Friday, April 08, 2005

The Right and Wrong Way to Pay for Schools

Friday, April 08, 2005

There's no question that the state Senate's approach to fixing the school finance crisis is better than the bill passed by the Texas House. House Bill 2 and its financing companion, House Bill 3, are so bad it would have been difficult for senators to do worse.

There are many features worth noting in the Senate bill by state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. We like the approach to teachers' pay raises. The bill calls for an across-the-board raise of about $1,500 a year per teacher and sets up a merit system that provides additional pay incentives for teachers in low-performing schools or teachers with certification in certain specialized fields. That approach recognizes the reality of the situation in Texas: Teachers as a group are underpaid; and the demand outstrips the supply for teachers who are certified in secondary math, science and special education. The Senate bill also tightens accountability for failing charter schools and expands pre-kindergarten.

Unfortunately, the Senate suffers from the same obsession as the House in dealing with school financing. Both chambers focused their efforts on reducing local property taxes over financing public schools. Both bills fall short of funding public schools at a level needed to equip Texas' 4.3 million students with the skills needed to graduate, get jobs or go to college.

The Senate plan would generate about $3.2 billion in new money — about the same as the House bill. It doesn't eat those dollars up in new mandates the way that the House plan would. And it creates a statewide property tax of $1 per assessed valuation — a more reliable and equitable method of financing public schools than the House plan, which relies heavily on increases in the sales tax. But the amount of money in the Senate plan falls short of what state District Judge John Dietz ruled was needed for public schools.

Like everything else in life, education costs money. People at the Capitol are fond of saying you can't solve problems by throwing money at them. That's faux folk wisdom because Texas politicians have never really tried throwing money at education. Education gets a lot of lip service but comparatively little cash — certainly not enough to keep pace with population growth and the special needs of modern students and the demands placed on them by modern politicians.

Another troublesome provision shared by the Senate and House versions is one that would privatize hundreds of failing schools. The Senate plan calls for the state education commissioner to replace the principal and management team at any school rated low-performing for two consecutive years. The commissioner could put those schools under management of private firms, a state university or a group of community leaders.

That would be a step backward for schools that desperately need to move forward. Private firms have been fired from several public districts across the United States for failing to improve student performance. Placing schools under the management of "community leaders" is a risky proposition because, however well intended those folks might be, they are no match for trained teachers and administrators. The idea that there is a magic bullet, such as a state university, that can instantly improve schools is flawed.

Private schools excel because they offer smaller classes, discipline, high expectations, a rich curriculum and quality teachers. Give failing schools those same tools and watch them shine.

When the horse trading begins in earnest in conference committee, we're hoping that legislators will face educational reality and commit the money it's going to take to keep the state economically viable.

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