The Price of an Education

As the Lege looms, don't bet the house on new money for schools

The Price of an Education
Illustration By Doug Potter

Gov. Rick Perry weighed in on public education last week, first in his own voice and then by proxy in a report issued by the Governor's Business Council, a Bush-era coven of CEOs organized for the purpose of telling the public whatever the governor wants it to hear. Not surprisingly, the two choruses struck most of the same notes.

Speaking to the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, Perry reiterated his personal priorities when considering public school matters: lowering property taxes and eliminating the financial recapture system known as Robin Hood. Indeed, Perry chose AISD as the poster child for the latter project, noting that "a district like Austin ISD, which educates a population of students that is 56% economically disadvantaged, is considered wealthy under the Robin Hood formulas, [and] local property tax dollars are being taken away from predominantly poor students in Austin to be spent somewhere else." Despite a passing nod to "equity," Perry neglected to add that the "somewhere else" is inevitably a school district even more full of predominantly poor students, which are in anything but short supply in Texas.

What the governor pointedly did not say is that he is committed to finding new funding for education, except insofar as the current burden can be shifted away from property taxes. Instead, as is his custom, he changed the subject, insisting the Texas public wants "more education for its money, not just more money for education." It's a nice phrase, though it hardly puts more resources in the hands of those poor Austin students, a question the governor consigned to "the courts" – whose jurisdiction in the matter is being vigorously contested by the Perry administration.

Never mind: The governor wants "new measures for financial accountability in education, a new focus on educational excellence, and a new push for introducing free market principles to education." Translation: no new money but more state oversight for school districts, more standardized testing, and more "merit pay" for favored teachers and districts at the expense of the disfavored.

What Your Bosses Want

The 16-page Business Council report is less rhetorical and more academic, but it reads like a policy version of Perry's speech: It coyly sidesteps the school-financing question but recommends more "accountability" (academic and financial) for school districts, financial incentives for high-scoring teachers and schools, and sanctions for low scorers. The report adds a couple of additional, although now familiar, wrinkles: expansion and better funding of charter schools (whence? don't ask), and reducing management restrictions on administrators. If you're wondering how the state will simultaneously increase its oversight of schools and give greater power to local administrators, you've lost track of the pea. The entire point of granting "principals maximum freedom and flexibility to manage schools effectively" is to make it easier to discipline and fire teachers. This is a business model, after all, and the one thing businessmen understand is who's the boss.

It's not surprising that the GBC would be amplifying Perry's positions; the authors of the report feature a brace of conservative ideologues and the usual apostles of accountability testing, among them Sandy Kress, the former Dallas ISD trustee and Bush advisor who helped create the fantasy called No Child Left Behind and who has been flogging the testing elixir for a decade. Also prominent is Houston investment tycoon and former UT regent Charles Miller, a devotee of charter schools, which helps explain the prominence they receive in the report. (Interestingly, the report avoids any mention of vouchers; Perry bud James Leininger is not a GBCer.)

Kids Go Long

The Council wants to "equalize" funding for charters, carefully eliding the fact that charters already receive the same per-student funding as all public schools. Charters do not receive capital funding for buildings, understandable since the state does not currently have the money to maintain the school buildings districts already have. (Remember that $500 million bond issue we just passed for "poor" AISD?) It was the Council's bad luck that its report was followed close at heels by the Sunset Advisory Commission's report on the Texas Education Agency. The TEA is not doing its job overall, said Sunset, and most specifically is doing an inadequate job of monitoring the lackluster performance of charter schools. In part that could be because in the 2003 budget cuts initiated by Gov. Perry, TEA was especially hard hit, laying off some 200 employees and cutting way back on monitoring school performance.

It would indeed be helpful if the TEA were doing a better job of monitoring charters, since the same accountability standards that the good burghers want to make "more robust" for regular schools show that the charters, on the whole, are doing a relatively worse job of educating the students who have exercised their "free market choice" in attending them. For some reason, the very same evidence that the test-mongers use to berate the public schools fades into insignificance when applied to their own ideological hobbyhorses.

That's not surprising, since the level of discussion coming out of the state leadership is nicely exemplified by the governor's explanation of merit pay. "Some of you may have heard," he told the Dallas Chamber, "how LSU put an incentive clause in their football coach's contract, that they would make him the highest paid coach in the country if they won a national title. I'm not saying that's the only reason they beat OU last year, but it sure couldn't have hurt the effort. If we can reward success on the football field, why shouldn't we reward victories that happen every day in the classroom?" So that's why UT keeps getting hammered by the Sooners; there aren't enough incentives in Mack Brown's contract.

The notion that the resource-starved performance of Texas public schools can be remediated by instituting a playoff lottery system among schools and teachers lies somewhere between the negligent, the malevolent, and the delusional. And if that's all the leadership has to offer come January, the state's schoolchildren will be left once again holding an empty bag. end story

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public education, Rick Perry, Governor's Business Council, Dallas Chamber of Commerce, Austin ISD, Sandy Kress, Charles Miller, Sunset Advisory Commission, Texas Education Agency

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