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Save Texas Schools

Meet the new budget

Same as the old budget.

Republican leaders in both chambers of the Legislature on Monday offered spare first drafts of the state’s next two-year budget that continue $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made last session and freeze funding for an embattled state agency set up to find a cure for cancer.

Upending recent tradition, the Texas Senate is starting off with the leaner budget this session, one that’s about $1 billion smaller than the House budget but spends nearly the same amount in general revenue, the portion of the budget that lawmakers have the most control over. General revenue typically makes up around half of the total budget, with much of the remainder coming from federal funding.

The Senate proposed a $186.8 billion budget, a 1.6 percent drop from $189.9 billion, the amount the current budget is estimated to grow to after lawmakers pay for some unpaid bills in the current budget this session. General revenue spending makes up $89 billion of the budget, up 1.5 percent from the current budget.

The total House budget will be $187.7 billion, down 1.2 percent from the current budget. General revenue spending makes up $89.2 billion, a 2 percent increase from the current budget.

Both proposals drew swift criticism from Democrats and education groups, but Republican lawmakers in both chambers stressed that the budgets are merely starting points.

Let’s just say that they’ll have to show it to me before I believe it. The first time House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts or Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams starts talking about “tax relief”, I’ll know the fix is in. The debate over the supplemental budget, which will need to pay off some IOUs on Medicaid and school funds, will give us an indication of how this is going to go.

The embedded graphic above is from the Better Texas blog, which is a product of the CPPP and which you should be reading. Their point is that even with the higher revenue estimate, we’re still way below what we’d need to be spending to cover population growth and cost increases. It’s going to take a change in government to get to that point.

Still, some things do change, and the Statesman notes one of them.

One relatively small-dollar change will have an out-sized political effect. The House provided no money for the state standardized testing system, a $98 million reduction in state dollars, while the Senate fully funded the program.

Frustration has been building over the testing system, known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, and parents and some business leaders are pushing for major changes. The House appears ready to force the issue.

“It will at least force the discussion,” said Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer who helped found Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a parent group seeking an overhaul of the state testing system. “I think it was a very bold move.”

It’s unlikely that the final budget will zero out funding for the STAAR test, but I do agree that this will prioritize the debate over just how much standardized testing we need. Keep an eye on that.

Here are responses to the budget from Rep. Mike Villarreal and the Texas AFT. So far everyone is taking Pitts and Williams at their word that what they’ve put out now is just a starting point. If we want to end up someplace better, now is an excellent time to let your Rep and Senator know what your priorities are. It’s also a good time to note that the first Save Texas Schools rally for the session is on the calendar:

In the face of underfunding, over testing and proposed vouchers, get ready to join thousands of concerned Texans as we stand up for quality education for ALL Texas students.

DATE: Saturday, February 23, 2013

TIME/PLACE: March: 10:45 a.m. on the Congress Avenue Bridge to the Capitol.  Rally: Noon – 1:30 p.m. at the Texas State Capitol on the South Steps, Congress Ave. & 11th St.

AGENDA: Speakers include Supt. John Kuhn and Diane Ravitch. More soon!

Organizing in Your Area: Click here to be an organizer in your area.

Transportation: We have scholarships available to local groups to help with buses this year. Click here to apply. Please contact Save Texas Schools as soon as possible!

Let us know you’re coming! Click here to sign the Save Texas Schools petition and to register for the rally.

As always, speak now or forever lose the right to complain about the end result. Burka is dumbfounded by it all, Grits says that “on the criminal justice front they’re not off to an inspiring start”, and EoW, Sen. Kirk Watson, and the Observer have more.

We have a long history of screwing public schools in this state

I’ve been meaning to post about this Texas Observer story about the current status of school finance, the litigation challenging it, and the story of how we got here. Here’s a little local angle to illustrate one of the many ways in which the system is messed up.

Even one of the state’s most efficient districts, Northwest Houston’s Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (ISD), is bleeding out slowly after eight years of cuts.

Cy-Fair, the state’s third-largest district, has become a model for doing more with less. It’s consistently a top performer not only in the state comptroller’s rankings of budget efficiency, but also in state test scores. The district hasn’t suffered the massive teacher layoffs some others have, and spokeswoman Kelli Durham says that’s because the district has grown so adept at finding other places to cut. Still, Cy-Fair has scaled back its custodial contracts, cut money for field trips, and skimped on new furniture, trimming $125 million (20 percent of the district’s current budget) in less than a decade. They’ve gotten more waivers than ever before to exceed the state’s 22-student cap in kindergarten-through-4th grade classrooms.

To keep running smoothly through the tight times, Durham says, district leaders cashed in on trust and goodwill they’ve built with their community over time, asking teachers and the whole Cy-Fair community to do more for their schools. But that solution, Durham says, is not sustainable. “In reality, people can’t do double-time for a long period of time.”

Most districts receive more than Cy-Fair’s annual $4,800 per student, but some get even less. The state’s current funding scheme harms them all in different ways. In wealthy districts, parents pay thousands in taxes every month, then watch the state give it to some other school. Their kids sell candy bars and magazines so their school can make ends meet. In poorer districts, students may have to pay to ride the bus to a school that’s more crowded than ever—the sort of environment that makes it easier than ever for students to drop out without being missed.

[…]

In 2005, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the school finance system unconstitutional. With so many districts maxing out their property tax rates, the court ruled that the system amounted to a statewide property tax—outlawed by the state constitution. State lawmakers were ordered to reduce property tax rates, which they did in 2006, but not before muddling the whole system even more.

Rather than update the old formulas used to determine how much money a district should get, the Legislature in 2006 invented a new benchmark— “target revenue”— based on each district’s property tax revenues in 2005. The strategy was meant to protect districts from losing money as the state lowered property taxes. But it created its own grave inequities in funding between districts. Target revenue not only doesn’t provide districts enough money, it makes inequalities worse over time.

In an absurd twist, the target revenue system actually punished the school districts that were most efficient with their money. This is why Cy-Fair ISD finds itself at such a severe disadvantage under the current system. It’s a large district that got by for years by pinching pennies. But now the district’s funding is tied to its 2005 levels of property tax revenue and per-student spending.

“If we had not been so efficient, we would’ve come up with a better target revenue [figure],” says Durham, the Cy-Fair spokesperson.

HISD is largely in the same position. Its property tax rate is below the mandated cap, and it could have made up for at least some of the funding cuts by raising its rate, but as primarily argued by Trustee Harvin Moore, it shouldn’t be in the position of having to subsidize the state’s failure. Once again, we wait for the courts to step in and force the Lege to Do Something. Let’s hope this time the effect is positive.

In the meantime, of course, you can get involved locally and at the Capitol. I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth showing again (and again):

Here in Houston, in addition to the community grassroots meeting this evening, you can hear Wayne Pierce, the Executive Director of the Equity Center, and David Thompson, the lead litigator on the lawsuit for which HISD is a plaintiff, give a talk on where things stand and what you can do about it. The talk is Monday, March 5, from 10 to 12 at the United Way of Greater Houston, 50 Waugh Drive (map). Here’s a flyer with the details. You can also team up with the Equity Center as they press forward.

If you can’t attend that, you can attend a family fundraiser for the Texas Parent PAC on Sunday the 4th, from 2 to 4 at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle at Evergreen in Bellaire. More details for that are here. If you want to sign on as a sponsor, see here for more. Get informed, get involved, and get out and vote. And don’t forget who’s on your side and who isn’t.

Calling for a special session

It started with the Texas State Teachers Association.

The Texas State Teachers Association today urged Gov. Rick Perry to call the Legislature into special session now to appropriate $2.5 billion from the Rainy Day Fund and head off another round of harmful cuts in local public school budgets for the 2012-2013 school year.

“It is time to stop the bleeding and stop the cuts, now!” said TSTA President Rita Haecker, who appeared at a state Capitol news conference with State Rep. Donna Howard of Austin.

[…]

TSTA believes there is enough money in the Rainy Day Fund to restore the school cuts and leave a substantial balance to address other important needs. The comptroller has estimated the fund will have a balance of $7.3 billion by the end of this budget period. Other experts believe it may grow even larger, because of higher oil prices and increased production.

Gov. Perry insisted that the Legislature leave a large balance in the Rainy Day account, even while making deep cuts in state services, during last year’s sessions. TSTA will be circulating petitions, urging the governor to do the right thing now and call lawmakers to Austin. Texans also can sign the petition at:

http://www.tstaweb.net/forms/2012cutsPetition.html

“It is time for the governor to cut the politics and stop cutting away at our children, their education and our state’s future,” Haecker said. “He can call a special session, stop the cuts and do what’s right for Texas.”

Remember, the Lege underfunded Medicaid by nearly $5 billion, so most of the Rainy Day Fund is spoken for. Haecker and the TSTA are calling for the extra Rainy Day funds, which have accumulated over the past few months as the economy has improved, to be used.

Former Democratic House Caucus chair Jim Dunnam echoed the call in the op-ed pages.

Just back from his failed presidential bid, Gov. Perry has been urged by Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and by educator groups to call a summer special session of the Texas Legislature to address budget and school finance issues. It’s so bad that even Perry’s own appointee as head of the Texas Education Agency, Robert Scott, just said he can’t certify Texas’ ban on social promotion until the current lack of funding is addressed. Perry should heed these responsible calls to fix the problem.

In 2011, $5.4 billion was cut from public education; that’s more than $1,000 per child. Those cuts will be felt even more in the fall than in the current school year. In addition, distribution of public school dollars has gotten way out of kilter, with students really the ones suffering.

Last week, Perry ignored the calls for a special session and instead chose to minimize the role of money in education, saying, “ultimately success is about the results that we get out of our schools.” Results do measure success, but the fact is that schools receiving the most money are the ones showing the successful results.

[…]

Gov. Perry needs to listen to Ogden and others and convene a special session this year. Why await the inevitable Supreme Court ruling when the problem is staring us in the face? School funding is once again totally inadequate, and funding imbalances are determining the winners and losers in our accountability system. Ironically, Texas now has $6.1 billion just sitting in our rainy day fund – more than what was cut from schools last year.

We have to stop blaming everyone else for our problems and look in the mirror when we look at unemployment, the deficit and our economy. Our methodical and steady defunding of education at all levels is a root cause of many of these problems. The Legislature needs to go back to work now. Otherwise, our tomorrow might not come out like we want, and only we will be to blame.

Democratic Senate candidate Paul Sadler, who was an education finance policy expert while in the State House, put the focus on his presumed opponent in November, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst should “get to work or resign,” says Paul Sadler, former House Public Education chairman, who believes state lawmakers need to come back to the state Capitol to work on school funding in a special legislative session.

Dewhurst is running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate; Sadler is running for the Democratic nomination.

Only Gov. Rick Perry can call a special legislative session, but Dewhurst should be supporting the call, Sadler says.

“Massive cuts to education this year, followed by systematic cuts planned for next year, will create a “Double Robin Hood” scenario for many public schools,” Sadler said. “I call this ‘The Dewhurst Disaster.

Paul Sadler has a simple message for David Dewhurst: “Get to work, or resign.”

“During the last legislative session, it is now obvious that both Governor Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst were interested only in their selfish desire to run for higher office and were too afraid of the right-wing extremists to tackle the hard issues of our state created by their mismanagement,” Sadler said. “I can certainly understand why both of these men would try to leave the State before Texans learn of the disaster they have created.”

I’ve put Sadler’s full statement beneath the fold. I confess that calls for special sessions always make me queasy. Only the Governor can set the agenda for a special session. Once the door is open, you never know what he might let in. Even if I knew the scope would be limited to this issue, I can’t say I’m comfortable with this Legislature being called back into action by this Governor to fix the problems they caused. Why should we expect a different outcome this time around? But these are academic concerns, because everyone knows Rick Perry has no interest in fixing anything. What’s important is keeping the spotlight on this failure, and how the recent welcome news about sales tax receipts and the Rainy Day Fund balance obviate the already limp excuses that Perry and Dewhurst and the rest of them had for gutting public education in the first place. This election, the next election, however many elections it takes, need to be about the failure of the state’s Republican leadership and Legislature to provide for Texas’ future. So sign the petition and join the call, and mark this date on your calendar:

And if that’s not enough, as BOR suggests, you can join with the Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition, who are one of the school finance plaintiffs.

(more…)

Thousands attend the Save Texas Schools rally

Our voices have been heard. Whether we are listened to remains to be seen.

Parents, educators, and students from across the state marched to the Capitol Saturday for the Save Texas Schools rally to express their concern over what could amount to a $10 billion reduction in state funding for schools.

Initial estimates put attendance around 4,000. But during the event, organizers said they had to stop counting — they had volunteers marking people with stickers — at 11,000. Capitol police were more conservative, putting the number at around 8,000. Representatives from over 300 school districts were in attendance, according to Save Texas Schools. The crowd spanned several city blocks as it marched up Congress to the Capitol and participants filled up most of the building’s south lawn when they arrived.

During the two-hour event, speakers included Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa, San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, and Perrin-Whitt CISD superintendent John Kuhn. Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business, was also slated to speak, but sent a text message Saturday morning saying he would be unable to because he had sprained his ankle, said Save Texas Schools spokesman Jason Sabo.

In addition to tapping the Rainy Day fund, rally-goers urged Gov. Rick Perry to sign the application for the $830 million currently tied up in a political fight in Congress from the federal Education Jobs fund. They also asked lawmakers to fix the state’s public education funding mechanism.

More here, here, here, and here, with the latter reminding us that the rallying isn’t over yet:

Most lawmakers were not in the Capitol on Saturday but will be in their offices on Monday when teachers plan to use their spring break to make the point again.

Rob D’Amico, spokesman for the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers, predicted more than 3,400 teachers, school employees, parents and school board members would flood the Capitol, “a great way to continue the momentum from Saturday.”

For this to be a success, it cannot be a one-day, or one-week occurrence. Everybody needs to keep up the pressure throughout the legislative session, and then into the election season. We’re obviously not going to get everything we want out of this, but even if we get something approaching an acceptable amount, it will mean nothing if current officeholders don’t lose their jobs over it as well. It’s not just about the policy, it’s about the politics. The message is that not funding education is not an option, and anyone who isn’t on board with that is part of the problem. We’ve delivered part of that message now, but it’s just a down payment on what must come next November. EoW and Juanita have more.

UPDATE: More reports, from Stace and PDiddie.

Rally Day

Thanks in part to our only Governor, those attending today’s rally are even more fired up about it.

As thousands of teachers, school staffers and parents prepare for a state Capitol rally Saturday against education cuts, they’ve found new recruits and fresh motivation from an unlikely source: Gov. Rick Perry.

Reacting to Perry’s comments, some teachers and support staffers said Thursday they were angry and discouraged but mostly emboldened to publicly oppose billions of dollars of cuts in education.

Perry said state leaders were not to blame if as many as 100,000 people lose their jobs at school districts statewide.

“He just seems unaware of the agony schools are going through,” said Carolyn Foote, a librarian at Westlake High School in Eanes Independent School District near Austin. “It’s like a slap in the face to anyone working in education.”

[…]

“I think he’s been in office so long that he is going to get his way,” said Nadia Sanchez, a kindergarten teacher at Baskin Elementary in the San Antonio Independent School District. “I just don’t know if he’s ever going to understand.”

Other teachers, including Kimberly Reznicek, a fourth-grade teacher at Raba Elementary School in Northside ISD, thought Perry was passing the buck.

“He sounds like he is doing everything he can to be elusive to avoid answering the question that needs to be addressed: How is he going to fund school finance moving forward? That is a state government issue and all school districts can do is deal with how the state makes its school finance decisions. It’s not school districts’ fault,” Reznicek said.

I don’t know how many people are just now discovering this aspect of Perry’s personality, but I welcome them to the table anyway. And I sure hope they all remember this next November.

The Austin Chronicle has a great story on the people behind the effort.

Save Texas Schools fundraising committee co-Chair Brian Donovan said he’s inspired by the response coming from outside Austin. When the House released its draft budget, he said, “there were spitting mad editorials in Denton, Midland, and Odessa.” With that popular pressure rising, Donovan said, “a huge rally of angry parents from all over the state seemed the tonic needed to bring the Lege and leadership around to funding education as much as possible.”

By late February, Save Texas Schools already had 88 volunteer organizers around the state. That group includes people like Kimberly Miller, a Denton Independent School District resident whose whole family has signed up to help spread the word. Even though its population is rapidly expanding, Denton faces a $15 million-to-$16-million drop-off in state funding. “We’ve had a lot of public outcry in Austin about the cuts, and they have got coverage,” said Miller. “But talking to districts outside of the capital, they’ve found it very hard to get their story heard.”

The Save Texas Schools organizers soon found they were not alone in planning rallies and that others were eager to combine their efforts. Within days of the draft House budget being released, Weeks heard about statewide efforts being planned as far away as Pasadena and Arlington, where Leanne Rand was already working on her own protest. Like most parents of school-age children, Rand had heard about the state budget crisis. Yet it was purely an abstraction until the principal at her kids’ high school explained what the district’s projected $35 million shortfall would mean on his campus: fewer staff, less money for maintenance, and the loss of programs like Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities. Rand said, “Frank­ly, it made me mad, and I said something like, ‘We should march on Austin – I am going to organize a Million Mom March.'” While she admits she was half-joking at first, she was quickly contacted by parents who wanted to get involved, along with groups and businesses that wanted to sponsor Arlington’s attendance at the march.

The Dads Club at Arlington’s Butler Ele­ment­ary is pooling money to cover travel costs for teachers, and that effort is simply one part of a bigger push to get everyone informed about the issues and solutions. The North Arling­ton Education Alliance has scheduled a series of campus-based information sessions to walk people through the numbers. Butler Dads Club communications officer David Wil­banks is particularly worried about the extra stress the situation is placing on kids, but so far, he said, “Parents are uninformed as to how the state and our district woke up and found ourselves in this situation.”

How nice it would have been if people had woken up about this six months ago, but at least it’s happening now. I think it’s already had the effect of making some people nervous, as evidenced by this hysterical reaction from professional “drown it in the bathtub” advocate Peggy Venable:

[Allen Weeks, who heads the coalition’s steering committee and leads Austin Voices for Education and Youth, a nonprofit educational advocacy group that is helping coordinate the rally and handling donations] said the total cost of the rally and its promotion will be about $30,000, mostly direct and promotional costs. As of Thursday, 130 donors had contributed just under $23,000. Contributions have come in small amounts — the largest being three $1,000 donations — and “lots of in-kind volunteer hours,” he said.

Venable challenged Weeks’ grass-roots claim, and accused the coalition of spreading an “alarmist message.”

“These are radical liberal organizations that are pushing this, and they are using citizens who are ill-informed about how our dollars are currently being spent as pawns,” she said.

Hey, Peggy? Tell that to Bill Hammond:

Even the otherwise parsimonious Texas Association of Business has voiced concerns that slicing education funding now will endanger the state’s long-term economic viability. The group has called on lawmakers to use $1.9 billion from the Available School Fund to continue funding all-day prekindergarten and the technology allotment, as well as providing the updated textbooks required for the new curriculum. Normally a staunch opponent of government spending, TAB President Bill Ham­mond has become a vocal advocate for protecting education today to create better workers tomorrow. Hammond said, “The Legis­lature can and should invest in education and should make substantive reforms that ensure excellence over mediocrity.”

As a sign of how much of a political paradigm shift Save Texas Schools could be, Ham­mond is currently penciled in along with San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro to speak at the March 12 rally. Weeks described that diversity of voices as vital in breaking any misconceptions about the breadth of support. He said, “If it’s another rally that people can say, ‘Oh, it’s those people again,’ then it’s not very effective.”

Like I said, judging by Venable’s paranoia, it’s already been effective. Now we just need to make sure there’s followup, during the session and in next year’s elections.

I will not be at the event, but I expect to receive reports and photos from it from some folks who are there. I will post them as I can. If you attend, please let us know how it’s going – leave comments or drop me a note at kuff – at – offthekuff – dot -com. Thanks!