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February 15th, 2003:

Chron discovers Astroturf

Well, not really, but they did print an opinion piece about it. The current GOP Team Leader-inspired turfing has been known for over a month, thanks to the likes of Atrios and Failure Is Impossible, but better late than never, I guess.

Rural schools fear Robin Hood reform

School funding in Texas is done from a combination of local property taxes and state funds. It’s roughly a 50-50 mix, though right now the state’s share is at a low point. In the early 90s, after the inequities of this system were declared unconstitutional, a plan was put into place that shifted funds from richer districts to poorer ones. This was known as the “Robin Hood” plan. Though it has helped to level the playing field somewhat, it has been largely unpopular, especially with those richer districts, and is under another court challenge. Many state legislators ran for office in 2002 pledging to change the school funding system.

A bill by Rep. Kent Gruesendorf (R, Arlington) to eliminate the Robin Hood plan by 2005 has passed out of committee even though it does not mention what the alternative would be. Governor Perry supports this effort, though the only contribution he’s made to solving the problem has been to suggest yet another commission to study school financing.

All of this has generated the usual amount of skepticism. The first actual sign that this train may get derailed comes from this story, which suggests that Republican lawmakers from rural districts fear that any such reform will shortchange their constituents.

Texas’ 700 rural schools are not all property-poor, but they get equalizing funding under the current system because they are so small, and in some cases, remote.

They fear the elimination of that advantage and worry that any new system would force the districts to consolidate, an unpopular idea in rural areas.

“We would lose all that we’ve gained and have to start all over, and we’re worried about what could happen in an urban Legislature,” said Don Rogers of the Texas Association of Rural Schools.

Together, the rural and urban lawmakers have enough power and votes in the 150-member House to slow down a bill to repeal Robin Hood by 2005.

Until now, it had been flying through the legislative process. The bill by House Public Education Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, offers no alternative plan.

I’m a bit skeptical of this story, since it never actually mentions any Republican lawmakers who may oppose Robin Hood reform. Still, it’s not hard to see why rural legislators might not view reform as favorably as those from the wealthy suburbs.

Some want promises that any new system won’t force small and rural schools to consolidate, an idea pushed by some urban and suburban lawmakers who believe it would save the state money.

Rogers said in most rural areas, the schools are the center of the community and often the largest employer.

The cost of building a central school and transporting students there would offset savings, he said.

Rep. Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, agreed. “When you consolidate schools, you ruin communities,” he said.

Laney, the former House speaker, had been influencial in stopping previous pushes for consolidation, Rogers said.

Let’s be blunt here: “Consolidation” means throwing some number of people out of work, an idea that’s never popular. I’m even more skeptical of the notion that this would be a net money saver.

I do think a school finance reform bill will at least come up for a vote, but I’ll be surprised if Gruesendorf’s bill reaches the governor’s desk as is. There are too many questions left unanswered for it to pass in its present form. Despite the pressure that many first-term reps are under to Do Something, I think a compromise of some kind will have to be reached first. Stay tuned.

(This post also appears on the Political State Report.)