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Saturday, March 19, 2005

Grusendorf's Laboratory

by JOHN YOUNG Opinion page editor

Tuesday, March 15, 2005
WACO TRIBUNE

Where was the clamor for changing Texas' school year?

Did I miss the popular tumult, the sea swell of insistence, for changing the way school board members are elected? I must have.

And just when did Texans decide that awarding the management of public schools to for-profit groups was an imperative?

They didn't. But the Texas House of Representatives did last week when a party-line vote produced House Bill 2. It would do all of the above and a lot more.

HB 2 is a monster bill. It not only dictates how money is divided up but sets in motion new requirements for teacher merit pay, administrator certification and how schools are managed if they are at the top or bottom of the state curve in state standards.

For instance, those at the top would be freed of state mandates such as the kindergarten-through-grade four class-size ratio that many people considered the most important school reform of the 1980s.

Meanwhile, those in the lowest 5 percent based on state criteria two years in a row would be subject to "alternative management," which could include for-profit firms.

If that were to become law, Texas would become a mecca for profiteers who just know they can run public schools better than the public can. Ominously for our schools, HB 2 is only the beginning.

In the days ahead, undoubtedly the House leadership will bump to the forefront other initiatives for which support on the street is so faint you'd need a stethoscope to hear it:

* To spend millions of dollars on school vouchers;

* To fund "virtual" schools in which the taxpayers buy (and profiteers sell) computers and software for home-schoolers.

All of this we'd fund with money we'd have to find "somewhere" in the state budget, because we're not going to raise more revenue under the House plan. We're going to reallocate the dollars we have.

Does any of the above, with the possible exception of raising no new money, sound remotely like the will of the clamoring masses? I didn't think so.

But if any of these measures becomes law, it will be because Kent Grusendorf is in a position to help make it so. The Arlington Republican, chairman of the House Public Education Committee and author of HB 2, is an ardent supporter of school vouchers and other wrinkles like "virtual charters." Having been growing gray on the "outs" as a critic of public schools while Democrats held power, Grusendorf now is the kid who inherited a gumball factory.

Fortunately, not many of his initiatives have made it through all the wickets that representative government entails, even a government dominated by his party.

It will be fascinating to see how much of HB 2 survives. It is based on curious assumptions about money. It provides public schools with an additional $3 billion, but the money is not to come from new revenue. It's to come from scrubbing a budget that since 2003 is already beyond "bare bones." It is down to "dried and bleached." Another curiosity: It would give teachers a $3,000-a-year pay raise, but without visible means of paying for it.

So much else about HB 2 makes one wonder.

From where comes the requirement that school start after Labor Day? Certainly some resort areas want it. But why make everyone start at the same time? Most districts start in August for the expressed purpose of getting the first semester done before Christmas break. What business has the state in forbidding this?

Then there are local school board seats. They would become four-year seats, elected in November, rather than in the spring as they are now. What is the imperative for this? The state meddles in so much. Why this, too?

Fortunately, Texas has two houses. Though controlled by the same party, they don't necessarily think as one.

John Young's column appears Thursday, Sunday and occasionally Tuesday. E-mail: jyoung@wacotrib.com.

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