Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The "Fix In '06"

Two articles on school finance caught my "eye" today. They both go to what the real problem is with school finance, the unfair/inadequate financing that sadly won't be addressed this coming year when the legislature convenes in an attempt to come up with the "Fix In '06". The coming special session will deal with "buying down" property taxes with some other tax or combination of taxes. If you remember, the inadequacy in financing was hinted at in the supreme court decision as, possibly/some day/in the future becoming a problem if something isn't done to fix it. But with the supreme court giving the legislature such a short deadline (June 1, 2006) for completely overhauling school finance, it seems as if they are ignoring the political ramifications of setting the deadline for that date. Knowing that there would be no action until after the primaries, they've pretty much guaranteed that no such overhaul will occur. It's like the court wanted another bad school finance system.

The first article, Legislators find no solution in public school finance system, shows the difference between what the Texas Supreme Court wants - a complete overhaul - versus what's going to be done - substantial reform. The other story, New pools of money slake schools' thirst, introduces us to education foundations, which reminds us that where there is a need, something will come along to fill that need. In other words, wealthy school districts are finding "creative" ways to funnel money to their schools in order to keep them funded to a certain standard. In both articles, superintendents from wealthy school districts make statements that sound like they have become accustomed to a higher standard than other communities and, therefore, need the extra money to keep that standard. In reality, everyone wants that kind of standard for their community; it's just that most can't afford it.
"I am disappointed that it (the Supreme Court decision) didn't take up the issue of adequacy," (Coppell ISD Superintendent Jim) Turner said. "Right now we are not allowed to keep enough of our money to keep the kind of education system the community expects and the students deserve."


Eanes Superintendent Nola Wellman said the donations help the district save positions that might otherwise be cut and raise salaries.

"Our community realizes the importance of personnel in the classroom," Wellman said. "We will designate the money to go into personnel if that's what the community values."
That quote makes it seem like she is saying that they do this because "our community" wants to retain good teachers and others don't, when in actuality, Eanes already has the money to do this and most school districts don't - that's why!

There is also another theme that I've noticed in the last few days. Many believe that the legislature has been trying to do too much with schools all at once when they should just focus on fixing the finance part first.
Critics of the funding system said the legislators failed in so many sessions because they tried to tackle too much by combining school funding, education reform and property tax reductions in the state proposals.


The failed sessions this year bogged down in two key areas: 1.) a list of education reforms that some legislators wanted to see (and others didn't), paired with a certain level of funding (and debate over whether it was enough); and 2.) implementation of new taxes (including business taxes) to balance out proposed cuts in property taxes.
Let's not forget: the property tax as an unconstitutional statewide property tax is just an offshoot of the inadequate funding as a whole. If the state was holding up its end of the funding bargain - the state's share of education funding has dropped to a historic low of 38 percent - property taxes would be much lower.

The "new pools of money" story is far more disturbing to me. When I read this the first time, I didn't see much wrong with it. The function of these foundations seemed similar to selling candy - or whatever school children sell - to pay for a new playscape or a group trip to Disney World. But when I got to the part about Eanes ISD using its foundation to pay teachers' salaries, - let me put it this way - it raised questions, big time. Eanes is a very wealthy district, and I'm sure they can get quite a few donations to keep their teachers. What about the poor districts? This would seem to, once again, give the wealthy districts an advantage to hire and retain the best teachers. With the governor ordering the "65% Ruse" into effect, that means districts that have spent their allotted percentage in the classroom and don't have one of these foundations or one that can support teachers is at a extreme disadvantage. As the article states, the proceeds go to the districts, but the foundations operate independent of the district, and that can't be good. This quote seems to show that your school officials will become like political candidates, stumping for money all the time:
"The question we're asking is, 'How creative can we be in doing things that will provide the funding we need without having corporations that can come in and help us?' " [Pflugerville ISD grant developer Deborah] Porter said. "We really believe this foundation will help us keep teachers who are creative and innovative. We think that we can do some special things for kids."
And along with that, comes the question of what would be expected of the school district if it received, shall we say, an extremely generous gift from someone or some organization? Let's say the individual or organization had an agenda that included teaching sex education or intelligent design. Would that cause a problem? These are just a few things that crossed my mind when I read the article.

But to get back to the subject, this all stems from the fact that the public school system in Texas is woefully underfunded. We have poorly funded public schools, and we have a state leadership in place that wants to privatize schools and generally believes that government is the problem, not that government can be a solution. I'm not talking about all Republicans in this state. I'm talking about the leadership of the Republican Party in this state. Oh yeah, they don't believe schools are underfunded; they believe that schools just don't spend the money wisely. Did you hear that, Eanes ISD? School districts having to come up with creative ways to raise money to pay for what every child in every community should expect from its public schools just goes to underscore how poorly financed Texas schools are.

All the quotes in this article come from these articles:
- Legislators find no solution in public school finance system
- New pools of money slake schools' thirst
- Court rules state school finance system unconstitutional
- On the must-do list


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