Point Austin: Low Expectations

Not much reason to believe that the Lege will do right by Texas students

Point Austin
There's frankly little hope that the latest special session of the 79th Legislature will produce much more real progress on public school finance than the previous regular plus two specials managed to accomplish. That's not just the cynical sigh of a reporter who's covered one too many legislatures (or not only that). Indeed, although the session will inevitably be headlined "school finance reform" for the next several weeks, it's only nominally about school finance – it's really about state finances writ large, and most specifically about the "priority" the governor has been trumpeting for more than two years – lowering property taxes.

The schools, quite intentionally, are an afterthought. In the first place, as intended when the governor made his judicial appointments, the state Supreme Court let the Lege off the hook: The relevant decision, with its June 1 deadline, barely acknowledges the desperate conditions of many school systems that had been thoroughly documented at trial before Austin Judge John Dietz, and confines itself to the outrage of too-high and effectively capped property taxes. That means that although there will be much lip service given to school finance and a good bit of rhetoric to "ending Robin Hood" (which the Supremes addressed not at all), the business at hand will indeed be lowering property taxes, then spreading the difference over business income and cigarettes.

And in the second place, the plan now being trumpeted by Republican Gov. Perry and his Democratic accountant-for-hire, John Sharp, although constructed with tobacco smoke and mirrors and a hunk of borrowed cash called a "surplus" in order to appear "revenue neutral," is in fact yet another tax cut. It is a tax cut slanted toward the wealthiest Texans, which wouldn't matter quite so much if the people at the bottom weren't being asked to pay twice: first in the form of higher consumption taxes, and then in the continuing diminution of their children's educations, year after year, as the student numbers continue to grow, the budgets stay flat or decline, and the large majority of school districts are asked to do more with less.

Watch the Pea

Of course the currently proposed plan is only entering the committee process, and it's a long way from a done deal, especially when the GOP leadership is divided and the legislators skittish in a seemingly unpredictable election year. But here are a few central concepts to watch as the debate resumes:

• Equity: The Supreme Court decision requires "meaningful discretion" for school districts in setting their own tax rates, and Sharp's tax reform commission won support from districts by building into the draft plan leeway between the state rate ($1) and the districts' own "enrichment" supplementation (capped at $1.30). In theory, that would be good for districts like AISD (even better for wealthy suburban districts), where school support is strong and the property revenue potential is high. But many poorer districts simply cannot raise sufficient revenues from property taxes, no matter what the spread, and it remains to be seen how this plan will affect the complicated revenue formulas intended to equalize school funding (to an inadequate degree) statewide. The early analyses say the plan will in fact increase inequality.

• Surplus: This is that self-defining, politically irreplaceable "excess" that magically appears whenever tax revenues happen to be higher than projected in the most recent biennial budget – and that abruptly disappears whenever revenues happen to be lower than projected. The surplus is entirely a theoretical construct – for just one example, last year the governor proposed more than $660 million in emergency spending on things like textbooks, nursing homes, medical education, etc., that never quite got appropriated by the Legislative Budget Board, so those specific, real needs remain part of the "surplus." Medicaid funding is falling short, children's health insurance is staggering, and the state recently told the federal government it still needs $2 billion to pay for Hurricane Rita. Yet we will hear loud exhalations about returning the "surplus" to the taxpayers, as though it were a winning scratch-off ticket and not a reserve against current and future needs. Using the "surplus" to buy down property taxes is like spending your mortgage money to buy gas – the house note still comes due.

• Teachers: There is nothing in the current proposal that fulfills promises made to teachers – on health insurance, on pay raises, on resources – made and broken years ago, by many of the same legislators who now return to Austin to "reform" school finance. A tax plan that generates no additional new money for schools is not just a shell game, it's a lie – to our teachers, to our children, to our communities. Some are saying the plan is a "first step" – fix the revenues, then grow the pie. That is a song they have sung in chorus for 15 long years, and it hasn't happened yet.

Education, by Right

For me, school finance is not an abstract subject. My two sons were well educated in Houston and Austin public schools, and I applaud every moment of the struggle fought by dedicated teachers, staff, and administrators to accomplish their very difficult jobs with steadily diminishing resources, often amid casual neglect or even contempt from state leaders. In the last few years in Austin's schools, I have watched several truly terrific teachers give up that struggle and move on – another one just yesterday – for the usual complicated personal reasons, but inevitably worn down by the overwork, the lack of support, the lack of physical resources, the financial privations, the condescending humiliations of "accountability."

If I had another child to educate, I would think long and hard whether the state of Texas had finally succeeded in forcing my hand, and intentionally driven one more student out of the public schools, undermining the right to free public education historically guaranteed in the state constitution. As they file into the Capitol Monday, the legislators should think long and hard about what they owe the true legacy of Texas. n

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Texas Legislaturepublic education, 79th Legislature, school finance, Rick Perry, John Sharp, John Dietz

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