The Other Drought – Texas’ Great Leadership Deficit

Protrait of State Senator Dan Patrick of Texas

by Dr. Jerry R. Burkett
(Original post January 24, 2013)

I hold a doctorate in educational leadership. I have spent 16 years in education, many of those in a leadership role. I have studied and have been exposed to many theories of leadership that I work to apply in my daily life as a father, principal, and husband. With that background, I feel well qualified to declare that Texas suffers from a leadership drought. Texas sorely lacks state leadership, with few exceptions, particularly in the area of state education policy. In fact, leadership for public education is slowly disappearing among lawmakers, and that poses a great threat to Texas’ future prosperity.

Leadership starts at the top – for Texas that means Governor Rick Perry.  In Perry’s 12 years as governor, he has been a strong proponent for vouchers, stated that cuts to public education in the last session were “thoughtful,” capped local school district taxing authority,  and after 12,000 teachers lost their jobs in 2011, stated that the “state isn’t firing teachers.” Perry seems to have little interest in making Texas’ education system strong for the future. In 2011, Perry supported cuts to education and refused to use the economic stabilization (“rainy day”) fund, which was designed to help Texas weather rough economic times like we experienced during the Great Recession. Early indicators from Perry suggest that this legislative session won’t bring any additional interest in public education from the state’s top leader. He doesn’t offer an agenda with new ideas or initiatives to better public education. And rather than recommending funding be restored due to increased state revenues, Perry is instead suggesting those cuts be institutionalized calling for a Texas Budget Compact that will further slash education budgets from their current levels.  While that will likely play well to primary voters if he attempts another ill-conceived presidential run, it does nothing to help public education or Texans.

There are few glimmers of hope for public education among lawmakers – Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock has taken a thoughtful look at testing and developing an accountability system that makes sense. Rep. Mike Villarreal and Rep. Donna Howard have both vowed to make public education a legislative priority this session. And some legislators seem more in tune with public interests in testing, funding, and taxes.

And, of course, there’s always Sen. Wendy Davis, a stalwart champion of public education with one of the strongest understandings of school finance among her legislative peers. In another example of Texas’ leadership deficit, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst removed Davis from the Senate Education Committee this session. An ill-conceived and purely political move considering the lack of bench strength among senators related to education policy.

The lack of understanding of what true leadership looks like is rampant in Austin. Leadership has become a popular buzzword – often overused and mischaracterized. Let me tell you what leaders actually do and how Texas lawmakers are failing:

Leaders Remove Barriers
Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston) was tapped to lead the Senate Public Education Committee during the 2012 interim. Why he was chosen to lead this committee is disturbing as Sen. Patrick once bragged about the cuts to public education as “a true cut in an entitlement”. During the 82nd legislature, Patrick supported cutting teacher salaries, as well as the $5.4 billion in budget cuts that left 160,000 students unfunded – the first time Texas hasn’t been able to fund new students to the state since the 1940s. Despite evidence to the contrary, Patrick continues to cling to false premises embraced by his Tea Party base regarding the rise in administrative positions and excessive spending by school districts. In December 2012, Patrick stood with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, inside a private school to unveil the state’s latest attempt at a school voucher scheme. The legislators touted that their “scholarship” plan for private schools “will not take money from public education…because there would be less students to educate.” Obviously, giving a tax credit to a corporation in exchange for sending students to a private school does leave less money for public education. This “scholarship” plan is a shell game to shift public dollars to private entities, nothing more.

I am going to go out on a limb here and state that I know more about Texas public education than Sen. Dan Patrick by virtue of being on the front lines.  If I want to know about being a radio disc jockey, I’ll certainly give him a call.  However, as he begins his role as Chairman of the Senate Public Education Committee, I would advise him that leaders work to remove obstacles for the people they serve. In the last legislative session, Patrick instead supported initiatives that placed increased barriers on Texas’ public education system. Funding cuts are a barrier to education. Thousands of unfunded students are a barrier to education. Shifting the burden of funding schools from the state to property taxpayers is a barrier to our economy. Shifting tax payer money to charter schools or a “scholarship” model for private schools without public oversight and accountability will leave fewer funds for public schools, despite Patrick’s claims. That is a barrier to education. If improving public education is the goal (and frankly, I’m not sure it is among some of Texas’ “leaders”), perhaps they should consider these realities  facts before adding more barriers that will hinder public education in the long-term for Texas.

Leaders Have a Working Knowledge of the Issue
When the 83rd legislative session opened this month, there was a clear absence of leaders with a working knowledge of public education policy and funding. Rep. Rob Eissler lost his seat in the primary, Rep. Scott Hochberg retired, Sen. Steve Ogden retired, Sen. John Corona was not appointed this term, Sen. Florence Shapirio retired, and the most vocal proponent for public education in the last session, Sen. Wendy Davis, was removed from the Senate Public Education Committee. The void in strength and leadership related to public education is both noticeable and frightening.

These moves and changes are compounded by the fact that our legislature now has more first-time legislators than ever before. What happens then when the Texas Supreme Court makes its probable ruling to once again change the way the state funds our public schools? Will there be any leadership in Austin to understand the ruling and see it through? Is there anybody who understands the intricacies of the convoluted school funding program well enough to offer a comprehensive solution, rather than Texas’ band-aid approaches that have been unsuccessful for decades? Is there anyone in Austin who knows anything about public education?

Leaders Serve Others First Before Themselves
Texans deserve a legislature that is committed to upholding and serving its constitution. And legislators, that doesn’t mean you get to pick and choose the sections you like – it’s a governing document, not a cafeteria line. That means, Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas state constitution must be upheld. This state’s forefathers were committed to a free and public education system. However, it is becoming increasingly clear to those who are close to public education, that there is a systematic design in place to dismantle public education:  $5.4 billion in cuts combined with increased testing, advanced requirements for rigor, and unfunded enrollment; increasing the numbers of charter schools which have virtually no public oversight and have been riddled with corruption; and now a proposition to pull money from public schools and hand it over to private schools like a blank check. That doesn’t sound like serving Texans nor upholding the constitution to me.

That’s where we stand as we begin the 83rd session. The void in leadership related to public education in a state the size of Texas is staggering. The lack of foresight and understanding that a growing state poised for vast economic development will need an educated workforce for tomorrow is alarming. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit by half of the school districts in the state to force our elected officials to fix a system most know and readily acknowledge doesn’t work. It shouldn’t take public pressure to force state leaders to follow the state constitution and do the right thing for Texans and their children.

Legislators, it’s time to lead. Make education the most significant priority this session. Make a compact, not to further cuts, but to your constituents and what’s in the best interest of their future. It’s time to uphold the requirements of the state constitution. It’s time to recognize that education is not a partisan issue – rather, it’s the only chance we have to keep Texas strong. It’s an investment and generational compact that should be protected and honored.

Lead for all Texans – not for your base and not beholden to ideology or special interests. It’s time to be leaders instead of politicians.

“What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul.” – Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 16:26

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