Orange County districts sound alarm

Dr. James Colbert

Texas public schools are in a state of disarray and failure and it’s up to the people of Texas to do something about it.

At least, that was the message a group of superintendents in Orange County purveyed at a town hall meeting in the council chambers in Orange on Thursday, Dec. 13.

More than 50 educators, parents and school administrators crammed into the cramped chambers for the meeting hosted by superintendents Mike King of Bridge City ISD, Dr. James Colbert of West Orange-Cove ISD, Dr. Pauline Hargrove of Little Cypress-Mauriceville CISD and Dr. Stephen Patterson of Orangefield ISD.

In the hour-long presentation, superintendents slammed the Texas Legislature for cutting Texas public education by some $5.4 billion and outlined the facts and future prospects of the school funding lawsuit currently underway in Austin.

“Folks, public education is in a state of crisis right now,” said James Colbert of West Orange-Cove ISD. “And the politicians are right about one thing: To an extent, we are somewhat helpless.”

The immediate repercussion of the $5.4 billion cut could be seen almost immediately, said Patterson.

“One of the biggest changes that happened here in Orange County is between the five school districts, 144 jobs were lost,” he said. “When you lose 144 jobs in Orange County, that has an economic impact. But that economic impact goes beyond just the resources of our community and it directly impacts our children. Class sizes got bigger, special programs went away, and we did what was a model of that legislative session, which was to do more with less.”

The administrators used a series of PowerPoint slides to demonstrate where and how the Texas Legislature cut public school funding and talked at length about the rumblings in Austin regarding school vouchers, as well as public and private school accountability.

At the heart of their argument was the belief that school vouchers and higher accountability are being used as a tool to privatize public schools in Texas — to the detriment of Texas’ kids.

Already broke and having to “do more with less,” Hargrove said the addition of school vouchers, which will siphon money from public schools, and harder state-mandated tests with less funding to administer those tests, leads to the inevitable crippling of Texas’ public schools.

“There’s no place in the Texas Constitution that allows for vouchers,” Hargrove said.

Pointing to Article 7 of the Texas Constitution, Hargrove said the law makes no mention of using vouchers as a means of maintaining an “efficient system of public free schools.” She said school vouchers, with their heavy support from Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Senate Chairman of the education committee Dan Patrick — all Republicans — will make it harder for poorer districts to fund their education and could lead to segregation.

“The voucher system we’re talking here is a taxpayer-funded private school system,” Hargrove said. “And it can even include homeschoolers. And so in essence it turns around and this becomes another entitlement program for us. But to do that, to have money to go to a private school, the money has to come from somewhere. So it comes from the public schools.”

Hargrove said if the vouchers can be used for any school, especially by students already in private schools, they will cost the state an additional $161 million. This does not include families who wish to homeschool their kids, saying the $5,000 per child families will receive if they choose to homeschool will further bankrupt an already cash-strapped Texas public education system.

“Now for parents who are homeschooling their children, or they don’t have a job, they can turn around and keep their three, four students home and collect that money — that is a really big enticement there to do that,” she said.

Another problem with school vouchers, King said, is state accountability currently only applies to public schools, not private schools who would use school vouchers without abiding by the same state-mandated testing and standards as Texas’ public schools.

King said, “If they (private schools) are gonna get money from the state, they should live up to that same accountability or we should be put on an even playing field and change our accountability system. We’re not afraid of competition. Yes, we need more money. Yes, we’ve made what we’ve got work. But we’ve made it work on the backs of our kids, and that’s the problem.”

What’s more, said Colbert, even if the school districts win their lawsuit to force the state to adequately fund Texas public schools, any decision by Judge John K. Dietz of the 250th Judicial District Civil Court in Austin will likely be appealed by the state to the Supreme Court, making any possible changes unlikely until at least 2015.

“Really the lawsuits are seeking an equitable, understandable funding formula. It’s been said, even by Judge Dietz, that there’s probably only three people in the state of Texas who can explain how schools get funded,” Colbert said. “No one understands it. Almost purposefully complicated. It’s odd how that works out.”

Colbert said another problem with the lawsuits are the parties and special interests who have attached themselves, specifically a group of six parents from Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education (TREE).

“We’re not exactly sure what they’re asking for,” Colbert said. “We feel a little uncomfortable because we’re sharing all our strategies of how we’re taking on the state with people who may disagree with the whole initiative we’re going through. We have no choice but to let them on board, but to be conscious of how much information we share with people who actually may be against us.”

Joining the chorus, Superintendent Mike King of Bridge City ISD said the proof of Texas’ push toward privatization lies in the legislature’s cut to the Teacher Retirement System, one of the healthiest public retirement funds in the world, and education service centers who train teachers and advise school districts on ways to save money.

“Service center funding accounts for 0.0003 percent of the state’s total budget, or about $25 million in a $74 billion budget.” King said. “I’m not even sure what that percentage is, but it’s not a very big percentage.”

“So I ask you, why are we cutting $25 million on a $75 billion budget if there’s not some ulterior motives here? That’s not helping the overall picture,” he said. “That is hurting the public schools because we’re having to make up that funding difference.”

Quoting Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, who mentioned the importance of public schools in Texas and their ability to properly educate Texas’ workforce, Dr. Stephen Patterson said the politicians in Texas’ highest offices aren’t concerned about making good citizens.

“I think that’s the change in education we’ve seen over the years,” he said. “It’s become less about educating a populace so the United States can continue to function, but it became a business agenda. It became how fast can we push out a worker, not how qualified a citizen we can push out the door.”

Patterson said the problems with Texas’ public education system are simple.

“The bottom line is we’re dealing with an outdated funding system,” he said. “Our expectations have risen, the numbers have risen, but the money hasn’t. Our kids in our community deserve much better.”

The superintendents ended the meeting with a Q&A session before employing a call to action, saying it’s up to parents, teachers and even students to call or e-mail their representatives about the lack of school funding and local control in Texas’ public schools.

“I’ll tell you like I tell my staff,” Colbert said. “I said to the staff, ‘I want you to imagine you’re stranded on a desert island surrounded by water and palm trees. And we’ve got two options. We could cut down those palm trees and build us a fire that says,‘Help’. Or we can make a boat and sail our way off this island. We can’t to do it ourselves. Just us alone are powerless. We need the people in this room and the people that you talk to to help us help your children.”