by Donna Garner
August 19, 2005
How could the Texas Legislature meet for three sessions at a cost of $5.4 Million and never pass any substantive legislation on school reform and finance? I put the complete responsibility for this debacle and waste of taxpayers' money at the feet of Rep. Kent Grusendorf. It was he who surreptitiously sought to hook the taxpayers into spending over $3 Billion to provide wireless laptop computers for all teachers and students in Texas.
The one thing that Grusendorf really wanted passed was wireless laptop computers for all students and teachers. He wanted to make sure that textbooks vanished and that laptops became the total center of every classroom. His problem: How could he make sure that every school was pushed into laptops? His solution: Require that the TAKS tests for elementary and middle schools be computerized and that the TAKS tests be replaced by computerized End-of-Course tests in high school. In one fell swoop he could completely move schools into laptops because with that many tests to be given on computers, schools could not possibly test all their students in PC computer labs. Laptops would be imminent.
To move his agenda forward, Grusendorf called together a group of computer executives which became the eLearning Initiative. Of course, this group had the same priorities as Grusendorf since their industry would benefit financially from such a change.
Think of the huge profit to be made if every student and teacher in Texas were provided with a wireless laptop at taxpayer expense. Texas has 4,400,644 students and 294,545 teachers for a grand total of 4,695,189 people. At around $700 per wireless laptop, the cost would be $3,286,632,300; and that is just for the initial expense. What about the batteries (over $100 a piece), software, upgrades, maintenance, tech support, wiring, and replacement costs? Even if the laptops were edged into the schools in incremental stages, the expense to the taxpayers would still be astronomical and ongoing.
When Grusendorf began to realize that the total cost of $3 Billion + was prohibitive, he had to figure out a way to pass his bill without raising the ire of taxpayers. His solution: Rob the Permanent School Fund (PSF) which pays for students' textbooks. To do that he created language in his legislation which deleted the term "textbooks" and replaced it with "instructional materials" which, of course, included laptops.
Grusendorf also decided to hold hostage the newly adopted textbooks which were to have been sent to schools by this school year. Among these were the new health and foreign language textbooks which had already passed through the approval process and were stored in warehouses, waiting for the state to pay for them. Grusendorf figured he could use the money saved from these textbooks, combine that with new money from the PSF, and sell his grand laptop scheme to the Legislature.
Besides that, Grusendorf saw no need to provide any further textbooks to Texas students because his plan was for them to have all their curriculum materials delivered on laptops. Never mind that it is an impossibility for a student to develop true oral proficiency in Spanish by computer. Grusendorf's only concern was to take the pot of gold from the textbooks and move it into the laptop account.
Conveniently for Grusendorf, a popular idea began to grow among fiscally responsible organizations: "65% of all school funding should go to the classroom." This idea played right into Grusendorf's hands because wireless laptops would obviously fall under "direct instructional activities." The supporters of this idea, however, did not mean for 60% to go toward laptops and 5% to be left for all other expenses!
Next, Grusendorf had to scatter out among the bill the various laptop provisions because he knew if all the requirements for laptops and the huge expense to provide them were all put in one section, red flags would go up among the Legislators and their constituents. Therefore, he put a sentence here, a requirement there, a change in definition here, another statement there; and he hoped that nobody would connect the dots.
Sure enough, most Legislators probably did not take the time to read the original HB 2 which morphed into HB 4, HB 62, and finally SB 8. The bills were over 400 pages in length; and because the "dots" were scattered throughout those numerous pages, it is certainly possible that most House members and/or their staffs did not take the time to read all 400+ pages. The House members went right along with their fearless leader, thinking to themselves that surely Grusendorf, who had chaired the House Education Committee, knew what he was doing.
Yes, indeed, Grusendorf most certainly knew what he was doing. By this time he had gained the full support of Speaker Craddick and the tacit approval of Sen. Florence Shapiro, the chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Through political maneuvering, SB 8 went into the House Conference Committee on August 9 looking rather harmless and came out the other door on August 12 with Grusendorf's laptop language firmly implanted.
The news media, who had been asleep the whole time regarding the laptop issue, never did wake up; and only a couple of commentaries to counter the laptop requirements ever surfaced in the newspapers. Various talk show hosts tried to alert the public to the impending disaster of SB 8's laptop requirements; but all in all, the public never really knew what the legislation held.
One more thing that Grusendorf did was to set up nefarious wording in his bills which gave the Texas State Board of Education thumb-in-cheek authority over the instructional materials. At the same time, however, Grusendorf made sure to include language which neutered the SBOE's authority by allowing publishers to submit their materials (all grade levels/all subjects) at any time during the year. Students' curriculum materials would have become "open season" because nobody would have had the time and resources to read and scrutinize that many submissions.
When both Craddick and Grusendorf realized their heads might be on the chopping block because of the dismal failure of the House to pass meaningful reform, they both in concert began to blame the Senate and then the school superintendents.
Craddick's and Grusendorf's fears were justified. What if the public were to find out what Grusendorf inserted into the final version of SB 8? What if the public were to put 2 and 2 together and realize that the wireless laptops alone would have cost the taxpayers over $3 Billion? What if parents were to figure out that Grusendorf's laptops would forever destroy the relationship between student and teacher and would instead replace it with a relationship between student and unknown persons in cyberspace? What a comforting thought in a world where Internet child pornography sites have increased 400% in four years and number in the thousands!
Speaker Craddick and Rep. Grusendorf could have crafted a bill that reflected fiscal responsibility and true education reform. Instead they chose to load down their bills with wireless laptop provisions which would have had a negative impact upon Texas' school children. The preliminary results from the Texas Immersion Project where 22 middle schools have been laptop immersed for a full year are not very encouraging. In 57% of these schools, the students did worse on their Spring 2005 TAKS tests in Writing than they did last year.
Yes, I believe Rep. Grusendorf should worry about his bid for re-election; and those Legislators who followed blindly after him probably should worry also.