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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Perry's order on spending says more about own failings than about school districts'

Aug. 30, 2005, 8:49PM

EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE
Perry's order on spending says more about own failings than about school districts'
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


The movie critic A.H. Weiler once remarked that nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it himself. Few things bring that observation to mind with more alacrity than Gov. Rick Perry's order on school spending.

Having failed to lead state government toward fulfillment of its first duty — to provide an adequate and equitable system of public schools — the governor ordered the Texas Education Agency to see to it that school districts spend 65 percent of their budget on classroom instruction. The attorney general apparently forgot to inform Perry that the executive powers of Texas governors border on the nonexistent.

Taken alone, the guideline of devoting most of a school district's resources to classroom instruction seems reasonable. In an ideal world, the state would fund schools so generously that 35 percent of the budget would cover construction, maintenance, debt service, buses, meals and all administration expenses, leaving 65 percent that could be lavished on teachers and classroom equipment. That is not the case in Texas, where pleasing campaign contributors trumps providing children an adequate education.

Perry's order is particularly highhanded at a time when school energy costs are going through the poorly maintained schoolhouse roof. If Perry wants schools to cut back or end school bus service to meet the budget goal, let him say so.

The problem with school funding is not waste. The problem is that the state pays only 40 percent of public education's cost. In Houston, the state covers a ridiculous 12 percent, yet Perry wishes to dictate how 100 percent of the money will be apportioned — one of the most grotesque unfunded mandates since the term came into use.

The director of a group of tax resenters argues that the Houston Independent School District has an excessive 2,000 nonteachers — one for every 100 students. HISD Trustee Harvin Moore counters that the best private schools in Houston have 10 or more counselors, librarians and other support staff per 100 students. Perhaps that's one reason private schools get so much better results.

Low tax proponents claim that more money won't cure what's wrong with the schools. There is an ideal cost-benefit ratio, but Texas schools are nowhere near it. The money the state provides is not enough to cover yesterday's needs, much less tomorrow's. The cost of providing education is rising, because of higher enrollment, higher energy and construction costs and the need to pay teachers more to attract qualified staff.

No one would argue that paying more at the pump won't put gasoline in your tank. No one should assert that adequate school funding won't help.

Under Perry's order, school districts would have to account for what they spend on lobbyists and lawyers to sue the state for a constitutional school finance system. If Texas had responsible leaders and legislators, the school districts would have no need to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Gov. Perry's order serves two useful purposes. It demonstrates his indifference to the plight of public education, and it draws a bold diagram of how desperate that plight grows in Texas' leadership vacuum.
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This article is: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/editorial/3332258

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