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The Legislature of the Children

Can lawmakers invest in the future of Texas children with $2.8 billion less to spend?

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Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images

The Texas Legislature will convene in regular session on Tuesday for the eighty-fifth time since 1846, and, for better or worse, we should call this the Legislature of the Child. However, with available state revenues down $2.8 billion, they may find themselves, like Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, pleading for more.

Governor Greg Abbot wants to save children from abusive parents and caretakers by overhauling the state’s Child Protective Services. This will be at least the third time the state government has called for drastic changes of the agency since it was recreated in 1993, yet each reform has been a mere bandage that did not save 3,409 children from death by abuse or neglect. Between 2010 and 2014 alone, there were 144 children who died despite having had three or more CPS investigations, and the death toll continued even after Abbott started overhauling the agency once more.

At the same time, Abbott wants to end what he describes as “sanctuary campuses,” college and university campuses that do not report undocumented immigrant students to federal authorities – even though the state by law allows many of them to pay in-state tuition because they graduated from a Texas high school. Higher education officials have reported that at least 25,000 students are taking advantage of that law, but Abbott has indicated he may want it repealed.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick wants to crack down on school administrators who “pass the trash” by not reporting improper student/teacher relations for criminal prosecution, allowing predatory teachers to move from one district to another.

Patrick also is promoting legislation to bar transgender people from using the bathrooms of their sexual identity rather than the biology of their birth. Texas Values is selling Patrick’s proposal as a means of protecting little girls from male predators in bathrooms. Texas Values posted a picture on Twitter of an adorable child holding a sign that reads: “It’s common sense, men shouldn’t be in bathrooms with little girls.” (Actually, the photo of the girl is repurposed from a stock photo in which she is clutching an image of a kitten that reads “I ♥ cats.”)

Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus also want an overhaul of Child Protective Services with additional funding to hire and retain more caseworkers. But they split on trying to resolve public school finance. Straus wants to move forward, while Patrick says the issue is too complicated for a busy regular legislative session and needs its own special session. Ultimately, though, the debate is guided by money.

The Legislature of the Children effectively opened Monday as Comptroller Glenn Hegar unveiled the state revenue estimate for the next two years, outlining how lawmakers will have $2.8 billion less to spend on general government, welfare, and education than they had for the current budget. Though state tax collections are rebounding, the Legislature is starting with a smaller surplus than two years ago, Hegar said. The state is also facing a constitutional amendment approved by voters that will divert $5 billion in tax dollars from general spending and dedicate it to highway construction. Hegar said the Legislature will have $104.9 billion in general revenue to spend, down from $107.7 billion for the current budget. The total current budget, when federal funds are added in, is $209 billion.

On the surface of the ledger, all of this looks like money in, money out, but really, it is about children and their future—paying for the needs of kids of Texas, or denying them the finances that could make them more successful later in life. While $209 billion sounds like a lot of money—if I had even a small portion of that I’d be on a tropical beach instead of writing this column—it is not that much when you consider what it buys. The general government, what most people think of as the bureaucracy, only requires three percent of all of state spending. Thirty-seven percent of the budget goes to public schools and higher education, while another 37 percent goes to agencies of health and human services. An enormous amount of the human services budget goes to children, either as direct welfare or protective services and health care. The $2.8 billion spent for Child Protective Services includes $342 million for foster care and $254 million in adoption subsidies, but the salaries are low and the caseloads heavy for the state’s 9,800 employees, leading to burnout and high turnover.

Child Protective Services in its current form was created under Governor Ann Richards and faced its first major crisis under Governor George W. Bush, who like Abbott now, sought more money to hire additional case workers. “Last year, 176 children were killed by abusive parents or caretakers,” Bush told lawmakers in 1999. “For every one who dies, countless others suffer in anonymity. This breaks my heart.” Perry ordered another overhaul of the agency in 2005, including the hiring of 2,500 new caseworkers. Now, Abbott is faced once again with the question whether the problem of child abuse enforcement can be solved once and for all time.

About the same time that former Governor Bush was promoting an overhaul of CPS, he also asked the legislature to reform the so-called Robin Hood system of having property taxes pay for public education. Robin Hood is a system of taking some property tax revenues away from the wealthiest districts and giving the money to some of the poorest districts. Bush said there was only one real cure for rapidly rising property taxes, and that was to have the state pay the majority of the expenses for the public education system in Texas. “The problem is that local property taxes are the major source of funding for our schools and they should not be,” Bush told lawmakers in 1997. “By relying too much on local property taxes, Texas is shirking its responsibility to our children. We are relying on a patchwork system that is inherently unequal and unfair to fund out future.” Unsuccessful, Bush predicted for the next legislature that if the trend continued, “more and more districts will become Robin Hood districts, and our school finance system will be unbalanced, unfair and ultimately unconstitutional.”

In 2006, Perry and then-House Speaker Tom Craddick dramatically reduced school property taxes, but fundamentally did not make major changes to the Robin Hood system of finance. But they still increased the state share of total public education from 33 percent to 48 percent. Then came $5 billion in cuts during the 2011 Legislature, and the state’s share of public education spending dropped dramatically. Even after the funding was restored in the next session, the state’s share still was 44 percent of the total, and the Legislative Budget Board predicts that share will drop even farther in the next two years because local property tax values are rising.

And Bush was right about the system pushing more and more districts into the position of sending tax money to the state for redistribution. Ten years ago, the number was 164 districts, and today it is 238 out of the state’s 1,247 districts. And Robin Hood is no longer taking just from the rich to give to the poor. The Houston Chronicle has reported that Spring Branch ISD will surrender $66 million this year, even though 60 percent of the student body is economically disadvantaged. Galveston ISD may have to borrow money to open its schools because of the local tax dollars it has given up to recapture. It is predicted that by 2019, more than half of ever tax dollar raised by the Austin ISD will go to the state, with none of the money going to property-poor districts.

The Austin American-Statesman recently affirmed state representative Donna Howard’s claim that “thirty-one percent of school districts are still receiving less funding per pupil than they did prior to the dramatic budget cuts of 2011.” In fact, after studying the claim, the newspaper found the number probably was closer to 38 percent.

The only thing Bush had wrong twenty years ago was that the system would be found unconstitutional. The Texas Supreme Court last year ruled that state funding of public education is inadequate but not a violation of the state constitution. The court urged state leaders to implement “transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid.”

Yes, Comptroller Hegar will give lawmakers a financial guideline for the next two years. It’s up to their conscience to remember their spending is about the children who will become the future of Texas.

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  • WUSRPH

    Same song,,,same verse…will have the.same solution—-inadequate funding of vital public services.

    • BCinBCS

      You warned us that this would happen and, sure enough, it did.

  • John Bernard Books

    Vouchers and watch dems cry….

    • enp1955

      What the heck does vouchers have to do with CPS?

      • WUSRPH

        It has to do with education, which is another children’s issue…….I suspect that, if you could dig deep enough into the sources of the money helping push for vouchers, you would find some of the “for profit” education companies. They are being forced out of the adult education business by federal supervision and controls and need a new market.

      • John Bernard Books

        Vouchers will stop the abuse of children by public education.

    • enp1955

      It’s interesting that few see vouchers for what they are – another program being moved from a defined benefit program to a defined contribution program. If there isn’t enough money to educate children now, moving to a voucher system won’t solve the problem, it will simply hide it. The Republicans, in conjunction with businesses, are doing their very best to move everything to a defined contribution system – pensions, health care, health insurance, and now education. Businesses get subsidized customers and consumers get – well – they get screwed. Inevitably, the costs of the service go up much faster than any contribution. To think that somehow the same thing won’t happen with education is to ignore reality.

      • John Bernard Books

        BS, vouchers will put the doomed public edu system on notice perform or disappear.
        Vouchers will stop the protection of incompetent teachers protected by their unions/

  • BCinBCS

    This is OT to the state legislature but it is simply too good not to share.

    I was doing some reading and one of the articles that caught my attention was a story about David Dunning, of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (which states that ignorant people fail to recognize their lack of skill and assume a greater expertise than they actually have). He was interviewed affirming that Comrade Trump was an example of the effect. Not two articles later and on a different subject, I ran across a repeat of some Facebook comments by a person countering a criticism of last Wednesday’s vote to pass a resolution repealing Obamacare by a vote of 51-48 in the Senate. Here are the first four comments in the series:

    First was the original commenter condemning the vote.
    Really cool of you to treat those of us who need the assistance of the ACA with such disregard”

    The reply:
    “Jesus, where to start? First we’re talking about Obamacare, not the ACA. Secondly, my health insurance is through the ACA, so I’m definitely not the kind of person to look down on others for needing help.

    I’m just saying I’m glad this is finally happening because Obamacare was a failure from the start. Remember healthcare.gov?!! All of this was the brain child of liberals and they couldn’t even get the site to run right, so why should any of us have had faith that they could get socialized healthcare right? We didn’t and they couldn’t.

    Again, it was a mistake that is finally being fixed.”

    The reply by the original commenter:
    Wait… If you’re on Obamacare why the f..k are you celebrating the outcoe of this vote? If the Republicans get what they want, you’ll lose your insurance.

    The reply:
    I’m not on Obamacare. My health insurance is through the ACA (Affordable Care Act), which was what they had to come up with after Obamacare crashed and burned as bad as it did. So I’m gonna be fine.

    The reply by the original commenter:
    Well, I’m not going to repeat the insults that were tossed at this Dunning-Kruger award recipient but needless to say, they were plentiful. What I found amazing were the number of buzz words used by the person happy to see the demise of Obamacare. It indicates the narrowness of his information source.

    If you want to read the entire conversation, it can be found here:
    https://m.imgur.com/gallery/rWIhcx6

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    • WUSRPH

      Just another demonstration of the study out of California a few years ago that showed that those who proclaimed themselves as experts on waste, fraud, corruption and problems of government in reality often actually know the least but, as many of our favorite posters here, rely on anecdotes, fables and myths. It is unfortunate that they had such an influence on the elections this year.

      • John Johnson

        “…those who proclaimed themselves as experts on waste, fraud, corruption and problems of government in reality often actually know the least…”

        I would suggest that this description actually fits those who govern, as well as those who advise them, as well as anyone.

        For, instance, I watched Tillerson today exude gravitas, intelligence; answer questions succinctly, and in a confident and knowledgeable manner, and convince me that Trump, at least with this pick, knows exactly who needs to be negotiating deals around the world.

        You love the government institution in the State of Texas. You were part of it for years. It is broken. You just can’t see it. Customs and norms have been propagated because “we have always done it this way”.

        As my son, the coach, says, “Practice does not make perfect; practicing anything repeatedly in the wrong manner, simply makes you premanetly wrong.”

        I submit that you were part of an institution that has been doing it wrong for decades, if not for over a century.

        Time for thorough changes…both at the federal and state levels. We are experimenting with radical change in Washington; no one in Texas has shown they are anything more than the same old, same old. We need a Texas “Trump”. Find us another Tillerson.

        • WUSRPH

          I had one in mind long before there was a Tillerson, but he was not interested. His name was Herb Kelleher.

  • donuthin2

    The shortfall is not a surprise to anyone who has a clue. I guess I am saying that Gov, Lt Gov, and leg are clueless. Or at best in denial, or just don’t care and doing what is best for their re-election.

  • So essentially you admit that state education funding is in-adequate but you refuse to do anything about it?

    Lucky students can’t vote.

  • John Johnson

    How about starting with paying the college tuition of those who want to teach in public schools in return for a commitment to teach for “x” number of years?

    Does anyone think we are getting the best and the brightest? Who can buy a car, buy a home, and raise a family on a teacher’s salary if you have a big student loan to repay? The best qualified are going to look toward the private sector for a job.

    Want improved public education? Start here.

    • WUSRPH

      Not exactly a new idea. There are dozens of scholarship programs for people who want to become teachers in Texas. Have been for years. See for some examples:

      http://www.teachingdegree.org/texas/scholarships/

      But it could be done…..but you salaries have to be dramatically higher to keep people in the classrooms….now they starting leaving the classrooms in large numbers after about 5 years. Are you wiling to pay for that in your local property taxes since the current leadership is not willing to have the state pay for it? They would rather explore replacing the public schools with private, often for profit, schools.

      • John Johnson

        Yep. Think he would have been a good one, too. Herb asked questions of others…picked their brains…and then formulated a game plan. He was non-conventional and sat the old industry way of thinking on its ear.

        • WUSRPH
          • John Johnson

            Not the same. Do it for all. No qualifying other than to maintain a certain gradepoint and commit to teach for determined amount of time…no different than what the military does for doctors and dentists. Dangle a carrot to make it attractive. My son and daughter-in-law would not be teaching if not for the fact they were able to leave school debt free.

            Those pressing for vouchers are ignorant or in the pockets of those advocating for this program. No longterm good will become of it.

            Public schools are administratively top heavy, and the schools we build, overly expensive. The tests we require take away from actual learning; many of the teachers we employ are not qualified to teach. Discipline is inadequate; the one standard for graduation is goofy.

            We need a complete overhaul. Money is just one of the problems; most seem to consider it the only one. Dumping more money into the currently structured system will not solve the problem.

          • WUSRPH

            How about some evidence to back up your mostly anecdotal charges….Some of which may actually be true, but not the major ones:

            “Public schools are administratively top heavy, and the schools we build, overly expensive. The tests we require take away from actual learning; many of the teachers we employ are not qualified to teach. Discipline is inadequate; the one standard for graduation is goofy.”

          • John Johnson

            You look it up. This is my perception based on talking with teachers and paying attention. I have other things to do. If you dispute it, show me the “facts” as derived by some report telling us all that it is so.

          • WUSRPH

            My perception is that you base too many things on your perceptions and too few on facts.

          • John Johnson

            Spit the facts back at me then. You are the resident expert. You are the one who wants to defend with the “we have always done it this way” response. The system is broken. You give us a fix, Mr. Wizard.

          • WUSRPH

            Why bother. I did that the other day to your long list of so-called factual posts and you just went right ahead with your “perceptions” rather than reality. You will do the same here as well.

    • BCinBCS

      How about starting with paying the college tuition of those who want to teach in public schools in return for a commitment to teach for “x” number of years?

      How about requiring all students do a year of public service after they graduate from high school in exchange for free college?

      If a twelfth grade education was so important, in the public interest and a requirement for most jobs in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s that it was paid for by taxes then a college education is the equivalent today.

      • John Johnson

        Do the math.

  • WUSRPH

    It is too complicated to explain in detail here, but the basic principle was that the funding of local districts should be based on as close as possible to the actual cost of educating its students, recognizing that it costs more to educate some and less for others.

    In brief and as simply as possible, the system established a basic cost figure for a normal student in a district called the “basic allotment’. Each school district was then to be entitled to the basic allotment for every student in “average daily attendance” (a formula for determining the total enrollment). Thus, if a district had 40 students and the basic allotment were $4 per student, it would be entitled to $160. (NB. All numbers are just for this example and do not reflect the actual numbers used in the formulas.)

    But, recognizing that it costs more to educate some students, the system then established a series of what were called “weights” for extra costs for students with differing characteristics that raised the cost of educating them. For example, it might say that it costs $1 extra to educate a student who does not speak English…..In that case, the cost of educating that student would be the basic allotment for that student (again lets say it is $4) PLUS $1 to cover that extra cost for a total of $5.

    Similarly, a weight would be applied for students with handicaps, students in vocational education, and various other categories in recognition of the extra costs of providing services to them. For example, a weight of say $2 could be added for a handicapped student…..making such a student cost $6 ($4 basic allotment, $2 weight).

    In some cases, a student might be eligible for more than one weight….For example, using these numbers, a handicapped, non-English speaking student would cost a total of $7 ($4 basic allotment, $1 non-English, $2 handicapped).

    The total cost of educating the students in the district would be determined by applying the weights on each student to determine the total cost of educating all the students in the district. That cost would then be paid by a combination of state and local tax dollars with the amount of state aid vs. local dollars each district had to raise based on its local tax wealth. This meant that a high wealth district would be expected to raise a greater share of that cost from its own resources while a low wealth district could receive a greater percentage from the state. That is the basic idea.

    (Various methods to adjust for the ability of a district to raise funds locally have been adopted including a “guaranteed yield per penny”, but explaining them is not necessary to understanding the basic concept of a weighted student funding.)

    The original weights and basic allotment were based on the best “guesstimates” available at the time and were to be replaced with more accurate and updated figures in the following years. However, that never happened and the weights used in the law today nearly 34 years later are the same they were when originally adopted in the summer of 1984. The result is that there is still no clear connection between what is being spent and the actual cost.

    .

    • John Johnson

      Impressive, but improbable today. You did a good job back then.

      The state comptroller said that illegals are paying their way. In our public school system, how can this be true today if we have “add-on’s” for Spanish speakers, not to mention the other costs, like free meals, which we have discussed before.

      The Robin Hood plan was hatred. Property taxes keep an individual from ever really owning their home. Why won’t a sales tax work? At what point does an income tax come into play? Are people so stupid that they don’t realize what property taxes, licensing fees and bogus utility taxes cost us…as opposed to the system we have now. Maybe we need a Trump to explain and sell the idea. It would seem all currently in Texas office are afraid to broach the subject.