Sunday, March 20, 2005

Schools Hope Senate Neuters Bad Education Bill

by JOHN YOUNG Opinion page editor

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Let's hear it for bicameralism.

That's is the concept of government, our government, that takes pains not to put too much power in the hands of a single legislative body.

A lot of schools and education associations this week are cheering on bicameralism as they hiss at a House-passed bill chock full of dubious and out-of-the-blue reforms.

Indeed, few pieces of legislation in the last 20 years seem to have raised such universal enmity among education forces as House Bill 2.

It ladles on new mandates. It changes school dates. It changes school board election dates. It sets in motion the privatization of low-performing schools. It could change how principals are certified.

On the issue of money, it barely provides enough to schools to keep pace with inflation and enrollment growth. Then it tells them that almost half of the money must go to teacher pay raises including raises based on merit. But when school officials calculate mandates and costs, particularly factoring in enrollment growth, they don't see how they can deliver on the pay raises.

Education groups swarmed the capital to protest the many provisions of HB 2, hard-pressed, mainly, in choosing where to begin.

After its passage on a mostly party-line vote, Republicans said, effectively, that those critics from the world of education had their say and that the people had spoken through the House majority.

When Democrats offered an alternative that had more support from schools and education groups, Waco Republican State Rep. Charles Anderson told the Trib's Dan Genz, "There have been hundreds of folks down there [in Austin] testifying, and it seems like their ideas should have been brought up at that time."

But representatives of education groups who were in on the hearing process, or observing it, say that too often input that veered from or was critical of education chairman Kent Grusendorf's blueprint got the brushoff. Much of the testimony in hearings was by invitation.

This is a continuation of trends in Tom Craddick's first session as House speaker in 2003, when debate was minimized and the public was frozen out of deliberations on congressional redistricting.

Critics of this bill can only hope that the Senate is the deliberative body it advertises. Its counterpart has become the denuded body, denuded of any pretenses of true deliberation outside of the GOP caucus.

Ken McCraw, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Schools, said this approach almost guarantees lawmaking debacles.

"Without hearing some dissent you make bad policy. [The bill's problems are] going to come out," McCraw said. "It's just a matter of whether it's before or after the bill is adopted."

Bad policy can be well-meant, said McCraw, like a directive in HB 2 that 44 percent of new money or an average of $3,000 apiece go to teacher pay hikes. Schools obviously want to pay their teachers more. But McCraw said that once some of the districts put the calculator to the requirement, with what else the state is requiring, and factoring in inflation and new enrollment, "all that money is spent" before teachers could get it.

Possibly the most draconian and dangerous intrusion is the mandate under which schools rated among the bottom 5 percent based on state standards two years in a row could be subject to "alternative management" by for-profit firms.

Since Texas' school reforms of the 1980s, state takeover, the "death penalty" of school governance, has been an extraordinary action reserved for the most grievous and chronic offenders. Under HB 2, state takeover would get bumped into the ordinary, with for-profit firms feasting on all those tax dollars.

It is stunning that such a death-star scheme made it out of a chamber of our Legislature. Right now schools are counting on the fact that it takes two.

John Young's column appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail:

© 2005 Cox Texas Newspapers, L.P. - The Waco Tribune-Herald

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