Get in Line

In the new Texas arithmetic, nothing for nothing leaves nothing

Get in Line
Illustration By Doug Potter

Last week the State Board of Education, after previously hearing testimony on a pending group of health textbooks that were apparently all published by the stork, voted to require four years of something called "science" in Texas high schools. One could feel much more enthusiastic about that proposal if the members of the SBOE were themselves required to submit to it.

The board members did not entirely take leave of their senses. They deferred the new curriculum – which would cost $200 million just for new labs (teachers to be acquired later) – until 2007. They also made the change dependent on new legislative funding. That is, it's yet another promise – call it an unfunded mandate – that Texas schools will not be expected to deliver anytime soon.

The prospect of another special legislative session on property tax reduction, under the pretense of addressing school finance, is quietly slinking into oblivion, with no visible consensus that might have provided the impetus for the governor to make the call. Of course, the governor, who has made his opposition adamant to any serious new business tax that would replace the school revenue he wants cut from property taxes, has been one of the primary obstacles to the formation of that consensus.

Last week, Sen. Florence "Good Soldier" Shapiro, R-Plano, floated a dutiful compromise proposal that the governor says he will consider. Shapiro would cut school property taxes from $1.50 per $100 valuation to $1.15, raise state sales taxes from $6.25 to $6.75, bump the cigarette tax 50 cents, and create a new, broad-based business franchise tax designed to spread the load more fairly across the state. It was at least possible that the plan offended everybody just enough to have a chance, but the ensuing days of resounding silence suggest that Shapiro's gesture is also doomed to fail.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, whose education-policy expertise used to be regularly deployed (even by Republicans) in such matters, said he has seen no signs that the leadership is willing to move forward this year with a substantive school-finance plan. "Even if they do, none of the proposals being discussed offer any new money for the schools this fall," Hochberg said. In that light, it seems increasingly pointless for legislators to wrestle with futility for another 30 boiling summer days.


Won't Pay Now, Won't Pay Later

But as Shapiro and school advocates have pointed out, if the school finance issue is not addressed this summer, the 79th Lege will be faced with the same problem once it convenes in January – along with every other desperate state need that went unaddressed, or worse, in 2003. "If there is no special session," says Wayne Pierce of the Equity Center, which advocates for the state's low-wealth school districts (that is, the large majority), "schools will have to stand in line for state support with every other budgetary need."

"And so they should," responds Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, who more often stands four-square with Pierce on questions of school finance. But the CPPP's charge is broader than that of the Equity Center, and McCown's team of analysts have just issued a new report, "Truth and Consequences: The State Budget for 2004-2005 and Its Impact on Texans" (www.cppp.org) that addresses the growing devastation wrought by the current Legislature's determination to balance the budget without "new taxes."

After nearly $3 billion in new "fees" and $7 billion or so in aggressive budget cuts, the Lege tore big holes in already threadbare major state programs: aid to the elderly, mental health care (prevention and treatment), children's health insurance, Medicaid, and so on. Many of those cuts are only now having their effects, often devastating, upon the state's most vulnerable citizens. In that light, says McCown, Texas schoolchildren – including the 75,000 or so new students who are nowhere accounted for in any of the shortsighted school-finance proposals making the rounds – will just have to stand in line along with the blind, the aged, the lame, the halt, and the mad.


Ex Nihilo, Nihil

These increasingly grave circumstances make it somewhat difficult to join in the enthusiasm expressed by Gov. Perry in San Antonio this week as he bragged about the state's great business climate. "Texas is wide open for investment, growth, and job creation," Perry told a workforce conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. "We have more than a million Texans in college, meaning the workforce will soon be flooded with highly skilled workers who represent the labor force of the future."

The week before, the governor had informed the state's colleges and universities, along with every other state agency, to prepare budgets for the next biennium that slash another 5% off the top. College students – a few of whom might even have become science teachers – are already wondering which pocket the next tuition increase will come from. They may be reluctant to rejoice that the governor is promising their future employers a buyer's market.

The governor didn't quit while he was behind. "When we create more jobs in Texas," he declaimed, "we create more revenue for investment in education, health care, transportation, and the environment and that is good news for our children and our future." Central Texas, soon to be renamed "Toll Central Texas," has just welcomed the unhappy results of the state's waning enthusiasm for investment in transportation – it's called We Won't Pay for It, So You Have To. And the governor likes highways – in the dim reaches of his and TxDOT's imagination, there is a Trans Texas Corridor knifing through every unspoiled square inch of Lone Star ground.

Gov. Perry has shown no similar enthusiasm for public schools, public health care, nor even the Texas environment, which is increasingly ravaged by the dual pressures of budget cuts and privatization. Meanwhile, even the state's business leaders have lined up in Austin to tell legislators that if Texans expect to have a first-class school system, Texans will actually have to pay for it.

Responded, in chorus, the people's representatives: "Get in line." n

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

State Board of Education, SBOE, state budget, Florence Shapiro, Scott Hochberg, school finance, Wayne Pierce, Equity Center, Scott McCown, Center for Public Policy Priorities, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Rick Perry

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