Editor’s note: This interview was conducted on Tuesday, May 14, just as the budget negotiations for the session began heating up.
TM: When we sat down to talk in February, you identified some of the issues you thought were of greatest importance to the Legislature: public education, water, and transportation, among a couple of other things. We now have fewer than two weeks to go in the session, so I wonder if you would take a look at those issues and give us a window on where you think we are—or if we’re going anywhere?
Governor Ratliff: Well I think you're going to see some pretty serious bills coming out on public ed, and they're going to make some changes to charter schools. I think not nearly as drastic as the author wanted to start with, but I think they are going to clean that up. I think they're going to reduce the amount of testing required under the accountability system, which I think is wise. I think we're far over-testing. Of course, unfortunately I don’t think we're going to get nearly as much money for public ed as we should be getting. I mean, they're celebrating the fact that there might be as much as $3.5 billion, but if you consider the fact that it takes $1.2 billion just to stay up with enrollment and inflation, that doesn't get us very close to any kind of recovery from the kind of cuts we've had over the last four years. That's unfortunate.
TM: Initially the House and Senate were about $1 billion apart in their totals, but today we’re hearing signs that they might settle on a figure just above $3 billion.
Ratliff: You know, typically conference committees strike something in between, but neither number is anything to be proud of.
TM: You had mentioned testing as well. HB 5 takes the number of end-of-course exams down from fifteen to five, but some people have raised concerns about rigor now that the requirements for graduation have been reworked. Does that worry you?
Ratliff: I think it’s unfortunate that we have people who are critical of allowing a pathway for students who don't feel inclined to go on to university. Right now what we have now is two tracks: We have the university track, and we have the dropout track. We've got to fix the dropout track. What we have to do is create some kind of curriculum that these kids can relate to that helps them make a living in the future. And you can't give them that curriculum and then require them to take the tests that you're requiring of university-bound students. That doesn't make any sense. So I don't buy the accusation that we're reducing rigor. What I think we're trying to do is to design the accountability system where it measures what the kids need to know based on they type of curriculum they are interested in.
TM: I know you've done some work for Raise Your Hand Texas. Is that group comfortable with the bill?
Ratliff: I don't speak for them, but I understand that they've worked on it very hard and they feel like it's a very good bill.
TM: Speaker Laney, let me turn to you on education.
Speaker Laney: I think that Governor Ratliff is correct on the two pathways he mentioned. The problem is that we've got too much stuff that's required and not enough things that allow the student to pick their classes and electives. This gives the student a little more flexibility rather than having to take all these required courses. The Legislature has been guilty of saying, "You've got to take this, you've got to do that."
TM: So building more flexibility into the curriculum is a good thing?
Laney: Well, I think it is, along with allowing the testing to be actually on material the students should have learned. Of course, as Governor Ratliff said, there's the expansion of the charter schools and things like that are probably the big losers this time.
TM: Once again.
Laney: Once again.
Ratliff: And I think that is probably justified. Because in the same bill talking about how many more we're going to allow, they are at least attempting to crack down on bad charter schools. We have one charter school that for seven years has been rated unacceptable. Well, why do we allow that to continue? So as part of the trade-off, yeah we'll let you have some more, but we want you to crack down on poor charter schools. If we're going to send state dollars to charter schools, they need to be good charter schools.
Laney: I think part of the problem is some of those charter schools were investments. They weren't school systems. They were investments for individuals and profit centers. The sad part about what's happening is that only half the cuts are being restored. It’s been said that we've got a thousand people a day coming to Texas, but when you take a several billion-dollar cut, restore only half of it, and then say we're funding public education, it's kind of a misnomer. Public education is what made this state great. And I think that's part of the infrastructure that has made it great, just like highways. Public education is probably the most prevalent of those.
Ratliff: And to paraphrase Judge John Dietz, "You cannot continue to raise standards while starving the school system of funds.”
TM: You can't have it both ways.
Ratliff: You can't. It just doesn't work.
TM: Let's turn to water. In my mind, everything was going pretty smoothly in the House this session until about two weeks ago last Monday, when HB 11 came up. Representative Allan Ritter had already passed HB 4, but HB 11, which would have provided the funding, went down on a point of order. The Senate has passed a joint resolution, which would ask the voters to approve drawing down $5.7 billion from the Rainy