My latest print column from our March 18 issue.
I confess I was not present at Gov. Rick Perry’s headline-making March 9 press conference, where the governor was extolling the latest state sovereignty resolution. In my defense, I wasn’t playing hooky—I was dashing back and forth between Senate and House committee hearings, where lawmakers were grappling with how to cut billions from the state’s anemic education system. Which meant that I was hearing about the potential devastation to Texas schools at the moment Perry’s press conference took an unlikely turn. Going off topic, a reporter asked the governor about an upcoming rally in support of increased education funding.
“The lieutenant governor, the speaker, their colleagues aren’t going to hire or fire one teacher, as best I can tell,” Perry responded. And neither, apparently, is the governor. “That is a local decision that will be made at the local districts.”
Now as I said, I wasn’t there, so I can’t be sure, but I imagine there was an awkward pause before the assembled reporters recovered from their surprise. The governor was saying, after all, that neither he nor any other state official or legislator would bear responsibility for the impact of nearly $10 billion in proposed education cuts—from the state budget.
Newspapers wasted no time jumping on the statement. The Houston Chronicle explained that the proposed state cuts would be responsible for $160 million of Houston ISD’s expected $170 million shortfall. Among the headlines: “Teachers riled up over the governor’s remarks,” and “Pondering a state’s right to duck blame.” Oof.
Perry lost that media cycle. But there’s more than a rhetorical effort to shift power to local school districts. In the Senate, two bills would empower local districts to increase class sizes, furlough teachers (instead of laying them off), and ignore many of the state’s requirements for public schools. It sounds like quite a deal for the locals, except for one thing: Thanks to the same state that is handing them “local control,” districts will make these decisions with a whole lot less money.
Republican Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston is frank about the intention of his bill, which exempts many districts from a variety of state regulations. He says he wants to “take it a step up above local control and make it local responsibility.” The state currently allows schools with an “exemplary” rating—about 20 percent of campuses—to forego most of the Education Code requirements, like the rules requiring college-credit opportunities and those governing gifted-and-talented and career and technology courses. Patrick’s Senate Bill 443 would let the second tier of the ranking system, “recognized” districts, have the same privileges. That would mean a total of 70 percent of Texas schools would be exempt from many state regulations.
For districts short on cash, the lack of rules would undoubtedly save money, as they could cut expensive programs or those that require more staffing. But it’s harder to measure the impact on the classroom.
Meanwhile, Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, is intent on helping school districts avoid teacher layoffs — by allowing them to “furlough” teachers instead, for up to seven days at a time, as long as they aren’t instruction days. Teachers’ salaries could get below the 2010-2011 rates, another option not presently allowed. Teachers losing their jobs wouldn’t have to be notified until the last day of the school year, as opposed to the 45-day notification previously required. Furthermore, the bill removes the 10-to-1 student teacher ratio in remedial classes.
“If this results in teachers firings, in courses being canceled, these decisions will be made at the local level.” But then she warned the districts that if they abused the policies, the state can take back their newfound privileges. “What we do, we can undo,” Shapiro said.
“Local control” once meant letting local districts make their own decisions, set their own priorities. But with extreme budget cuts likely, the districts will be left to salvage what they can. The new legislation would give districts more ability to decide how to cope with cuts, but when choosing between good programs, the governor and his legislative allies aren’t giving local districts more power, more options. Rather, it’s like telling somebody they can choose to go out anywhere for dinner—as long as the restaurant is entirely vegan. In most parts of Texas, the only real choice is staying in and eating some lettuce. And that’s the kind of diet that’s going to leave our newly “empowered” school districts feeling mighty hungry.