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December 31st, 2012:

So how’s public education doing under the Republicans?

Well, for starters, there’s larger class sizes.

Northside’s predicament mirrors that of several other local districts with expanding enrollments. It’s part of the argument hundreds of Texas districts are making in an ongoing school finance lawsuit against the state, blaming lawmakers for a funding scheme that doesn’t keep up with growth.

Administrators say larger classes are cheaper than hiring more teachers. There’s no state limit on class size for grades 5-12. In kindergarten through fourth grade, school districts must seek permission to go above 22 students per teacher — and the number of requests for such waivers from several local districts has skyrocketed in the past two years.

School boards, lawmakers and even presidential candidates this year debated whether larger classes hurt education.

“I would say that the majority of those people who say class size doesn’t matter haven’t been in a classroom in a long time,” Southwest ISD Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft said. “To think we can take a college format with larger sizes and bring it down to lower grade levels, where students still are developing socially as well as academically, is a farce. These kids need attention and interventions.”

[…]

Southwest ISD has found a way around the waiver requirement by using a “multi-grade” setup, placing some students overflowing from a lower grade into a higher grade classroom and having the teacher instruct the appropriate curriculum. Verstuyft said the district might need to end that experiment and opt for waivers — enrollment is swelling with population attracted by nearby manufacturing plants and the Eagle Ford Shale energy drilling boom.

Now at 13,024 students, Southwest added about 600 in each of the past two years since the Legislature cut its funding by almost $12 million.

FYI, Southwest ISD’s revenue for 2011-12 was $105 million, so they experienced a ten percent growth in enrollment over the past two years while dealing with a ten percent cut in funding. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for continued success to me. But surely with all that extra revenue coming into the state things will be better in the next biennium, right?

Yeah, right.

Republican leaders heading into the new legislative session say they are in no hurry to undo billions of dollars in cuts to public schools made two years ago.

Despite pressure from teacher groups and others, top lawmakers cited holes they must patch in the current budget, a general caution about higher spending and a desire to see how courts rule in the latest suit over how the state funds education.

Many school districts, pointing to an improved Texas economy, are seeking relief. But key budget-writers say the initial two-year plan they’ll unveil soon won’t replace the $5.4 billion the last Legislature sliced from state maintenance and operation aid and discretionary grants.

That means no substantial help to handle bigger classes and no restored grants for half-day prekindergarten and remedial instruction, decisions that are expected to rekindle tensions with school advocates calling for more money.

“The introduced bill won’t have that,” though it may include an additional $1 billion or so to cover student enrollment growth, said Rep. Jim Pitts, the Waxahachie Republican who heads the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

Pitts said he expects Comptroller Susan Combs’ two-year revenue estimate, which limits what lawmakers can spend, “to be pretty conservative, and so we’re being very conservative.”

[…]

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said GOP leaders probably are posturing, comparing it to the initial House proposal two years ago for $9 billion in school cuts.

“The story became the restoration of some of the cuts instead of focusing on how can we cut $5.4 billion from education in a school system that we’re holding to higher and higher standards,” said Strama, a member of the Public Education Committee.

“That was actually a smart political strategy to sell a dumb public policy.”

Strama said Republican leaders may ease up some when a final budget starts taking shape.

Don’t count on it, though, said Rep. Charles Perry, a Lubbock Republican who, with tea party support, upset an ally to Speaker Joe Straus two years ago — and then beat him again in a primary rematch this year.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “We’re not going to do any restoration.”

So there you have it. Frankly, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting on them to add funding to cover enrollment growth. It’s not a priority for them. I’ll say it again, nothing will change until the government changes. It’s as simple as that. EoW has more.

Yet another Planned Parenthood ruling coming today

Today is the last day that federal money will be sent to Texas for the Women’s Health Program – it officially gets cut off on January 1. The state tried and failed to get an injunction forcing the feds to keep the spigot open even as it barred Planned Parenthood from participating. For its part, Planned Parenthood has asked for an injunction forcing the state to keep it in the WHP, which will be funded by the state going forward. A ruling on PP’s request is expected today.

Right there with them

The order, if granted, would keep the group in the program pending another hearing expected in January.

It’s the latest twist in a long-running court saga that stems from the state’s desire to bar Planned Parenthood clinics from program funding because of their connection to abortion providers.

[…]

Visiting Judge Gary Harger, who is hearing motions during the holiday week, noted Friday that he had just been notified on Thursday that he would hear the motion for a temporary restraining order. Harger said the Planned Parenthood petition was 129 pages, and the state response was 61 pages, and he wanted to take the matter under advisement. He plans to rule on Monday.

A fuller version of this story is here. I’m honestly not sure if this is related to one of the previously filed lawsuits or if it’s something new. Be that as it may, I’ll post an update when I see a report on how Judge Harger ruled.

UPDATE: Judge Harger has denied the request for an injunction, meaning the state can bar Planned Parenthood from its replacement Women’s Health Program, at least pending the outcome of other ongoing litigation.

UPDATE: More from the Trib, which has a good summary of where we are and how we got here.

Compost that Christmas tree

Let your Christmas tree do some good after you get rid of it.

When that Christmas tree comes down this year, take a moment to imagine its next incarnation: Chipped up and mixed into soil, it might soon secure new grasses along some South Texas highway or sustain vegetable starts in someone’s garden.

Adding weathered plant material back into the soil is becoming the norm for a growing number of people who are purchasing and using compost.

Two decades ago Houston offered only a couple places to buy it; now there are more than 60. Beyond buying, more people are learning how to make compost themselves from clipped grass and wilted vegetables.

“We are in a high growth mode and poised to steamroll,” said Michael Virga, executive director of the U.S. Compost Council. It plans to debut a campaign this spring with a message aimed at landscapers, green builders and the public about poor soil quality and the importance of recycling food.

“Compost Camp” is offered by the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling. Urban Harvest, the Houston gardening nonprofit, offers classes in compost and soil.

[…]

Composting has grown significantly in Texas for a different reason, and it has a lot to do with the Texas Department of Transportation. It has become, it believes, the single largest purchaser of compost in the country.

In 1985, landscape architect Barrie Cogburn tried to help TxDOT determine why its freshly graded slopes so frequently slumped away in the rain, taking with them the department’s expensive plantings. Cogburn noticed that new topsoil brought in by subcontractors was often little more than finely ground rock.

At a workshop she learned just how much organic material was ending up in Texas landfills. “They have too much, and we don’t have enough,” she thought. “There has to be a way to come together on this.”

Cogburn and Scott McCoy of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality teamed up in an experiment adding compost to the transportation department’s soil.

They also added dairy manure that was piling up in Bosque County, polluting water all the way downstream to Waco. The results were favorable: TxDOT embankments started staying in place. And the organic material retained water, so the department had to irrigate less. The practice is now widespread.

To ensure that your tree is part of the circle of life and not needlessly taking up space in a landfill, you have to take it to a recycling center, or if you have city of Houston trash service you can leave it by your curb on a tree waste day. You can find a list of recycling centers here, and the Chron has a handy map here. Recycling centers will take trees through January 7. This is a no-brainer, so make sure you take advantage.