Naked City

Lege Hopefuls Talk Schools

There is arguably no issue that ranks higher on the Legislature's priorities than education, and Austinites got to hear where local candidates stand at a forum Oct. 10 at the Austin Independent School District's meeting chambers. They didn't get to hear much -- candidates were limited to 45-second answers as they whipped through a host of education topics. Might we suggest to AISD (and other forum promoters) that fewer questions with more detailed answers might better serve the voters?

Democrats and Republicans alike gave predictable answers about squeezing and scrubbing the budget and finding new revenue sources. They also mostly agreed on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, a bane of teachers across the state -- House Dist. 50 candidate Jack Stick said he liked the test and wouldn't change it, but the others felt "teaching to the test" interfered with classroom learning.

Everyone proposed the "Robin Hood" school funding scheme be fixed or scrapped. Senate Dist. 14 challenger Ben Bentzin said that fast-growing urban areas were being treated unfairly, and said the cap on annual appraisal valuation increases must be lowered from 10% to 2%, which presumably would slow Travis school districts' ascent to "property rich" status. Incumbent Dem Gonzalo Barrientos countered that he would close tax loopholes for local businesses: "My opponent's methodology would save $18 million, but that would cost you $18 million taken from the local schools. What I propose would bring in $78 million." Most said the 2003 Lege could only begin such efforts, although Bentzin insisted, "Homeowners can't wait."

On the teacher shortage, several candidates proposed some form of mentoring program, but only Barrientos, Bentzin, and Dist. 49 incumbent Elliott Naishtat said the obvious: pay raises.

Everyone opposed vouchers, even the Republicans -- but with qualifiers. Stick and Dist. 48 candidate Todd Baxter said they would support vouchers only if the money isn't drained from public schools (in which case they wouldn't be vouchers). Their opponents, current Dist. 48 Rep. Ann Kitchen and Dist. 50 candidate Jim Sylvester, accused Baxter and Stick of flip-flopping on the issue. Bentzin said vouchers are "inherently appealing," but expressed reservations about where the money would come from. Barrientos answered for him: "No matter how you cut it, vouchers will compete with public schools for state funds."

The forum, televised live on Time Warner Cable Ch. 22, will be rebroadcast several times before the election: Oct. 18 (noon, 5pm, 8pm), Oct. 19 (10am), Oct. 27 (10am), Oct. 29 and 31 (noon, 5pm, 8pm), and Nov. 2 (10am).

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