An Education Only a Boss Could Love

Public schools lurch a little closer to privatization with HB 2

HB 2 author Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington
HB 2 author Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington

The House education bill introduced last week drew instant criticism from teachers unions, tempered praise from legislative leaders, cautious restraint from school administrators, and ... heads up, everybody ... an enthusiastic thumbs up from the Texas Association of Business!

Uh-oh.

The state's most powerful business lobby group hasn't been this tickled since the new Republican majority delivered on tort reform in '03. Now comes House Bill 2 – the court-ordered first step toward fixing the school finance system – and TAB President Bill Hammond's excitement is already giving others the urge to send what's being called "A Road Map to Results" to the junkyard before it's even left the driveway. If you're one of the thousands (and counting) of conspiracy theorists who believe the state's leaders are on a mission to privatize public education, the "Road Map" bill – and the business lobby's endorsement of its "free-market principles" – provides additional evidence to support the theory.

State Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, crafted the legislation as part of a two-pronged approach to changing the "Robin Hood" funding method of sharing local property tax revenues. (A second bill, pending in the House Ways & Means Committee, proposes cutting local school property taxes by a third.)

Indeed, HB 2 carries strong whiffs of free-market influence on several levels. The bill would extend more local control of school districts, establish a uniform "best practices" system, tighten accountability (i.e., standardized testing) standards, weaken teacher contract rights, and stretch dollars whenever possible. "Accountability works," Grusendorf said at a Feb. 3 press conference. "That's why we're dropping the hammer on low-performing schools." In that vein, the bill would give the education commissioner the authority to "move more swiftly and aggressively to take over failing campuses," Grusendorf said. HB 2 would also, for the first time, establish accountability standards "with consequences" for bilingual education programs – although most school districts are desperate even to find qualified bilingual teachers.

The 128-page bill doesn't include across-the-board pay raises for Texas teachers, whose salaries are $6,000 below the national average. Instead, HB 2 promotes a subjective system of rewarding teachers based on "merit" – one aspect of the Republican conviction that any and all workers, including teachers, respond best to individualized financial incentives. (The Senate, by contrast, has made across-the-board salary increases one of its goals for education reform.)

Perhaps the strongest evidence to support the school privatization theory (and the "business model" of school organization) is on page 48 of the bill, under the heading "Educator Quality." There you'll find new language that would eliminate any requirement that superintendents and school principals have prior experience as educators. Instead, HB 2 seeks to identify and hire school administrators with "significant management and leadership experience" to guide teachers and children toward academic excellence. Bruce Banner, a vice-president of the local teachers union, Education Austin, shudders at the thought of retired CEOs running school districts and midlevel business managers serving as principals. The only people who will benefit from that scenario, says Banner, "are the powerful interests that want to expand charter [schools]."

On its face, Grusendorf's bill represents a starting point for crafting a far-reaching education package that Speaker Tom Craddick wants to see moved to the House floor no later than the second week of March. In its nuts and bolts, the bill would:

• Give all school districts a funding boost of at least 3%. For AISD, that means per-pupil funding would increase from $6,325 to $6,515 in 2006.

• Require school districts to start classes on the same day – the day after Labor Day – which Grusendorf said will save taxpayers more than $85 million a year.

• Establish uniform November election dates for school board members, who would serve four-year terms.

• Require schools rated low-performing for two consecutive years to be "reconstituted."

• Restore $1,000 in health care funds that teachers lost in the last session.

Behind the face may be something else. Education advocates, for example, take strong exception to the bill's pretension of restoring the health benefits cut in the last session, especially since nonteaching employees (hit harder by the cuts) are left out of the equation. Said Texas Federation of Teachers President John Cole: "Instead of restoring that money, this plan actually repeals the state's commitment to give all school employees $1,000 in supplemental compensation for health care. The inclusion of a $1,000 increase in teacher pay thus turns out to be less than meets the eye – a matter of taking money out of the pockets of all school employees and then softening the blow by raising pay for a fraction of them."

The bill doesn't breathe an explicit word about vouchers, but rest assured the issue will remain an integral part of the debate that shapes the legislation. The first public hearing on the bill opened this week before Grusendorf's nine-member Public Education Committee, recast this session with three new Republican members replacing three GOP former members considered friendly toward teachers. The committee's two returning Democrats are Vice-Chair Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, and Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, both staunch but increasingly isolated defenders of public education. Oliveira has already pointed out what he believes are HB 2's shortcomings – inadequate funding for poor children and children with limited English proficiency, no equitable classroom construction funding, and inadequate teacher salaries. He is also raising doubts about the bill's ability to end school finance litigation, if approved in its current form. "The bill might buy us some time on unconstitutional taxation, but we will still have serious equity and adequacy questions," Oliveira said. (The decision last fall by Judge John Dietz covered both the inflexible structure of the state's property tax system and the inadequacy and inequity of public school financing as a whole.)

Perhaps the most diplomatic nonendorsement of the bill came from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who said he was "encouraged" that both the Senate and the House were able to roll out proposals less than a month into the session. Dewhurst also expressed confidence that both chambers would produce an education package that, among other things, "provides Texas teachers with the competitive pay they deserve." end story

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