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Scott Hochberg

How does school finance work, anyway?

The Trib has a useful guide to this incredibly complex topic.

Here’s our layman’s guide to figuring out the current system, compiled with the help of experts at the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, the Equity Center and the Texas Education Agency.

The state’s 1,030 traditional school districts operate with a combination of federal, local and state revenue. In the 2008-09 school year, the federal government paid $4.7 billion, the thinnest slice of the pie at 10 percent. At $20 billion, the state paid 42.9 percent of the total funding for schools, and local districts paid 47.1 percent, $22.2 billion (the state’s portion includes money “recaptured” from local property taxes; more on that later).

Most federal money comes through Title I, the law intended to help districts educate economically disadvantaged students. That money is distributed based on the number of students who qualify for free and reduced meal plans — and almost all districts in the state receive some amount of Title I funds. They can also receive specialized federal grants, including those for students with disabilities, English-language learners, preschool programs, migrant students and vocational education.

Texas allocates most state funding for schools through a mechanism called the Foundation School Program, which was created in 1949 to distribute money from the state’s Available School Fund. Now the program distributes operating funds to school districts via two streams that each contain a local and state component. A portion of state facilities funds also comes from the Foundation School Program. The Available School Fund contains earnings from something called the Permanent School Fund, which was established in 1876 and is made up of revenue from land sales, fuel taxes and leases on offshore oil lands. It also finances instructional materials and technology for schools outside of the Foundation School Program.

It goes from there, so go read the whole thing. There’s a good chance that the entire system will be overhauled this session, as the current shortfall combined with the structural deficit and some glaring inequalities in how funds are distributed have made an increasing number of people aware of its deficiencies. Abby Rapoport takes it from there.

Before 2006, the state gave money to school districts based on how much it would cost to educate students in the districts. Schools got extra money for students who were more expensive to educate, but they also got more money for other costs. For instance, small schools got extra money because, if your district only has 500 students, you can hardly take advantage of buying in bulk. The costs per student are higher. Logical enough, right? It was called funding by “formula.”

The problem in 2006 was that the formulas were out of date. The “cost of education index,” which was supposed to account for the costs of teacher salaries and other expenses, was based on data from 1989. Districts that had been rural in the ’80s were still funded that way—even if they’d become booming suburbs. The formulas didn’t offer enough money to districts. But at least the distribution of funds was based on the cost of educating students. Formula funding, which the state had used for decades, was imperfect. It made sense, though.

Sense went out the window in 2006. Updating the formulas would take time—and huge amounts of money—and it would raise all sorts of political fights between members. Rather than go for a systemic solution, the Legislature opted for what they said would be a temporary quick fix. They would add money and freeze district funding at a certain amount per average daily number of students. (They weighted the counts for expensive-to-educate students, like those who are bilingual or special needs.) Most education advocates supported reform because it offered them more state funding. There was even a modest pay raise for teachers. Districts were too desperate to sweat the long-term implications. “They hadn’t gotten any new money in a long time,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat and the Legislature’s leading school-policy wonk. “If you’re on the side of the road and you don’t have any gas and someone comes along with half a gallon, you take it, and you go on down the road as far as you can even if it doesn’t get you to where you’re going.”

The new funding amounts, frozen at 2006 levels, quickly became irrelevant to actual costs. The amounts—now called “target revenue”—were based partially on how much a school district received in formula funding in previous years, but they also took into account how much a district could raise in its own tax base. That heavily advantaged wealthy districts. The result, five years later: While some districts get upwards of $8,000 per average attendee, others make do with less than $5,000.

“We supported the bill with the understanding that it was a first step,” said longtime education consultant Lynn Moak, whose firm, Moak Casey, represents some of the biggest school districts in the state. “We could see pretty clearly that the bill was going to have major problems in the future.”

The future turned out to be pretty near.

Again, read the whole thing.

SBOE wants its new textbooks

But it may not get them.

State board members are growing increasingly anxious that lawmakers might not provide funding for new textbooks and instructional material – even though they’re giving the Legislature $1.9 billion from a 157-year-old endowment established to help schools, including providing free textbooks for students.

Board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont, warns that students won’t be able to handle tougher school accountability tests without updated instructional materials.

“It’s a moral imperative that you provide the proper instructional material,” Bradley said this week in an effort to focus attention on the conflict.

A unified board insists that lawmakers spend $500 million on textbooks and instructional material for biology, chemistry and physics in high school, and for English language arts and reading in lower grades, Bradley said.

“This is non-negotiable,” he said.

Some legislative leaders, however, question the wisdom of buying new textbooks when schools face up to $11 billion in budget cuts.

“Right now it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend money on textbooks and then fire the teachers who would be using the textbooks,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, vice chair of the House Public Education Committee and school finance expert on the Appropriations Committee.

Personally, I think Hochberg has the better argument here, and with the SBOE being short on friends these days, it’s not clear how they will overcome it. Sure, the new STAAR tests will require new materials, but we can always push back the implementation date on that. Given all the other upheaval that schools and school districts will be facing, that seems like the obvious thing to do. It hasn’t sunk in yet with Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Florence Shapiro yet, though, as she insists there will be at last $400 million spent on new texts. Something will have to give, that much is for sure. Martha has more.

Hochberg’s “Let’s get real” bill

Rep. Scott Hochberg has filed a school finance bill that he himself wouldn’t vote for. It’s to make sure everyone realizes what the proposed cuts to public education really mean.

Under HB 2485, all school districts would be treated as equal passengers on the Titanic, Hochberg, D-Houston, said Tuesday, as Senate members on the other side of the Capitol discussed ways to allow schools to furlough teachers and modify class size limits in an effort to deal with the budget crisis.

“All are in the same lifeboats,” he said.

Without lawmakers finding new revenue or pulling money out of the $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund, Hochberg’s bill would mean a $326 million cut for Houston ISD, or about $1,328 less per student. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD would see a $60 million cut, or $455 less per student; Spring Branch would get cut $52 million, or $1,282 per student.

“It’s important for members to know what $9.8 billion (in cuts) means, and what it means for their school districts,” Hochberg said.

The proposed $9.8 billion cut in the basic public education funding program does not include at least $1.3 billion in discretionary state grants covering services such as Pre-K, dropout prevention programs and teacher excellence bonus awards.

Hochberg’s bill is largely an effort to create attention for the realities of mega cuts in public education.

It would cut about 20 percent out of the Houston ISD budget.

“For us to make that kind of cut would vastly impact schools. You are talking about significantly fewer teachers when students return to class next fall,” Houston ISD spokesman Jason Spencer said. “You are talking about layoffs the likes of which this school district hasn’t seen in generations. It’s catastrophic.”

Remember, HISD is assuming they’ll lose about $170 million, or half of what Hochberg says they would as things currently stand. “Catastrophic” is a good word for this. The question, given the blind allegiance to not finding new revenues, is whether the reality of what that means will make legislative Republicans reconsider their positions. All I can say right now is that I hope they feel very uncomfortable.

More on Hochberg’s bill is at Postcards and the Trib, with the latter including audio from an interview with him. You can see HB2485 here, and you can see the effect on each ISD in this Excel spreadsheet on Hochberg’s website. Burka and BOR have more.

The story also notes that the Senate Education Committee laid out two bills to give school districts “flexibility” in dealing with whatever lack of funds they are given. These are committee chair Sen. Florenence Shapiro’s SB3, which would among other things allow for furloughs and teacher pay cuts, and Sen. Dan Patrick’s SB443, which would raise the class size limit for grade K through 4. Abby Rapoport has a good summary of the discussion about those bills. This bit, about SB443, is the key:

The latter change is pretty straight forward. The state currently allows schools with an “exemplary” rating to forgo a variety of requirements. Since exemplary schools have the highest rank, the logic goes, they don’t need to be told how to provide an education. Patrick would let “recognized” campuses—the second tier in the ranking system—have the same privileges.

According the Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis, that would mean around 70 percent of campuses would be exempt from a whole lot of the state regulations. She questioned witnesses, and Patrick himself, with unveiled skepticism, arguing the bills were “using the budget crisis for purposes of changing policy.” Much like [Sen. Royce] West, she argued the only reason the Senate would consider such a rule change would be to help the districts save money in anticipation of inevitably deep cuts to education.

In other words, the Republican way to deal with education funding shortfalls is to lower our standards. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

Hochberg’s plan for less testing

A new bill filed by State Rep. Scott Hochberg that would exempt students who easily passed standardized tests one year from taking them the next, makes all kinds of sense.

The bill, co-authored by Hochberg and freshman Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, would exempt fourth graders from taking the state’s standardized tests if they passed their third grade tests by a large margin. Similarly, students in sixth and seventh grade wouldn’t have to take the tests if they passed by a healthy margin in fifth grade. While the measure wouldn’t save the state much money, it would save local districts a lot in test preparation, while putting a larger focus on those students who barely passed or failed their exams. Using giant posters of data, Hochberg pointed out that students who do well on the tests one year will very likely pass the following year.

“If we know these kids are going to pass, why are we giving them the test?” asked Hochberg, the House guru of all things education and data-related. Currently, he says, school districts can rely on their high achievers to boost test scores and inflate a school’s ratings. That allows the struggling kids to fall between the cracks. This bill would shift that emphasis, as schools would be judged based more heavily on how they equipped their low performers.

“It shines a laser beam on those kids who are below grade level,” Hochberg said.

Huberty, a conservative Republican who just left the Humble school board to come to the House, concurred. He argued the districts currently spend too much time and money on testing, particulary when those children who already did well one year will almost undoubtedly will pass again.

For proof, Hochberg—by far the nerdiest House member—turned to the numbers. Of those students who passed their reading and math assessments by a large margin in fourth grade, over 97 percent passed again in fifth grade. The numbers were even more compelling among middle schoolers. Over 98 percent of seventh graders who passed their assessments by a large margin in math and reading passed again in eighth grade. Meanwhile of those fourth graders who failed their tests, less than 40 percent passed the following year.

“It really sheds the light on this group of kids who are the ones who are likely to become dropouts as things go on,” Hochberg said told the handful of reporters.

The bill is HB233, and you can read about it in Hochberg’s own words here. There are two other Republicans signed onto the bill – Rick Hardcastle and Jim Keffer – which one hopes bodes well for its chances. I’ll be interested to see if there’s any real opposition to this, because offhand I can’t think of a reason why you’d oppose it/ We’ll see what happens.

Harris County minus one?

Despite essentially keeping up with the state growth rate, Harris County may lose a legislative seat in the next round of redistricting.

As Texas lawmakers turn their attention to the complex and contentious task of redrawing their own districts, that loss will set in motion a game of musical chairs to determine who has a place among the 150 House seats. That number does not change despite a 20 percent increase in population statewide, which means the kaleidoscope of voters each lawmaker represents will shift. Harris County is expected to go from 25 to 24 state House seats.

Legislative districts, redrawn every 10 years in the wake of federal census results, must be roughly the same size, somewhere near 167,637 people per district. Although Harris County is home to more people than in 2000, its growth lags behind such suburban areas as Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.

Much of the redistricting process is a legalistic one involving adherence to federal law and state redistricting principles, said Trey Trainor, an Austin lawyer who advises Republicans on redistricting.

“From a political standpoint,” Trainor said, “it gets bloody when you start looking at population loss, and you have members of the Legislature who just don’t have the sheer numbers in their district, and you’ve got to go someplace else to get them. You start cutting into core constituencies of other members.”

In Harris County, the question is, who will be the odd man (or woman) out?

“It’s not necessarily that the seat goes away,” Trainor said, “but you’re going to end up with one or two incumbents in the same district having to run against each other, if they decide to do that. Of course, you know a lot of times what happens in these cases is somebody who’s been here awhile decides to retire and makes it easier on everybody else.”

A few thoughts:

Greg saw this coming months ago. The final Census totals put Harris County right on the knife’s edge of maintaining 25 seats, so I suppose it’s still possible that could happen. We still haven’t heard anything from those that are actually going to draw the maps, and dealmaking is always a possibility. I’m inclined to think that 24 is more likely than 25, however. Remember, for big counties like Harris state law forbids State Rep districts from crossing county boundaries, so sharing a district with Fort Bend or Montgomery is not an option.

– The story suggests that Republicans may target Rep. Scott Hochberg, the only Anglo Democrat currently serving in Harris County, for elimination. I say it’s far too early to write anyone’s political obituary. Hochberg was similarly drawn out of a district in 2001, but found a new home and won there. You just never know.

– Having said that, I might suggest that one person with a reason to be nervous is two-term State Rep. Ken Legler, whose district is centered in Pasadena. While the west, northwest, and north ends of Harris County grew like gangbusters, the eastern portion stagnated or shrunk; what growth there was out that way was mostly nonAnglo. It may be awfully hard to draw two sufficiently Republican districts with enough population out there to support both Legler and Rep. Wayne Smith, whose Baytown area is easily the redder. Again, you never know. My point is that there are a lot of moving parts to this, and you can’t affect one district without affecting all of them.

– Trainor is correct that sometimes these problems solve themselves via a member’s retirement, whether voluntary or not. Retirement isn’t the only way that a member may decide to free up a seat, however. There may be a different office available to them, for instance. Who do you suppose might become Ed Emmett’s bestest buddy in the event that Jerry Eversole gets convicted in his trial, which was actually supposed to begin this past week? Dwayne Bohac has been rumored to be interested in that job; I’m certain he’s not alone in that desire. Keep an eye on this.

– As we’ve seen, electoral results can differ greatly in Presidential and non-Presidential years. If nothing were changing this year, the most endangered incumbent in Harris County would be Jim Murphy, whose track record so far is winning in 2006 and 2010 and losing in 2008. As I said before, figuring out which electoral data to base the boundaries on will be extra challenging this time around, and could lead to some districts whose predisposition is dependent on the year.

All that and we haven’t even had the barest hint of a possible draft map yet. Just wait till that starts to happen. Greg and PDiddie have more.

LSG on the budget

The Legislative Study Group, chaired by Rep. Garnet Coleman, now has an analysis of the Pitts budget outline, which you can read here. The main point to remember:

How We Got Here: Built-In Budget Shortfall Comes from the 2006 Tax Package

The current $26.8 billion budget shortfall is partly the result of a built-in budget hole created in the 3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature, which has now created a structural shortfall in three successive legislative sessions. Unless the tax structure is changed, Texas lawmakers will begin every legislative session with the built-in budget shortfall.

In 2006, Governor Perry signed into law a tax package that changed the state’s business tax structure, redirecting billions each year away from public schools and into a newly created Property Tax Relief Fund. The tax package consisted of four major pieces of legislation:

  • House Bill 2 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), creating the “Property Tax Relief Fund” which collected money from the other three tax bills in the tax package
  • House Bill 3 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), the franchise tax or “margins tax” bill
  • House Bill 4 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), the motor vehicle sales and use tax
  • House Bill 5 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), the $1 cigarette tax

At the time the tax package was presented to the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Perry, the Comptroller estimated that the revenues generated from the new tax package would fall $14 billion short of the cost of the legislation in the first five years. The predicted shortfall has come true, leaving the state billions short of necessary funds to maintain basic state services.

They have charts to go along with the words for all you visual learners. No matter what we do this session, we will continue to have shortfalls until we plug this hole.

From the department of That Didn’t Take Long, we have our first Republican complaints about the budget.

“Why would we ever have a staff recommendation as a starting point that creates a headline that says Brazosport College would be closed?” Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said during an explanation of the budget on the House floor.

Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the House’s chief budget writer, said enrollment in the four districts had declined over the past decade.

But Bonnen and other Republicans questioned the legislative budget staff’s analysis. Bonnen said that even if supporters can stave off closure of Brazosport College, the cloud over its future could hurt enrollment.

Other targeted campuses include Ranger College, 85 miles west of Fort Worth, and community colleges in Borger and Odessa.

Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, whose district includes Ranger College, called the closure recommendations “the height of irresponsibility.”

Rep. Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa, said he doubts there will be savings because most of Odessa College’s students would simply transfer to another state-supported school.

Bonnen’s diatribe sure got attention. Look at what the Trib says:

Bonnen describes Brazosport College as “the hub and center” of his district — one that local industry relies on for job training and that community members go to for education and cultural pursuits. “The thought of losing an institution like that is kind of debilitating,” he says. Though he recognizes that the base budget is “nowhere near” how the final budget will look, Bonnen says that even suggesting a college might be closed is “significant” and even “disastrous.” Students will begin looking to transfer, and others might decide to not bother enrolling.

“It creates a high degree of uncertainty,” he says. “As policymakers, we’d better be damned sure it’s something we’re going to do if we create that uncertainty.” And Bonnen feels strongly that the school will, ultimately get that funding once his arguments have been made.

So…you’re saying that the no-new-revenue, no-rainy-day-fund, cuts-only approach that Perry and Dewhurst and the rest of the GOP have been espousing would kill jobs? I’ll make a note of that. Hey, it’s all fun and games until your own ox gets gored. Look, “cutting waste” and “tightening the belt” and “finding efficiencies” and “shrinking government” and all that other hooey will always be more popular than identifying specific programs, all of which have their own constituencies, for reduction or elimination. Now at least Reps. Bonnen, Keffer, and Lewis know what that means, and perhaps have a better understanding of why we have a Rainy Day Fund, and why that cut-only approach is a lousy idea.

Of course, one can always take the “Don’t cut me, cut that other guy” approach in response:

Bonnen says the realization that the solution to the state’s budgeting woes could include eliminating his local community college does not cause him to look upon revenue-increasing options like tax hikes any more favorably. He says it’s his job to make the case that no responsible budget eliminates Brazosport College, and he hopes that even the architects of HB 1 will come around. Similarly, Lewis is confident that all four colleges will ultimately receive funding.

“There’s no joy in this budget for anybody,” Bonnen says. “As frustrated and unhappy as I may be to see Brazosport College not funded, I can assure you Chairman Pitts and others involved in this baseline budget are as troubled as I am.”

My priorities are worthy. Yours are not. Easy, no? Kilday Hart and Abby Rapoport has more on this.

Finally, here’s a look at how the budget affects TxDOT, and a second glance at the budget and its effects on criminal justice from Grits. Clearly, the lessons learned in 2003 about how cuts in some programs wind up costing you a lot more later have not been retained.

UPDATE: Be sure to read Terry Grier’s memo about what the Pitts budget would mean to HISD:

Our analysis of the House appropriations bill reveals that the proposed $5 billion cut to public education would mean an annual loss of $202 million to $348 million per year for HISD. This represents 15 percent to 20 percent of HISD’s budget. Theoretically speaking, HISD could wipe out all of central administration and would still have to severely cut school budgets to compensate for this large of a reduction in state funding. Put another way, $202 million–the low-end projected revenue loss–is enough to pay the salaries of 3,825 teachers with an average salary of $52,800.

As you can see, there is no way for Houston schools to absorb a blow such as this without causing serious harm to classrooms.

Boy, this sure is going to be Texas’ century, isn’t it?

Still more on class size limits

Real good article in the Press about class size limits and the possible effects of raising them, which I’ve written about before. A couple of points:

A famous education study done in Tennessee in the 1980s shows class size matters. In the four-year Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) study, kindergarten-through-third-grade classes with 13-17 students in them were compared to those with 22-26 students, and the researchers found out, in fact, that smaller meant better in terms of academic milestones. A followup study showed the effect continues for several years.

But what many administrators now like to say is that class size doesn’t matter till you get down to 15, [State Rep. Scott] Hochberg says. So if you can’t do that, you might as well throw up your hands. Which is not what the study says. The study just compared two groups and said that of these two groups, those with an average of 15 did better.

“It didn’t say until you get to 15 there’s no difference,” Hochberg says. “How you twist that into ‘There’s no difference till you get down to 15’ is pure propaganda.”

And, as it turns out, according to the Tennessee study, smaller class sizes are especially beneficial for kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds — which describes a majority of students in HISD and, in fact, a significant portion of the student population across the Houston area.

“You don’t see successful charter schools operating with 50 kids in a class,” Hochberg says.

First, the person I’ve heard cite that 15 figure the most often is House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler. I’ve come to learn that there’s quite a body of research on class size and its effects – the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association has a bunch of citations, all of which clearly support the idea that smaller class sizes lead to better results. Further, here’s Leonie Haimson with some specific information:

Myth: There is a threshold that has to be reached before class size reduction provides benefits.

Since STAR involved comparing outcomes between students in classes of 22 to 25 students and those in classes of 13 to 17, many critics have argued that classes have to be reduced to a certain level to provide benefits.

Yet Alan Krueger of Princeton University analyzed the STAR results for the control group of students who were in the “larger” classes and found that within this range, the smaller the class, the better the outcome.

Indeed, esteemed researchers such as Peter Blatchford have found that there is no particular threshold that must be reached before students receive benefits from smaller classes, and any reduction in class size increases the probability that they will be on-task and positively engaged in learning.

Haimson runs a blog called Class Size Matters, in case you want more.

Back to the article:

In 2006, Governor Rick Perry ordered school districts to cut local property tax, saying the state would make up the difference.

“The state’s new taxes to make up the difference didn’t made up the difference,” Hochberg says. “And so since that bill was passed in ’06, we haven’t had an internally balanced budget at the state level. We’ve been short every time. We covered it the first time because we had a surplus coming in. We covered it the second time with stimulus money — that nasty, awful stimulus money from Washington that we don’t want to touch.

“We were 4 billion short on the budget last time without the stimulus money, and that’s on a zero-growth budget. State revenues haven’t balanced the budget for the last two cycles since those cuts were made.”

I’ve talked about this a lot, so it’s nothing new to us. Sometimes I wonder how the Governor’s race would have gone in 2010 if there had been no stimulus in 2009, and the Lege had had to deal with a budget deficit that was projected to be in the $8 to $10 billion range back then. Then I get depressed and think happy thoughts instead. The bill for that tax cut is due now, and it will come due again in the future until we fix the underlying problem.

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.

Cutting the budget means cutting education

No two ways around it.

As the single biggest consumer of state money, the Texas public education system stands to lose millions of dollars as the state grapples with a looming budget shortfall.

Education Commissioner Robert Scott has suggested more than $260 million in cuts from the state’s almost $40 billion education budget for the next two years. Some of those would reach into the classroom, eliminating money for new science labs, textbooks and teacher development. Those recommendations have infuriated teachers.

Gov. Rick Perry’s “budgetary policies are wrecking the public schools and jeopardizing our children’s future,” said Rita Haecker, president of the Texas State Teachers Association. “The governor can talk all he wants about school savings … but most districts and educators are already stretched so thin, there is little, if anything, left to save.”

The budget proposal for the Texas Education Agency would ax millions of dollars for a teacher mentoring program and other continuing education opportunities for teachers. It also would cut $35 million that was set aside in the previous budget to help schools build new science labs to go along with a new requirement that high school students take four years of science classes.

The reality is very simple. Texas has a young and growing population. A large and increasing number of public school students come from poor and/or immigrant families. School districts are completely strapped, thanks to the economy and the property tax cuts from the 2006 special session. How much more cutbacks can schools take? And why won’t Commissioner Scott show up at legislative hearings to answer these questions?

I’ll say it again, for the umpty-umpth time, that what we have here is first and foremost a revenue problem. At least some members of the Republican leadership are willing to admit that, even if they won’t admit that they caused this problem in the first place by supporting that ginormous unaffordable property tax cut from 2006. The system they want to scrap now is the one they created before as the solution to the previous system that they said needed to be scrapped. How many times are we going to repeat the same mistakes before we try a different approach?

It’s true, as Rep. Scott Hochberg discussed in his interview with me that there are savings to be found in the public school budget. They involve reallocating resources, not resorting to the lazy tactic of across-the-board cuts, as if no item in the budget is more important than any other. It does have the advantage of being easier than thinking, though.

Speaking of thinking, it would be a good idea if we all did some about the new end of course exams, their potential effect on graduation rates, and how we can best equip our teachers to get students ready for them. I expect exactly nothing on this from Governor Perry or Robert Scott, so it’ll be up to the rest of us to figure it out.

Scrap it and start over

Good to hear.

Texas needs to scrap its school funding system and start all over, Senate Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said Thursday, as other members of a special school finance committee agreed that the existing system is hopelessly broken.

“We need to find a better system that works for all of us,” said Shapiro, who also is co-chair of the Select Committee On Public School Finance Weights, Allotments and Adjustments.

According to committee members and experts, the system has vast inequities of more than $1,000 per student and is built on adjustments for low-income students, rural school districts, small districts, medium districts and other factors that are nearly 30 years old with little reflection of real costs.

“We need to change our system so people understand it because we don’t understand it,” said Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, who co-chairs the special committee.

Well, yeah. It’s nice to see legislators talking about this before the next lawsuit gets filed. The next step, as Rep. Scott Hochberg noted in the story, is to come to grips with the fact that the schools are underfunded as well. When we’re ready to deal with that, we’ll really have something. But this is still a good first step.

And when we do get around to changing this system, let’s make sure we don’t make it worse.

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said he favors a sales tax increase to fund public education instead of property tax revenue.

“The homeowners and the commercial business owners can’t stand much more,” Patrick said, noting that all consumers would directly contribute to public education if the funding source shifts from property to sales.

Every penny increase in the state’s current 6.25 cent sales tax rate would generate $2.4 billion, he said.

What isn’t being said here is that Patrick would also cut property taxes by an equivalent amount. That would not only ensure that the schools remain perpetually underfunded, it would also give people like Dan Patrick a sizable reduction in their tax bill while imposing a significant tax increase on the vast majority of Texans. If you want Dan Patrick to raise your taxes, without doing anything to improve the schools, you should be cheering him on. If you want to see actual progress being made to fix this problem, you shouldn’t be. You should also be supporting Bill White, but I figure that goes without saying by now.

Smartphones in the schools

This makes a lot of sense to me.

While most [San Antonio] area school districts maintain policies that ban students from using cell phones on campus, a few districts are breaking the mold and beginning to admit smart phones into the classroom as an educational tool on a par with a classroom computer.

Though some may think the change will invite distraction, inappropriate texting or cyber bullying into study sessions, others see the move as a way to teach technological skills while addressing those negative issues head-on.

Alamo Heights Independent School District recently changed its policy to allow students to bring personal electronic devices — laptops, iPads and smart phones — to use for educational purposes at the discretion of the teacher. It’s backing that policy change with content-filtered, districtwide Wi-Fi access for such devices.

Alamo Heights is one of only a few San Antonio locations where such a policy is in place. North East Independent School District also will implement a more flexible cell phone policy this fall.

“We’re in an era where the state is piloting online testing. We’re looking at online textbooks. We’re teaching digital citizenship,” said Alicia Thomas, NEISD’s associate superintendent for instructional and technology services. “So we’re looking at our instruction to be sure it’s really aligned with what students are going to need now and in the future.”

Alamo Heights is a wealthy district – as the story says, about 90% of its students have s computer and Internet access at home – so their pioneering spirit in this regard isn’t a surprise to me, but I’m still glad to see them try to get their arms around this rather than try to maintain a strict ban. I hope they will provide a model for others to follow. If you go back and listen to my interview with Rep. Scott Hochberg, he’s clearly thinking along these lines as well, with the goal of having the state provide tools like e-book readers to students as part of their classroom experience. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

Interview with Rep. Scott Hochberg

Rep. Scott Hochberg

State Rep. Scott Hochberg, who represents HD137, is generally considered the Legislature’s leading expert on public education and school finance. He’s the Vice Chair of the House Public Education Committee, and he chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. With so many facets of public education in Texas being in the news lately, I thought I’d take advantage of this opportunity to ask him a bunch of questions about it:

Download the MP3 file

Normally, my interviews cover a broader range of topics, but in this case I feel like we could have spoken twice as long as we did and still not covered everything. Rep. Hochberg mentioned a couple of items in our conversation that I want to include here. First, he discussed the actual statute that directed the Texas Education Agency to create a growth metric for the schools. That’s Sec. 39.034 of the Education Code, entitled “MEASURE OF ANNUAL IMPROVEMENT IN STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT”, which I reprint beneath the fold. I think if you read it you’ll agree that the intent is pretty clear, and that the TEA is not following that intent. Second is this presentation to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education by the Comptroller about the Texas Tomorrow Fund. See page 6 for the chart in question, which shows how the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan (TGTP) is going to be drained by 2018 as a result of tuition deregulation. Let me know if you have any questions about either of these.

As always, you can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.

UPDATE: The Quorum Report was kind enough to pick up on my interview and ask Rep. Hochberg a couple of questions of their own about it. See beneath the fold for the full story, which was sent to me by reporter Kimberly Reeves.

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TEA Commissioner Scott defends Texas Projection Measure

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott takes advantage of a friendly audience to lash out at critics of the Texas Projection Measure.

Scott, speaking to the State Board of Education, said the so-called Texas Projection Measure has been misunderstood and misrepresented by critics who contend the policy gives a false impression of school performance.

The complex formula allows schools and districts to count as passing some students who actually fail the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills if the projection measure shows they are likely to pass in a future year.

“There is a little bit of election year politics going on here,” Scott said. “It is very easy to demagogue. It is very easy for someone to say they gave students credit for failing.”

Too bad he didn’t have the guts to say this to Scott Hochberg. It would have been nice to know how he would have answered those questions, instead of leaving his assistants to hang out to dry.

The commissioner also pointed to scores of e-mails from superintendents, principals and teachers across the state who wrote that the projection measure was beneficial for their students and schools — and should be retained. The Dallas Morning News obtained copies of all e-mails received by the Texas Education Agency through the beginning of this week.

“Please keep TPM and do not suspend the use of the TPM for school accountability ratings,” said Lewisville High School Principal Brad Burns, reflecting the viewpoints of numerous principals in Texas.

“Whether TPM was good, bad or in-between, we had children for the first time in their lives that experienced success,” wrote Temple schools Superintendent Robin Wuebker-Battershell. “Retool it if necessary, but don’t surrender the concept.”

And Weatherford High School Principal David Belding urged Scott to please “not dismantle a system that gives schools with more difficult student groups to educate the chance to be recognized for moving those students forward. That is what TPM does.”

Look, nobody is attacking the idea of a means to measure growth. My understanding is that such a thing is required by No Child Left Behind, so totally scrapping it isn’t an option. The problem is that as a way to measure the growth of students who are not already passing their tests – that is to say, to measure the growth of the students it was really designed to measure – TPM sucks. In mathematical terms, it’s a lousy model. Pointing that out isn’t politics, but distorting that criticism is. Can we please focus on the real issue, so that we have accurate data about our teachers, students, and school districts and so that the real progress they have made doesn’t get lost under the weight of a bad metric? Thanks.

The SBOE and charter schools

Some members of the State Board of Education want to get into the charter school business.

Representatives for Texas’ 460 independent charter schools asked the State Board of Education on Wednesday to tap into the state’s education trust fund and for the first time provide them classrooms and facilities for their students.

The charter school operators also expressed support for board member David Bradley’s proposal to take up to $100 million from the $22 billion Permanent School Fund and use it to purchase or build facilities that the board would lease to charter schools.

[…]

While several board members expressed interest in the facilities idea, others had questions, citing the large number of charter schools that have failed since being first authorized 15 years ago.

“Once the board awards a charter, we have no control over the school after that – and that causes me great concern,” said board member Bob Craig, R-Lubbock. “I just don’t see this as a good investment,”

He said 71 state licenses for charter schools have been revoked, removed or returned since the program began.

Board member Pat Hardy, R-Fort Worth, said the board would have the same concerns as banks and other financial institutions that have been reluctant to lend money to charter operators to build schools or remodel buildings.

A more pointed objection was raised by SBOE Chair Gail Lowe.

Board Chairwoman Gail Lowe , R-Lampasas, said she is a proponent of charter schools and would like to help them cover their facility costs.

But the assets of the fund, which was established by the state constitution in 1876 , have to be invested for the benefit of all Texas schoolchildren for generations to come. Given that mandate, Lowe said, she is not convinced this investment would be in the best interest of the fund, even if only a relatively small amount is dedicated to the program.

“Regardless of what percentage it is, it is still incumbent upon a fiduciary to determine what is in the best interest of the fund,” Lowe said.

The Trib and Abby Rapoport have more on this; board member Bob Craig also pointed out the risk of litigation if someone decides that Bradley’s proposal does not meet the mandate Lowe points out. This proposal by Bradley first surfaced last month, and so far I haven’t seen a good response to the concerns that member-elect Thomas Ratliff and State Rep. Scott Hochberg raised in that story:

Newly elected board member Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, who will take over from former chair Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, in January, said the board has no business going into the rental business.

“If they want to do it, they better do it quick, because I don’t think the votes will be there on the board in January,” he says. “Charter school facilities are a legitimate issue. But it’s a problem for the state Legislature to solve. … If a charter school has a good business model, than it should be no problem getting a loan in the commercial space. And if not, why would we want to invest?”

[…]

On the House side, Hochberg says the alternative stretches the SBOE far out of the bounds of its authority over the public school fund. Common sense dictates that the best-possible investment mix to maximize Permanent School Fund revenues will change constantly, as the market changes. Real estate in general might be a great investment today and a terrible one a month from now. A board decision to lock itself into specific properties for the specific purpose of renting only to charters can’t possibly be the best business decision for all market environments — if it makes sense at all, Hochberg says.

“Let’s say you decide to invest a certain amount in real estate, and you buy a building and rent it to Wal-Mart — and then the market changes, so you decide to change investments and sell it. You can do that. But what if a charter school is in there?” Hochberg asks. “They’re not supposed to be in a specific business — they’re supposed to be investing in the long-term interest of the children of the state of Texas.”

It is interesting how Bradley, who is one of those “the government is the problem, the free market is the solution” conservatives wants to use the government to solve a problem with the free market, isn’t it? Things can look a little different when the free market isn’t being kind to something you like, I guess. Having said that, I don’t think Bradley’s plan is completely nuts. I think that if there were sufficient controls in place to ensure that good charter schools could thrive while bad ones could be quickly shut down, there’s an argument to be made for the state helping out with the facilities end of things. I think that’s a job better suited for the Lege, however. Having an answer for Ratliff and Hochberg would be nice, too.

In the end, the SBOE decided to go for it. After initially voting to adopt an asset allocation plan as a committee that did not include any charter school funds, the Board then went ahead and allocated some funds for this plan.

The measure passed 7-6 with two members absent: Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, and Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio. Agosto voted against the measure in committee yesterday and could have killed it today by voting the same way. Berlanga’s position on the issue is unknown, but she often votes against the conservative members who pushed the measure.

The board’s bloc of social conservatives usually consists of seven Republicans on the 15-member panel, including chairwoman Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas. While Lowe voted against the plan, the bloc succeeded in pulling a Democratic vote from Rene Nunez, of El Paso. Other members voting for the plan included David Bradley, R-Beaumont — who spearheaded the idea — Don McLeroy, R-Bryan; Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio; Terri Leo, R-Spring; Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond; and Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands.

The allocation was contingent on a favorable opinion from the Attorney General and “express legislative authority”. I have a feeling the Lege is more likely to expressly yank their chain on this, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Until then, consider it one last parting gift from the McLeroy/Dunbar axis of ideology. Abby Rapoport has more.

Bad projections

Just go read this Trib story about how the Texas Education Agency’s Texas Projection Measure, which purports to measure student academic growth as a way to evaluate school districts, is basically a load of hooey. It was the subject of that House Public Education Committee hearing that TEA Commissioner Robert Scott blew off and left his underlings to twist in the wind last week. When you’re done with that, go read Rick Casey‘s last two columns. As a result of all this negative attention, Commissioner Scott says the TEA may suspend the use of TPM. I say if we’re going to have accountability – and we should! – let’s do it right, and do it in a way that we can have confidence in that respects the work that our teachers and principals and students and everyone else who works with them do.

Who wants to answer for Rick Perry’s policies?

There was a hearing of the House Public Education Committee yesterday to discuss the Texas Education Agency’s controversial methodology for rating school districts, but the person responsible for that metric declined to show up to explain it.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, chairman of an appropriations subcommittee overseeing the education budget, was not too pleased that Education Commissioner Robert Scott stood up the committee on Tuesday.

Scott’s absence, Hochberg said, reminded legislators once again that “the commissioner only works for one person and he’s the person who lives in that other house.”

[…]

The main issue Hochberg and the other members wanted to discuss with Scott was the use of the Texas Projection Measure to improve schools’ ratings under the state accountability system.

Used for the first time last year, the measure is intended to show whether a student who fails the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills is projected to pass the test within the next three years. If so, that student counts as passing for the school’s rating.

Some people have called into question whether the measure is providing an overly sunny picture of improving school performance. For instance, of the 74 school districts that were newly rated exemplary last year, 73 of them earned that highest distinction because the Texas Projection Measure lifted their passing rates.

Hochberg said such a significant one-year increase made him question whether the improved ratings last year was a function of better performance or a faulty measure. He cited an example in which 4th-grader who earned a zero on the writing test could count as passing if he or she had barely passing scores on the math and reading tests.

He suggested that the measure should not be used again when the 2010 scores are released on July 30.

It would be nice to know what Perry appointee Scott had to say about this, but he ducked and covered and left the task to his underlings, who got good and grilled in Scott’s absence. I guess I can’t blame Scott for taking a powder – I wouldn’t want to have to answer for anything the Perry administration is responsible for if I could help it.

Wrapup from “Houston Have Your Say: Education Crisis”

I thought last night’s broadcast of Houston Have Your Say: Education Crisis went very well. You can see rebroadcasts of the show on Thursday, April 22, at 1:00 am; Friday, April 23, at 8:00 pm; and Sunday, April 25, at 4:00 pm; you can also watch it online. There will be a web-only broadcast of the 30-minute after-show discussion, which should be up later today, and of course you can see the live chat that Ree-C Murphey, Mike Reed, and I helped lead. We got a lot of feedback from folks who were watching, so check it out.

Two comments from the show that stuck in my mind: One, from a panelist whose name I did not catch, was basically that everyone in the room knew what needed to be done to improve educational outcomes. It’s just a matter of having the willpower to actually do them. The other, made during the post-show discussion, was from State Rep. Scott Hochberg, who observed that in recent years, the Legislature has had a sizable surplus at its disposal, but instead of allocating any of that money towards some of the things that everyone knows would improve education – things like pre-K and providing for more time for classroom instruction – they chose instead to cut property taxes. Which, as we know, is what has created the structural deficit in the budget that we are now dealing with. He said that until we choose to do the things we know we need to do, we’ll continue to be right where we are now (and where we’ve been before), talking about it instead.

Electronic textbook update

Last year, the Lege passed a law that allowed school districts to provide electronic textbooks instead of the traditional kind as a way to save money. The bidding process to provide these texts is now going on.

With Texas budgeted to spend $812 million on textbooks in 2010, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, hopes schools give serious consideration to the non-traditional options that will become available for purchase starting next month.

“This is such a rare chance in a legislative career to find something we can do better and faster and actually cheaper,” Hochberg said.

Schools are required to provide a classroom set of instructional materials, and were previously limited to state-approved textbooks, almost all of which are traditional books. The state set a maximum price for the books, and, most vendors’ bids came within a few pennies of the maximum.

Because of that, few school districts were able to capitalize on a textbook credit that allows them to keep half of any savings they achieve by not spending the maximum allotment. In the last two years, districts earned only $172,000 in credits.

The expanded electronic options should give districts more chance to leverage the credit, Hochberg said.

Hard to say how much savings there might be, but given how strapped for cash school districts are these days, almost anything reasonable is worth a try. The potential here is pretty high. We’ll see how it goes. And there’s another potential benefit:

While the new delivery mode could save Texas millions of dollars, some leaders worry that it circumvents the public input provided by the textbook adoption process. Such a process could reduce the sort of debate that raged earlier this month as the State Board of Education considered setting the standards for a new social studies curriculum.

Critics also worry that students won’t all have the same access to electronic texts.

“This is a move in the wrong direction,” said David Bradley, a Republican State Board of Education member from Beaumont. “For all the best intentions of the Legislature, there was a defect in the thinking: There’s no accountability to the public.”

I’d call circumventing the clown show process run by the SBOE a feature, not a bug. Also, as electronic textbooks are adopted nationwide, the influence of Texas and crazies like Bradley will be diminished, since it’s much cheaper and easier to edit out whatever stupidity they insist on putting in than it would be for printed texts. All in all, I’m not seeing much downside here.

No race to the top

By now you’ve probably heard the news that Governor Perry has directed the Texas to not compete for “Race to the Top” stimulus funds.

Gov. Rick Perry said today that Texas will not compete for up to $700 million in federal grant funding for schools.

His decision to snub the Race to the Top grant competition defied pleas from several Houston-area school leaders who said their districts could use the money. But Perry, joined by state Education Commissioner Robert Scott, said the money was not worth the federal mandates.

Texas, Perry said, “reserves the right to decide how we educate our children and not surrender that control to the federal bureaucracy.”

Phillip boils it down:

  1. Texas was eligible for up to $700 million in federal education dollars, if we submitted a “Race to the Top” application
  2. The Texas Education Agency spent between 700-800 hours preparing the application
  3. Perry has refused to send the application, as officials have said the $700 million would be “too little money” — despite the fact that over 200 local school districts have had to raise taxes in order to pay for the structural deficit created by Perry and Dewhurst in 2006
  4. Refusing to send the application nullifies Texas’ ability to compete for other grants

See also State Rep. Garnet Coleman’s letter to Perry about this. The Trib adds on.

State applications are due next week (Jan. 19), and the agency has been preparing the lengthy document for several weeks.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer money that so much time was put into this application,” said Kirsten Gray, spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party. TEA confirmed that the agency has spent significant time on the application, and Gray says the application has already been put together.

“There’s just absolutely no excusable reason to not allow Texas to compete for this money,” she said.

Others agree.

“Every reason that I’ve heard so far to turn down the money makes no sense,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who chairs the House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Education.

Hochberg argues Perry’s decision was not motivated by policy.

“I think it’s all about politics because it makes absolutely no sense to not even apply for a significant amount of money that can be used to help our schools,” he explained.

[…]

Hochberg says the funds could have a significant impact if the state used them the right way.

After all, he said, per year the potential grant money is “roughly the total that we added to school funding in the last biennium that everyone is bragging about.”

It must be noted that the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers also opposed the Race to the Top funds. A letter from their Chair Linda Bridges to Perry and others is beneath the fold. Their objections are similar to those of the HFT regarding the teacher evaluation proposal – specifically, they object to things like more standardized tests. Perry’s objection is all about politics and the primary, as just about everything else he does is. He’s predictable, I’ll give him that much.

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Did I mention that we’re facing a revenue shortfall?

In case I haven’t beaten this horse beyond recognition yet, the stimulus money really saved our budgetary bacon this year, and without something equally dramatic, we are so screwed in 2011.

“It was a deficit budget as written,” said Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), who chaired the Appropriations subcommittee on Education.

As soon as legislators knew how much money the state would have to spend, they realized the state was about $4 billion short of covering the proposed costs.

The federal stimulus money came to the rescue. In addition to the one-time expenditures typically associated with stimulus — roads, buildings, etc. — the Legislature also used the money to cover ongoing costs, particularly for education and health and human services.

But in order to avoid cutting education money next session, legislators will have to find a way to make up for this year’s missing education money as well as the money for growth.

“We sort of had a $5 billion hole that we covered with $8 billion of stimulus money,” said Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association.

[…]

“Primarily the stimulus in Texas was used to just move dollars around and you didn’t have the level of benefit that the stimulus was designed to create,” says Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco), chair of the Select Committee on the Federal Economic Stabilization Funding, the formal name for the stimulus money.

Dunnam argues that the Legislature created a deficit in education when it was actually spread throughout the budget.

If he’s right, that may prove to be a problem for educators. Next session, legislators will have to find a way to balance the budget, and this time, they’ll probably be without a stimulus package. Basic costs in education will be even higher as more kids join the ranks of students.

I’ll say it again, because I never get tired of saying it. The simplest solution to this problem is to roll back the unaffordable, irresponsible property tax cuts of 2006 that guaranteed we’d have a structural deficit in the budget for years to come. Given the creation of the business margins tax, we can probably get away with rolling back only a part of the property tax cut, so that there would still be a net reduction in rate. But that fifty-cent reduction was and is a complete budget-buster, and it has to be tamed. There’s no other truly viable option.

But wait! I hear you cry. What about the rainy day fund? That could cover the shortfall for 2011, and if we’re lucky we’ll have grown our way out of the problem by 2013. Putting aside the need for a supermajority to tap into the RDF, there’s a teensy weensy problem with this: The rainy day fund is smaller than you think.

[Texas Comptroller Susan] Combs revised her estimate for the so-called rainy day fund to $8.2 billion, down from her January projection of $9.1 billion.

The primary culprit is falling natural gas prices, which will lead to less production and thus less tax revenue.

Guess we better start hoping harder. Phillip has more.

No check for you!

Nice little bit of holiday cheer for Texas’ retired public employees this week.

Retired public employees discovered yesterday that they would not receive additional $500 checks this year. According to Senator Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, they shouldn’t hold their breath for more benefits next cycle either. “I don’t think we’ll be able to,” he said. “The constitution restricts … any sort of benefit enhancement unless the fund is actuarially sound. It’s not.”

The controversy hinges on the wording of the appropriations bill passed in the 2009 session. The legislature set aside $155 million for the additional checks, but rather than distributing the money through state pension funds, the bill put the Comptroller in charge of distribution. The payments would only be made if the Attorney General had a “conclusive opinion that such one-time payments are constitutionally and statutorily permissible,” according the bill’s language — yet the attorney general’s opinion said that there was no way to have a definitive position. “The appropriation provision on its very face makes it impossible for us to conclusively opine that such payments ‘are constitutionally and statutorily permissible,'” the opinion read.

Since the appropriated millions will return to the pension fund, Duncan says the attorney general’s decision will further the fund’s stability. The new money raised the state’s contribution rate to from 6.58 to 6.64 percent. Duncan said he is committed to keeping the fund healthy in the long term, even if that means no additional money for state retirees in the next few sessions. “The popular thing to do is, ‘Give me something today,’” Duncan said of the payments. “But if that’s what we continue to do, these funds will always be short. They will always be actuarially unsound.”

Advocacy groups that lobbied for the additional checks say that in a recession, teachers and other public employees needed the money badly and view the process with the Attorney General’s Office as an underhanded tactic. “We did not expect there to be such a discussion of semantics,” said Tim Lee, the president of Texas Retired Teachers Association. Lee said while the TRTA knew about the decision to go to the attorney general’s office, he did not know the focus would be on the complexities of the word “conclusively.” Duncan, however, said he told groups like TRTA that the language set a high hurdle, and all parties involved agreed to the language knowing the risks.

As you might imagine, the folks who will not be getting those checks in their Christmas stockings aren’t too happy about this. Here’s a press release from AFSCME that laments its loss, and another from the Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers that I’ve placed beneath the fold. It’s always fun times in budget land, isn’t it?

Here’s the Attorney General’s opinion on the matter. Burka weighs in as well. One place he’s wrong is in singling out the Education Committee chairs – according to Rep. Scott Hochberg, whom I asked about this, the bill in question did not go through their committees. I’m sympathetic to the idea of being conservative with pension funds, but the point of this was that it wasn’t pension funds being allocated for this one-time payment, it was general revenue. Using general revenue to boost the pension fund strikes me as iffy at best – if the investments these funds are tied up in continue to tank, it’s good money after bad, and if they recover with the economy, the general revenue infusion was unnecessary. Frankly, handing out a bunch of checks to people who are sure to spend them would have provided a nice stimulus at a time when the state economy could have really used one. But that’s not the sort of thing we do around here, so I guess it would have upset the natural order of things or something.

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Interview with Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins

I know, I said I was finished with interviews. Turns out that wasn’t quite the case, and so today we have a conversation with Adrian Collins, who is running for HISD Trustee in District IX against incumbent Larry Marshall. Collins is a veteran of the Army and of the Texas Legislator, where he spent a decade working for State Rep. Scott Hochberg and State Sen. Rodney Ellis, most recently as his Deputy District Director. Collins is currently a member of the White House Advance Staff, having served that role on the Obama campaign as well. His wife Lena is an HISD teacher, and their two sons attend HISD schools.

Download the MP3 file

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Karen Derr, At Large #1
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Lane Lewis, District A
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Brenda Stardig, District A
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Herman Litt, At Large #1
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Anna Eastman, HISD Trustee District I
Linda Toyota, HISD Trustee District I
Council Member Ed Gonzalez, District H
Council Member Wanda Adams, District D
Council Member Anne Clutterbuck, District C
Progressive Coalition candidates
Council Member Mike Sullivan, District E
Council Member James Rodriguez, District I
Council Member Jarvis Johnson, District B
Mike Lunceford, HISD Trustee District V
Ray Reiner, HISD Trustee District V
Council Member Ronald Green, candidate for Controller
Council Member MJ Khan, candidate for Controller
Council Member Pam Holm, candidate for Controller
Gene Locke, candidate for Mayor
Council Member Peter Brown, candidate for Mayor
City Controller Annise Parker, candidate for Mayor

Endorsement watch: The Chron goes Green

In their first endorsement for an elected office on the ballot this November, the Chronicle endorsed Council Member Ronald Green for Controller.

A practicing attorney with a master’s in business administration from the University of Houston, Green chaired the Council Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee, and says the biggest challenge for the next controller will be saving money by finding efficiencies and ways to close a widening budget gap.

“Over the past six years we’ve enjoyed some good times, but now we’re going to have to make some tougher decisions,” says Green. “I’m proud of the fact that we built up our cash reserves, but unfortunately it’s raining, and we’re having to dip into our rainy-day funds.”

During his council tenure Green says he worked hard to improve the operations of the city municipal courts system, making it more customer-friendly while replacing a failed computer system. A winnowing process of evaluating judges and a court outreach effort to the neighborhoods has made it more responsive and efficient.

He cites as a success his trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby Federal Emergency Management officials to approve reimbursements for expenditures to aid Hurricane Katrina evacuees who had previously been denied.

If elected controller, Green says he will scrutinize the city’s existing long-term contracts to make sure Houston is getting the best possible deals. He points to the successful renegotiation of a solid-waste disposal pact with Republic Waste that will save more than $150 million over the next decade.

He would press the city to include clauses in contracts with technology vendors to provide training for city employees.

“We spend a lot of money on outside contractors, and what we don’t get is a knowledge-transfer piece of the contract,” says Green. “So we’re always having to feed the monster … on the hook forever with consultants to come in and work the system.”

On the complicated issue of unfunded liabilities in the city’s three pension funds, Green says he would work with employee representatives to begin shifting to a system that realistically balances contributions and benefits for incoming workers.

Green promises to be a full-time city controller, and to forgo his private law practice if elected. That will be essential in effectively filling the evolving, expanding role of the office.

In his council tenure Green has proven he can work closely with the mayor while maintaining independence and advocacy for his constituents. His track record indicates he will be able to do the same as city controller.

This should be a nice boost for a campaign that isn’t spending a lot of money. CM Green is my choice in this election, and as such I’m glad to see him get the endorsement, but I continue to be concerned about the low profile of his campaign, especially given the quality of his opponents and the resources they have to get their message out. You can listen to my interview with CM Green here, and you can compare what he had to say with Council Member Pam Holm here and Council Member MJ Khan here.

Today was an endorsement twofer, as the Chron also gave a thumbs-up to Proposition 9, the Constitutional amendment that would essentially add the Open Beaches Act to the state constitution.

Supporters of this amendment to the Texas constitution say strengthening the open beaches act is needed to keep public access free, clear and open in the wake of storms, such as Hurricanes Rita and Ike, that can radically shift the tidal and vegetation lines on Texas beaches. These shifts can put privately owned beach houses on public property, causing confusion about legal access.

Amendment opponents say entrenching the open beaches act in the Texas constitution would give the state excessive powers that would infringe upon the rights of beach-property owners to use and enjoy their homes.

We believe strengthening and clarifying the laws relating to public access, as Proposition 9 would do, is both proper and necessary. As Texas Gulf Coast residents know all too well, Mother Nature can change the landscape of beaches abruptly. That is one of the acknowledged risks of building a vacation home on the sand. Granting a permanent public easement onto our beaches seems likely to avoid confrontation and confusion while ensuring the broadest possible access. In short, it is in the spirit of opening beaches that has been built in Texas over half a century.

Prop 9 is probably the next highest profile amendment after Prop 4, which appears set to cruise towards ratification. I’m still not sure how I’m going to vote on a lot of these amendments. If you’re seeking guidance, I recommend State Rep. Scott Hochberg, and for a view from the right, Blue Dot Blues.

The amendments on the ballot

In addition to everything else, you will be voting on eleven proposed Constitutional amendments this November. State Rep. Scott Hochberg, as he has done every other year, provides a list of the amendments, some basic information about what they would do, arguments for and against them, and links to more information. I know I’m voting for Prop 4, the Tier 1 amendment. I’m leaning towards a Yes on Props 3 and 7, and a No on Props 9 and 11; I’m undecided on the rest for now. Go click over to Hochberg’s page and see what you think. Easter Lemming has more.

All in the family, HCC-style

I noted last night and this morning that the HCC Trustee seat in District 8, which was left open at the last minute by Abel Davila, will be filled by his brother-in-law Arturo Aguilar. (Davila is married to HISD Trustee Diana Davila.) It turns out that Aguilar is not the only family member of an elected official who will be inheriting an open HCC Trustee seat. The candidate in District 6 is Sandra Meyers. Like Aguilar, a Google search for her yields basically nothing, but when I looked at her name this morning, I realized it rang a bell. Turns out, if you check the “About” page of HISD Trustee Greg Meyers, his wife’s name is “Sandie”. I have since confirmed that Sandie-wife-of-Greg Meyers and Sandra-soon-to-be-HCC-Trustee Meyers are one and the same. (Campos notes this as well; I figured this out before I saw his post.) And so she, like Aguilar, will walk into an elected position that has a six year term without being vetted by the public. Neither Meyers nor Aguilar has a campaign website I could find, and the Chronicle story that mentioned them was devoid of information beyond their names.

I’m sorry, but this stinks. Meyers, at least, was known to be a candidate before deadline day, and the seat she will occupy was known to be open for longer than that. I don’t know why no one else filed, but at least someone else had the chance. Aguilar got in under the wire when Davila pulled his last-minute retirement act. I have a problem with uncontested open seats, never mind ones that will be handed to the family members of current elected officials. That doesn’t serve democracy, or the interests of the constituents of those districts. And let’s not forget, the position of HCC Trustee has often been a stepping stone to candidacy for other offices. City Council candidates Mills Worsham (whose seat Meyers is getting) and Herman Litt are or were HCC Trustees. Yolanda Navarros Flores, who ran in the special election for District H, is a trustee. Jay Aiyer was a trustee before running for Council in 2005. Jim Murphy, who was succeeded on the Board by Worsham, won election as State Representative in 2006. With a six-year term and no resign-to-run requirement (something that State Sen. Mario Gallegos attempted to address this year), HCC Trustees get numerous opportunities to run for other offices without having to give up their existing gig.

I had a chat with Sen. Gallegos about this today. He was the one I’d heard talking about what had happened in District 8 last night, and to say the least he wasn’t happy about it. To sum up what Sen. Gallegos told me, he said he thought Davila had deceived his constituents and denied them the right to choose the trustee for themselves. He informed me he had no idea who Aguilar was – “I wouldn’t recognize him if he walked into my office right now, or anyone else’s,” he told me – even if Aguilar was Diana Davila’s brother (he is, I learned from another source) or Abel Davila’s sister’s husband. He noted that at least two other people had expressed an interest in filing for the seat, but decided not to run because everyone was supporting Davila. That support is now gone, and I can report that one of those people, a retired HISD principal and lifelong resident of Magnolia Park by the name of Eva Loredo, will file to run as a write-in candidate. I confirmed this with Ms. Loredo, so at least the people who are aware of her will have an option besides skipping the race. It’s better than nothing.

Finally, Campos and commenter JJMB in my earlier post note that something similar happened in HD132 back in 1992, when then-Rep. Paul Colbert stepped down on the day of the filing deadline, and now-Rep. Scott Hochberg, who worked for Colbert, filed in his stead. That was wrong, too, though at least Colbert and Hochberg weren’t related to each other, and the voters had to wait only two years to rectify the situation if they thought it warranted it. Hochberg, of course, is an outstanding State Rep, so the outcome was a good one. Maybe that’ll happen here, who knows? It just would have been nice for the voters to have a say in it, that’s all.

UPDATE: Just got a call from State Sen. Gallegos, who added that he has had a conversation with State Sen. Rodney Ellis, who is equally upset about what happened, and that the two of them plan to prefile legislation next November to allow for an automatic 24 to 48 hour extension of the filing deadline in the case of a non-partisan/non-primary election where an incumbent drops out or announces his or her retirement within 24 hours of the deadline. In other words, the next time this happens, filing for the office would be kept open for another day to allow other candidates to enter. He said a law like this already existed for primaries (Greg alluded to it in response to JJMB’s comment), and this would simply extend the concept to other elections. He said State Sen. John Whitmire was in Austin but he and Sen. Ellis would consult with him and get him on board as well. I think this is a great idea, and support its passage in the next legislative session.

UPDATE: Sandra Meyers’ website is SandieMeyers.com.

Hochberg responds to Perry’s veto

I missed this last week, but State Rep. Scott Hochberg sent out a press release, which is posted on the House website about Governor Perry’s veto of his bill HB1457.

If Governor Perry was denied a voter registration certificate because a clerk spelled his name “Peiry” instead of “Perry”, we’d never hear the end of it. But that’s what happens to 70,000 Texas citizens each year, who have their voter registration certificates delayed or denied, because of typos or misread handwriting in county offices that cause their names or birthdates not to pass a state “matching” test against the Department of Public Safety (DPS) drivers license file.

These are not mistakes made by voters who somehow forgot how to spell their names. Nor are they fraudulent applications. Rather, they represent a relatively small number of data entry errors on the hundreds of thousands of applications typed into the system each year by clerks in voter registration offices.

There used to be even more rejections, until the Secretary of State agreed to not deny applications because of differences in hyphens and other punctuation in names. This bill would have taken the next logical step, directing the Secretary of State allow for minor, obvious typos when matching to the DPS file, if the rest of the information matches.

Despite the governor’s claim to the contrary, the bill does not take counties out of the process. In fact, for every suspected typo, the bill requires the county to go back and check the actual voter registration application to confirm that it really is consistent with the information on the DPS file. (See HB 1457, page 2, lines 11-18.)

This bill was the product of meetings with the Secretary of State, her predecessor and staff over the past interim, along with detailed research by my office showing that many Texans whose applications were rejected never got to vote. Even worse, our research showed that whether or not you are ultimately put on the rolls depends on where you live, since some counties put a higher priority on fixing their errors than do others.

These errors have nothing to do with fraud. The governor’s argument on this point is not supported by ANY facts. Anyone who examines a list of the rejections sees immediately that the great majority of them are minor, innocent typos that should not interfere with a Texas citizen’s right to vote.

Indeed, if a person wanted to register fraudulently in someone else’s name, as the governor alleges, that person could simply leave the drivers license space blank on the application, and the registration would be issued without ever attempting to match it against the DPS drivers license file.

In a session where voting issues were high profile, contentious, and partisan, this bill received unanimous bipartisan votes in committee in each chamber, and was passed on House and Senate consent calendars. A small allocation for the necessary computer changes was also included in the appropriations bill.

The right to vote is precious and fundamental. Our current registration process allows this right to be withheld in large numbers at no fault of the citizens trying to register. Why would any elected official, charged with upholding the Constitution, not want to do everything possible to keep this from happening?

I think we all know the answer to that question. Perry’s statement on the veto is here. And as noted by the Quorum Report, it contains a typo. Hey, it could happen to anyone, right? Good thing for Perry that didn’t invalidate his veto. Good for him, too bad for everyone who would have been helped by HB1457.

Friends and foes

The Texas Observer poo-poos the idea of “Best Of” and “Top Ten” lists, then gives us its stab at a Best and Worst tabulation by naming six of “The People’s Friends” and five “Foes”. Where Texas Monthly focuses more on effectiveness in getting things done, the Observer takes the position that it’s not just about getting results but working to get good results that matters. That will necessarily lead to a more subjective list, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The TPPF/TAB crowd can and do produce their own lists, too, after all.

The five Foes are all Republicans, not that this should come as a surprise. I will say this, the fall of the house of Craddick made this task harder than it might have been in other years, as some of the historically bad actors were at least somewhat marginanalized this time around. Still, there’s always room for the likes of Debbie Riddle, Leo Berman, and Dan Patrick, just on general principles. Perhaps they should have included those who just missed the cut as well, as Honorable – or in this case, Dishonorable – Mentions.

The six Friends are an even mix of Ds and Rs. The one that will surely cause some consternation is this one:

Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless

Todd Smith had a thankless job. As chairman of the House Elections Committee, he was tasked with shepherding voter ID through the chamber. Partisan Republicans badly wanted the bill to pass. Democrats were desperate to kill it. To Smith’s credit, he tried to find a compromise on an issue so polluted by partisanship that compromise might have been impossible. In the end, it did prove impossible, but Smith gets an “A” for effort. Later in the session, Smith broke again with the hardcore members of his party. Some House Republicans, suspecting a Democratic ploy, opposed a bill by Dallas Rep. Rafael Anchia that was designed to register more high-schoolers to vote. Smith spoke in favor of the bill on the House floor, informing his colleagues that registering voters was a nonpartisan activity that everyone should support. He was one of just two Republicans to vote for the bill, putting good public policy ahead of rank partisanship.

That’s a generous interpretation of Smith’s role in the voter ID debacle. I don’t really care to wade in on that, as I hope we’ve seen the last of voter ID legislation for the foreseeable future, but I will say that if one insisted on balancing the Ds and the Rs, I might have gone for Sen. Kevin Eltife, who did yeoman’s work in getting the unemployment insurance bill through the Senate, or Rep. Rob Eissler, who has been a key ally of designated Friend Rep. Scott Hochberg on education matters. Greg plumps for Rep. John Zerwas, on the grounds that saving a life = automatic inclusion on any Best list. Hard to argue with that. Be that as it may, I might have decided instead that there was no need for partisan balance here, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Anyway, it’s an interesting list and a good way to frame the discussion. Check it out.

Is there a problem with the stimulus funds?

I hope not.

The debate over whether Texas lawmakers can use federal stimulus money to boost education spending, including funding a raise for teachers, is heating up.

The Obama administration warned states Thursday it may withhold millions of dollars if they use stimulus money to plug budget holes instead of boosting aid for schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made the threat in a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, but it could have implications for Texas, Arizona and other states.

Texas state lawmakers approved a bill that included a minimum $800 raise for public school teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses and speech pathologists, but the money is contingent on approval from the Education Department to use federal stimulus funds. Legislators decided to use federal stimulus money to cover the funding the state puts into education over the next two years.

[…]

In the letter to Rendell, Duncan wrote he is displeased at a plan by Pennsylvania’s Republican-led Senate to reduce the share of the state budget for education while leaving its rainy-day surplus untouched. To do so “is a disservice to our children,” Duncan wrote.

Texas essentially did the same thing, increasing education funding for the next two years by $1.9 billion thanks to the boost from the federal government, while leaving the state’s rainy-day fund alone.

“That’s exactly the same thing Secretary Duncan said he has a problem with,” [Northside ISD Superintendent John] Folks said. House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said if it wasn’t for the stimulus money there would be no extra money for education.

“The counterargument is that if we weren’t going to get that money we weren’t going to touch rainy day anyway,” he said. “We would’ve had to cut expenditures.”

I dunno, while the situations are similar, I wouldn’t say they’re the same, mostly because of that $1.9 billion in extra funding to the schools. I know Rep. Scott Hochberg had a big role in crafting that legislation, and I know he worked at ensuring its compliance with federal requirements. If Hochberg thought it was okay, I’ll trust him. If Secretary Duncan sends a letter to Governor Perry like the one he sent to Governor Rendell, then I’ll worry.

School finance bill advances

Has there ever been a legislative session that didn’t deal with school finance? This Lege is dealing with it as well, and the good news is they may have made some actual progress.

Texas teachers would get an $800-a-year raise and the Dallas school district would be protected from becoming a “Robin Hood” district for several years under a school finance bill that the House tentatively approved on Monday.

The measure also would merge the state’s two teacher incentive pay plans into one program and sharply reduce the amount of the merit pay that would have to be awarded based on student test scores.

Total state funding would increase about $1.9 billion over the next two years, with school districts required to spend at least half of their new state money on teacher salaries. The Dallas school district would see its funding rise $100 per student – just under 2 percent – for a total increase of about $17.5 billion.

School districts had sought more funding, but state leaders said earlier this year that a slowdown in state revenue would prevent a sizable increase.

“Every one of our school districts needs more money,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who laid out the school funding bill to the chamber. But even with the small increase, he added, “this is a fair bill and it is a balanced bill.”

One significant change in the bill would raise the threshold for determining which school districts must share their property tax revenue under the Robin Hood provisions of the school finance system. Last year, those districts were required to give up more than $1 billion to help equalize funding across the state.

Two of the biggest beneficiaries are the Dallas and Houston school districts, which are expected to join the ranks of high-property-wealth districts that must share their tax revenue next year. Under the House bill, both would be protected from becoming share-the-wealth districts for several years.

The bill is HB3646, and as of this afternoon it has passed the House, on a 144-2 vote. One additional benefit as noted in this AP story is that the plan is based on a calculation of current average statewide property values, so increases are reflected immediately. This isn’t perfect, but as House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler said in the Express News, it buys some time for the Lege to do more when the budget is in better shape. And this is surely a better deal than the schools would have gotten if Tom Craddick were still in charge. So we take what we can get and go from there.

Get ready for the next school funding lawsuit

The handwriting is on the wall.

Property tax cuts and a stingy state budget have left many Texas school districts saying they are short-changing children and warning of another lawsuit attempt to force reforms.

Texas lawmakers plan to increase school spending, but a skeptical education community isn’t sure it will be enough to cover costs or close growing funding gaps between school districts.

Lawmakers cut property taxes three years ago in school finance changes ordered by the Texas Supreme Court, largely freezing school revenue at 2006 levels. Today, school funding has grown dramatically less equitable and an estimated 40 percent of the state’s 1,040 school districts are running deficits, requiring them to dip into reserve funds.

A recent report by the non-partisan Legislative Budget Board indicates school funding is more inequitable today than it was when lawmakers reformed the system.

[…]

“We have people in desperate straits,” said Wayne Pierce, head of the Equity Center, which represents about 900 low- and mid-property-wealth districts.

“There’s a good chance, if they don’t do this right, people who have held off in filing a lawsuit will start thinking seriously about it,” Pierce said.

I forget where I came across it, but I recently saw an observation that the state of Texas has never embarked on school finance reform without being forced to do so by a lawsuit first. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a lousy way to do business.

As state law has forced local tax rates down to a maximum of $1.04 per $100 property valuation for maintenance and operations, poorer districts are getting less total revenue unless they persuade voters to raise taxes.

Committees in both the Senate and House are considering school finance bills, including a plan by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, that has been embraced by school districts.

It has a larger price tag than the one Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, is pushing in the House, or than another one by Senate Public Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano.

“I don’t think school districts in Texas will ever get all the money they need,” said Hochberg.

“I’m particularly concerned that we are still under-funding what it takes for a school district to be successful with the most challenging kids,” he said.

So as we ponder the billions of dollars we’ve spent on property tax cuts and not spent on fixing and improving our schools, here’s a report from McKinsey about the economic impact of the education gap, via Matt Yglesias:

If the United States had in recent years closed the gap between its educational achievement levels and those of better-performing nations such as Finland and Korea, GDP in 2008 could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher. This represents 9 to 16 percent of GDP.

If the gap between black and Latino student performance and white student performance had been similarly narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher, or 2 to 4 percent of GDP. The magnitude of this impact will rise in the years ahead as demographic shifts result in blacks and Latinos becoming a larger proportion of the population and workforce.

If the gap between low-income students and the rest had been similarly narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher, or 3 to 5 percent of GDP.

If the gap between America’s low-performing states and the rest had been similarly narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been $425 billion to $700 billion higher, or 3 to 5 percent of GDP.

Emphasis in original. All these achievements could have been realized with a far smaller investment than the payoff. How much better shape would we be in today if we truly recognized the value of high quality schooling for everyone? This is a far, far better job creation engine than the Texas Enterprise Fund, and yet our Governor, who claims to be all about economic growth and job creation, would never consider making the kind of investment in public schools that would yield these results. And so we get what we don’t pay for, and we wonder why school finance reform is always on the agenda.

Rep. Brown’s apology

In case you missed it, here’s State Rep. Betty Brown’s apology for her dumb remarks about Asian names.

Answering a swarm of phone calls during a brief break on the House floor, Rep. Betty Brown , R-Terrell, kept telling reporters she was misunderstood.

“I never meant they should change their names,” said Rep. Brown.

[…]

[Ramey] Ko confirmed that Brown’s office called him after the Texas Democratic Party cried foul. Brown said she had called Ko to apologize.

“We’re ready to work with any of these people who are having problems and have them educate us on anything that might be going on that we’re unaware of,” said Brown.

There’s video at that link as well. One way that Rep. Brown could make good on that promise and show that her apology was sincere would be to get behind HB1457 by Rep. Scott Hochberg, which is currently pending in the Elections Committee on which Rep. Brown sits. The bill states, in part:

SECTION 1. Chapter 11, Election Code is amended by adding Section 11.0005 to read as follows: Sec. 11.0005. GENERAL POLICY REGARDING ELIGIBILITY. It is the policy of this state that no qualified citizen shall be denied the right to vote due to governmental clerical errors or due to technical defects on an applicant’s voter registration application as long as the information on the application demonstrates that the citizen is qualified to vote.

In other words, just because some clerk somewhere got confused about how someone’s name is spelled, or over the fact that some people are legitimately known by more than one name, doesn’t mean someone who is eligible to vote cannot vote. That would go a long way, I think. Heck, just imagine how many people here in Harris County would have benefited from having this in place last year. What do you say, Betty?

Anyway. There’s not much point at this time in trying to round up more links about this, since you pretty much can’t read a blog today and not stumble across some reference to the story. I will point out the Asian American Action Fund blog, which has a couple of statements, the former from the Asian-American Democrats of Texas and the latter from New York City Council Member John Liu, that are worth reading. Maybe, just maybe, this incident will make a few people realize what the opposition to voter ID has been about, and we can keep something bad from happening when the House takes up the matter. I’m going to hope so, anyway.

UPDATE: OK, here is one more link worth your time, from MOMocrats.

UPDATE: One more statement, from the gressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), is beneath the fold.

UPDATE: More reactions to Brown from around the country.

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