Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Houston lawmaker likens funding cuts to the Titanic

Hochberg says $10 billion cut would sink state's education system

March 8, 2011

AUSTIN — One of the Legislature's school finance experts has a new school funding bill that would create a totally equalized school funding system with no rich or poor school districts — and that he concedes he would not vote for.

Rep. Scott Hochberg's plan is intended to show the crippling effect on Texas public schools if lawmakers take nearly $10 billion away from education to close a massive budget shortfall.

Under HB 2485, all school districts would be treated as equal passengers on the Titanic, Hochberg, D-Houston, said Tuesday, as Senate members on the other side of the Capitol discussed ways to allow schools to furlough teachers and modify class size limits in an effort to deal with the budget crisis.

"All are in the same lifeboats," he said.

Without lawmakers finding new revenue or pulling money out of the $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund, Hochberg's bill would mean a $326 million cut for Houston ISD, or about $1,328 less per student. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD would see a $60 million cut, or $455 less per student; Spring Branch would get cut $52 million, or $1,282 per student.

"It's important for members to know what $9.8 billion (in cuts) means, and what it means for their school districts," Hochberg said.
Creating attention

The proposed $9.8 billion cut in the basic public education funding program does not include at least $1.3 billion in discretionary state grants covering services such as Pre-K, dropout prevention programs and teacher excellence bonus awards.

Hochberg's bill is largely an effort to create attention for the realities of mega cuts in public education.

It would cut about 20 percent out of the Houston ISD budget.

"For us to make that kind of cut would vastly impact schools. You are talking about significantly fewer teachers when students return to class next fall," Houston ISD spokesman Jason Spencer said. "You are talking about layoffs the likes of which this school district hasn't seen in generations. It's catastrophic."

On the Senate side of the Capitol, legislators have looked at several school finance models. The most recent would limit school cuts to about $2 billion per year. Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, speculated that she might have a better idea on school funding late next week.

Shapiro pitched SB 3 before her committee. The bill would free schools from mandates and rules, giving them greater flexibility to handle budget cuts.

Her bill would allow school districts to lower teacher pay and to temporarily furlough teachers for up to seven days per year as long as they are not instructional days.

Under SB 443, filed by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, student-teacher ratios would change from 22-1 maximums in elementary grades to a 21-1 district wide average. His bill also would set a hard cap of 24 students per class.
Flexibility would pay

Giving school districts more classroom flexibility would save Houston ISD as much as $30 million and Cypress-Fairbanks ISD $6.7 million, Patrick said.

Considering steep budget cuts, the Shapiro and Patrick bills would give school districts flexibility "to manage personal costs in the best interest of students," said Richard Middleton, North East superintendent and legislative chairman for the Texas Association of School Administrators.

"It allows me to be more strategic in how I use resources," Middleton said, explaining that he could load up some classes with 23 or 24 students while lowering some to 12 or 18 students in schools with struggling enrollments.

"If we don't have some flexibility at the class grade level, it's going to require our middle schools and high schools to carry the burden of trying to balance our budget through class size reductions," Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier said. "And that worries me a great deal."

Most educator groups opposed the bills, especially as they allow larger class sizes.

"The public supports smaller class size," said Jennifer Canady, a spokeswoman for the Texas Association of Professional Educators.

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