Why Republicans are Underfunding Education in Texas

The official Texas policy is misguided and short-sighted... and deliberate.
by Published on

Many people don’t understand why public education is being deliberately torpedoed in Texas by its own Legislature and Governor. One might think that conservatives would support a traditional, long-existing, honorable, and valuable state system; after all, isn’t that the definition of conservatism—support of traditional values? What is more traditional and valuable in the United States than public education?

But public education in Texas is heavily politicized by both the Texas Legislature and the Texas State Board of Education. The Legislature has allocated fewer state funds to public schools over the last 15 years, but this year for the first time it deliberately under-funded schools by $4 billion.

This deliberate under-funding could easily have been avoided by simply raising taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses in Texas or tapping the $10 billion “Rainy-Day Fund,” created years ago with the primary purpose to provide money to finance public schools at appropriate levels in case of economic hardship.

In 2006 a new business tax replaced part of state property tax in a way that state financial experts predicted would be insufficient to support Texas schools. This structural deficit could be corrected now by simply reconfiguring the new business tax to bring in the necessary amount of money, but again the Legislature deliberately refused to correct it.

Thus it is clear that the intention of the Republican majority of state legislators is to deliberately damage public education in Texas. The reason for this, however, is not well known: Public schools damaged by underfunding will be more likely to fail and thus create a situation—the sole situation—for which the Supreme Court legally permits private religious school voucher programs.

Many in the current crop of Republicans in Texas are radicals, not conservatives, and they have several reasons to defund public education. Perhaps the most popular is that under-funding will cause school districts to lay off teachers who have in the past financially supported and voted mostly for Democratic candidates, thus damaging the Democratic Party in Texas. A second is to damage the quality of public schools so more citizens will support private schools, the vast majority of which are religious. However, the least known but by far most important reason is that in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision for the first time allowed a private voucher program for private religious schools, but only when the local public school system is failing.

Goaded by Governor Perry, radical Texas Republicans tried to institute vouchers in the past by legislative action but failed by extremely narrow votes in the Legislature. Anti-voucher proponents, some Republicans but mostly Democrats, damaged the legislation sufficiently with amendments to cause its supporters to retract the bill. Now, by underfunding public education, Republicans are trying to create the sole conditions in which public voucher programs are legally permitted: making the poorest school systems in Texas—mostly urban systems—fail. A perfectly-legal state voucher system in the future will shift vast amounts of public tax money—far more than $4 billion—from public to private religious schools.

Some Texas citizens have a nebulous but gnawing feeling that, except for a few secular private schools, K-12 education in Texas isn’t very good. This feeling has a basis in reality. Without going into the details, Texas teacher pay, Texas per-student expenditure, Texas school quality, and Texas student achievement rank very low compared to most other states in the country, and very much lower than the teachers, schools, and students in most European and Asian countries. Those who are interested in this topic know the statistics or can easily find them on the Web.

There are, of course, some states that have poorer statistics than Texas, but we are not talking here about competing for the bottom rung of the education ladder. Instead, the question is why does one of the wealthiest states in the nation have such low K-12 academic achievement? Most U.S. states, wealthier or not, make public education their highest priority. This is, however, not the case in Texas. Why? There are two reasons.

First, it appears that some Texas public officials and political leaders care little about providing a quality public education to Texas children. The enormous politicization of classroom curriculum standards and instructional materials in Texas has resulted in a culture of diminished expectations and achievement. Students are expected to attend school for a credential rather than for greater knowledge of how to succeed in a highly-competitive global economy. Ironically, despite the evidence that Texas schools are failing their students, many parents develop a totally unwarranted self-satisfaction that Texas public schools are successfully preparing students for either higher education or for immediate high-paying and fulfilling jobs. They need to be more realistic. Unwarranted self-satisfaction is probably the phrase that best describes Texas K-12 education. The results certainly show it.

Texas policy-makers and public officials have a peculiar belief not shared by their counterparts in most other states. They believe that it doesn’t matter how much we spend on Texas public schools or whether their quality is good enough, because if Texas can just create more jobs than other states, the better-educated citizens of those states will move to Texas and take the jobs here. Texas can depend on other states to spend their tax dollars to educate and train high-value workers so we don’t have to. As long as our state’s economy creates high-value jobs, those workers will move to Texas and bring their expensive educations along with them.

This Texas belief—official Texas legislative and executive policy, really—absolves state government policy-makers from having to adequately fund the state’s public school system. The result has been year after year of decreasing state funding of public education, forcing local communities and school districts to raise their taxes to the highest levels to pay for a minimum education system.

This official Texas policy thumbs its nose at the social contract, at the American belief in fair play and the idea that we’re all in this together. Instead, the Texas view is that our state is competing against other states and if they aren’t slick enough to create jobs that attract other states’ educated citizens, then that’s their problem. In Texas, we create those jobs by underfunding public education, allowing Texas to have low taxes that attracts more companies.

It goes unrecognized, however, that the best and highest-paid knowledge jobs are created in states other than Texas, states that have good primary, secondary, and higher education systems supported by a reasonable tax base. A state that deliberately and selfishly underfunds its own public education system to keep its individual and business taxes artificially low, and unfairly seeks knowledge workers educated at other states’ expense, deserves to receive little or no education funding or stimulus funding from the federal government. Indeed, when Texas scored its first stimulus funding for education, it used the funds for general state expenses and kept state education funding at current levels, completely negating the purpose of stimulus funding. This is really Texas-sized selfishness, but I’m sure the self-satisfaction gained by pulling a fast one on the feds was worth it.

But there is far worse to consider: the second reason that Texas Republicans despise the state’s public school system is because it provides free education to working class Texas citizens, most of whom are Latin-American and African-American minorities. Our Republican policy-makers believe that public education funding is wasted on minorities, so deliberate underfunding of public schools has become official state policy. This policy is fed by a barely-hidden racism that demeans Texas and is shameful to those Texans who possess a fair and multicultural attitude toward ethnic-minority Texans and who defend fair treatment by the state of all citizens. This policy also creates a host of problems since under-educated citizens often turn to crime to make an adequate living. One major result of underfunding and politicizing Texas public education is that Texas has the largest prison population in the United States, indeed, one of the highest in the world.

The egregious school financial situation created by the Legislature is the most visible politicization of public education in Texas today, but it is not the only one. Some readers may know of my 31-year-long history of advocacy to protect the integrity and accuracy of science instruction in Texas public schools before the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) and Texas Education Agency. This will be the main topic of my next and several subsequent columns, including live-blogging of the SBOE meeting in July 21-22.

As many readers will remember, in 2009 the SBOE on votes of 8-7 damaged the Texas science standards by inserting extreme, non-educational, radical sectarian agenda-driven standards into the Biology and Earth and Space Science Texas Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) against the advice of the scientists and science teachers who originally wrote these standards. The new politically-driven standards were added to have students question the effectiveness of biological evolution to account for the diversity and complexity of life on Earth, question the origin of life by natural processes, and question the patterns of evolution of ancient fossil organisms as explained by modern paleontologists. Censoring, manipulating, and editing these topics were of prime concern to the seven radical religious right Republicans on the SBOE at that time, who wanted to force teachers to disparage biological evolution and confuse and mislead students. The five Democrats then on the State Board consistently voted against these unnecessary and unscientific changes.

The members of the SBOE have changed but the rush to politicize science education continues. Governor Rick Perry was forced to appoint yet another SBOE chairman, and the one he chose, Barbara Cargill, is one of the most extreme sectarian proponents of the irresponsible misuse of official power to push Creationist-inspired changes into Texas public school science curricula.

In an address to the Texas Eagle Forum, Barbara Cargill stated her intention of using her office to force mainstream science publishers to include material that falsely misrepresents the status of biological evolution in modern biology and misleads students about the accuracy and reliability of information about modern biological evolution. The changes she seeks would have the effect of promoting a belief in a supernatural Creation of life and all species, topics that are not part of modern science.

This week the elected members of the SBOE, eleven Republicans and four Democrats, will decide what materials are adopted in Texas by majority vote. One of the biology instructional materials submitted explicitly promotes Intelligent Design Creationism. This supplement was not recommended by the TEA and Texas Commissioner of Education, but the radical and sectarian non-scientists on the SBOE could adopt it anyway by majority vote. Is this any way to teach science in the 21st Century?  I will cover this process and explain what is happening so please stay tuned.