Business handwringing over education isn’t enough

The Texas Association of Business (TAB) does a good job of wringing its hands over the state’s educational problems. The latest example is a billboard that TAB erected in Austin to bemoan the high rate of dropouts from college and the long time it takes many other students to get degrees.College completion rates obviously are a major concern, but TAB leaders ignore some realities, including the fact that they themselves are part of the problem.

The Austin billboard notes that only 4 percent of students at Austin Community College finish their coursework in three years and asks, “Is that a good use of tax dollars?”

In remarks to the media, Bill Hammond, TAB’s president and CEO, also demanded that Texas do a better job of getting high school graduates ready for college. He said he hoped his group’s campaign would prompt the public to “start demanding a better product from our schools.”

TAB, however, ignores the fact that many ACC students have to work to pay their way through college. Community colleges have always included large numbers of students who juggle jobs with classes. So, of course, it takes a while for many to complete their class work.

The business group also ignores the fact that even “traditional” students at community colleges and universities throughout Texas are finding it increasingly difficult to get degrees “on time” because soaring tuition costs and dwindling financial aid are taking a financial toll on their families. Some are being forced to take time off to work, and others are dropping out entirely.

And, most importantly of all, TAB ignores the reality that an ideological, cronydriven state government, under Gov. Rick Perry and the current legislative majority, is the single biggest problem facing both our public and higher education systems.

How is anyone going to improve college readiness or increase graduation rates by slashing, as Perry and the legislative majority did this year, more than $5 billion from the public schools and billions more from higher education? Texas already ranked in the bottom third among the states in perpupil expenditures for instruction. And the new public education budget, for the first time in more than 60 years, didn’t even pay for enrollment growth. According to one new estimate, the budget cuts already have cost 32,000 school employees – including 12,000 teachers – their jobs in Texas, with job losses likely to increase next year.

Meanwhile, Perry’s appointees to the University of Texas System Board of Regents voted unanimously to invest $10 million in a privately held company with close ties to a former UT chancellor, the former chancellor’s son and associates of the governor. The company runs a website offering services to students. This is from the same regents who vote to raise tuition virtually every year.

Perry has been governor for almost 11 years, thanks in large part to the financial support and endorsements of business people, including some members of the Texas Association of Business, who talk a good game of supporting education, as long as they don’t have to pay for it. They also have supported the election of the budgetcutting legislative majority.

I am not trying to indict Texas’ entire business community. Many farsighted business leaders have cooperated with state leaders – including former Lt. Govs. Bill Hobby and Bob Bullock – to assure adequate school funding during troubled economic times, and those efforts helped attract high tech companies and other leaders of the “new economy” to Texas. Likewise, some business leaders are going out of their way to advance public education today.

But other business people have applauded the deep cuts to the education budget or have stood silently by. Still others have tried to siphon tax dollars for private school vouchers and other entrepreneurial schemes that would undermine the public schools.

The Texas Association of Business can erect all the education billboards it wants. But instead of simply crying about failure, it should start putting the blame where it belongs…and seek new leadership in the statehouse.



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