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

by Dr. Jerry Burkett
Originally published: April 29, 2012

Last week I posted “Breaking the Code – Translating Candidates’ Rhetoric on Education, Part One” to help voters identify code phrases some candidates are using in their discussions of education. These phrases are commonly used in forums, door-to-door visits, and social media posts.

Since writing the piece last week, several people have commented to me on Facebook and Twitter that they have indeed heard these phrases and know that candidates are using this rhetoric on the topic of education. For part 2, I have identified additional phrases I have heard with a translation and analysis of what is reality for education and the funding our state faces.

What you hear: “School districts should be more efficient.”
Translation: Let’s cut spending so we don’t have to raise taxes, even if that means our state no longer provides basic services (some of which are required by the state constitution.)

So-called fiscal conservatives like to point to over-spending and poor financial decisions made by school districts as a reason to cut spending. In some cases, their claims have merit. In other cases their statistics are convoluted and their stories comprised of half-truths and misrepresentations of bond and grant-funded projects. The complicated means by which school districts are required to spend and budget their money can easily be used against them by detractors.

Urban legends of over-spending bureaucrats and Taj Mahal-like district buildings coupled with the threat of increased taxes can effective scare tactic in an economic downturn. In fact, there are only a few taxes that could be raised on citizens to even make this threat true. Texasdoes not have a state income tax, a statewide property tax is illegal and capped for school districts, gas taxes have been stable, and I can’t find the last time the sales tax was raised in this state. In fact, some lawmakers have even bragged that Texas is a low-tax state by people running for office.

Compared to other states, our taxes are quite low and your legislators are vowing to lower them even further through spending cuts. But, have the cuts been so deep that the state will no longer be able to provide basic service and infrastructure? Are we trading paying taxes, to pay for toll roads, voucher-funded education to private schools/charters, and higher health care costs under this tax and cut model of state leadership.

What they should really be upset about:
Property taxes seem to get the most attention since they are touted as high when compared to other states. It was the steady increase in property taxes that led to Governor Rick Perry to lower the property tax that funds schools from $1.50 to $1.14 in 2006. This decrease in revenue created a structural tax deficit, which means that the state has more expenses than revenue. It’s a hold that’s inherent to our system, the single threat Standard & Poors has identified to Texas’ thriving economy, and it’s a major cause of the gaping hole in school district budgets, leading to cuts, increased class sizes, schools closings, and staff layoffs.

To make matters worse, property owners are being asked to pay more and more each year to fund local school districts. The dirty little secret that the state doesn’t want them to realize is it’s not their responsibility! It should be noted that Article 7, Section 1 of the state constitution states “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.” The constitution doesn’t require the funding from the local level, but over the time the state has forced more and more of the burden down to the districts– laying the responsibility on the shoulders of property owners. Perhaps the state should contribute its constitutionally required share.

Property taxpayers give even more to their local district if school districts ask voters for a tax increase to pay for bonds for building and improvements or to increase the local school tax rate through a tax ratification election (TRE). In addition, school district funding has slowly fallen on the backs of local tax payers, such as in districts like Lewisville ISD and Keller ISD, where the local contribution to the school district exceeds the state contribution. It seems that the state has very slowly transferred the responsibility of paying for education to the local tax payer instead of funding school districts at the state level. I believe that $5.4 billion in cuts in the 82nd legislative session can attest to that.

Further, the system itself is also disproportionate and creates a clear divide between wealthy school districts and poor school districts. As a property owner myself, I pay close to the same amount of property tax to fund schools in my home of three people as my next door neighbors do in their home of five. In theory, I contribute a disproportionate amount of local school tax revenue per valuation of my home compared to my neighbors. This tax scenario is out of balance and non sustainable in its current form.

What you hear: “Parents should be responsible for their own children.”
Translation: I don’t want my taxes to pay for “those” kids outside my school district.

You may hear this from Chapter 41 school districts that are subject to the recapture provision that forces certain school districts to send a portion of their local dollars back to the state of Texas. Although it is not a perfect system, and was one of the topics of the last school funding law suit filed in the state, it is the current system in place that helps to fund all of our public schools.

Since education is to serve the benefit of the entire state, I think it appropriate for tax dollars to be contributed to all schools adequately and efficiently. Since we hold all of our schools to the same standards regarding curriculum, instruction, and testing; it makes the most since. This is the essence of the lawsuits that the legislature and TEA Commissioner Robert Scott is facing this fall. Otherwise we become a society of people picking and choosing which public services we do and don’t want to pay for. Let’s be honest…I never plan on going to jail, so I no longer want to pay taxes for that. I’m going to purchase private security for my home and opt out of protection by my local police department, so I’ll expect a rebate from that service as well.

What you hear: “We need to ensure our hard-earned tax dollars go to the classroom.”
Translation: Administrative salaries are bloated.

This phrase is in response to the “1 to 1” administrator discrepancy that has been claimed by various special interest groups. These groups feel that school districts are operating bloated administrations and pulling money from the classroom to pay high dollar superintendents and executives. What these groups don’t tell you is that “1 to 1” ratio is that they also count custodians, secretaries, nurses, counselors cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and maintenance workers as “administrators,” as well as certified administrators like principals, assistant principals, and central office staff.

In 2005 Governor Rick Perry signed Executive Order RP47 (2005) asking then Education Commissioner Shirley Neely to develop a system for measuring school district spending on instruction. The formula came to be known as the 65 percent rule. School districts had an opportunity to opt out of the requirement if they posted their financial statements online. Today more than 400 school districts (out of 1,024) post their registers online.

Meeting the executive order often came with difficulty as the state had trouble measuring the standard identified as “classroom instruction.” In addition, school districts facing rising administrative costs (such as increased health insurance costs, increased student enrollment, and rising fuel costs) in combination with funding cuts and decreased property values found it difficult to meet the requirement. To meet the needs of unfunded mandates, an unpredictable economy, increased and unfunded cost to education, and rising accountability standards, meeting the 65 percent rule became increasing difficult. However, since 2007, over 600 districts have met Governor Perry’s requirement.

What they should really be upset about:
With accountability and testing comes compliance and oversight. Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, school districts have faced increased standards, more rigorous testing, and the prospect of losing funding if federal requirements were not met. To meet these unfunded mandates, school districts have had to be creative with instruction, personnel, and curriculum resources to meet the increased accountability requirements. In addition, if you are a proponent of the 65% rule, you have a right to petition your local school board for information and ask that they work to meet the requirement. If not, you also have the right to vote the board members out of office or run for the position yourself. It’s democracy in its truest form.

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