Thursday, March 10, 2005

On Public Schools, Are Lawmakers Listening?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Parents have made it clear that they know what's needed to improve their neighborhood public schools. Yet too many of our state's leaders in Austin don't seem to be listening.

A recent bipartisan poll found that nearly three-fourths of Texans want more state money for public schools. Sixty-two percent want that money to pay for proven reforms that have been helping improve public schools for two decades.

Those reforms have included standards for small class sizes, early reading intervention, strong accountability measures and more equitable funding for poorer school districts. These standards have been so successful that the governor and state education commissioner have both touted rising student test scores.

But instead of building on these successes, our state's leaders are pushing radical and even reckless proposals that would undermine public schools. Sadly, these lawmakers are bowing to the demands of wealthy political donors and for-profit corporations whose primary interests conflict with the expressed wishes of Texas parents.

A voucher program tops the list of irresponsible proposals. Vouchers would drain hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools to pay for tuition at private and religious schools. A recent Texas Poll found that Texans oppose vouchers by 55 percent to 39 percent. Yet Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick have both made it clear that they will press ahead with a voucher scheme this legislative session.

Support for vouchers is tied to big money. Perry, in particular, has received huge political campaign contributions from wealthy voucher backers such as James Leininger of San Antonio. In fact, Leininger picked up the tab last year when he and other voucher supporters met with the governor in the Bahamas to plot strategy on overhauling public education.

Legislators have already filed two bills (House Bills 12 and 1263) that would create enormously expensive pilot voucher programs in the state's largest school districts. Such a scheme could divert hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools — nearly a third of the additional public school funding pledged so far by House leaders.

The education overhaul bill by Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, (House Bill 2) also includes a number of reckless proposals. One would allow "exemplary" schools to ignore the very standards that have helped their students succeed in the first place. Those are also the same standards that Texans clearly support, including limits on class size and having certified teachers in every classroom.

Another proposal in Grusendorf's bill would turn over struggling schools to for-profit companies. Studies have shown, however, that private education companies have a poor record of improving academic performance. The disastrous experiments with Edison Schools, Inc., in various Texas school districts support this.

Private education companies also would get a place at the public trough under House Bill 1445's "virtual school network." This bill opens the door for public school districts to pay private companies to provide classes over the Internet. The state would be forced to pick up the tab for home-schooled students who sign up for these "virtual" courses.

Other irresponsible legislation would make it easier for extremists to censor our children's textbooks. House Bills 220 and 973 would give the State Board of Education free rein to change textbooks to conform to board members' personal political and religious beliefs. Textbooks would be based on "facts" that change as elections bring a new majority of members to the state board.

Taken together, these proposals reveal a Legislature that has lost its way on public education. Frustrated Texas families already know what needs to be done. Are our lawmakers listening?

Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that monitors public education, religious freedom and individual liberties.

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