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School “choice:” how to get away with robbery

Here’s the playbook:

1. Starve neighborhood public schools of necessary funding, claiming that it’s to avoid tax increases due to a gloomy comptroller’s revenue estimate that was dead wrong, under the logic that since throwing money at schools won’t make ’em better, taking the money away won’t hurt a thing.

2. When public schools have to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and lessen individual attention to students because you slashed their budgets, express surprise and bitterly complain that the public schools aren’t doing their jobs, and proclaim that parents need a way for their precious snowflakes to escape failing schools. Say and do anything you can to make sure parents are as dissatisfied as possible with their neighborhood public school, creating a demand for private education that parents can’t afford. Conveniently ignore the fact that if money in schools didn’t matter, that private school tuition wouldn’t be so expensive.

3. The tax money saved by cutting public school budgets? Make some of it available as school vouchers, to help parents pay for private school tuition. Attempt to hide the fact that they’re vouchers by creating nifty new slogan, perhaps something like “school choice.” Either way, it’s handing over public tax money to private entities – either with no oversight (which, oops, ain’t “conservative”) or with oversight (which, oops, the private schools won’t want).

4. Those private schools? Some of ’em are owned and operated by the buddies of the folks in charge who cut neighborhood public school funding in the first place. Tah-dah! You just stole people’s hard-earned money, and put it in the pockets of your buddies! You win!! Drinks all around!

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Amazing Grace – KUT’s audio version of the tribute to Grace Garcia

KUT Radio, NPR’s Austin affiliate, was kind enough to ask me in to come in and record a two-minute audio version of my longer tribute to Grace Garcia, as part of their upcoming Texas Standard show, which will air on NPR affiliate stations across Texas. I was honored to do so, and offer it here:

I very much hope to work with host David Brown as a regular contributor to Texas Standard when the show debuts later this summer. check out the beginnings of the show’s website.

And while we’re on the topic of Grace Garcia, here was the discussion on TWCNews’ Capitol Tonight Show last night, as Paul Brown and I discussed both the legacy Grace leaves, and also about Attorney General Greg Abbott’s latest move on public school finance litigation:

You can watch Capitol Tonight weeknights at 7 pm and 11 pm in Austin and on Time Warner News’ brand new channel in San Antonio.

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Charter school bill shows common ground achievable on public school reform [with video]

Dan Patrick’s charter school legislation passed the Texas Senate yesterday, and by the time it passed with a vote of 30-1, it was almost everybody’s charter school bill. The legislation is an excellent example of lawmakers keeping their eyes on the ball and listening to the objectives and concerns of a wide spectrum of stakeholders.

When I wrote about this a month ago, I’d hoped that state legislators would see education reform bills like this one as an opportunity to move the ball forward for public education, instead of defaulting to more hyper-partisan corners and bickering. So far, it seems they’re doing just that.

There will be more public education skirmishes – there always are, and some are not unhealthy skirmishes to have. School voucher legislation seems to already be on life support (and deserves to be – here’s hoping they soon pull the plug and allow vouchers to die peacefully in their sleep). Restoring funding cuts made two years ago to neighborhood schools is a righteous fight worth having, and I hope education advocates win the battle.

Meanwhile, the charter school bill shows that the higher profile knock-down-drag-out fights need not distract legislators from doing the work to see what public education reform issues they can agree on. Here’s hoping there’s more where that came from.

Here’s what I said about it on YNN’s Capital Tonight last night:


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Education reform: parent trigger legislation advancing in the state Senate [with video]

School reform legislation which would shorten the number of years a poorly-performing public school could continue without parental intervention is advancing in the Texas Senate. This “parent trigger” bill is not without controversy; there are concerns that the shorter time a school would be given to correct itself isn’t enough time for corrective measures to kick in.

The concern is fair, but I don’t think in real-world situations it would usually work that way. Under both current law and the proposed legislation, the clock doesn’t start ticking until after a school is at the “unacceptable” stage. If, under the proposed shorter timeline, school district administrators know in advance that they only have a couple more years to improve once they sink to the bottom, I think fewer schools will get to the bottom in the first place; they’ll begin corrective measures earlier in a school’s downhill slide. If the motivation for schools to improve begins earlier in a school’s eroding performance, that’s good news for the students.

Here’s what I said about it when asked on last night’s edition of  YNN’s Capital Tonight:

You can watch Capital Tonight live on YNN in Austin from 7-7:30 pm Monday – Friday, you can watch last night’s entire episode online here, and you can join in the discussion on this legislation right now, by leaving a comment with your thoughts!


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Bipartisan education reform? It could happen [with video]

Following up on my piece the other day about education reform, we continued the discussion last night on Fox news in Austin:

Here’s the original piece.

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Dan Patrick’s other ideas: are they worth serious discussion?

When Ann Richards was governor, she had a letter written by some long-past governor of the early 1900s hanging on her office wall, in which this forgotten (by me) governor was lamenting issues surrounding public education. It was amazing in that the issues about which this governor wrote were the exact same issues Governor Richards was grappling with generations later, which are also the same issues legislators and the courts are debating today.

Legislatures never solve public education issues; it’s a continuing process, not a single event. But given the stakes – the next generation – legislatures never stop plugging away at it, nor should they.

It’s easy for progressives to get disgusted with conservatives’ particular obsessions on education issues, mainly because of the laser focus on school vouchers a few of them maintain – which newly-minted Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick just announced is “the old word,” and has rebranded the “business tax credit.” Way to go, Senator – when the policy is crap and you’ve lost your public support, don’t give up – just re-name the crap.

Dan Patrick

Senate Public Ed Chair Dan Patrick

Vouchers have always been a bad idea, and no matter what they’re called in the future, they’ll continue to be a bad idea. They’re not even a conservative idea. If you give away taxpayer money to private schools with little or no accountability, that’s not conservative. And if you do so with effective accountability measures, the private schools don’t want the money. All this, against the backdrop of continuing to starve neighborhood public schools of even more of the funding the people in charge have already cut. No thanks. It’s no wonder that vouchers already appears to be on life support this session.

But I’ve been in the thick of what seems like a thousand legislative skirmishes over public education, and I’ve seen a lot of interesting ideas thrown under the bus, mainly because of progressives’ distrust of the conservatives proposing them. It’s understandable; when you have a big fat bill caption on a public education bill, myriad harmful floor amendments, including vouchers, can conceivably be slipped in, out of reach of Democratic efforts to stop them. Many a good, or innocuous, piece of school legislation has been killed or slowed, for fear of what the legislation doesn’t yet do.

But unless you’re ready to claim that you don’t think there’s any room for improvement in public education, sooner or later, Democrats in the legislative minority, and Republicans in the legislative leadership, are going to have to find a constructive way to work together and pass meaningful reforms that move the ball forward, while agreeing to take divisive issues such as vouchers off the table, at least for the purposes of discussing those other ideas.

Charter schools are a good example. I’m the odd Democrat who never really had a problem with the concept of charter schools, and I still don’t. There are some great ones out there doing fantastic work, among a population of students which was already in large part lost to the traditional public school system. There are also some terrible charter operations out there, bilking taxpayers and robbing kids of their future. I’ve long thought that the legislature’s inability to decisively deal with the latter, or foster more of the former, has a lot to do with a lack of trust between legislators and among stakeholders.

I bet most of those who oppose charter schools wouldn’t bother with it, if they knew that the state would shut a bad one down in a heartbeat. But currently, that doesn’t happen. And now, charter school advocates want to raise or remove the cap on the number of allowable schools. My first reaction when I heard about it was to roll my eyes and think, “they wouldn’t need to raise the cap if they’d shut down the bad actors in the system,” but I don’t think it’s true – there would still be more legitimate demand for additional charter schools than the current cap would allow.

Wouldn’t it be reasonable, however, to have a good-faith discussion resulting in legislation that really did quickly shut down crappy charter schools? And if the trade-off you had to make to get there would be to raise or lift the cap, wouldn’t that be worth it, or at least be worth the discussion?

If you’re one of those who is just by-God opposed to charter schools, you’ve already lost the war – they’re here to stay. Even President Obama supports charter schools. And once you’ve internalized that fact, it’s easier to concede that if they’re going to be around anyway, if you care about the students in these non-traditional public schools, you’d want to make sure the good ones get better and the bad ones get gone.

I’m pretty tired of progressive legislative strategies on public education often consisting of little more than seeking assurances from Republican bill sponsors that if Democrats allow a piece of legislation to move forward, the Republican will promise on a stack of guns and bibles that they won’t accept a voucher amendment later in the process. The strategy has worked well in keeping vouchers off the books, but there has to more to the public education debate; there has to be a better way to debate other ideas that might work well.

Legislators who are public education advocates should sit down with Chairman Patrick – like it or not, it’s his legislation, and his Senate committee. Figure out how to make a charter school bill work. Then figure out what else is on Patrick’s mind, and see what else might work. Because, clown-car hearings about sex ed and vouchers aside, just because a piece of legislation is carried by a voucher advocate, doesn’t necessarily make it a bad idea.


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Jerry Patterson versus everybody else – updated

Well it looks like my buds over at Progress Texas got into a bit of a tussle with Land Commish Jerry Patterson.

Here’s the background: in the process of the Republicans in charge of the Texas Legislature cutting more than $5 billion from neighborhood schools, they also put an initiative on the ballot last November to allow for more money from the Permanent School Fund to be made available to fund schools.

After voters approved the measure, Patterson – whose office essentially controls the fund, declined to release the additional money, which amounts to $300 million (to offset $5 billion in cuts). That’s when Progress Texas put on the pressure, and the insults started flyin’.

I’m disappointing my friends on this one: Patterson did the right thing.

At issue here is the continued health of Texas’ Permanent School Fund, which was created in 1845. The fund was designed as an investment fund, the earnings of which would help fund public schools – which it has been doing ever since, thanks to the foresight of the folks in charge of this state in 1845 (who are clearly more forward-thinking than the folks in charge in 2012).

What legislators essentially did in the budget last year, in the process of cutting billions from public schools, was authorize a raid on the fund. In other words, they wanted to start eating their seed corn, just so the Republicans could claim they stayed out of the Rainy Day Fund. The Rainy Day Fund is a fund created specifically for the purpose legislators wanted to swipe money out of the Permanent School Fund for. But Rick Perry, gearing up for his Presidential run, issued the edict that using money out of the Rainy Day Fund would suddenly be deemed “un-conservative,” or something. I call it “poll question policy-making,” and Perry excels at it.

Setting aside the irony that Progress Texas is essentially agreeing with Rick Perry and the Republican legislative leadership on this narrow point, the problem with this solution – and the reason I’m siding with Patterson – is because raiding the fund is a terrible precedent. If legislators of times past had gone down this road, the Permanent School Fund would have been depleted long ago, just so weak-kneed legislators could avoid telling constituents they had to either raise taxes or make tough cuts. Same with the Permanent University Fund, which is essentially the same deal for higher education. These two funds were, and remain, critical in funding public education, and in building and maintaining Texas’ top tier Universities – UT and A&M. The folks in charge in 1845 were clearly more willing to invest in a strong future for Texas than the folks in charge in 2012.

If Progress Texas’ hope is to call attention to the fact that Texas’ public schools are short $5 billion because of the short-sightedness of the Republicans in charge, more power to ’em, because it’s true. Those Republicans should be ashamed of themselves, both for that, and for failing to utilize the Rainy Day Fund to offset those cuts. Quality teachers are being laid off, and your children are being packed like sardines in crowded classrooms as a result. Nobody anywhere can credibly claim that anything legislators did last session will improve the quality of your child’s education.

But Land Commish Patterson isn’t one of the Republicans in charge who made those decisions. He’s right to protect the fund from this raid.

Update: I received a comment from Phillip Martin over at Progress Texas, and in the interest of fairness wanted to share it in its entirety. It doesn’t change my mind – I still side with Patterson on this. But perhaps in posting it, Phil will follow through with his free t-shirt offer:

There’s not a lot of people I trust more than Harold Cook, and I’m not just talking about politics. Harold has set me straight and helped me – and my family – out a number of times. Beyond being funny as hell, his honesty about people and insights about politics and life are invaluable, which is why I perk up and pay attention when he suggests, as he did this morning, that my work and the work of my organization, Progress Texas, may be missing the mark.

At question is whether or not Jerry Patterson should release $300 million from the Permanent School Fund to the Available School Fund. Harold argues that:

“Setting aside the irony that Progress Texas is essentially agreeing with Rick Perry and the Republican legislative leadership on this narrow point, the problem with this solution – and the reason I’m siding with Patterson – is because raiding the fund is a terrible precedent. If legislators of times past had gone down this road, the Permanent School Fund would have been depleted long ago, just so weak-kneed legislators could avoid telling constituents they had to either raise taxes or make tough cuts.”

I agree with Harold – it would be terrible to just raid the fund. But the law passed by the Legislature and adopted by Texas voters in Proposition 6 wouldn’t deplete the fund. When the law passed this time last year, there was $24 billion in the Permanent School Fund (PSF). Today, according to Patterson’s letter, there is $26 billion in the Permanent School Fund. Taking out $300 million – the amount in question – still keeps the PSF at levels above where it was at a year ago when the law was passed.

The money would make a difference, too. The average teacher makes $47,150 a year in Texas. So the $300 million — just to illustrate it’s importance — would cover the salaries of over 3,000 teachers in Texas over this two year budget cycle. It’s a far cry from the $5.4 billion that was cut, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

We need to do way, way, way more to fund our public schools. But we can’t tap the Rainy Day Fund today. We can’t pass a law to send more money to our schools today. Shoot – Perry and the Republican Legislature probably won’t let anyone do any of that at any time, ever. But Patterson can release money to our schools today, and if he stepped back from his name-calling and chest-beating, he might realize he actually has an opportunity to both make his point about Republicans screwing up funding and get praised by Texas education groups for doing the right thing.

As for us and Progress Texas, we’re looking into making “Slacktivist” t-shirts as we speak. Harold, yours will be on the house!

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