01/06/2013 06:13 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2013

Rick Perry Versus the School Children of Texas

The conservatives of the Texas legislature are about to try again to fool the state's taxpayers into funding private schools with a voucher program. The Republican argument, which falls apart under scrutiny, has been that no child should be condemned to attend a failing public school. No conservative wants to talk about why the public school system might be troubled, however, nor do they contemplate the even greater long-term damages to be wrought by school choice.

All of this present and future harm belongs at the feet of shortsighted conservative politicians. As Governor Rick Perry was preparing to run for the GOP presidential nomination, he pushed the legislature to approve a $5.4 billion budget cut in Texas education. His transparent goal was political, and simply to build upon a no tax reputation, which, unsurprisingly, came at the expense of school children. The consequences of such a funding reduction were easily predicted. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Perry's money slashing occurred just as an additional 84,000 new students were entering Texas' public school system. School districts around the state were forced to reduce their operational expenses and had to fire 11,487 teachers and eliminate 15,000 staff positions.

The impact of this civic disaster might have been mitigated if Perry had urged the legislature to tap into the estimated $6 billion in the state's Rainy Day Fund. Instead, he continued with his fatuous contention that Texas needs to leave that money untouched in case of a natural disaster. The questions might easily be asked, "If it's not raining when we have to take $5.4 billion away from the education of our children, when in the hell is it raining? Do animals have to be walking in pairs?" The Rainy Day Fund, incidentally, was created by the Texas legislature to be a revenue source to help public education during difficult economic times. Natural disasters were not mentioned in the legislation.

The natural disaster claim by Perry is patently false, regardless. The federal government funds most natural disaster assistance and before the Rainy Day Fund can be used in such a fashion both the Texas House and Senate would need to approve with a two-thirds majority, which is wildly improbable for almost any issue. In any case, Perry didn't even ask them to consider the move after the Bastrop wildfires but he hid behind the natural disaster explanation.

As he was making Texas school kids the victims of his political ambitions, Gov. Perry continued to insist that, "As far as I know, the state hasn't ordered any school district to fire a teacher." His flawed logic ignores the conservative legislature's historical failings with regards to public funding. If less money comes from Austin to local districts, those schools simply have to make cuts or find new ways to raise revenue, which often occurs through increased property valuations on homeowners or waivers to raise state approved tax rates. Schools are forced to fire because of the irresponsibility of politicians refusing to make difficult decisions. People like Perry who ran for office promising to cut taxes and reduce spending simply fade the heat down to local school administrations.

And Texas ends up with inadequate public schools.

As a state, we still have not effectively addressed the concerns of the 400 students of Edgewood High School, who, on May 16, 1968, walked out of their classrooms and marched to the school district office to protest insufficient supplies and a lack of qualified teachers. Ninety percent of the student body was Hispanic and their parents endured a high tax rate for bad educations while the wealthier districts in San Antonio paid less for better schools. By July of that year, parents and the newly-formed Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) had filed a class action lawsuit styled Rodríguez et al. v. San Antonio ISD.

Since then the state has constantly been in court over public schools.

The latest lawsuit over Texas public schools, which were declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 1989, creates a strange alliance between poor districts and groups seeking more school choice as well as state funding for charter schools. But how do vouchers and choice resolve any of these issues? State Senator Dan Patrick (R), who promises to push a repackaged vouchers bill in the 2013 legislative session, portrays himself as the champion of parents wanting to free their children from the prisons of public school ignorance and failure. He is, instead, a lost horseman leading a misguided herd off of a cliff into a far canyon. Vouchers will create even greater disparities in educational quality and new forms of segregation.

Patrick is right that parents ought not be forced to have their children attend failing schools. But he ignores the fact that as a legislator he has failed to properly fund those schools to hold down class sizes, hire qualified teachers, and pay for appropriate facilities and technology. Rather than live up to his obligations, Patrick wants to give families a very un-Texan option of running away from a problem by using vouchers to attend a better school. What are the results of this approach?

If you are a minority or low-income student, possibly from a one-parent household in an inner city school, the chances are quite good that the resources will not exist for your parent to drive you each day to a different school. Paying for public transportation is an additional challenge. Eventually, there are only minority children and those from financially challenged families left in the school. The students from families with resources will leave. Ultimately, money the state is spending on those public school students is taken from the public school system. Dwindling resources even further with vouchers will profoundly compound the problems that currently exist in Texas schools. Patrick's latest guise for school choice is a corporate-funded scholarship program for low-income students. Unfortunately, the tax credits he proposes to offer in exchange for the donations will take a big bite out of the state's General Revenue Fund, which is mostly spent on public education. A voucher plan by a different name is still an immoral shell game.

While conservatives like Perry brag about the Texas economy and our abundance of jobs, the state he leads continues to shortchange students, and families convinced that a voucher will be a ticket to a pricey private school are ignoring certain financial realities. Texas spends just $8,908 per student each year, which is well under the national average of $11,463, according to the National Education Association. Per student annual spending dropped $500 after the Perry education budget was approved by lawmakers. The notion that private industry will donate to bridge that gap in exchange for a tax break is every bit as dreamy as thinking churches, charities, and civic groups can feed and house all of the poor.

Voucher proposals call for the state to provide families with a little more than $5000 to take to a different school. A lifetime of tuition shopping won't lead to a private school education in Texas for $5000 a year; most costs range from $15,000 to $30,000 annually. Charter schools tend to be more affordable but they generally cost more than double the value of the proposed state voucher. What families might be able to afford to cover that financial gap when 60 percent of the state's public school students qualify for free or reduced price lunches under the federal low-income program? Vouchers create an even more discriminatory system that harms minorities.

Unfairness and imbalances already exist and don't need to be exacerbated. They need to be fixed. Evidence in the latest lawsuit against Texas public schools shows that students in wealthy districts get about $2000 more each year than those in poorer districts, even though property taxes in the rich districts are an average of 8 percent lower than what are paid by the poor. The legislature keeps resorting to semi-clever and inelegant tricks to avoid making these inequities disappear but the courts won't be fooled. After the 1989 ruling by the state's high court that Texas public school funding was unconstitutional, lawmakers went to work until the court called them out with further rulings of unconstitutionality in 1991, 1992, and 2005.

The answer to this, of course, under Gov. Perry, was more tax cuts. In 2006, local school property taxes were pared back by one-third. Lawmakers said they could easily make up for that with the new business margins tax but they didn't have the heart to make it effective and most analyses indicate that is why school funding has ended up $6 billion short, which is what led to Mr. Perry's $5.4 billion dollar budget cut before he took off with his taxpayer-funded security team to run for president. Regardless of how ineffectively it was designed, it did raise a few billion dollars to help schools and general revenue. Instead of reworking the law, however, the new, possibly most conservative legislature Texas has seen in the modern era, is considering eliminating the business margins tax to attract new business to Texas. Businesses, though, are rarely drawn to regions with poor public education.

But if you are running for a national political office, you don't think about the future of your state; you think about the present and how to spin your failures. The future becomes someone else's problem. One of the most stinging legacies of Perry's national political ambitions is that some Texas parents are being forced to pay fees for school bus transportation, football gear, band participation, cheerleading, chess club, and other extra-curricular activities. The sacred Friday Night Lights are also flickering with football programs cut and even eliminated in some school districts.

Nonetheless, the state's conservative Republican attorney general still does not see a Texas-wide problem. "If a local school district fails to provide its students a general diffusion of knowledge, [required by state constitution] such a result, while unacceptable, does not render the entire public school system unsuitable," he said in a brief for the latest lawsuit.

He's wrong, terribly. And so is Sen. Dan Patrick. And so is Gov. Perry. Neither denial nor vouchers will correct the problems with Texas schools. Privatization does nothing but make money for private companies. The same political movement that has refused to build needed roads in Texas and is selling public rights of way to construction and toll companies now wants to offer up our children at $5000 a head to for-profit schools. What benefits the future of Texas, though, is a broadly supported and adequately funded public school system that delivers an equal and quality education for every student. It will create the work force and the economy of tomorrow. And we have to invest in that vision now.

Or we will pay much more dearly in the future.

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