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Educators Say System is on Brink

BY R. A. Dyer
09/06/2002
by R. A. Dyer on 9/6/02.

AUSTIN--Increasing expenses coupled with an inability to
increase revenues could lead the Texas public school system to its
doom, according to warnings issued Thursday by two education groups
pushing for more funding for schools.
In a report aimed at Texas lawmakers in advance of the 2003
legislative session, the Texas Association of School Boards and the
Texas Association of School Administrators say that the school
funding system cannot continue absorbing the escalating expenses of
enrollment, utilities, fuel, insurance and supplies.
Key lawmakers said there is little chance of a school finance
overhaul in the upcoming session. But without more help from the
state, "Texas' entire public school system as we know it today will
collapse," says the "Report Card on Public Education," which the
organizations began distributing this week.
"As those who are closest to the education system, we are trying
to call attention now to the fact that Texas education, as
successful as it has been in recent years, is running headlong
toward disaster," the report continues. "No public school district
will escape. ... The scenario we describe is imminent. It will
transpire over the next two or three years. This report card is not
an exaggeration."
But Peggy Venable, director of Texas Citizens for a Sound
Economy, questioned the organizations' conclusions.
"The so-called report card ... is long on hype and short on
reality," Venable said. "The apocalyptic gloom-and-doom report
projects disaster in our schools but claims no responsibility by
the education community."
The state's $24 billion-a-year school funding system depends on
a combination of revenues from local school district property taxes
and revenues provided by the state. The organizations say that that
complicated system can't meet increasing demands.
For instance, a tax cap limits the ability of local districts to
increase revenues through local property taxes. At the same time,
the state's proportional share of funding for schools has decreased
through the years.
The groups say that districts could eventually begin making
severe cuts just as students begin taking new high-stakes tests.
Citing comments by Texas Education Agency Commissioner Felipe
Alanis, the groups say that test failures will increase.
"With classrooms that are overcrowded today and a growing
shortage of qualified teachers, Texas schools will become
increasingly ill-equipped to prepare students for the [new test],"
the organizations say. "As fall 2003 approaches, the problems will
spiral out of control. ... If the Texas Legislature doesn't come to
the rescue, the fate of Texas public schools will be doomed."
An organization spokesman said the report is meant to widen
legislative and public support for education spending growth. The
organizations also call upon lawmakers to pledge support for such
increases.
Bill Miller, a spokesman for both organizations, said the
situation will only worsen if lawmakers wait beyond the 2003
session. Several lawmakers have said a sweeping funding overhaul is
unlikely next year given an expected multibillion-dollar budget
shortfall, as well as a possible change in political leadership.
Acting Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, architect of the school funding
system and the only lawmaker to propose a specific plan to overhaul
it, questioned whether the Legislature would ever act without the
threat of court action.
"We haven't done it [overhaul the system] before -- not until
the Supreme Court threatened to shut off all the funds and close
the schools," said Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant. "What it will finally
take is for the political pain of not doing something to become
worse than the political pain of doing something."
State Sen. Teel Bivins, co-chairman of the Joint Select
Committee on Public School Finance, also downplayed the possibility
of action in 2003. "Before we have a clear picture of the state's
fiscal situation, it is impossible to predict what action the
Legislature will take," said Bivins, R-Amarillo.