Barely Adequate

At the SBOE and the Lege, accountability is for someone else

The good news is that last week the State Board of Education gave preliminary approval to its new ethics policy, which would forbid board members from accepting lobbyists' "gifts" in excess of $50. The board was greatly pleased with itself, as Beaumont Republican David Bradley described the new policy as "the most stringent ethics policy of any state-elected body or state investment board." That's because, as many Texans may be amused to learn, most elected state officials can accept gifts up to an amount of $500 -- hardly the sort of cash you would expect to cover the average golfing, fishing, or hunting weekend with the legislator of your choice.

Of course, it's also debatable who's actually giving the "gifts," since most such genial transactions also provide a handy tax deduction for the special interest in question -- that hand you feel in your pocket is not your own.

The bad news is that the SBOE enacted the new policy with a bit of an ethical cloud hanging over its head: Late last month, a Travis Co. grand jury issued misdemeanor indictments against one former and two current board members (including Bradley), as well as three informal "financial advisers" to the board. All six are charged with conspiring two years ago to violate the state Open Meetings Act -- reportedly, they were spotted at Katz's Deli shuffling official board documents instead of pastrami sandwiches on the same day the board's finance committee would be recommending outside consultants to help manage the state's $17 billion Permanent School Fund.

The six men or their lawyers all deny the charges, but with heady rumors of conflicts of interest and even investment-fund kickbacks in the air -- I gotta tell ya, it's a real good time to enact a new ethics policy.

Robin Hood's Merry Band

The same morning these august matters were under discussion in the William B. Travis Building, a couple of blocks south the Legislature's Select Joint Committee on Public School Finance was holding its more or less final interim meeting on how to fix the state's badly broken public school finance system. The occasion was not nearly as entertaining as the average SBOE meeting, but then the Highly Select committee members were not just fighting the Culture Wars. They have faced all summer the certain knowledge that, in the absence of either additional state funding or political consensus, they are not going to be able to accomplish much in the way of resolving the school finance crisis, which is composed of two reflexive corollaries: Property taxes are too high, and state school funding is too low. It seems the committee will issue a report, probably by November, which will "lay out all the options" for the next Lege to consider -- and those options will join a long line of state priorities awaiting manna from heaven to pay the tab.

The committee heard from out-of-state experts (Kansas, Maryland) who have wrestled with similar problems, and they focused on "adequacy" in the schools -- that is, can the state clearly define an "adequate" education for its schoolchildren, and using that definition, attempt to derive an estimated cost per student as a baseline for adequate state funding? If anything concrete comes out of the committee, it is likely to be a study over the next biennium (probably performed by UT's Dana Center for educational research) to determine "adequacy" for Texas schoolchildren. (Although, in a comic sidelight, the state will probably not directly fund the study, because officially defining the cost of an adequate education might imply some fiduciary obligation to provide it.)

Adequacy sounds reasonable enough. But after the meeting, committee member Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said she was concerned that the discussion of adequacy not abandon "equity" -- that is, the constitutional requirement that every Texas child be provided with equal access to education. "We need to make sure that a search for adequacy is not used simply to undermine recapture," said Van de Putte, referring to the current "Robin Hood" system which, in the pursuit of equity, requires property-wealthy school districts to help fund property-poor districts.

"The problem with 'adequacy' as a baseline," points out Dick Lavine of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, "is it implies that once the state provides that dollar figure -- whatever it may be and however long it remains unchanged -- then wealthier districts can go right on spending whatever they wish." Under the current arrangement, Lavine said, "Equity provides the engine for a dynamic system -- if the wealthiest districts are spending a certain amount, then poorer districts must receive at least [a ratio] of that amount."

First We Look at the Purse

Which puts us right back where we are: simultaneously underfunded and overtaxed. Austin Rep. Ann Kitchen (who as a freshman is not a member of the Select Committee but has participated in its meetings) says the root of the problem is that in recent years "the state has failed to meet its obligations," leaving a large and growing burden on every school district, whether defined as "rich" or "poor." "We should not pit the rich districts against the poor ones," said Kitchen, "and the state needs to step up to the plate" to provide a larger percentage for all the schools. Rick Perry and Tony Sanchez have vowed mightily to do everything they can to improve the schools -- except spend more money. Yet even The Dallas Morning News, hardly a hotbed of revolutionary fervor, has editorially harrumphed that it's time to consider new sources of revenue, although the editors are inevitably too timid to use the "I" word.

In this budget crisis year, no one expects the Lege to hit a grand slam on school funding. An "adequacy" study will get under way, and Kitchen says members hope to adjust the funding formula in some ways to lessen the burdens on districts that (like AISD) are property-rich but student-family poor. Except for tinkering, that is, for the next two years the school funding crisis will continue to worsen -- with the wan hope that by 2005 it will be so bad that even the Lege will be forced to do something about it.

Maybe they'll recall the words of Dale Dennis, the wry Kansan who serves that state as Deputy Commissioner of Education. "Whatever you adopt," Dennis told the committee, "if you don't fund it, it won't work."

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State Board of Education, David Bradley, SBOE, Open Meetings Act, Permanent School Fund, public school finance, adequacy, Leticia Van de Putte, Dick Lavine, Center for Public Policy Priorities, Ann Kitchen, Rick Perry, Tony Sanchez, Dallas Morning News, Legislature, Dal

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