Tuesday, November 29, 2005

School champions held ground in Austin

by William McKenzie

They want funding to back higher student standards

04:57 AM CST on Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Texans of the Year?


The school groups that stared down the mighty Texas Legislature on school finance. They surprised Austin by shunning the pennies-on-the-dollar lawmakers tried to give them. They forced legislators to go home this summer with no solution, tails dragging for all their constituents to see. And seven Texas Supreme Court justices helped their cause yesterday by giving Austin until June 1 to create a better way of funding schools.

God love these groups for their steadfastness. And God love 'em because that High Noon courage contrasted sharply with the school groups' past performances, when they fell prey to legislators' entrapments.

Wily lawmakers would tantalize rural districts with money for transportation needs, as long as those districts supported the school funding bill on the table. Or legislators would throw poor districts, or rich ones, a bone to entice them into backing the package.

This year, during one regular session and two special ones on school finance, school groups stood firm and refused to let anyone pick them apart. They unanimously told the governor, speaker, lieutenant governor and all 181 legislators that, this time, peanuts wouldn't do.

Catherine Clark of the Texas Association of School Boards attributes the unity to a decision the groups made during a meeting back in 2003. "We knew that breaking us apart would divide and conquer us," she said. As the funding debate wore on, "there was a lot of temptation, but big principles held us together."

Those principles began and ended with a belief that state government should invest enough money in its public schools so students could meet the new demands lawmakers had placed on them. Like some business leaders, the coalition wanted $8 billion in new money for the next two years.

The GOP-run Legislature didn't come close. The higher-ups started at $3 billion; by the time the last special session imploded, the leadership was down to offering only $2.4 billion.

Neither figure even kept pace with inflation, much less made up for the deep budget cuts many districts had to make since reaching the maximum tax rate they could charge property owners. About 70 percent of Texas school districts are close to maxing out, from the Lower Rio Grande Valley to West Texas to suburban North Texas.

That's what gave the coalition its backbone. School groups representing urban, suburban, rural, poor, rich, black, brown and white students stood together – and fought back.

Wichita Falls schools Superintendent Dawson Orr was a notable spine-stiffener. He led the coalition as members met every other week during the regular session, keeping his group focused. Similarly, members kept their game faces on through this summer's two special sessions.

The coalition "clearly played a role in denying legislative leaders access to a positive constituency," says Bill Allaway of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. Lawmakers couldn't flank them to rally local support because these groups, after all, represented those very people. They did their job so well that a group of parents is fielding Republican candidates to run against some GOP incumbents next year.

The school groups also balanced out the many Republicans who were loath to raise taxes to help schools. Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist was pressing from Washington to not raise one cent, and without the coalition pressing for more aid, lawmakers likely would have passed a puny package and gone home.

Maybe that's why some in Austin, mostly House Republicans, came to refer to the coalition members as the "Whiny Ass School People." (I started not to include that vulgarity in a family newspaper, but it reveals the contempt some elected leaders have for those who run our schools.)

Fortunately, the WASPs didn't budge. Our state is better off for their uncommon leadership and independence, which is what this editorial board seeks in bestowing The Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year award.

It would be best if legislators and the education groups could work out a common solution when Austin takes up school finance again. But if Republican leaders keep offering higher standards and little funding, someone has to force the Legislature to give students the means they need to achieve higher ends.

I nominate the WASPs for that job and for Texans of the Year. It's not easy wrestling the Capitol to a draw, but they did it with brilliant courage and independence.

William McKenzie is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is

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