On the Lege

Elephants Kick Down Robin Hood's Barn

State Rep. Jim Dunnam
State Rep. Jim Dunnam (Photo By Michael May)

While we were all in mourning last week, the House Republicans solved the school-finance crisis.

Well, not exactly. On Feb. 4, while the House was adjourned in memory of the Columbia disaster and many legislators were in Clear Lake for the memorial, the House Public Education Committee, under the gimlet eye of Arlington Republican Kent Grusendorf, voted 6-2 to abolish the state's school-funding recapture system, aka "Robin Hood." Grusendorf's HB 604 doesn't actually use those terms -- "Robin Hood" has always been a pejorative shorthand for those who believe the attempt to provide every Texas child with an education (as the state constitution requires) represents an intolerable slide toward socialism. The bill would simply repeal Chapters 41, 42, 45, and 46 (the equity sections) of the Education Code (effective Sept. 1, 2005), and then declares, "An independent school district may not adopt a tax rate for the 2005 tax year."

Remember these names: Dan Branch (Highland/University Park), Glenda Dawson (Pearland), Rob Eissler (The Woodlands), and Bob Griggs (North Richland Hills). These suburbanites were the four GOP freshmen reps who, in their considered judgment after attending one committee meeting in their entire Legislative lives, joined Grusendorf and Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, in recommending the abolition of the current Texas school-finance system -- and nothing at all to replace it. Dems Scott Hochberg (Houston) and Rene Oliviera (Brownsville) voted no; Hochberg said that in his 10 years on the committee he's never seen any major legislation pushed through this quickly. (To Grusendorf's credit, he did acknowledge to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that all tax options will need to be "on the table" if the Lege is to come up with a new school finance system.) If they weren't worried about the school system, Hochberg pointed out, committee members should at least have been wary of sending the message to prospective Texas employers that the state doesn't know its tax system from Shinola.

It took a day for members to return and hear the acid response of the House Democratic Caucus. Caucus Chair Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, described HB 604 as simply a political maneuver to force a re-election vote on the House floor -- where the sheep will vote to "End Robin Hood!" and the goats will vote (politically incorrectly in the New Texas Order) to wait until there is a system designed to replace it. It was not an idle accusation; Dunnam quoted Speaker Tom Craddick's earlier acknowledgment, "Almost every member I'm talking to, their basic deal is they've got to have a vote on Robin Hood to go home and run for re-election." (That may say something about the range of the speaker's social circles.) Dunnam also quoted Sam Rayburn, the legendary Texan speaker of the U.S. House, on point: "Any jackass can kick a barn down; but it takes a carpenter to build it." (For the full text of Dunnam's statement, see the sidebar.)

But it wasn't only the Democrats who found the sheriff of Nottingham's declaration of victory a little premature. Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, filed the Senate companion (SB 329) to Grusendorf's bill, saying that she voted for Robin Hood 10 years ago because she understood that it was "temporary, to get us out of the courts." But GOP lions Teel Bivins of Amarillo and Bill Ratliff of Mt. Pleasant, both of whom have actually tried to erect a new school-finance barn over the last decade, said they were highly skeptical of playing chicken with public school policy. The San Antonio Express-News found 17 senators who either opposed Shapiro's bill outright or doubted they could vote for it. In case you're counting, there are only 12 Democratic senators. Ratliff -- whose every public statement this session reads as though accompanied by a sonorous, heartfelt sigh -- said that the system shouldn't be sunsetted until there is a substitute, adding, "I never have been much of a fan of holding a gun to my own head."

Almost simultaneously, Craddick announced the appointment of his "House Working Group" which includes Grusendorf and such other friends of public education as Houston's Talmadge Heflin, Coppell's Kenny Marchant, Houston's Ron "Vouchers 'R' Us" Wilson, and Fred Hill of Dallas. The group will not be subject to open meetings laws, and Craddick says he doubts if they'll even meet at all: They'll just advise the speaker, said a spokesman, "from their particular areas of expertise." Like the Board of Pardons and Paroles, they'll apparently just transmit their "No" votes via facsimile.

If the Senate dissidents hold their line, the House suicide squad may have managed little more than to create a rubber record-vote hammer useful for beating their colleagues (and primary opponents) over the head. It's not the Defense of Marriage Act, but it will do. From where most Chronicle readers sit, the Austin ISD has been caught unhappily in the middle, as an urban "property wealthy" district that yet enrolls a majority of poor students. But many of those House freshmen come from suburban districts whose view of the economic divide is largely from the top down. To give you an idea of the sort of progressive curriculum on tap in such redoubts, the Grapevine-Colleyville school district put its pupils to work creating a 2,125-foot paper chain to send to the Lege, inscribed with such populist sentiments learned from their parents as "The other schools need to earn their own money" and "Robin Hood is poop." (Imagine the Capitol outcry if the impoverished Edgewood district in San Antonio -- whose lawsuit threw the state's previous funding system into court -- had made a district-wide project of defending Robin Hood.)

Those students, bless their little hearts, only know what they've been told. It's not yet clear whether the same is true of their elected representatives.

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