Creating a huge accountability loophole for schools

While Gov. Rick Perry has been out of state, making a joke of himself in Republican presidential politics, he has left it to others to deal with the $5 billionplus in public education budget cuts he left behind in Texas.

Part of that task has fallen to his appointed state education commissioner, Robert Scott, who a few months ago adopted a new rule making it easier for school districts to get waivers from the 221 class size cap for kindergarten through fourth grade. The result has been thousands of young children crammed into overcrowded K4 classes and thousands of unemployed teachers.

Now, Scott has drafted another rule, creating a huge financial accountability loophole for school districts seeking further budgetary relief. Senate Bill 8, enacted by the Legislature in June, requires the commissioner to adopt minimum standards under which a school district can declare a financial emergency for such steps as imposing more layoffs through a reduction in force. (The official term is “financial exigency,” a bureaucratic tongue twister that must have been designed to numb the mind to the reality of what it means.)

Part of the rule, Section 109.2001(b)(15), is fine as far as it goes. It sets specific standards including loss of state funding, declining enrollment, unforeseen natural disasters or unanticipated major expenses – for which a financial emergency can be declared. But then the commissioner added subsection (6), which opens the door to widespread abuse by school districts that would rather lay off more teachers and weaken classrooms than, say, ask local voters for a modest tax increase.

Subsection (6) would allow a financial emergency to be declared for a school district under “any other circumstances approved in writing” by the education commissioner. This creates a mechanism for the commissioner to approve a financial emergency without requiring a school district to meet any standards whatsoever. It is an accountability loophole big enough to drive Rick Perry’s army of taxpayerpaid bodyguards through.

In a filing with the Texas Education Agency, TSTA has urged the commissioner to delete subsection (6) from the rule. Financial emergencies must be justified by clearly established criteria before school districts can be allowed to use them to fire more employees, cut teacher pay or order teacher furloughs – all of which would harm the learning environment for students.

Perry, meanwhile, has been in South Carolina this week in a lastgasp struggle to make himself relevant on the national GOP stage. You may have noticed where he attacked Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney over all the lost jobs that Romney’s company, Bain Capital, cost workers in corporate takeovers. Perry said there is “something inherently wrong” with benefitting from losses suffered by others.

I doubt that Perry realized the hypocrisy of that remark. He is too busy trying to reap political benefit from all the pink slips he has provided to Texas’ public schools.


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