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    Educators Say System is on Brink

    BY R. A. Dyer
    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
    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.