December 14, 2010
There’s been a lot of news about Texas’ schools in the last couple of weeks – most of it pretty sobering.
In the legislature, those in control of the budget are talking seriously about lifting protections that help keep some class sizes under control in Texas schools.
The reason for all the serious talk, of course, is the budget. Education spending makes up 59 percent of the budget that the legislature will be trying to balance next year. And given that years of short-sighted decisions, including some related specifically to school funding, have helped leave Texas facing a shortfall of potentially $20 billion or more, our schools and school kids are now in danger of becoming collateral damage.
Just last week, the Comptroller released a report showing that changing this law and packing more of our youngest kids into classrooms could cut 12,000 teaching jobs across the state.
Apparently, this clear-cutting of teaching jobs is not a reason to avoid eliminating the class size protections.
One of the more revealing comments on this issue came a few months back. A legislator with a lot of power over how our kids learn in class opined that there’s no special significance to the current protections on class size (which limit class sizes to 22 kids up through fourth grade), and said, “You really have to get below 18 to make a difference.”
So it seems that, at least according to those in control, there is a goal – a particular class-size target – that could make a real difference in making sure our kids are getting a good education and are really prepared to go into college and the workforce.
But since we’re not at that target, and that goal is tough to achieve, we should just forget about it and head off in the other direction.
It’s like telling a kid struggling with her grades that A’s are too hard to get, so she can go ahead and slide into D and F territory.
And let’s be clear: the reason we’re facing this decision is the budget.
These educational protections for young school children wouldn’t be an issue – as we’ve seen in the last couple of sessions, in which they haven’t been a major point of contention at all – if the budget picture weren’t so dire.
And as I’ve been saying, this budget is a disaster, but it’s not an entirely natural one. In fact, part of the reason we’re facing this particular problem is that the legislature created a structural budget deficit in 2006 – launching a Margins Tax that’s utterly failed to meet its expectations and making funding promises to school districts that the state is now having a very hard time keeping.
So we’re now looking at a budget shortfall that’s well into 11-figures. To make up that shortfall, those in control are looking at things like erasing protections meant to help our kids learn by keeping class sizes down. And they have no real plan – at least, none I’ve heard about – to get Texas back to sound financial ground that will actually allow the state to invest in things (such as schools and teachers) that are patently good for Texas, its economy, and its future.
Now, not everyone’s necessarily going to admit that. One of the chief complaints you’ll actually hear about the 22-child class size protection is that it ties the hands of school districts. And I’m a big, big believer in local control, so I’m looking forward to having that conversation.
But at least one reason districts need flexibility is that they now have to choose between balancing their budgets and ensuring that young students’ classes don’t get bigger than the state allows. If schools were getting more support, I suspect, a requirement that there shouldn’t be more than 22 kids in a kindergarten class wouldn’t seem so difficult. And yes, I realize that many districts are receiving waivers to this rule right now – to me, that makes it even more important to maintain these protections for our school kids and move campuses in the right direction.
I’ll say it again – we’ve got to be honest about the budget problems we’re facing in this state. We need to tread very lightly before we make decisions that will hurt Texas in the long run. And we ought to be very skeptical of cuts such as these until there are real reforms that prove such radical actions are necessary.
Earlier this month, the president of the Dallas Fed emphasized how much of Texas’ economic future is riding on the education we’re providing to our kids.
Here’s his powerful point: “Don’t lose track of this simple, unalterable, indisputable, critical fact: We have done well so far; our economy is mighty. But to stay ahead of the curve and compete in tomorrow’s global marketplace, Texas must do better in educating its population.”
In other words, Texas shouldn’t be looking for cynical regulatory changes to pull out class-size protections and create an incentive to cut teaching jobs as a back-door way of cutting the budget.
Instead, we should be investing in the state and its future, doing things that are patently good for our economy and our future, and run from short-sighted decisions that will help for a year or two and hurt – a lot – for a generation.