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Facing an education-finance crisis, the Legislature tentatively ponders reform

Question: When is a legislative session devoted to school financing not about education? Answer: When it’s a special session of the Texas Legislature mandated by Rick Perry.

Close inspection of Perry’s April 17 proclamation calling the 79th Legislature to a special session reveals little mention of the state’s public-education system; it focuses instead on the nuts-and-bolts of taxation. The proclamation lists five areas of consideration for the Legislature: “School district property tax relief,” “modification of the franchise tax,” “modification of the motor vehicle sales and use tax,” “modification of the tax on tobacco products,” and, in the most meager nod to the swelling chorus demanding statewide education reform, providing for “an appropriation to the Texas Education Agency.”

Perry has argued that education reform must wait until the Legislature fixes the state’s property-tax structure, which the Texas Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional because so many school districts applied the maximum allowable tax that, for all practical purposes, it amounted to a statewide tax. The Court gave the state until June 1 of this year to amend the system or face the shutdown of Texas public schools.

While reform proponents see the current funding emergency as a perfect opportunity to improve the quality of public schools, Perry is using the court-imposed deadline as a justification for sticking to taxation issues, as if to argue that the Legislature is liable to take its collective eyes off the ball if it starts debating the needs of our school districts.

It’s been seven years since the Legislature approved the creation of the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test, a measuring stick which then-Governor George W. Bush later used as a model for his national No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. As teachers are quick to note, it’s also been seven years since the state passed a pay raise for public-school educators. They point to a brewing teacher-shortage crisis as justification for the Legislature to pass a teacher pay raise of $3,000 to $4,000.

“We are at very serious risk in this state” says Donna New Haschke, president of the Texas State Teachers Association. “Right now, there are at least 53,000 classrooms filed with inappropriately certified teachers. That means, for instance, an English teacher teaching a math class. And why is this occurring? We’ve got over 250,000 people in the state of Texas who have a current teaching certificate, but they’re choosing not to use it.

“That’s because our salaries have dropped way below the national average. We’re about 34th, and about $6,600 below the national average. So not only do you have a hard time attracting teachers, but retaining them as well. We have not had a statewide pay raise since 1999, so you’re talking about seven years when teachers have lost buying power and their cost of living has gone up.”

Scott Milder, president and founder of the non-profit Friends of Texas Public Schools, agrees that Texas school districts are struggling to attract and retain enough qualified teachers. But he argues that the problem is one of perception feeding reality, and not the other way around.

“The reason we formed our organization is that we really believe the public schools are doing a whole lot better than they’re made out to be in the mainstream media and politics,” Milder says. “There was actually a series of articles in one of the major newspapers in Texas a couple of years ago. I felt they were unfairly criticizing the public schools for something they really didn’t have any control over. Knowing how public schools work, and knowing that it’s not as dire as it’s made out to be, we saw an opportunity. Nobody’s talking about the positives. Let’s try to get some recognition and respect for educators.”

Milder says his wife and mother-in-law are teachers and that he formerly worked for public schools. He suggests that potential teachers are scared away by negative stories about public education, adding, “It’s harder to recruit people in any profession when that profession has a black eye.”

Milder differs with the teachers association on the issue of raises, saying that while any teacher would welome a pay hike, “I don’t think the pay issue is a big concern. They’re not in the business to make a lot of money. I think if you dug down into who’s behind the whole pay raise thing, I don’t really believe it’s the teachers pushing that hard. It seems to me it’s been more of a political issue than something driven by the teachers.”

To Milder, the bigger concern for teachers is that politicians are endlessly creating bureaucratic “hairballs” that saddle them with endless paperwork and compel them to tailor their curricula to a series of standardized tests. He also argues that individual districts need more control to confront their own particular funding needs.

Haschke agrees that standardized testing has demoralized many teachers. “We think Comptroller `Carol Keeton` Strayhorn has a good idea when she talks about doing a diagnostic test in the fall, teach the kids all year, and then do a test in the spring to see if they’ve mastered the concepts,” she says. “We doubt that that will happen, but this is one example of something else that could be done. The testing is one thing that’s really tiresome for teachers.”

The issue of politicians meddling with education is one that’s been heard frequently in this state since a mid-’80s commission led by Ross Perot resulted in reforms that include a standardized test for teachers. It’s a frequent complaint from educators that laws are made by people on the outside, with no understanding of the school system, while politicians conversely argue that lawmakers must be able to effectively measure the performances of our schools before they can correct the flaws of those schools.

With committed school reformers on one side, and Perry’s do-nothing mantra on the other, Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), leader of the Senate’s Education Committee, has sought the middle ground with a modest attempt at school improvement. The Shapiro-sponsored Senate Bill One would provide teachers with a $2,000 raise, incentive bonuses for teachers in school districts (and subject areas) that are chronically hard to staff, $500 per student for pupils in grades nine through 12, and alternative schedules for students at risk of dropping out.

As Perry certainly knows, education is a thorny political issue because no elected official wants to be perceived as resistant to spending for schools, and few elected officials want to be associated with a tax hike for education. While an $8.2 billion state surplus this year offers a tempting opportunity to use the funds for education, some lawmakers prefer to see the surplus finance the property tax cuts mandated by the Texas Supreme Court.

“So many of the legislators are so afraid of raising taxes, they’re afraid of not getting re-elected,” Haschke says. “But I think in the last election cycle, some of them were shown that the electorate is willing to pay for schools. They think that teachers should have a pay raise, and if there’s hostility to that, some of them have been booted out of office. So I think they’re going to have to pay closer attention to that.”

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