Monday, November 28, 2005
Public Schools--A Time for Action
The Texas Supreme Court acted last week to force the ineffective, paralyzed hand (read "will" just here) of the Texas legislature.
Our fearless leaders in Austin have enjoyed two regular sessions and three special sessions over the past two to three years. Yet, our elected leaders have been unable to agree upon something as basic and necessary as a school finance plan for our children.
Enter our Supreme Court.
The majority ruling of the all-Republican court last week decreed that by June 1, 2006, the legislature must come up with a new finance plan since its regulation of local school property tax rates amounts to a state property tax that is illegal according to our state's constitution.
The court's not much better than the lawmakers. It judged that today our schools are adequately financed, though just barely. While it did not demand an increase in funding to insure that the legislature lives up to its constitutional duty to educate all of the children in our state, the court did issue a warning that current levels of funding are on the verge of being inadequate.
With this ruling the court provided empirical evidence that none of its sitting justices have been in a Texas public school lately! Talk to students, parents, teachers, educational and business leaders and you get a completely different picture of the state of affairs in our public schools.
Texas ranks in the bottom third nationally in funding on a per pupil basis in comparison to other public school systems in the United States. Our average spending per student is approximately $1,000 below the national average.
The high court did not take any action on the controversial "Robin Hood" provision in current school finance regulations. Our current plan requires wealthy school districts to send funds to the state for redistribution to poor school districts. Thus, the "Robin Hood" tag.
Most people don't realize it, but only 134 school districts out of the state's 1,037 are asked to transfer funds out of their districts for the sake of achieving funding equity. Ask our state's poorest districts and students if they appreciate the current funding stream that brings a measure of parity to their schools.
Our legislators must now act to craft a plan that is legal. I will be surprised if they go further during the special session to increase school funding to anywhere near the levels that are really required to advance public education in Texas.
Any serious plan must include local property tax reform, closing business franchise tax loopholes, increasing business taxes generally and deciding upon some other equitable revenue streams. Most likely, our leaders will elevate the cap on our state sales tax, one of the most regressive forms of taxation that will hurt poor Texans most.
But hey, this is Texas! What do you expect? Certainly not any discussion of a state income tax system that would provide a more equitable and adequate strategy for funding education in the state.
Public education needs more than just an infusion of cash, but make no mistake about it, it does need more funding. Expanding early childhood education, providing more Advanced Placement classes in poor rural and urban districts, improving teacher-student ratios in classrooms, restoring funding for the arts--these needed steps require more dollars. Our state cannot afford to fail this investment challenge.
To be sure, any adequate funding plan must be connected to a continuing effort to achieve new efficiencies by cutting back on the number of mid-level administrators, eliminating unnecessary, non-education related perks and by involving parents and community groups in the entire process. But, new funding must be set in place that is aggressive, creative and bold if we really are serious about the state and national promise to "leave no child behind."
It's time for a new day in Texas schools. Our future depends on it. Our children must not be denied the most important experience of childhood.
Any member of the Texas legislature who refuses to step up to this crucial challenge with clarity of vision, a commitment to bi-partisan cooperation, and courageous leadership against an opposition led by persons whose children don't depend on public education for their future does not deserve my support, my respect and certainly not my vote.
If we fail this test, we will pay for it in much less pleasant ways for generations to come.