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Marva Beck

Another story about parents and education cuts

I really want to believe that there’s an uprising in the works and that the Lege could be a very different place for the better next year, but I’m reserving judgment on that for now.

Deep cuts in school funding approved by the Texas Legislature last summer could energize angry parents in a way similar to how the tea party movement mobilized conservatives in 2010. In the 150-seat state House alone, at least 29 candidates who are current or former school board members, or have other education experience, are challenging incumbents or vying for open seats in the May 29 primary.

Seventeen are Republicans and 12 are Democrats — and most are pledging to fix Texas’ broken school finance system and dial back the importance of high-stakes standardized tests.

A possible education backlash has [Rep. Marva] Beck nervous and another incumbent, West Texas Republican Rep. Sid Miller, facing a primary challenge that could be tougher than expected. Among several candidates vying for an open seat in suburban Dallas, meanwhile, is Bennett Ratliff, scion of a well-known Texas political family who says his education background sets him apart from a crowded field.

“Funding is not the whole issue, but you can’t continue to cut, and continue to cut, and continue to cut. At some point it does become about funding,” said Ratliff, a Republican and nine-year veteran of the school board in Coppell, northwest of Dallas. His father is former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and his brother Thomas is on the state Board of Education.

Beck and Miller, who was the author of the sonogram bill, are both awful and richly deserve to be ousted, but I’m not prepared to believe that their opponents will be measurably better, even if we just confine the discussion to the issue of public education. At this point, anything short of a commitment to restore the $5.4 billion in funding that was cut from education plus a commitment to work on closing the structural budget hole caused by the 2006 tax swap leaves too much room for the same old same old. I’m glad there’s something out there other than the nihilists that can put some fear into these guys, I just want to see it translate into better votes.

Carolyn Boyle heads the Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which in 2006 supported at least 10 candidates who unseated incumbents or captured open seats. This year, the PAC has conducted more than 25 interviews with pro-education candidates and will endorse an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

“This could be a game-changer election,” Boyle said. “There are so many candidates with rich education experience.”

Republicans hold a 102-seat super majority in the Texas House and while they will likely lose as many as 10 seats due to redistricting, they will maintain control. But next year they take a different tack.

As I said before, being an educator is nice but hardly sufficient. I love what ParentPAC does and I’ll be keeping a close eye on their endorsements this year – so far, I have received emails announcing their endorsements of Republicans Trent Ashby in HD57, Ed Thompson in HD29, Roger Fisher in HD92, Susan Todd in HD97, Amber Fulton in HD106, Jason Villalba in HD114, Bennett Ratliff in HD115, and Whet Smith in HD138; they have also endorsed Democrat Justin Rodriguez in HD125 – but I have not forgotten that all of their previous Republican endorsees marched off the cliff with the rest of their party last year. Not a one as far as I can tell argued against the cuts to education – hell, not a one as far as I can tell argued against the twice-as-big education cuts that were in the House budget. How do I know that once they’ve been elected they won’t take Rick Perry’s budget suicide pledge and give us more of what we got last time? I really really hope I’m being overwrought about this, because we’re not getting a Democratic majority any time soon and we need there to be at least a decent contingent of pro-education Republicans in Austin, but I’m not seeing what I want in the rhetoric just yet.

Republican Mike Jones is a former college instructor and member of the school board in Glen Rose, southwest of Fort Worth, who calls fully funding school districts a centerpiece of his campaign. He says it has raised the profile of his challenge of Miller — a one-time vocational teacher himself who voted in favor of the school cuts.

“It’s like the school district is a Chevy Suburban and it’s been driven by a superintendent … then the state comes and saddles them with a 40,000 pound trailer on the back end of it and starts blaming the Suburban or the principals or the teachers or the kids,” Jones said. “It’s not their fault it’s that trailer put on there. It’s the unfunded mandates and the testing.”

Jones and others have also seized on what they call the state’s over-reliance on standardized testing, which districts are forced to prepare their students for more rigorously than ever despite budgets cuts.

I’m glad to hear this and I agree with what Jones is saying, but it doesn’t take much political courage these days to be anti-standardized testing. I’m happy for these candidates to pursue a more balanced testing policy – as the parent of a rising third-grader, I’ll be delighted to have less to worry about on this score – but let’s not confuse that with a solution for the school finance problem. We may find some savings there, but it’ll be little more than couch cushion money. Dialing back the standardized tests is worth doing on its own merits, but it’s a separate issue from the main event of education funding.

Electing educators

This sounds good, but there are a couple of things missing.

More than a dozen Republicans and Democrats who have sat on school boards are running for the Texas House this year, and a backlash over spending cuts and standardized testing might help them get there.

Legislators sliced per-student spending last year, prompting schools to trim programs, increase class sizes and enact new fees. The publicity surrounding those cuts could persuade voters to change their representation in Austin, particularly if the alternative is a candidate seen as friendlier to public schools.

“We’re saying it’s time to bring in a significant number of new legislators,” said Carolyn Boyle of Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which endorses and helps candidates who it deems pro-education.

Boyle said her group plans to back an equal number of Republican and Democratic candidates in legislative races this year. A similar strategy worked in 2006, when groups representing parents, teachers and others helped at least 10 candidates defeat incumbents or win open seats in the Legislature.

It would be nice to see a list of the candidates with school board backgrounds. Other than Alief ISD Trustee Sarah Winkler (D) in HD137 and Lufkin school board president Trent Ashby (R), who is named later in the story, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I’m far too lazy to go through a hundred or so candidates’ webpage bios to try and figure it out.

Boyle said this year’s crop of candidates with school board experience is the largest she has seen since 2006.

But this year, the education community does not appear to be as unified as it was then. A candidate who appeals to the leadership of Boyle’s PAC, for instance, may not appeal to a teachers group.

“In 2006, we had a number of former school board members who were recruited at a time when we felt like public education was under attack, and it really united all of the education groups,” said Lindsay Gustafson, director of public affairs for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

But since then, Gustafson said, “We’ve found that a lot of the former school board members that we supported weren’t necessarily going to be supportive of us on issues that were divisive in the education community between administrator groups or the school boards and educator groups.”

One of those divisions, for example, was over whether the state should loosen limits on class sizes in elementary schools. More broadly, some of the candidates who received help from Parent PAC and teachers groups in earlier races voted for the cuts in per-pupil spending.

“We’re going to have to be a little bit tougher when we’re vetting candidates,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. “A lot of folks that we felt like we helped get there didn’t seem to know us in 2011.”

This is where it gets dicey. I support ParentPAC, and have been a fan of theirs since they burst onto the scene in 2006. But the ParentPAC-backed Republicans – Diane Patrick, Jimmie Don Aycock, Dan Huberty, Four Price, among others – voted along party lines last session, which is to say they voted to slash spending on public education and voted for measures that would put more kids in classrooms and make it easier to cut teachers’ pay. If they’re not going to stand up for what’s right under those conditions – and let’s be clear, there will be more where that came from in 2013 – then what good are they? Maybe Trent Ashby, who is challenging the teabagger Marva Beck in HD57, will be an improvement over her – not that high a bar to clear, after all – and maybe so will some of the other Republican school board members running. I share Gustafson and Kouri’s concerns about how we can be sure about that. Good intentions and a good resume only go so far. I want to know what these people plan to do about fixing the structural budget deficit, what their general philosophy is about the inevitable next overhaul of the school finance system, and I want to hear them say that they will vote for restoring education funding, and against further cuts. Then I want them to be held accountable for their votes. That isn’t so much to ask, is it?

By the way, there was another Save Texas Schools rally in Austin yesterday, and it drew another good crowd.

More than 1,000 teachers, students and administrators from schools across Texas rallied Saturday at the state Capitol to decry $5.4 billion in cuts to public education and demand that lawmakers restore some of that funding — or at least not impose another round of cuts next year.

The demonstrators, who also included parents and a number of Democratic lawmakers, marched through downtown, than gathered under the Capitol’s pink dome for nearly three hours. They chanted “Save Texas Schools!” and held up signs that read: “Cuts hurt kids,” ”You get what you vote for,” and “If you can’t read this, thank your congressman.”

[…]

When crafting its two-year budget last summer, the state Legislature voted to pump an additional $1.5 billion into the account used to fund public schools, but made slightly more than that in cuts elsewhere. Lawmakers also rewrote the school funding formula to cut an additional $4 billion, despite average public school enrollment increasing by 80,000 students per year statewide.

Another $1.4 billion in cuts was made to grant programs. All told, Texas’ per-student funding fell more than $500 as compared to the last budget cycle, the first decline in per-pupil state spending since World War II.

Four lawsuits have been filed on behalf of more than 500 school districts representing more than 3 million Texas children. The suits charge that the Legislature’s plan is not equitable in how it distributes funding to school districts — but the legal fight likely won’t begin for months.

“For the first time in 60 years, the Legislature that meets in this building behind us failed to finance the current school funding law,” John Folks, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, told the crowd Saturday. “That shows very clearly the priority that Texas has put on public education.”

Another target at the rally was the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR test. Students across the state will begin taking the new standardized test Monday.

“They say ‘STAAR,’ we say ‘No!'” the demonstrators chanted.

Every time I write about the devastating effect of the Republicans’ cuts to public education, I get a comment about how over the past decade spending on public education had grown faster in Texas than the growth in student enrollment. That’s true, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Aside from the fact that both state and federal legislation has increased costs on school districts via various accountability measures, school districts face numerous costs that are beyond their control and which are generally not given much consideration by the Lege. You may have noticed the high price of gasoline these days. School districts and their fleet of school buses certainly have. Probably the biggest factor in busting school districts’ budgets is the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, which increased by 131 percent between 1999 and 2009. What that means is that even without adding any more students or staff, school districts would be feeling the pinch. They can’t do anything about energy prices (electricity costs more now, too; thanks, utility deregulation!) and like the city of Houston they can only do so much about health insurance costs. What do you think they’re going to do when the Lege cuts their budgets? We’re seeing it now, and we’ll see more of it in the future if we don’t change direction.

New map, new opportunities: Outside the urban areas, part 1

Here’s the first post in my series of analyses of the new districts. I’m using 2008 electoral data, since the next election is a Presidential year, and I feel confident that the districts were drawn with an eye strongly towards protecting Republican gains in such a year. Without further ado, here we go.

HD12

District: 12

Incumbent: None

Counties: McLennan (part), Limestone, Falls, Robertson, Brazos (part)

Best 2008 Dem performance: Sam Houston, 46.67%

This district contains parts of Jim Dunnam’s old district, with the eastern part of the old HD57 being chopped off and reconstituted to accommodate Marva Beck. Lack of an incumbent is a big part of the draw here. A big downside is the eight point spread from the top of the ticket – neither Obama nor Noriega cracked 40% – to the Sam Houston number, which suggests that any Democratic candidate may have to swim against the tide. Lack of an incumbent also means you can’t accuse the other guy of voting to gut public education. Not a top priority, and may never be on the radar, but deserves a decent candidate for the first go-round at least.

HD17

District: 17

Incumbent: Tim Kleinschmidt (first elected in 2008)

Counties: Lee, Bastrop, Caldwell, Gonzales, Karnes

Best 2008 Dem performance: Susan Strawn, 48.27% (plurality)

Big change in this district, which used to contain Burleson, Colorado, Fayette, and parts of Brazos. Basically, it shifted south. Bastrop is the population center, and it was a purple county in 2008, with Strawn and Sam Houston scoring pluralities there. The more it becomes an Austin suburb a la Hays and Williamson, the better the prospects for a win. This district was on the radar for Dems in 2008 as an open D seat and in 2010, and I expect it will continue to be.

HDs 32 and 34

District: 32
District: 34

Incumbent: Todd Hunter (HD32, first elected in 2008); Raul Torres and Connie Scott (HD34, first elected in 2010)

Counties: Nueces

Best Dem performance in 2008: For HD32, Sam Houston, 46.20%. For HD34, Sam Houston, 58.83%

HD32 can charitably be described as a reach if Hunter runs for re-election. Nueces County has been trending away from the Democrats, the three counties that were removed from HD32 (Aransas, Calhoun, and San Patricio) were a net winner for Juan Garcia, whom Hunter defeated in 2008, and Hunter has done very well both in terms of fundraising and moving up the ladder in his two terms. However, it’s the worst kept secret in the state that Hunter wants to run for Congress, and if that map is at all favorable to him this seat may be open in 2012. So keep that in the back of your mind.

I’ll be honest, I’m not really sure why Torres and Scott were paired, unless they were considered to be hopeless cases for salvation. This is the more Democratic part of Nueces, with all Dems in 2008 winning a majority, up to 20 points in their favor downballot. This has got to be one of the easiest pickup opportunities for the Dems in 2012.

HD35

District: 35

Incumbent: Jose Aliseda (first elected in 2010)

Counties: Atascosa, LaSalle, McMullen, Live Oak, Bee, San Patricio, Duval

Best 2008 Dem performance: Sam Houston, 50.77%

Republicans have been trying to carve out a South Texas district for themselves for awhile, and this one may be their best shot going forward. The good news for them is that McCain and Cornyn scored solid wins in 2008, with McCain getting nearly 55% and Cornyn 51%. The bad news is that Dems carried the rest of the races, with Houston, Strawn, and Linda Yanez all getting majorities. Aliseda got into one of the more entertaining kerfuffles during the House debate over HB150; I don’t know if he got what he wanted or not, but what he got is a very swingy district that may be a battleground through the decade.

HD41

District: HD41

Incumbent: Aaron Pena (first elected as a Democrat in 2002, switched parties after the 2010 election)

Counties: Hidalgo (part)

Best Dem performance in 2008: Sam Houston, 60.15%

I can’t think of a single seat the Democrats would like to win more than this one. Technically, Pena is the incumbent in HD40, and Veronica Gonzales is the incumbent in HD41, but as the Legislative Study Group noted:

CSHB150 also radically changes Hidalgo County districts in an effort to squeeze a partisan performing district out of the existing population. The incumbent in HD 40 would only represent 1.5 % of his current district, and the incumbent in HD 41 would only represent 1.1 % of her district. The gerrymandered map in Hidalgo County takes great pains to draw the incumbents in HD 40 and 41 into almost entirely new districts, narrowing down to one city block at times.

For this reason, the district numbers were swapped, thus giving Pena and Gonzales most of their previous constituents back. Despite being on the Redistricting Committee and drawing what one presumes was the best map he could for himself, Pena isn’t exactly sitting pretty. The low score among Democrats was Obama’s 54.83%, with everyone but Jim Jordan getting at least 56%. Do his constituents love him enough to overcome the party label or not? Assuming he does run for re-election, that is.

Peña said he is in employment negotiations with a law firm that would require him to move out of the Valley. If he does take the job, he said, he won’t seek office in 2012.

In other words, he’s got a graceful way out if he decides that he can’t win his custom-designed district. We’ll find out soon enough. More non-urban areas coming up next.