RAISE YOUR HAND TEXAS
Bill Ratliff, Former Lieutenant Governor of TexasAbraham Lincoln once said, “Upon the subject of education I can only say that I view it as the most important subject upon which we as a people may be engaged.”
Considering the fact the Lincoln was engaged in subjects like slavery, state secession, and civil war, that is quite a mouthful.
Year after year, decade after decade, the people of Texas, when polled, say that the most important function of state government is the education of our youth. Citizens, parents, grandparents, and even childless adults, have consistently said that education of our youth is priority number one for the state.
Virtually every candidate for state office avows, during campaign season, that education is his or her highest priority.
However, just as standing in a garage does not make one a car, talking about making education being one’s top priority does not make it so.
The Bible says that, “Where your gold is, there will your heart be also.” If one’s heart is truly committed to education, the measurement of that commitment must be measured by the gold allocated to that cause.
Over the last few months, you have heard some of our state leaders say that funding for public education was actually increased in the current budget. Folks, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. But everyone is not entitled to his or her own facts. Facts are facts!!
Attached you will find a copy of some actual facts regarding public education funding. The graph and the spreadsheet on the reverse side were prepared by the Legislative Budget Board – the ultimate authority on Texas budget matters. It was prepared at the request of Representative Gene Wu in an attempt to separate fact from fiction.
As you can see, this LBB graph shows that the total inflation adjusted public school funding has dropped precipitously in the last six years. In year 2009 it was $7,665 per student – in year 2013 that funding is now $5,998 per student.
Now, in all fairness, the Legislature is currently in the process of passing an additional $2 billion emergency appropriation for public education to restore funding which had been pushed back into year 2014. But that additional $2 billion would only increase the total funding by around $192 to about $6,190 per student– still almost $1,500 per student below the $7,665 of year 2009.
Well, so what? What difference does it make if Texas is in the bottom 10% in the nation in spending for our children’s education?
Believe me, I have heard all the arguments, such as “you can’t fix education by throwing money at it.” That’s true. I have never seen a problem that could be fixed by throwing money at it. But you can rest assured that we will never improve our public education system by systematically starving it.
One of the things that Judge Dietz said in his recent court opinion, when he declared the current school funding system was unconstitutionally underfunded, was that the state has, over the last 20 years, been engaged in an effort to raise standards and raise the level of our students’ readiness for higher education and the workplace. But, he said, you cannot expect to improve the outcomes without adequately funding the effort.
Let me give you just two examples of what the Judge was probably referring to:
The Texas Association of Business recently published a paper that referenced three widely cited studies regarding the life-long effects of high-quality Pre-Kindergarten programs:
The Carolina Abecedarian Projects, the Chicago Parent-Child Study, and the Perry Preschool Project. These studies tracked two sets of students from early childhood into adulthood. One set was made up of people who had been given a high-quality pre-K experience. The other set was people who had not had such an experience.
Among the findings of these studies were that children who had experienced high-quality Pre-Kindergarten were:
29% More likely to graduate from high school;
40% Less likely to be retained in grade;
52% Less likely to be arrested 5 times by age 40;
41% Less likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.
These astounding statistics argue strongly for an increase in the number of children being offered a high quality pre-kindergarten.
But as a means of reducing the appropriation to public schools, in the current budget, the Legislature virtually eliminated state funding for pre-kindergarten in Texas.
While it is too early to discern the outcome, at least one version of the appropriations bill now restores some pre-K funding, but only a small portion of that needed to make a real difference. This is the sort of “prioritization” that will have serious detrimental impact on the state our children will inherit.
Poll after poll of parents who make the sacrifice to send their children to private or parochial schools say, overwhelmingly, that one of the main reasons they choose to do so is the smaller classes offered by private schools.
An analysis of the 91 Dallas-Fort Worth area private schools providing an education to students in grades 1 thru 4 shows that the average class size for these private schools is 16 students – many have class sizes of only 10 to 15.
A common phrase heard from Texans is, “Why don’t we operate state government like a business?” Well, private schools are a business, and they have made the decision to keep their classes small. It seems logical to assume that private schools would only adopt such costly class size limits if they believed in the value of such smaller classes. And it is clear that the parents of these students do recognize the value.
Since the early 1980’s, the State of Texas has limited early elementary class sizes to a 22:1 student/teacher ratio. This limitation has been widely credited as one reason for the excellent scores that our 4th grade students have posted in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
And yet, in order to reduce public school funding, our state leaders, in this last session, decided to relax these class size limits. The law was changed such that, almost without exception, a school district that seeks a waiver from the 22:1 ratio is granted a waiver.
So what has happened? Because of the impact of budget cuts on schools this year, school district officials have requested, and state officials have granted, waivers to the 22:1 limit for grades 1 thru 4 in 6,988 classrooms – subjecting some 170,000 early elementary students to a classroom with more than 22 students.
Teachers have been laid off, and will continue to be laid off, because of this dramatic decrease in state funding. If there is one thing certain about education it is that when campuses reduce the number of teachers, class sizes go up, and student learning suffers.
This is another serious degradation in the quality of our public school education brought on by shortfalls in our public education funding.
Ironically, the TEA has recently reported that 14 districts submitting applications for a waiver of the 22:1 limit were restricted in the number of classes that can exceed the 22-pupil cap. The reason given by TEA for this restriction was that these districts had received low performance ratings from the state this past summer.
Now – follow me – if larger class size does not matter, why would the TEA believe it necessary to hold these troubled districts to the lower number of students in a class? The TEA obviously knows that more effective learning occurs in a smaller class setting.
And yet, in the name of fiscal austerity, 170,000 young students will receive a less effective learning environment. And the “shell game” is that the people of Texas are being told that an increase in the number of students in a classroom doesn’t matter.
Frankly, any thinking parent or grandparent of a school-age child should be insulted that anyone would think you are foolish or gullible enough to swallow the assertion that class size doesn’t matter.
Of course, this discussion only addresses the situation in grades 1 thru 4. In addition, because of the dramatic reductions in school district funding, the TEA also recently reported, “There are also reports of larger classes in other grades, but school districts are not required to get permission to put more students in classes above grade 4.”
In other words, because of insufficient funding, we will see dramatic increases in class size in middle and high schools as well as elementary, and that will inevitably lead to students being less prepared for college and/or the workforce.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
For much too long, the citizens of Texas have watched this state abdicate its responsibilities for adequately funding public education.
The situation reminds me of the story of two men sitting on the front porch, watching an old dog lying in the yard howling. The visitor asks the dog’s owner, “Why does that old dog just lie there and howl?” The owner of the dog says, “He’s probably lying on a cocklebur.” “Why doesn’t he get up and move?” “Oh, I reckon he would just rather howl”.
Who is this job up to? You can’t leave it to the educators – the teachers, the school administrators, and the local school board members. You see, far too many members of the Legislature and state leadership see these educators as part of the problem.
A previous chairman of the House Public Education Committee once referred to these people as “Those whiney-assed educators”. Too many state officials view pleas from educators and local school board members with suspicion – a jaundiced thought that these people are simply trying to feather their own nest.
For a few years now, I have been saying that public education will not be given the funding priority it deserves in Texas until the “Mamas” of the state get fed up with the situation. (I use “Mamas” as a euphemism for the general citizenry, but it probably will have to be led by the Mamas of the students who are being deprived of a better education.)
I was in the Senate when a handful of “Mamas” got fed up with the amount of drunken driving in Texas. It wasn’t an extremely large group that formed MADD, but they were dedicated to the task and would not take no for an answer.
Because of the dedication and hard work of these “Mamas”, we now have very stringent laws and significant punishments for DUI in Texas.
Until the “Mamas” of Texas generate the same dedication to public school funding that they had in MADD, our political leaders will feel no urgency in restoring funding where it needs to be for a quality public education system in our state, and our children’s education will continue to suffer as a result.
In Texas’ public education funding, things will change for the better when the “Mamas” of the state decide to get off their cockleburs and refuse to take no for an answer.