Breaking the Code – Translating Candidates’ Rhetoric on Education, Part One

by Dr. Jerry R. Burkett
Originally Published: April 25, 2012

With Texas primary elections next month, many candidates are speaking at forums, knocking on doors, and campaigning to win your vote for elected office in November. The May primaries are just the first step (and in some races, the only step) in determining the 83rd Texas state legislature.

Among the important topics of the future session will be Texas public education, as the legislature faces lawsuits that make the task of rewriting the education funding system a distinct possibility. They are also under pressure from parents and educators to restore $5.4 billion in cuts to public education.  With such high stakes, voters should pay close attention to candidates’ positions on education issues given the difficult tasks they face if elected.

As you listen to these candidates this election season, pay close attention to the language and phrases they are using to describe their “fix” to public education. Some candidates seem to be parroting similar rhetoric and recycling a few buzzy phrases on the topic of education. In my discussions and reading of their solutions, I have created a handy translation guide to help you understand the differences between a real solution and promoting a personal agenda and pandering to an ideological base.

What you hear:         The money should follow the kid.”
Translation:               We need to put more public tax dollars into vouchers and charter schools.

This has become popular code for people advocating for a system where public tax dollars are put in the hands of possibly private institutions in the name of “school choice.” Parents would then have an opportunity to take those tax dollars, in the form of a voucher, to enroll their child in a private school or charter school.

The money already follows the child – and it always has. When your child moves from one school district to another, the state funds used to educate that child do indeed follow that child to the new district. Since the state funds school districts based on a weighted average daily attendance (WADA), your child would be counted at the new district and the corresponding funding would be subtracted from the old district.

On the issue of vouchers, there are some candidates who are against the idea of vouchers due to the possible unintended consequence of what vouchers could do to private schools. It is important to note that the 82nd legislative session expanded the cap on charter schools allowing for more of these experimental schools to be opened across the state and allow charters to build building using money from the state.

What they should really be upset about:
The state of Texas ranks in the 40s (depending on which research you look at, 48th according to Education Week) in the nation for per pupil funding in the United States. That would amount to $7,561 on average per student towards a school voucher. However, if the state were to issue vouchers based on the per student allotment for each school district, a parent in Keller ISD would receive a voucher worth $5,039 compared to a child in Northwest ISD at $6,830. So, depending upon where you reside, your child might be worth less than the one living in a neighboring district. This illustrates a deep discrepancy in the adequacy and equity in school funding we currently have in our state.

Of course, this doesn’t even begin to touch on issues of affordability. Good luck enrolling your child in an $18,000 per year private school with a $5,000-$7,000 voucher. And never mind the potential constitutional violations related to establishment of religion.

What you hear:  “You can’t just keep throwing money at the problem. Our schools aren’t getting any better and we’re spending more money.”
Translation:  Efficiency!

Efficiency: The battle cry of “fiscal conservatives.” Fiscal conservatives want efficiency — apparently above all else.

Are there many things in the world that don’t actually improve in quality when you “throw” more money at them? I can’t think of one. An employer that pays more and offers better benefits will attract a higher caliber employee than an employer that pays a lower salary and doesn’t offer an attractive benefit package. Divorce studies even show that marriage is better with more money!

When it comes to education, the situation is no different. In fact, Representative Hochberg (D-Houston) proved that school districts in Texas that receive higher levels of funding performed better on standardized testing. According to his hunch and TEA-provided research, throwing money at “the problem” of education actually does have an impact.

Further, the piece of the puzzle that the “fiscal conservatives” choose to ignore is that According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Texas had the fastest growing population in the nation since the 2010 census was taken. More students require more funding to education. Sadly, the 82nd legislature chose not to fund new enrollment and 160,000 newly enrolled students in Texas were unfunded by the last budget.

What they should really be upset about:
Actually, what we all should really be upset about is the fact that many lawmakers in the state of Texas, and the “fiscal conservatives” that encourage them to pinky swear that they will never ever raise taxes as long as they live have made it clear that they don’t value education.

My father-in-law always said you invest in quality when purchasing certain things. For him, it was automobile tires and footwear. “You get what you pay for and you shouldn’t go cheap on those things,” he always said. I’m sure you have those important items that you don’t want to skimp on because the quality and end result are important to you. What do you insist upon buying the brand name for rather than the generic version – and why? Think about it and you can identify what you value. For my father-in-law, he placed high importance on automobile safety and apparently avoiding bunions. Based upon where the state of Texas chooses to skimp, it is clear that they do not place value in education.

So where does Texas put its money? It seems their focus is on economic development and promoting growth through tax breaks to businesses. Business growth is certainly vital, especially as we come out of the Great Recession. However, something that is equally important to business as tax abatements is a qualified work force. Will we continue to attract new business to the state if we can’t provide educated and well-trained employees? Texas is already in a higher education deficit – by 2018 we will have more jobs requiring degrees than college-educated workers to fill them. How long will business stay in that hiring environment? All of the tax breaks in the world don’t amount to much if Texas can’t provider workers to fill the jobs they seek. It’s a dangerous cycle of destruction – if Texas chooses to provide tax breaks to business to the detriment of its education system, those very businesses they seek will leave the state for greener and better educated pastures. The current cycle of choosing business over education is short-sighted and unsustainable.

Personally, there is nothing more important to me than the quality of education received by my son and my students. To me, there isn’t a more valuable place to put my tax money. I’m willing to invest in their future. I wish the state of Texas shared my viewpoint.

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