Check out the report by the Texans for Public Justice watchdog organization. -Angela
GOP ideas to reignite school finance battle
Vouchers, district mergers opposed by many educators
09:30 AM CST on Thursday, December 1, 2005
By TERRENCE STUTZ and CHRISTY HOPPE / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – House Republican leaders, emboldened by the Texas Supreme Court's school finance order, spelled out a broad agenda Tuesday that will probably stir strong opposition from education groups and local school officials – including a study on whether districts should be merged to save money.
Rep. Kent Grusendorf, the Arlington Republican who leads the House education committee, said his panel will look at consolidation of school districts, school choice options such as vouchers, merit pay for teachers and use of tax dollars by school boards to lobby the Legislature, along with other sensitive topics.
"We have a lot of work to do over the next few months," said Mr. Grusendorf as he outlined the education agenda approved by Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. The committee's recommendations will be forwarded to the Legislature.
Mr. Grusendorf and other GOP leaders have cited last week's Supreme Court order as lending support to initiatives they pushed all year – ideas that put them at odds with virtually every education group and school district in the state. Those heated battles are expected to continue in a special session next spring on school taxes and spending and in the next regular session in 2007.
In its lengthy ruling, the high court emphasized the need for "fundamental changes" in the public school system while declaring the state's school property tax system unconstitutional. Justices also rejected a bid by hundreds of school districts for billions in new state aid.
That finding was seized on by GOP leaders who have adamantly opposed a big funding increase for public education because it would require a tax hike.
Some lawmakers, still smarting from school districts' unified opposition to their proposals, also indicated they wanted to tighten laws and scale back on the ability of school districts and education associations to hire lobbyists. The House education committee held a joint meeting with another panel Tuesday on the issue.
On the issue of merging school districts, Mr. Grusendorf said lawmakers have to consider the idea because it was raised in the Supreme Court order.
"I know it's not a politically popular issue to talk about ... but we need to be talking about it," he said. "The court has hit us over the head with a sledgehammer on that issue. We've got to take it head on and deal with it."
Mr. Grusendorf added that whatever plan is considered, it will keep school campuses in local communities even if school boards and administrative offices are consolidated to make districts more efficient.
Clayton Downing, director of the Texas School Coalition and former superintendent of Lewisville schools, said lawmakers should be prepared for a "political firestorm" if they embark on a plan to merge dozens of districts.
"The school district is the heart of many of our local communities, and people are not going to give that up without a fight," Dr. Downing said. "I don't know why they [lawmakers] don't just try to solve our funding dilemma rather than pick new battles."
Dr. Downing said some studies have indicated that even a massive consolidation effort would save less than 5 percent of education spending.
"The savings are not that significant if you consider the battles that would have to be fought to do it," he said.
Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, who will lead the subcommittee responsible for consolidation proposals, pointed to language in the Supreme Court order indicating that Texas has too many districts – with 80 percent of the state's 1,037 districts having 1,200 or fewer students.
Justices said lawmakers can upgrade schools in other ways besides additional funding, such as improved efficiency and better methods of education.
"The large number of districts, with their redundant staffing, facilities and administration, make it impossible to reduce costs through economies of scale," Justice Nathan Hecht wrote in the majority opinion. "Bigger is not always better, but a multitude of small districts is undeniably inefficient."
Teacher groups, already prepared to fight proposals for merit pay based on test scores and vouchers that use public dollars for private school tuition, said consolidations will only attract more opposition to GOP proposals.
"I'm surprised that rather than deal with the issues they have to address, they are taking on an even more adversarial agenda," said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association.
On the issue of lobbying by governmental entities, members of the education committee and the House panel that handles investigations and ethics matters expressed frustration that swarms of education lobbyists descend on lawmakers when they take up school finance bills.
"There could be an instance where schools are using the money collected from the public to lobby against something the public is for," said Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston. He cited as an example the unsuccessful attempt to move all school start dates after Labor Day, which Texans favored in a recent poll but districts don't like.
In addition to hiring lobbyists, many districts pay membership dues to various education associations, which do extensive lobbying. All of that effort excludes the salaries paid by many of the larger school districts – and cities, too – for government affairs administrators, whose chief job is to lobby the Legislature.
Lawmakers also said they were concerned because it is difficult for anyone to discover what a school district might be spending on a well-heeled Austin lobbyist. Districts are not required to delineate such expenditures.
But Texans for Public Justice, a lobby and campaign funding watchdog group, released a study Tuesday that showed thus far this year, various school groups issued 161 lobby contracts for as much as $6 million.
In the study of state records, it showed that education groups – led by teachers' unions – spent between $2.8 million and $6.3 million this year. State ethics law requires that payments to lobbyists be reported in ranges, not in exact amounts. But the group noted that a single company, SBC, spent $6.9 million on lobbyists during the same period.
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Some of the top lobbying spending by school districts and groups this year:
Texas Association of School Boards , $650,000
Houston ISD, $420,000
Dallas ISD, $255,000
Fast Growth School Coalition, $245,000
Northwest ISD, $170,000
Texas School Alliance, $160,000
Austin ISD, $100,000
Center for Equity and Adequacy in Public School Finance, $100,000
El Paso ISD, $100,000
South Texas Association of Schools, $100,000
Stafford Municipal School District, $100,000
NOTE: Lobbying contracts are reported within a range, rather than in precise amounts, so these figures reflect the maximum possible amounts spent by these groups.
SOURCE: Texans for Public Justice