Monday, October 29, 2012

Education funding in the coming Texas legislative session

The coming session of the state Legislature will be one of the most important for the future of public education than any other time in the history of this state. Public education funding has been on the front-burner of legislative problems without solutions for over a decade.

Few people outside of education policy “wonks” and administrators truly understand how the state funds public education. Basically, allocations are made on a per-student weighted contact hour based on the type of course taken--for example, school districts receive additional dollars for students in advanced career and technology courses. However, the basic problem with public education funding in Texas is that since the 60's the Legislature has gradually reduced the amount of its share of funding for public education relying more and more on property tax wealth of the various districts. 

Relying on the wealth of individual school districts has created another serious problem in funding resulting in hundreds of lawsuits being filed by the various districts throughout the state. One district may be wealthy and a small tax effort on the part of its patrons produces a large amount per pupil, while its neighboring school district with fewer businesses or oil wells has to make a huge effort, taxing its citizens to the max, yet still producing a relatively small amount for its students.

Recently, the funding of public education was further complicated by the fact the Legislature, led by Governor Perry, chose to leave over six billion dollars in the “Rainy Day Fund” rather than meet the educational needs of students in Texas. The Legislature shortchanged public education over five billion dollars, giving local districts some serious choices on budgeting. The past session of the Legislature was the first time in the history of Texas, since we have had a foundation school program, that the Legislature chose not to even fund the growth in student population throughout the state. [For a comprehensive review of the research on the relationship between school finance and student achievement, See the 2012 report "Does Money Matter?" prepared by The Shanker Institute.]

Some things do not bode well for the future of public education in this state. First, our governor has been on an informal tour touting the fact we will not seek to find any additional source of substantial revenue, even for public education. Second, there is a growing clamor among right-wing Republicans to place more emphasis on school vouchers and fund private schools. This philosophy was recently reinforced by the fact that Lt. Governor Dewhurst has chosen to appoint Dan Patrick, a right-leaning television and radio personality, as chairman of the Public Education Committee. Patrick is a strong advocate of the voucher system and is likely, by using the clout of his chairmanship, to push the voucher proposal at least to a vote on the floor of the Senate, and perhaps further.

A charter school which is granted within a school district takes the per-pupil allocation of whatever students attend that voucher school directly out of the allocation of the school district. While a few charter schools have emphasized quality and have produced good results, the majority produce poor results as to student accountability and financial accountability for those hired by the charter school. The fact is, if you ask just about any Texas school finance expert, dollar for dollar, charter schools overall do not outperform traditional public schools--and yet, public dollars are bled off of the local schools to support them.

I strongly suggest that if you have children or grandchildren depending on public schools for their basic education, you should immediately contact your state senator and state representative and express your concerns about demanding adequate funding for the public school system of Texas. It is critical to the future of this state, its economy; and as I have said many times before, it is in your interest to help educate someone else's child.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Warning lights

When a red light pops up on the dashboard, most drivers will take the time to pull into a service station or mechanic shop to see what's wrong. Red lights on dashboards are there as warnings that something needs to be attended to. Unfortunately, our state leaders have ignored numerous red lights along the way dealing with education and the future of Texas. 

The last session of the Legislature spent considerably more time on political matters such as passing voter identification and jousting windmills of perceived invasions by hordes of illegal immigrants than on the challenges of providing future generations of Texans with an adequate education.

It is difficult to discern why a governor would promote voter identification as an emergency item to cure a non-existent problem and almost ignore the crisis of funding equity for public education. Nonetheless, the Legislature ignored the normal increase in student population and blithely shortchanged public education by almost five billion dollars, declared victory for the session and went home.

As a result of the failure of the Legislature and other state leaders to address public education, classroom size--previously limited to a 21:1 ratio--has been ignored.  Local tax increases have virtually been mandated by the Legislature, while shouting “no new taxes,” and in effect mandating increased local taxes on your home and business.

Texas is in the top 2 or 3 states leading in school dropouts and teen pregnancies, and will soon be a leader in adults with no high school diploma.  In a time when hi-tech and skilled jobs are clearly the answer to a prosperous future, Texas continues to boast of a business climate which contains the most minimum wage workers of any state in the union.

A more recent red light popped up on the dashboard of our state government in the form of the College Board reporting that now Texas' scores on college entrance exams have dropped below the national average.  While it is somewhat encouraging that 2% more students took the exam, it is discouraging the average scores dropped by 3 points.  Such a situation is a clear warning we are not adequately preparing the students of Texas public education for the kind of education and accompanying jobs the future demands.

The college entrance exam is important for another reason.  Numerous scholarly studies have indicated one of the key ingredients to having disadvantaged students proceed and succeed in obtaining a higher education is the belief they have the ability and opportunity to do so.  A case in point frequently cited is a situation in Brooklyn, New York, where a self-made millionaire visited a class in his old school.  The millionaire guaranteed every member of the class that should they succeed in obtaining a high school diploma he would in fact pay their tuition and expenses to college.  Because of this promise, almost 100% of the class entered and successfully attended college.  In fact, the millionaire was saved out-of-pocket expense because a significant number of the class did so well they earned academic scholarships for college.  

Successfully passing a college entrance exam while in high school surely gives encouragement and hope to the student taking the exam that he or she has the ability to get in and complete a college education.

It is incumbent on us, as citizens, to demand of our members of the Legislature, of both parties, that they begin to focus more on the next generation than on the next election.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Old Tricks

One of the oldest political techniques in the book is for a politician to create a fake crisis and then pretend he is the only one available to avoid disaster.  The Republicans remind me a little of the old story about the old maid who always feared finding a man hiding under her bed, but was disappointed when he really wasn't there.  The Republicans are a lot like that when it comes to looking for voter fraud.
During the last session of the Legislature, our governor declared as an emergency a measure to require all voters produce picture identification in order to vote.  Not just any picture identification, however--it specified a narrow group of photo IDs that would qualify.  The premise of the legislation was to deal with voter fraud which in fact did not exist. For the last several years, the primary source of voter fraud in texas, what little there was, stemmed from mail-in ballots--which was totally ignored by the Republican legislation requiring voter identification.

While the Republicans blandly say it really has nothing to do with preventing persons from voting, hearings before federal courts have revealed very clearly that it does.

One example is my mother, who will be 98 before the year is out, who has been voting ever since she was old enough to pay for a poll tax.  Clearly desiring to vote and having some time back forfeited her driver's license, she did not possess a voter ID which would pass muster under the Republican legislation.  Because she clearly wants to vote in the future, I bundled her up, took her from the assisted living residence and traveled to downtown Port Arthur to get a photo ID from the drivers license office.  After a wait of about 45 minutes, her picture was taken and in exchange for the $10 fee she was given an official Texas Identification Card containing her picture.

Other evidence brought forth in federal court hearings shows there are counties in Texas which do not offer a Department of Public Safety drivers license office.  This would require, in some instances, poor people to drive many, many miles in an effort to obtain a sanctioned picture identification card.

Comments from various Republicans make it clear what this is about--such as a Republican leader in Pennsylvania who boasted that now that voter ID had been passed in Pennsylvania Governor Romney's election would be assured.  Facts uncovered since the plethora of voter limiting proposals offered by Republicans is further evidence that Republican concern for voter fraud is phony.
The Associated Press has recently revealed the fact that in Colorado--where the Republican Voter Registrar estimated almost 12,000 non-citizens on the voter rolls when checked--only a small handful of non-citizens were on the rolls.  Less than 200 out of the estimated 12,000 of those had actually participated in voting.    
North Carolina and Florida were other examples.  Particularly in Florida, where huge estimates were made of illegal or non-citizens being on the roll, in the final analysis less than 1/100th of a percent were discovered on the voter rolls.  It is absolutely clear the efforts to limit voter registration and throw roadblocks into voting is a solution in search of a problem.
Communists in despotic countries use police force, the military and other totalitarian ways to stop people from voting.  Unfortunately, one of the major parties in the United States has adopted a more subtle but equally dangerous threat to voter participation.