Photo of TCTA Executive Director Jeri StoneNow that we’re finally at the end of this school year, congratulations! This was an inordinately difficult year for educators, students and parents, who far too often saw up close and personally the effects of funding cuts as children were placed in larger classes or watched beloved teachers lose their jobs.

We get a lot of “trickle down” angst at the state office, as we receive thousands of calls from members throughout the year. Some seek information, others are concerned about a developing issue, and a smaller number are mid-crisis, perhaps having been suspended or proposed for contract termination, or the subject of a parent grievance.

Lots of people are asking if next year will be better, and we don’t yet have the answer. With regard to school funding, districts already know how much to expect for the 2012-13 school year because the state budgets on a two-year cycle and the coming school year is the second year of the current biennium.

Although the school finance lawsuits (see Resources ≠ Expectations: Analysis of the 2012 school finance litigation) are scheduled to be heard at the trial court level Oct. 22, historically it has been the Texas Supreme Court that ultimately decides these issues (due to appeals), and that final decision is unlikely to be delivered to the Legislature during the session that runs from January through May 2013.

“Intervenors” distract focus from real issues

Speaking of the school finance lawsuits, they’re just getting weirder. The most recent intervenor (a party hoping to join the previously filed lawsuits to urge its own arguments), is a group called Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education led by none other than former state Rep. Kent Grusendorf.

Those of you who have been around a while may remember that Rep. Grusendorf served as chairman of the House Public Education Committee for several years and consistently pursued education reforms that TCTA actively opposed. His initiatives included seeking to eliminate the state minimum salary schedule and contracts for teachers, leaving these matters to the marketplace and local control to determine. In an impressive show of unity and funding, the education community united in 2006 to elect a qualified challenger to Chairman Grusendorf, current Rep. Diane Patrick.

Guess what the intervenors are urging in their pleadings in the school finance lawsuit? They want a more “efficient” system of public education, as required by the state constitution. Their pleadings urge an expansion of charter schools despite the mounting evidence that most charter schools underperform their traditional public school counterparts, and those that excel tend to have significantly higher funding than your average traditional school by virtue of grants and contributions from entities like the Gates Foundation.

Many speculate that when the lawsuit is heard, the intervenors will not be allowed to join the lawsuit. That makes sense to us given that most of what they seek has little to do with school finance and much to do with ideological policy arguments that thus far they’ve lost in the legislative arena.

And in the tradition of piling on, the Texas Association of Business, long a vocal critic of public education while simultaneously doing everything possible to avoid properly funding it, has sought to join with the intervenors. The organization’s head announced at a recent press conference that business pays two-thirds of the cost of public education and is the ultimate consumer of the product.

I’m a little stunned that there hasn’t been an outcry at the assertion, which has been made more than once, that business is the ultimate consumer of the product of the education system. It seems like parents and students would think they had a stake, that retirees would have an interest in those who will contribute to the economy and their benefits, and that some might even value education for its own sake.

What’s the solution?

So why is it so difficult to fund our schools at even the level of the national average? That seems such a straightforward and simple approach to take if we really want to address our diverse student population’s needs. Much of the challenge results from the mixed messages legislative candidates are hearing.

Parents and educators object to the funding cutbacks and the damage that has been done, while fiscal conservatives urge smaller government and no tax increases. Given the significant share of the state’s budget consumed by education, these two desires may be mutually exclusive. Worse yet, some who want increased education funding are also opposed to higher taxes or more government spending.

The easy solution seems to many to be to spend the state’s Rainy Day Fund, or at least a significant part of it. TCTA is supportive of using this fund and urged that approach with legislators last session, but it’s not a long-term fix. Like the federal stimulus funds that got us through the session before last, the Rainy Day Fund is one-time money that does nothing to address the structural revenue deficit.

Our revenue system is simply not designed to generate the amount of money needed to continue state government spending, including that spent on education, at its current level. Fixing it means somebody will have to pay more, and some programs may have to be cut.

What can we do?

The Texas House could have 35 to 40 new members in the 2013 session. More than 30 of the candidates in the primary elections have an education background, with most having served on a local school board. This is potentially good news for education funding, but possibly bad news for teacher rights and benefits, as many administrators basically threw teachers under the bus last session by demanding “flexibility” (translation: the ability to pay teachers less and fire them more easily) in exchange for reduced funding.

It is heartening that the tide seems to be turning in terms of public sentiment. We more often hear about and from parents who recognize that it’s time to dial back the emphasis on standardized testing and return to a more balanced approach to checking progress without making the checking the focal point of education.

Hundreds of districts have signed onto a resolution urging moderation in the testing system, and even outgoing Commissioner of Education Robert Scott, in his final months in that role, noted that the accountability system had become a “perversion” of what was intended. (Spoiler alert: The Texas Association of Business strongly opposes any “retreat” from accountability.)

The sense is that we are at a crossroads in public education, considering whether to invest in our traditional public schools and moderate the demands of accountability, or to abandon the current model of traditional public education and fragment into a piecemeal system of distance and online learning, charter schools, vouchers and credit recovery programs. There are many factors at play and entities with different agendas, so it will be critical that those of us who support public schools make our voices heard.