March 12, 2013

All Texans must join the fight to restore school funding

Lawmakers won't do the right thing for education unless they're forced — by the public or the courts.

Rants, raves, reviews and resources for Dallas-Fort Worth parents

Rather than head for sunny beaches at the start of spring break this week, hundreds of Texas educators set their sights on the state Capitol, where the Legislature is in session.

In a scene that's becoming familiar to Texans, educational professionals marched Monday in support of increasing school funding, a cry that too often falls on deaf ears in Austin, where legislators have consistently -- and coldheartedly -- failed our children.

Last month, students and parents joined teachers and administrators in a demonstration at the Capitol. Numbering about 2,000, they demanded that lawmakers restore the $5.4 billion in cuts made to public education in 2011. Those cuts caused districts to reduce staff, increase class sizes and provide fewer services.

It's shameful that Texas teachers have to stage protests and that school districts have to file lawsuits to get state leaders to do what they're mandated to do under Article 7, Section 1, of the state constitution:

"A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools."

For decades, the state has fallen short of that obligation, tending to provide any semblance of adequate funding only after being ordered to by the courts.

After the 2011 cuts, more than 600 school districts (representing three-quarters of the state's 5 million public school students) sued the state, claiming that Texas provides inadequate financial support for meeting required higher academic standards, and that there are inequities between so-called property-rich and property-poor districts.

State District Judge John Dietz of Austin last month declared the state's school financing plan unconstitutional. The case is expected to be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

Instead of trying to shore up funding for public schools, some lawmakers are looking for ways to divert money to private ones. Under the guise of "school choice," their plan would allow parents of students in low-performing public schools to enroll them in private schools using money provided by the state.

It's the wrong message at the wrong time.

But messaging has always been a problem for many Texas leaders, especially when it comes to education.

As many wrestled with school funding here at home, Gov. Rick Perry was gallivanting in Beverly Hills last month trying to convince California business owners that Texas is a great place to relocate, primarily because of low tax rates and few regulations.

You can bet he didn't mention our lower educational achievement and lower public school funding. At about the same time the governor was touting what a great state we have, the National Education Association released figures showing Texas had dropped to 49th among all the states (and the District of Columbia) in per-pupil spending.

Texas' $8,400 per student is more than $3,000 below the national average of $11,455. The state fell from 41st in the 2010-11 school year, when per-pupil spending averaged $9,446.

A lot of politicians will say that more money doesn't necessarily mean better education. Maybe not.

But less money, particularly at a time when student enrollment is increasing at about 70,000 a year, certainly will not improve matters.

As Dietz pointed out before delivering his ruling, Texans supporting higher education standards must understand they require a new curriculum; technology upgrades; more teachers and training; more tutoring and remediation; and more evaluation and accountability -- along with public outreach.

"I think we can do all of that for an additional $2,000 per student or, in other words, an additional $10-11 billion," the judge advised fellow Texans. "You support this tax increase, don't you?"

More taxes?

Teachers, keep your marching shoes handy.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.


Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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