Wednesday, August 24, 2005
Gov. Rick Perry's sudden assertion of executive authority regarding school reform already has accomplished its most important mission, which is political: To change the subject from his and the Legislature's failure to enact a school property tax cut as promised.
On Monday the governor issued an executive order, directed to Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley, "relating to a comprehensive financial accounting and reporting system to ensure transparency and fiscal efficiency in school district operations."
The headline-grabber was his order that Neeley include "a requirement that 65 percent of school district funds" be spent on classroom instruction. And the order directed the commissioner to "conduct special accreditation investigations of school districts exhibiting poor financial management . . ."
Sounds good — make all those wasteful school bureaucracies spend more money in the classroom, less on administration.
But education law experts point out several problems with the governor's order.
One is that it is unlawful for the governor to order the education commissioner to adopt a particular rule. The commissioner's powers were delegated to her by the Legislature, not the governor.
Perry can't even fire Neeley without the approval of the Texas Senate. As a practical matter, of course, Neeley, who was appointed by Perry, is not likely to defy him.
Even so, Neeley cannot simply adopt his order. State law lays out a process for adopting rules, and that includes hearings and public comment. It's a process that can take months — but that's OK because the motive here isn't to improve the schools but to score political points with the public. If the schools were the point, the governor would have issued this order a long time ago.
And even if the commissioner eventually adopts a 65 percent rule, she apparently has little or no authority from the Legislature to punish those who come up short. In fact, the state already has a similar rule setting 54 percent of funds spent on classroom instruction as a benchmark for districts to meet in proving their financial accountability under the state law cited by Perry's executive order. If they spend less, the Texas Education Agency can order the district to hold a public hearing on the shortfall, said an agency spokeswoman, Debbie Graves Ratcliffe. Asked if the commissioner can apply tougher measures, Ratcliffe said, "That's something we've got to do more research on."
And there's this: In considering a 65 percent rule, state law requires the commissioner to consult with the state comptroller — that would be Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who is challenging Perry in the GOP primary and who already has said the governor's order is a cover-up for declining classroom spending.
Most of what the governor ordered is probably being carried out already by most districts. Certainly Texans want school districts to account for all their spending.
But the 65 percent requirement is so controversial that the Legislature could not agree on whether to make it law this year despite a regular and two special sessions.
We don't think the governor can dictate it into law, either. But we doubt that really matters to him; what matters is changing the subject.
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