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Will Texas Do Better?

Education: A fine mess

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 7, 2012

Will Texas Do Better?

Last session, education issues split the House viciously. Republicans held their noses and adopted a public education budget that sliced $5.4 billion from classrooms, and Democrats could do nothing but rail against it. Now lawmakers face the same problem – but no one knows when the fight will start or who will lead it.

Ongoing lawsuits filed by school districts against the current system are holding everything in limbo. While Judge John Dietz's ruling is expected in early 2013, House Public Education Committee Member Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said, "The Republicans have made clear that the Dietz ruling is of very little interest to them. They want to hear what the Supreme Court says." That delay makes a special session almost inevitable. Scratch that – more like multiple special sessions.

When Texas courts ruled against the school finance system in 1989, it took three years and 10 special sessions to craft a legally acceptable replacement. The concern now is whether Republicans will find ways to rewrite the budget rules. Rep. James White, R-Lufkin, has filed HB 95, which would let school districts off the hook for many unfunded mandates. And some education advocates fear that Republic­ans want to rewrite the Texas Constitution and dump the state's obligation to fully and equitably fund public education.

Public education supporters Save Texas Schools rallied at the Capitol in March.
Public education supporters Save Texas Schools rallied at the Capitol in March.
Photo by Jana Birchum

Meanwhile, the entire legislative education leadership from last session is gone: House Public Education committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, was defeated; his trusted vice chair, Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, stepped down; and his Senate counterpart, Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, has retired, replaced by former Tea Party darling Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. Patrick is on a rampage for school vouchers, which he has dubbed "the civil rights issue of our time." In an ominous sign, he has called last session's bitter, rule-breaking voter ID fight good practice for how he plans to ram through vouchers.

But on the House side, presuming Joe Straus returns as speaker, he is likely to put a more moderate and seasoned lawmaker in charge of the education committee. Since the leading GOP candidates – including Jimmy Don Aycock from Killeen and Kingwood's Dan Huberty – are at least soft on vouchers, and Straus likes letting chairs set their own agendas, Patrick's big plans could falter. Moreover, there are several new Republican House freshmen with a deep background in education, such as former State Board of Education member Marsha Farney, who may bring experience to the debate. The creeping suspicion among education advocates is that, rather than risk seeing a statewide voucher initiative collapse, Patrick will slip through a pilot program as a Trojan horse, planning to extend it in future sessions.

Strama predicts a bruising fight, but said: "My gut tells me it falls of its own weight. Forget the political liabilities. The policy liabilities of vouchers will cause them to crumble." Allowing kids to go to any school seems fine – but who pays for transportation, especially in rural districts with few such choices? Moreover, while voucher advocates have relied on evangelical Christians, eager to get more funds into religious schools, Strama predicts that support may fade: "What about when a very sectarian Muslim school network opens up, funded completely by vouchers? I don't know how Dan Patrick's supporters are going to feel about that."

The accountability and testing system will also be under scrutiny. Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams recently released a new framework for school accountability, but there is also pending legislation on the topic. Patrick's SB 135 would reduce the importance of end-of-course testing for graduation, while SB 43 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would require districts to include numbers for kids who are suspended, expelled, or placed in an alternative learning program. Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, pushed for a voluntary moratorium on STAAR testing in 2011, and has refiled that measure as HB 44. Strama said he is most concerned that the current system – with its endless punitive testing cycle – drives many kids out of school. Accountability will also factor into the voucher debate. Strama said: "We have established this very elaborate and controversial accountability system to safeguard taxpayer investment in public education. How are we going to apply that to private schools?"

Democrats will not just play defense on school spending. One of the big victims of last session's cuts was pre-K education, and two bills – SB 76 by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and HB 96 by Rep. Mike Villa­rreal, D-San Antonio – would expand those resources. Two years ago, they would have been doomed propositions, but the recent passage of Prop. 1 in San Antonio may have changed the game. Now the city, rather than school districts, will provide pre-K. More importantly, the election proved that voters will pay for pre-K. While the vote does not redraw the political map, Strama said, "It helps."

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