Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Texas Leaders Have Flunked School Finance 3 Times Now

June 7, 2005, 11:19PM

Hold them to the same standard demanded on TAKS

The Texas Legislature left the Capitol last week, and we're no closer to a school finance solution than we were two years ago. The same governor who declared school finance an emergency in January won't be signing a school finance bill at a public school because, once again, politics came first instead of our children. As Tarrant County Republican Chairwoman Pat Carlson told the Fort Worth Star Telegram, "School finance wasn't necessarily a priority of the conservative movement."

When our kids take the TAKS test, they get three attempts to pass or they cannot advance. After failing to address school finance in 2003 when redistricting took priority, and again in 2004 and 2005, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick have missed three times. Perhaps it's better they struck out, because the plans proposed were shaped by Republican primary politics, wealthy contributors and right-wing think tanks, and would have failed our kids miserably.

If those plans are the best the leadership has to offer, our school children may fare better if our "conservative" leaders punt the problem to "activist courts" — but we can do better. School finance is a priority for most legislators. We are tired of listening to our leaders blame each other. For most of us, education is not a partisan issue; it's about children and their parents in our communities.

A famous Texan who served as speaker of the House in both Austin and Washington once said: "You cannot be a leader, and ask other people to follow you, unless you know how to follow, too." It's time for our state leaders to heed Sam Rayburn's advice and step back to let a bipartisan legislative majority craft a school finance plan that is worthy of our school children and local property taxpayers.

Several times during the session, we saw evidence that a bipartisan coalition that supports public education exists on the House floor, just as it does outside the Capitol. Despite extreme pressure from the leadership and a major partisan contributor, that coalition emerged to defeat a private school voucher plan. A few weeks earlier, a number of House members crossed party lines to support an amendment to restore teacher health insurance benefits.

In March, House Democrats offered a school finance plan that interested many Republican members because it provided more money for schools and bigger tax cuts for homeowners, generating $2 billion more for education for the same price as the leadership's House Bill 2. If a tax increase were necessary, most Texans think it should go to help our schools, provide tax relief for homeowners and give teachers a pay raise, and our alternative plan did just that.

Instead, the leadership pressured House Republicans to vote for a "tax swap" that would have made our sales tax the highest in the nation to pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest Texans, and called it "revenue neutral." Not a penny of the tax increase was for schools. The Senate softened the tax swap and made the school finance plan a little better, but provided less money overall for our schools. By the time the leadership was "negotiating," a small group of Anglo Republicans were arguing about plans that failed our children and raised taxes on 90 percent of us — robbin' the hood to kill Robin Hood.

After negotiations fell apart, Speaker Craddick complained that the job was made difficult because "all the education groups were against us." If better schools were really the leadership's priority, shouldn't they listen to those who educate our children instead of shutting them out of the process?

The state budget calls for a 19 percent growth in spending, but it includes no teacher pay raise, no restoration of teacher health insurance benefits and no new money for schools except what is needed to keep them open. About $2.4 billion intended for public education, which should be going to help schools and pay teachers this fall, was left unspent because the leadership's priorities are out of touch with those of most Texans of either political party.

After failing for the third time, the leadership should be held to the same accountability standards they demand of our schoolchildren. If the legislative process were open to constructive, bipartisan advice and discussion, a school finance solution could be reached — one that would pass muster not only with the courts, but also with parents, teachers and taxpayers. We can no longer afford to let our state leaders play politics and fail our children.

Coleman, a Democrat, represents Houston's District 147 in the Texas House and is the chair of the Legislative Study Group.

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