School Daze


Governor Rick Perry began 2004 shirking leadership. From the state’s wealthiest school districts to the poorest, from urban areas to rural ones, people are complaining and suing over how Texas funds its schools. The Legislature has steadily reduced its allotment to resource-starved school districts. On the flipside of the funding formula, many districts are already at the cap of how much they can take from local property taxes. Last May, even the Texas Supreme Court warned the school finance system was close to collapse. Republicans ran successfully on the crisis in 2002, vowing to end the so-called Robin Hood wealth equalization system and lower property taxes. It helped the GOP win every branch of local government. “I feel sorry for them,†says Bill Grusendorf, executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools. “They’ve been throwing rocks into the air; now they are standing right where all those rocks are coming down.â€

Perry’s recent problems began during a press conference on Thursday, January 8. The governor had just met with House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lite Gov David Dewhurst to talk about school finance. In response to a question from a journalist, Perry said: “Do we need more resources? Do we need a bigger pie? The answer is no.â€

By that Sunday the governor was being spanked on editorial pages. To keep pace with growth, Texas schools need an extra billion dollars a biennium. Then there is the task of reducing class sizes, coping with ever-growing testing demands, and filling a teacher shortage.

On Monday, Perry received a letter from John Carpenter, president of the school board in Highland Park, one of the wealthiest districts in the state. Highland Park is just the kind of GOP stronghold Perry can’t afford to alienate. Carpenter painted a grim picture of oversized classes and cuts to programs and services. “It is irresponsible for you to state that no additional revenue is needed,†wrote Crawford. “The public schools in Texas are no longer at a crossroads, they are in crisis.â€

The very next day, Perry allowed that maybe the schools could use a bit more money, but only if it came by meeting new state incentives. Thus began the governor’s incentive media blitz, full of half-baked promises of dollars for schools that excel on tests and attendance but short on ideas on how to pay for it.

While Bill Grusendorf is disposed to like Rick Perry, if for nothing else for the governor’s roots in rural West Texas, he dismisses Perry’s proposal as a “smoke screen.â€

“The big problem is money and the way that we raise it,†says the rural schools advocate. “We have an outdated tax system.†Funding all Texas schools will require more than the band-aid remedies of cigarettes and gambling taxes. Barring another hike in the already regressive sales tax, new school funding must come from business interests. The sort of people who helped Perry amass $3.3 million in campaign contributions by the end of 2003.

Texans from San Saba to Dallas County know that the first step of true leadership involves taking an honest look at the problem. Perry’s statements show no indication he even understands what’s wrong.

“Our tax system is broken and nobody has the guts to fix it,†worries Grusendorf, the uncle of a less wise state legislator of the same name. John Carpenter’s letter ended with a plea: “Our citizens deserve a leader who will courageously face this issue by adequately and equitably funding public schools.â€

Governor Perry, it’s way past time to step up or step aside. —JB