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Will legislators answer funding wake-up call?

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, February 27, 2013

State District Judge John Dietz ruled earlier this month that Texas’ system of funding public education is unconstitutional.

The news was met with a giant yawn from many lawmakers.

It’s a complex issue, to be sure. But just because it’s complex doesn’t mean it should be shuffled to the back of the legislative priority list.

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

The problem is many of our state’s leaders still don’t see school funding as an issue. Take our Governor, Rick Perry, who stated last month that school funding had outpaced school enrollment 70 percent to 23 percent. He called that “pretty phenomenal.”

Politifact.com rated that claim as “false” on its “truth-o-meter,” explaining that Perry failed to adjust for inflation. Also, his claim apparently didn’t take into account the changes in the school finance law that took effect in 2006. The state kicked in an extra $7.1 billion annually, but that was simply to offset the same amount that local taxpayers saved as a result of the new school finance law.

You might remember that was the year the cap on the maintenance and operations portion of the tax rate began to decline from $1.50 to $1. The property tax buy down would be offset by reform of the franchise tax on businesses.

But not listening to reason is nothing new for Perry. Just before he signed the new school finance bill into law in 2006, then-Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn tried to warn Perry that the plan would not work. She estimated that the legislation would fall $23 billion short of the funds needed to pay for the promised property tax cuts over the next five years.

It turns out she was a bit conservative in her estimate – the five-year deficit turned out to be $27 billion.

Strayhorn predicted that to close the funding gap, either taxes would increase or massive cuts would be needed in essential state service such as public education. And she predicted that the school finance issue would wind up in court again in just a few short years.

Oops.

Perry now has a chance for a “do-over.” He could take the lead in calling for an immediate increase in funding for public education – current Comptroller Susan Combs said last month that legislators had an $8.8 billion surplus to work with this year, not counting the billions of dollars in the so-called “rainy day fund” – and call upon legislators to begin the process of coming up with a school finance law that is constitutional.

I doubt he’ll find time. He seems to be busy trying to recruit businesses from California to relocate to Texas. I wonder who he thinks will wind up working for those companies if they do come to the Lone Star State? They’ll need highly skilled, educated workers won’t they? And won’t that education come, in large part, from our public school system?

So what have other leaders come up with to take on the school funding issue? Sen. Dan Patrick, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has championed “school choice” as a way to fix the problem.

His Senate Bill 2 is a series of reforms to the way charter schools are set up which includes lifting the cap on the number of schools. There was even a provision that would have required unused or underused public school buildings to be turned over to a charter school at a cost of $1 per year. (He later said the bill would be changed so that the charter school would have to pay market value.)

The problem with this is it diverts more funds from public schools while making it easier for kids to enter these charter schools. So the best way to help our public schools is to get our kids out of there as quick as possible?

And perhaps the reason we have underused or unused buildings on school grounds is that school districts don’t have the money to staff those facilities after $5.4 billion was gutted from public education in the last session.

Rather than hit the snooze button and wait for the school funding case to make its way to the Texas Supreme Court, it’s time for lawmakers to wake up and come up with a real solution to the problem of paying for public education.

Brian Knox is the Messenger’s special project manager.

One Response to “Will legislators answer funding wake-up call?”

  1. Mickey Doyle says:

    It’s always the need for more money. Isn’t it really? Have you ever heard them say, ‘hey, we had a little left over, so we won’t need it this year’. I love the term gutted too. Being an avid hunter, it paints quite a picture. Schools laying vacant with all the windows shot out, school buses stripped out with graffiti painted all over them. Playgrounds abandoned except for old rusted framework where the swings used to be. Football stadiums that could only have real turf, now needing to be mowed. Crows and buzzards roosting in the stadium lights. Maybe I’m confusing it with some Zombie show I saw on TV.

    For the record, I love teachers. I was born by one, taught by many and even married one. Teachers are the best. I will always defend competent classroom teachers. They are the under paid, understaffed, under equipped component in public schools. Why not balance payroll across the board more fairly? We expect qualified teachers to work for a fraction of what Administrators get. Why? The same group attacks executive pay in the real world. Darn one percenters! Just wondering.

    But the one thing I’ve not figured out in the last twenty five years or so; since education funding in Texas has been a disaster, is why can’t our education system teach someone or a group of them to solve the problem? Maybe the state should put up a multi-million dollar prize for the solution. Like the Nobel Prize, but even that is given away pretty willy nilly these days. Maybe the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would sponsor it. Has anyone called them?

    Empty buildings because districts can’t afford to staff them? Maybe an overzealous school board or consulting firm painted a picture of skyrocketing enrollment many years ago. Only to see those numbers remain static and a depressed economy that further burdens taxpayers. Maybe we should repurpose those buildings for Vocational Training, that has been all but eliminated from the education process. ‘No Child Left Behind’, So many many are pushed through a troubled system that they are not left behind, just without.

    Without a proper education that prepares them for the real world, real job, real work or real expectations.

    Take a look at where the money goes in education, and you can easily see where priorities are placed. Definitely not the classroom or the students. When taxpayers get enough, they will have their voices heard. When you let politicians, who need votes and can be swayed by the special interests groups that really control education, local schools lose.

    Maybe Texas should refuse all Federal money. Maybe local districts should refuse all State money. Fund local schools with local tax dollars like they used to, instead of shipping money all over to ‘make it fair’.

    I was thinking about the guy (or gal) that invented the wheel. Once they learned the potential of the innovation, they must have gone everywhere with it. One wheel, two, eighteen, trainloads of wheels moving across continents. If there was more potential for growth somewhere else, he rolled there to take advantage of it. People on far a way islands took the inner tubes out of wheels and floated on them across oceans in hope of more and better opportunities.

    What a great country we live in that allows anyone to move anywhere to seek a better way of life for themselves and their children. Detroit’s gone bust, move to Texas. California taxes too high, move to Texas. Terrible conditions in Mexico or Central America, ….. But tell someone that maybe they should move from here to there Texas, and forget it. Just send your money here because it’s not fair because we live in a poor area. Got Wheels? Got Common Sense?

    Our culture has forgotten it has choices and demands governments deliver the goods to them. The Federal and State governments use money that doesn’t exist, to put on accounts that are not earned. Education has learned so much from the other government programs and how to tug at our hearts with, ‘we’re doing it for the kid’s’. And if you don’t, ‘you’re punishing the future of our country’. I even heard a representative of TEA say this week that cuts in spending are directly aimed at disabled children. Wow! Public television needs her to work the phone bank.

    My hope is that real leadership from real classroom teachers will rise up in the discussion. That everyday folks will enter the fray and voice their ideas too. The solution to this problem can not be developed by the same mindset that created it. Especially if votes or innate power are at risk for any politician, organization or board.

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