A Letter on School Funding
Dear Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst:Gov. Rick Perry has called the Texas Legislature into special session to begin April 17. And after months of saying he would limit the session to shuffling the tax system to lower local property taxes, he’s said he’ll put school finance on the table – after the taxes are done.
We should hope. With 181 legislators in town for a month, at a cost of about $1 million, Texas taxpayers might prefer that at least some of those not involved in the tax talks spend more time improving our schools than lowering their golf scores.
Remember, Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick were the guys who ignored the school finance bill that you got the Senate to unanimously pass in the 2003 regular session. Too important, they said; wait for a special session.
OK. Three years, one regular session, and six – that’s right, six – special sessions later, where is the school finance bill?
If they’d taken your proposal, the court suit and this special session might never have been necessary.
But because nothing was done, even the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court finally threw up its hands, said the legislature’s $1.50 per $100 valuation property tax cap amounts to a statewide property tax because it denies districts at the cap any leeway in their tax system. The statewide property tax was outlawed in 1982. The justices gave you until June 1 to fix it.
There is – no surprise – politics in here. The governor planned to have already dispatched opponent Carole Keeton Strayhorn in the March 7 Republican primary, so it wouldn’t much matter what happened in the special session. But the comptroller monkey-wrenched that – and probably avoided certain defeat – by running as an independent.
Assuming she collects the 45,540 voter signatures needed to get on the ballot, she has eight more months, and eight million bucks, to pound on Perry – while he’s under the gun to get something by June 1. And with her and Kinky Friedman as independent candidates, it’s a whole new math. Even Democrat Chris Bell could win. It doesn’t take a majority, just finishing first.
The governor will ask you to lower local property taxes, add $1 a pack to the cigarette tax, and develop a new business tax to close some current loopholes. Some legislators want to just use surplus funds in the short run, to put off raising taxes before the election. But the Supreme Court might frown on that temporary approach.
You, at least, have faced it: Improving schools is way overdue. It’s time to re-think how to get the best schools, but also add several billion dollars to attract and keep the best teachers. Your free-market buddies should know you have to provide the best to get the best results – yup, in public schools too – unless they’re out to destroy public education, which is another matter entirely.
Democrat Bell calls for doing whatever is necessary to have the best schools in the nation within a decade.
With calls for immediate pay hikes for teachers from Bell ($6,000) and Strayhorn ($4,000), Perry finally got smoked out. In a press release March 23, bragging on Texas schools and calling for tax reform, Perry said in the last paragraph that if the Senate and House bring him an agreed-upon plan, “I will gladly add it to the call once the tax issue is resolved.”
So, some suggestions for you and the Senate:
First, leave taxes to Speaker Craddick. He used to chair the House Ways and Means Committee, so presumably he understands taxes – even if he doesn’t like them. Plus, tax bills must originate in the House, and in the Craddick House, unless the rumbles of unrest somehow get him unseated, nothing will pass without his OK.
Second, ignore the governor. You’ve already got an interim committee studying schools. Ask senators – and any House members interested – to hatch plans to restructure, upgrade, and enrich the school system. Analyze possible funding sources.
Next, if your senators agree on a bill, even if Craddick hasn’t agreed to consider it, suggest to the governor that he open the call of the session anyway. If the governor doesn’t, we’ll know at least who’s running the state in terms of keeping things from happening. If he does, you can pull the pin and roll the grenade into Craddick’s tent and see what happens.
But you, at least, will have tried. Someone should; our kids are too important to wait.
Longtime Texas journalist Dave McNeely can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.