January 28, 2004
Laughter, bribery, and mangled aphorisms

Boy, if this is any indication, the special session on Robin Hood reform that Governor Perry has promised to call is going to be a big frigging catastrophe. There's almost too much here to chew on.

Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday proposed establishing a $200 million fund to reward teaching excellence, but a requirement that local districts match the bonuses was greeted with laughter by school superintendents.

The Texas Excellence Incentive would provide up to $2,500 in matching funds per qualifying teacher in conjunction with a school district-initiated teaching excellence program. Effective teachers could receive an additional $5,000 state stipend if they teach in a struggling school.

"We should not be afraid to single out our top educational professionals for additional financial stipends out of fear of bucking the status quo," said Perry.

The laughter was an unexpected moment during Perry's speech to the Texas Association of School Administrators Mid-Winter Conference. Perry knew he faced a tough audience in TASA, which long has called for the state to spend more on per-pupil funding.

Brock Gregg, director of governmental relations for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said "the laughter in the audience was based on the fact that school districts don't have any more money to contribute to any incentive plans."

Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said districts can find money for matching funds if they prioritize their budgets.

"We're going to stop the unfunded mandates and focus on funded incentives. Those are very sweet words for Texas public schools," said Neeley.

Where's that $200 million going to come from? Perry's "economic development" slush fund? A Special Session bake sale? We had a $10 billion shortfall, remember? How is it that all of a sudden we've got an extra $200 million lying around to be used for a reward fund? The fact that this was greeted with laughter says all you need to know.

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn also tossed some cold water on Perry's plan, saying she feared some of his proposed incentives would create more inequity in funding among school districts. She also repeated earlier assertions that the state needs to increase overall funding for public education.

"I am afraid that this governor's plan leaves too many children and too many teachers behind," she told reporters. "I obviously have not met with the governor about his plan, but it appears -- and I'll certainly want to look at it in detail -- but it appears that it widens the gap, the equity gap."

Strayhorn, who has been feuding with the governor for months over budgetary issues, wouldn't say how Perry's proposal would increase inequities in the public schools. But a staffer explained later that the comptroller was concerned about the financial incentives Perry is proposing for improved student performance. She fears wealthier schools will find it easier to improve test scores and performance and thus get more state money than poorer districts will receive.

Scott McCown, a former trial judge who presided over the Edgewood school finance case which required equalized funding for all districts, agreed that the incentive plan could lead to inequities. Perry and other state leaders want to cap local property taxes and replace the "Robin Hood" school finance plan in which money from wealthy districts is shared with poorer districts.

"When you offer an incentive system in lieu of an equitable and adequate system, it's a disaster," said McCown, now executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

I think their fears are well-founded. But hey, I'm willing to be openminded. Propose a system of school funding that the less-wealthy districts are happy with, and this issue becomes a nonstarter. Easy, right?

Perry said he rejects the argument that lower wealth districts won't be able to qualify for the incentives. He pointed to Neeley's record in leading the blue-collar Galena Park district to exemplary ratings.

Robert Black, a spokesman for Perry, said critics of the incentive proposals need to explain why they believe some Texas students cannot achieve a high level of excellence.

"To say that one particular group of students can't compete is truly the hard bigotry of low expectations," said Black.

Er, that's the soft bigotry of low expectations. Get your sound bites straight.

The governor also proposed paying school campuses $100 for each student who passes the Algebra I end-of-course exam, and $200 if the student is classified as at-risk.

Another program would give schools $100 for each student with limited English proficiency who passes the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, and an additional $100 for each student who scores 90 percent or higher.

On Monday he proposed rewarding school districts based on improved graduation rates, high performance on the TAKS and completion of an advanced course of study. The entire package of incentives is expected to cost $500 million.

I presume that $500 million includes the $200 million teacher-reward stuff, which brings me back to my original question: What money will be used to pay for all that? And what happens if teachers and students have a really good year? Is that $500 million the theoretical maximum payout, or is it a projected amount based on current performance?

Actually, we do have some numbers here. According to each of the downloadable PDFs, the amounts that schools would have gotten under these proposals in 2003 are:

High School Advancement Incentive = $154 million
Commended Performance Incentive = $12 million
Distinguished Achievement Program Incentive = $14 million
Algebra Incentive = $20 million
LEP Student Success Initiative = $10 million
Teacher Excellence Incentive = $200 million fund established, no 2003 projected amount specified.

The total is $410 million, so there's nearly $100 million in slack. I suppose that may mean there's room to handle a better-than-expected year. I note that nowhere is the concept of funding sources discussed. I guess Perry intends for that to be the Lege's problem.

Also Monday, a leading business group rejected a suggestion that higher taxes are needed to fund education. Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, called for relief from class-size mandates and easing restrictions that make it difficult for districts to fire bad teachers.

Perry said he doubted the Legislature would repeal the law mandating no more than 22 students per teacher in kindergarten through grade four.

Well, at least you can always count on the TAB to inject a little dose of hilarity into things. It'd be even cheaper if we relaxed standards to the point where homework written in coal on the back of a shovel was acceptable, but we may not get enough bang for our buck that way.

UPDATE: Via the YDB, I see that my concerns about funding sources are merited.

[Perry] gave no timetable for passing the reforms and declined to say how he would come up with the money for them.

At least someone asked him.

UPDATE: Greg takes his swipes, and notes that the GOP's corporate overlords will make proposing revenue enhancements, such as the "business activity tax" that former Gov. Bush left undone, dicey.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 28, 2004 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack