on the defensive because he was on the wrong side of education long before he ever launched his gubernatorial campaign.

As Davis correctly pointed out, Abbott persisted in defending an unconstitutional school finance system, even after the legislative majority had slashed $5.4 billion from public schools. Abbott’s response that he was required by the state constitution to defend state laws was weak, coming from someone who aspires to lead Texas.

He, instead, could have demanded that the Legislature give him a school finance law that was defensible under that very same constitution. It didn’t require another court order to point out the obvious unfairness and inadequacy of the current system, but that is exactly what Texas got, despite Abbott’s attempted defense.

Moreover, Abbott dug himself into an even deeper hole on education a few weeks ago by announcing a so-called “budget plan” that would result in even deeper cuts to public schools and other critical state needs. The elements of Abbott’s budget proposal were designed simply to appeal to right-wing ideologues who want to continue to cut every government program in sight, without regard for the consequences.

All of which makes Abbott’s sounding board tour – or whatever he is calling it – of selected public schools seem very puny. At his first stop in Plano the other day, he promoted computers and online learning. In doing so, he tried to ignore the underlying financial struggle of many school districts with overcrowded classrooms, inadequate supplies, thousands of children whose families can’t afford computers and teachers having to take second jobs to make ends meet.

Plano ISD, incidentally, was one of several hundred school districts involved in the school finance lawsuit against the state, the lawsuit that Abbott lost. Had Davis been governor, she would have vetoed the budget cuts, forced the Legislature to try again and may have helped the state avoid the lawsuit.

Davis cut to the bottom line, while Abbott stammered.