First battle in Lege's schools package is contentious, narrow, and roughly partisan
BY AMY SMITH
March 18, 2005
As public education advocates see it, one of the most frightening features of the school finance bill that limped out of the House last week is a provision that could spell the beginning of the end of public schools in Texas. This unraveling process would start by empowering the state education commissioner to turn over control of low-performing schools to private, for-profit companies. If the bill were in effect today, some estimates reflect that as many as 375 school campuses would qualify as candidates for private takeover.
This is just one of the things about House Bill 2 that worries Rep. Mark Strama. The Austin Democrat had at one point considered supporting the bill, if only because of the property-tax relief it would bring to people in his middle-income swing district in northeast Travis Co. But in the end, Strama concluded, "You shouldn't have to hold your nose to vote on the most important issue of the session." Strama had in fact gone back and forth on the bill until an hour before the second-reading vote last Wednesday evening. He had spent the day wearing a look of visible anguish as he moved across the House floor, conferring with one senior colleague or another. Every once in a while he would study a running stream of notes, or add a new entry, like this one: "Takeover of public schools by for-profit corporations ... could affect several Travis County schools, including Connally HS, Johnston HS, Lanier HS, Reagan HS, McCallum HS."
Strama credits the plainspoken advice he received from a former school superintendent, Rep. Bob Griggs, R-North Richland Hills, for helping him make up his mind. Griggs, one of only nine Republicans to vote against the GOP bill, shared similar wisdom with the entire House just moments before the vote: "This bill is just plain old junk food," he told members. "It provides that sugar rush immediately, but the funding falls apart after a very short period of time."
Switched Votes and Twisted Arms
All things considered, no amount of funding above the existing $3 billion in "new" money – which, if it materializes, will be sufficient only to return funding to 2003 levels – could wipe out the concerns public school advocates have about placing at-risk schools in the hands of for-profit companies. The provision was troubling enough for the Republican-dominated House to nearly support an amendment by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, to remove the offending language, and only some extraordinary maneuvering by the leadership allowed them to defeat Coleman's amendment. Houston Republican Martha Wong moved to table, but the amendment survived, 73-70. A few moments later, Speaker Tom Craddick abruptly identified four Republicans whose voting machines had "malfunctioned" – reversing their votes and tabling the anti-privatization provision.
Of course, the only "malfunction" Coleman noticed was the arm-twisting used to scare up just enough votes to sink his amendment. "People across the board, regardless of party, are concerned about this," Coleman said a couple of days later. "But sometimes people who agree with you are reluctant to push [voting] buttons."
Coleman's beef with the private education companies – Edison Schools Inc. is the outfit most frequently mentioned, but there are others waiting in wings for Texas schools – is that they have a history of failing students while draining precious tax dollars from public schools. HB 2 provides the latest wrinkle to allow privatization in the door, via private charter companies. Because charter schools currently don't get state funding for facilities, the bill would essentially remove that financial hurdle by handing existing facilities over to private corporations. "This isn't a voucher for a child," Coleman says, "it's a voucher for an entire school." From a broader perspective, Coleman sees the bill as just another piece of the GOP's privatization puzzle, in Texas and nationally. "This is about the undoing of the social compact – the undoing of public schools, the undoing of Social Security, the undoing of Medicaid. They run their agenda and they run it hard."
HB 2 now rests in the hands of the Senate, where Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has promised to improve the bill and its equally controversial tax companion, HB 3, which was still stumbling at the gate early this week. Assuming the bills survive that process, the education package will go to conference committees to work out any differences. Opponents of both plans express only a little hope of dramatic improvement down the line.
A Mortgaged Future
The litany of complaints against HB 2 continues to mount from teachers, administrators, school districts, parents, and other school advocacy groups – everyone involved in education, it seems, except voucher proponents, the wealthiest school districts, and major business interests. The Coalition to Invest in Texas Schools, which represents organizations from every school district, defends its opposition to the bill with findings from a study by state demographer Steve Murdock. His oft-cited demographic indicators predict a lackluster economic future for Texas unless state leaders invest more dollars to close the academic gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers. The House leadership insists that the bill brings new money to public schools, but the Texas Federation of Teachers points out that the $3,000 teacher pay raise lawmakers added to the bill "is nothing more than a sham, part of an elaborate shell game that the teachers and school children of Texas have no hope of winning." Critics point out that lawmakers have yet to identify the funding source for the proposed raise and see it as little more than an empty promise – or a threat to other social programs that will be held hostage against the education bill and meet the axe when the appropriations bill finally hits the House floor.
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