Friday, July 22, 2011

How Texas Betrayed Its Schools

John T. Harvey | Forbes, Pragmatic Economics
July 20, 2011

(I’ll return to national macroeconomic issues in my next post–and there is certainly still a lot to say there!)

As promised, this is my follow-up post based on our trip to the Save Texas Schools conference in Austin this past weekend. It was a sobering experience. The long and the short of it is this: Texas has abandoned its children. The Governor and the Legislators in Austin have set the stage for a protracted crisis not only in education but in the State economy. With respect to the former, we can look forward to larger class sizes, the elimination of many important programs, and the placing of even more responsibility of the backs of overworked (and fewer) teachers. Texas already ranked an embarrassing 44th in education and these developments do not bode well for future of the Lone Star State. As far as the economy is concerned, every public education layoff means less income not only for those individuals, but for local businesses where they would have shopped. Indeed, the Legislative Budget Board forecast that almost 45% of job losses would actually be in the private sector (Center for Public Policy Priorities: CPPP Urges Rejection of HB1). Furthermore, the lack of a decent education will greatly reduce the future earning power of Texans. The only firms willing to relocate here will be those hoping to find a source of cheap, low-skilled laborers. Texas will become the alternative to outsourcing to an impoverished, third-world country. The stars at night no longer look so big and bright.

Was this fiscal crisis the inevitable outcome of the Great Recession? The answer is absolutely, unequivocally, no. In fact, it is hard to avoid the unsettling conclusion that it was deliberate, that certain State Legislators and the Governor did this on purpose. To put this into context, consider this passage from the Texas Constitution:

A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools (Article VII).

The State is thus constitutionally required to support of a public school system. In terms of the specific meaning of “efficient,” the courts have offered some guidelines:

It must be recognized that the Constitution requires an ‘efficient,’ not an ‘economical,’ ‘inexpensive,’ or ‘cheap’ system (Texas Supreme Court, Edgewood ISD vs. Kirby, 1989).

This is obviously still open to interpretation, but it seems reasonable to imagine that it would at least represent the same level of service as last year. Surely the State whose economy would make it the 15th-largest country in the world could accomplish such a goal? And, indeed, it has done so every year–until this one. Today, however, it seems that Texas can no longer afford to offer the 44th-best education in the nation (soon to be 50th, incidentally). We are faced with an $18 billion revenue shortfall, of which roughly $5 billion would have gone to education (Center for Public Policy Priorities: Statement on the State Budget for 2012-13). But, to reiterate, this was not an accident. Conscious choices were made and clear warnings were ignored.

It started in 2006, when new tax laws were enacted that supporters (including Republican Governor Rick Perry) claimed would generate sufficient revenue to continue to fund education and other programs at required levels. Almost immediately, however, State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn (also a Republican) wrote to Governor Perry to explain that this was simply not true (Strayhorn Letter). Projections by her office showed that the State would find itself roughly $23 billion short within five years. She was remarkably accurate (in fact, she underestimated). There was, indeed, no way the planned tax reductions could possibly be offset by the legislated increases. But her warnings were completely ignored.

And so, when Legislators convened for the most recent session, it came as absolutely no surprise to anyone that revenues were well short of what was needed. In fact, they had been short in previous years, too, but earlier surpluses and federal stimulus funds had provided temporary relief. No more. This time, it would hurt. Or would it?

There was actually another option. The State had the foresight in 1988 to create a pool of money for such emergencies: the Economic Stabilization Fund (aka, the Rainy Day Fund). Following on the heels of the 1980s oil-price collapse that devastated the Texas economy, the goal was to systematically accumulate savings during good times which could then be spent in bad. This had, indeed, provided relief in the past, with the Legislature sometimes willing to spend the entire balance (Center for Public Policy Priorities: Using the Rainy Day Fund). And the best news in terms of addressing our current crisis is that the fund has never been larger than it is right now. It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate time to tap into it. Yet, despite vigorous debate (largely along party lines) and a march on the Capitol by those hoping to save Texas schools, the State refused to use more than an insignificant fraction. Apparently, it is not raining–but, boy, it soon will be. In fact, if we make no attempt to address the structural deficit, the revenue shortfall “will more than double again in two years regardless of how the economy performs” (Take Back Texas Alliance: Texas Budget Crisis). Our problem isn’t going to go away on its own.

And so, here we stand today. The government of the Great State of Texas has willfully elected to disregard its constitutional duty to fund education at even the modest levels represented by previous years. They ignored clear and prescient warnings regarding future revenue streams and chose not to tap into monies set aside for precisely such purposes. It will almost certainly get worse, and they know it. They are failing our schools, our children, and our State.

I hesitate to speculate on why those in control of the State government would so blatantly ignore the warning signs and lead us into this education disaster. Others don’t, however. They believe that it is because the Governor and key Legislators are purposely setting out to destroy public education, hoping to replace our constitutionally-mandated system with one based on private schools. If that is true, it raises at least two concerns:

1) If that is your goal, then have the integrity to say it out loud. Don’t hide behind claims of fiscal crises and incompetent educators. The former is a smoke screen, one that may have been purposely manufactured for just this purpose. The revenue issues could most certainly be addressed if Legislators were willing to discuss tax reform (Take Back Texas Alliance: Texas Budget Crisis; Center for Public Policy Priorities: List of $30 Billion in Revenue Options). The latter, meanwhile, simply isn’t true. The scholarly research on the American public education system argues that it measures up very well against those of other countries. Those saying otherwise are either cherry picking statistics or simply do not understand how to interpret them (for more on this, see my previous post: Why US Education Deserves Our Praise).

2) Let’s not kid ourselves about what privatization of education would really represent. It would mean abandoning the poor, disenfranchised, and otherwise challenged children of our State. That’s not just mean-spirited, it is un-American and undemocratic. Our system of government requires an educated citizen more than any other. I’m sure I don’t need to argue this, so I’ll simply close with some relevant quotes. Hopefully, Governor (and Presidential Candidate?) Perry and certain Texas Legislators will give these a read. I hope so, as it seems they are the ones most in need of an education.

Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.
–Kofi Annan

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.
–Thomas Jefferson

In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity–it is a pre-requisite.
–Barack Obama

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.
–Franklin D. Roosevelt

Resources for Further Reading
Center for Public Policy Priorities
The Take Back Texas Alliance

Many thanks to Scott McCown of the Center for Public Policy Priorities for reviewing an earlier version of this post. Thanks, too, to my wife, Melanie, for her insights and editorial advice. All remaining errors are, of course, my own.

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