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Originally ran in the Lone Star Report.
The State Board of Education (SBOE) is under attack. Frankly, it’s under siege.
The Select Committee on Constitutional Revision met in Austin recently with the sole purpose of discussing whether we need an elected SBOE and whether it should manage the Permanent School Fund (PSF). Each session, legislative moves jeopardize the SBOE and the fund.
Education is important to us – as voters, as parents, as taxpayers – and we expect elected officials to represent us in the decision-making process.
It appears the Legislature continues to ask the same question, hoping to get the answer it wants. One might ask why, since in 1987, the voters of Texas overwhelmingly affirmed their support for an elected SBOE.
The answer is two-fold: money and power. Some legislators want the power to spend the $19 billion PSF. This is, after all, an election year, and with a potential $5 billion shortfall in our $116 billion state budget, some legislators are salivating over the prospect of having access to the PSF as a means of covering a shortfall without raising taxes. The voters of Texas will not take kindly to that.
Like a mother tiger with her cubs, the SBOE has been fiercely protecting the fund for our children’s education. They are right to do so. After all, the fund was created to be perpetual. In their wisdom, our forefathers specified that the fund’s corpus should not be spent.
Let’s put the PSF in perspective. A school fund was created in 1854 to provide instructional materials for Texas public school students. But even then, legislators diverted some funds, and 20 years later, the Legislature in its wisdom, created the Permanent School Fund (PSF) to keep the Legislature itself from raiding it.
The PSF was built on an initial appropriation of $2 million derived from the General Land Office through the sale of land and oil leases. For almost a century and a half, Texas has been a model of fiscal discipline, forethought, and responsibility in the way it has managed the fund, protecting it from special interests, pork-barrel politics, stock market crashes, and economic recessions. Texans should be proud…and we should be smart enough to leave well enough alone.
This fund – not current tax dollars – pays for our children’s textbooks. Thanks to the PSF, we will be spending around $571 million on textbooks this biennium, and none of it will be our tax dollars!
So, when we are asked who should manage the fund, the answer is simple: the SBOE! Its members have done a good job. The facts point to this: the PSF continues to outperform the Permanent University Fund, the Teacher Retirement System, and the state employees retirement system.
But legislators can’t get their hands on the fund until they move the SBOE aside. No one has charged that the fund has not performed well. But to discredit the SBOE, some legislators have charged that the SBOE is not qualified to manage the fund.
Yet the Legislature this biennium is spending $116 billion of our tax dollars. Could every legislator be considered “qualified” to make financial decisions of this magnitude?
The drumbeat of criticism of the SBOE continues. Prior to the primary, acting Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff stated publicly the need to elect a “moderate SBOE” or the Legislature “will need to take action.”
Does that indicate that if we voters don’t send to Austin the candidate he wants, there will be repercussions? We didn’t return his candidate. I guess that means we can count on “action” by the Legislature. So much for democracy.
Criticism has been directed at the manner in which the SBOE conducts business. Like making sausage, public policy decision-making can get messy. But voters do not elect representatives to go to Austin or to Washington, D. C., for that matter, to “get along” and to compromise. We elect them to represent our often-disparate views on issues. Education is one of the most important issues to Texas voters – and also one of the most contentious. To put it simply, we do not elect an SBOE to come to Austin to “play nicely in the sandbox.” We elect the board to represent our often disparate views.
I might note that we aren’t considering eliminating the Legislature, the U.S. Congress, or our city councils for holding heated debates. (The SBOE hasn’t even had a good fistfight such as we’ve seen on the floor of the Texas House!) Let’s not use the fact that the SBOE has a very important and sometimes controversial job as an excuse to recommend eliminating an elected body.
So one might ask: Why are we even discussing this? It could be because the system is broken – it was broken with passage of SB 1. And this debate provides an opportunity to implement much-needed changes.
Our form of government, though not perfect, is far superior to any alternative. To put it simply, our democratic republic works. And the checks and balances in the system are necessary for it to work. In 1995, when SB 1 was passed, some of those checks and balances were eliminated.
There is one recent example of how the system of checks and balances was eliminated. In SB 1, some of the power taken from the SBOE was given to the appointed State Board of Educator Certification (SBEC). SBEC recently made what may be a fatal error. It wrote parents out of the new educators’ code of ethics.
Parents now have no defined role in our children’s education, and though SBOE members expressed significant concern when SBEC brought the matter to them for approval, as result of SB 1, the SBOE could only vote it up or down. The SBOE did not have the authority to make changes.
The SBOE is composed of our elected representatives, and they need the authority to do their job. The dedicated SBOE members serve at no pay, they have no staff, and they have districts twice the size of any congressional or state Senate district.
We need to restore the SBOE’s role in recommending the commissioner candidates to the governor. This would restore the working relationship between the SBOE and TEA. SBOE needs to have the support of TEA, and elected officials, not bureaucrats, should be in decision-making positions.
The voters have spoken; their decision should be respected. The Legislature needs to enhance the role of the SBOE and stop badgering fellow elected officials.