The Jeffersonian: Politicks, Sports, and Culture

Thursday, July 14, 2005

School Finance

It's always good to see a superintendent not shut his mouth and actually tell it like it is:

The leaders of San Antonio's two largest school districts say a proposed school funding plan designed to boost education funding actually will cost their facilities money.

"In 1995, we tried to reform education," North East Superintendent Richard Middleton said. "In 2005, the goal is to dismantle public education. This bill has nothing to do with adequately funding schools. It has to do with providing property tax relief."

According to projections by the school finance experts at Moak, Casey and Associates, an Austin financial consulting firm, Northside will get a $10.5 million increase in funding in the first year of the House proposal, but all the mandates in the bill will cost the district $15 million, leaving the district $4.6 million in the hole.

The mandates include paying $1,000 health insurance stipends for all employees, a minimum teacher pay raise of $2,000, and setting up a performance pay system.

"$10 million would barely cover a 2 percent salary increase for our employees," Northside Superintendent John Folks said. "They're not addressing adequacy. They're not addressing growth. They're not addressing equity."

The same analysis projects North East will receive an additional $6.6 million in the first year, but spend $8.6 million on the bill's requirements. The districts fare slightly better in the Senate version of the bill, but not by much.

Legislators are working under pressure from a judge's ruling that the current school funding system, which relies heavily on local property taxes, is unconstitutional. The Texas Supreme Court is considering the case.

The House and Senate were unable to agree on a plan in the regular session, which ended May 31, and Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers back for a 30-day special session to finish the job.

"They should just leave us alone and let the courts decide," Middleton said.

I love the smell of unfunded mandates in the morning. Middleton's last line, I believe, sums up what most Texans really want the Leg to do. Stop screwing us and just leave us all alone. Alas, that's not gonna happen, and they're gonna make it worse before they make it better:

One aspect of the bill that concerns local educators is an amendment in both the House and Senate plans that would require school districts to spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on "direct instruction."

As written, the amendment spells out that the 65 percent can cover only things that directly contribute to learning in the classroom, and only subjects covered by the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. That means reading, writing, math, social studies and science.

Middleton and Folks said if that amendment becomes law, it would mean the end of fine arts and agriculture programs, band, foreign language, and even advanced placement classes.

Reagan High School parent Lynn Murff said the amendment would penalize schools for providing enrichment classes.

"That's ludicrous," she said. "You're not only eliminating the offering of a class, you're stifling the interest of a student. If they do this, the drop-out rate is sure to go up."

Rep. Kent Grusendorf, the Arlington Repubican who chairs the House Public Education committee, said the amendment contains a drafting error, and it will be reworded this week so that the entire curriculum — including subjects like fine arts and foreign language — could be funded out of the 65 percent.

"It was never our intent to exclude that. What we're trying to do is focus dollars to the classroom," said Grusendorf, R-Arlington. "Those classes should be included. They're still part of the educational process."

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, authored the amendment in the Senate bill. He, too, wants all classes to be counted in that 65 percent. It's up to members of the conference committee to make that call.

"I've heard from a number of teachers that teach enrichment classes, things like art and music," Wentworth said. "We wanted to focus on those things (covered on the TAKS test) but with all the other expenses school districts have, it seems to be more common sense and reasonable to include all classes in the 65 percent."

Paul Salas, a parent with two children at Colonies North Elementary and a third that will begin kindergarten this year, said lawmakers don't seem to be interested in finding a solid solution to adequately and equitably fund schools. Salas said attempts like including the 65 percent amendment in the school finance overhaul ring hollow.

"It's very discouraging. It appears to be a Band-Aid on the situation," Salas said of the Legislature's efforts.

"School finance remains a hot potato and no one will take a stand and say, 'This is what we need to do,'" he said.

Ed Somers, an economic development manager for the city of San Antonio and father of a third-grader at Colonies North Elementary, said he wishes lawmakers would see public education as an investment instead of a liability.

"Every business that comes here, the first question out of their mouths is: 'How educated is your work force?'" Somers said. "As much as we write our state legislators and as much as we call them, I think they just don't get it.

I'm sorry, but we live in the 2nd-most populous state in the nation. A state that if it were its own country would have one of the 10-15 largest economies in the world, and yet for some reason our legislative body can't keep from having DRAFTING ERRORS almost screw our young'uns over! It's always great to see when it's Amateur Hour over at the state capitol.

Kudos to Somers who actually has to deal with the output of our school system. Most of our legislators, well those of them who do work, don't ever have to worry about the workforce. You're right Ed, they just don't get it. But according to Paul Burka, this is what qualifies as leadership in our state.