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The coming cuts to public education

We know that public education is a huge part of the state’s budget, and in the absence of any willingness on the part of the Republicans to ensure that it’s properly funded, we know there will be cuts coming. How deep, and what form they take, no one is sure yet.

First, expect fewer teachers in classrooms. For most Texas school districts, personnel costs — employee salaries and benefits — account for 80 percent to 90 percent of total expenses. While the goal for belt-tightening districts will be “to stay as far away from the children” as possible, says Wayne Pierce, the executive director of the Equity Center, which advocates for increased funding to districts, there’s only so much they can do without touching such a large chunk of their budget.

With the specter of the 2011 shortfall looming, many districts have already stripped what they can from administrative and custodial positions, he says. And delaying routine maintenance like fixing leaky roofs until better times can only take them so far. That leaves spending on teachers, which in turn means cutting salaries and, in some cases, eliminating positions. “You have to have electricity, you have to have gasoline for the buses, you have to have teaching supplies,” Pierce says. “So bottom line, you have to cut personnel.”

It’s important to remember that school districts have been operating on tight budgets for years now thanks to the 2006 property tax cut, and that they’ve already been cutting back on things like school bus service. As is the case with Texas’ budget, there’s just not that much fat to cut in many cases.

More cost savings could result from lawmakers lightening the regulatory burden on districts. “The Legislature says we’re giving you less money, but we’re not going to make you do this, so you figure out how to spend it,” explains Sheryl Pace, a senior analyst at the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association.

For instance, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has proposed lifting the cap on class size. A state law passed in 1984 requires no greater than a 22-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. If the Legislature decided to temporarily remove that mandate, it would relieve districts from the burden of creating a new class with an additional teacher and classroom every time the number of students in the class hits 23 — something Patrick has said would save them “millions and millions of dollars.”

Teachers’ groups oppose that approach. They question whether the benefit will outweigh the detriment to students’ educational experience, and if it will actually help reduce costs. Districts can already apply for a waiver if they lack the space or qualified teachers to create a new class. Brock Gregg, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, says his organization is “very focused” on making sure the lawmakers understand how essential small class sizes are to effective public education. “If cuts occur,” Gregg says, “the priority should be on keeping experienced, qualified teachers in front of each student in an appropriate-sized class so students can receive individual attention.”

Let’s be clear about what this would mean.

Nearly 12,000 elementary school teaching jobs would be slashed – for a total annual savings of $558 million – if the state scraps the current 22-pupil class size limit in elementary grades, Comptroller Susan Combs recommended Wednesday.

[…]

“This is the typical penny-wise and pound-foolish arithmetic that this state has engaged in for decades,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. “It’s no surprise that if you put more kids in classrooms and fire a bunch of teachers, you’ll save money. And you don’t save $558 million a year without firing thousands of elementary school teachers.”

Brock Gregg of the Association of Texas Professional Educators said the class size limit is one of the main reasons that Texas elementary school students have done better on national standardized tests than most of their peers.

“The question is whether we should eliminate a program that we know works and helps give students the best opportunity to succeed,” he said.

Texas American Federation of Teachers President Linda Bridges noted school districts can now easily obtain waivers from the class size limit – and 145 districts did so last year, citing lack of classroom space or enough teachers.

That’s an awful lot of lost jobs for a fairly modest amount of savings; if the numbers cited in the Trib story are accurate, you’d still be looking for $2.5 to $4.5 billion more to cut. Maybe allowing for an average class size of 22 instead of a maximum won’t have a negative effect on student performance, but it seems unlikely to be a net positive. Other than a demonstration of just how far the Republican Party is willing to go to defend their ginormous unaffordable property tax cut from 2006, what does this accomplish?

Also on the table is more charter schools.

The [Senate Education Committee] recommendation on charter schools would remove the cap of 215 charter school operators – a limit that has been in effect for several years. Republican lawmakers have generally favored the allowance of more charter schools, while Democrats have called for stronger state oversight of existing charter campuses.

Committee members also recommended that the state’s Permanent School Fund be used to guarantee construction bonds for charter schools and that their state funding be increased to match what regular public schools receive.

The four Democrats on the committee voiced objections to some of the charter school recommendations, saying the state cannot commit more funding to charter schools at a time when regular public schools are facing possible cutbacks.

Well, at least this might provide a landing place for some of the 12,000 teachers the Republicans want to fire. I don’t necessarily oppose this particular measure. On the whole, I don’t believe charter schools are any better or worse than public schools – there are good ones and bad ones – and I’m willing to give some help to the good ones in return for some assurance that we’ll do a better job of policing and closing down the bad ones. If that’s on the table, then I’m open to hearing more. I fear that the basic plan will be simply to swap in more charter schools to pick up the slack, and as with the class size limits I don’t see how that’s going to help student performance.

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