Wednesday, January 26, 2011

President's speech focused on education - was Texas listening?

President Obama delivered his State of the Union address last night and spent roughly 10 minutes of his 60-minute speech talking exclusively about education.

Two of the standing ovations his speech drew were when he talked about the importance of teachers, how the field should be respected and how we should be encouraging our best and brightest to go into it.

It reminded me of the grassroots movement TASA and TASB have gotten behind called Make Education a Priority.  Education seems to always be at the top of every politician’s list when it’s election time or speech time, but how many really make it a priority?

TASA and TASB are holding a news conference on Monday where trustees and superintendents will implore lawmakers to make education a priority while building the state’s budget. They’ll also address the draconian effects proposed cuts will have on Texas schools.

But beyond the “is it really a priority” question, another irony struck me during the President’s address. He talked about how crucial it is to America’s success that we maintain our leadership in research and technology and to do that, he said, we “also have to win the race to educate our kids.”

Obama painted a vivid picture of the very real competition between the U.S. and countries like China and India. A competition in which we’re faltering, the President said, with nearly a quarter of students dropping out of high school, math and science education that lags behind many other nations, and a ranking of 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree.

After highlighting the bad news, Obama issued a challenge: Is America “willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed?” He talked about the role of parents, the community, and schools, and that we need to teach our kids hard work and discipline. He talked about No Child Behind, how it will be replaced this year with a law that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for kids.

“We know what’s possible from our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities,” Obama said.

And finally he talked about teachers. How, after parents, the teacher is the biggest impact on a child’s success. In South Korea, Obama said.  Teachers are known as “nation builders.” He called for the same level of respect for teachers in the U.S. and the need to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, as baby boomers retire from the classroom.

And here’s where the irony comes in. If you’re a teacher in Texas, or a student at a Texas university studying to be a teacher, that particular comment must’ve been hard to reconcile.

The president is talking about recruiting 100,000 teachers, yet in Texas, draconian budget cuts the likes of which schools have never seen may result in the loss of 100,000 school jobs.

In Texas, we aren’t talking about investing, we’re talking about gutting. In addition to cutting nearly $10 billion from the Foundation School Program over the next two years, the House budget proposal also eliminates grant programs that provide funding for some of the crucial areas the President talked about: $271 million for the technology allotment; $223 million for pre-kindergarten programs; $86 million for the High School Completion and Success Initiative; and $16 million for reading, math and science initiatives.

It’s a difficult balance for lawmakers to be sure. They must be fiscally responsible in tough budget times, and make sure taxpayers’ money is spent wisely. But they also must stimulate the economy and build a vibrant job market.

One thing is for sure, in the global competition America finds itself in today, skimping on education is an incredibly risky move.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

National report looks at impact of economy on education

Texas ranked 13th in the nation on Education Week’s 2011 Quality Counts report released this week, earning high marks for standards, school accountability, early-childhood education, college readiness and economy and workforce.

The annual report has a theme each year, and this time it was the impact of the economy on education.

Researchers at Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit organization that publishes Education Week, surveyed states on the economy’s impact on their education system and examined the effect of stimulus spending on education. According to the ARRA aid report, stimulus dollars have helped create or save about 650,000 jobs, with more than half of those jobs linked to money distributed by the U.S. Department of Education. 

Perhaps ironically, Texas is touted as a bright spot in a section of the report called “Economic Snapshots.” It points out that Texas has managed to avoid cuts to prekindergarten, elementary and secondary education during the economic downturn and has an unemployment rate below the national average. 

That kudos came the same week that lawmakers learned they’re facing a $27 billion budget deficit, one to rival California’s, as they build the state’s budget for the next two years.

Today, House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, announced he’ll introduce a budget bill Tuesday that assumes no new money for state programs, no new taxes and no use of the Rainy Day Fund.

New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman said in a recent column that Texas state government has relied for years on “smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of sound finances in the face of a serious structural budget deficit.”

“When the recession struck, hitting revenue in Texas just as it did everywhere else,” Krugman went on to say, “That illusion was bound to collapse.”

We know school districts are doing a phenomenal job of preparing students for the next step, whether that step is to kindergarten or college. Texas teachers work under some of the toughest accountability measures in the country and are educating their students to the nation’s highest standards, according to the report.

The question is, will schools be able to maintain that performance in the face of budget cuts that lawmakers are promising? And, what will Quality Counts have to say about Texas and how the economy impacted education here next year?

Monday, January 10, 2011

First Order of Business

The 82nd Session of the Texas Legislature convenes Tuesday, kicking off what many say will be the most difficult session in recent history. In this blog entry, Ramiro Canales, TASA's assistant executive director of governmental relations, provides his take on what tomorrow holds.

Ramiro Canales:


The numbers represent more than a date.  It is the first day of the 82nd Legislature, Regular Session.  Beginning tomorrow, lawmakers have 140 days in which to address historic budgetary challenges.  With a budget deficit looming close to $30 billion and revenue generators off the negotiating table, draconian cuts to programs are expected to be the solution du jour.  

Today may set the tone for the 82nd Texas Legislature.  First, Comptroller Susan Combs released her revenue estimate and indicated that available revenue will be around $72.2 billion for the next biennium beginning September 1.  The revenue estimate is the first step in the budgeting process and a base budget is expected to be released later this week or next.  Using that revenue estimate, some analysts believe that the deficit will be around $26.8 billion since $99 billion is needed to fund services at current levels.  The $99 billion figure is based on state agency requests.  Additionally, over $4 billion may be needed to cover services for the current biennium.  And second, the House Republican Caucus will meet today to discuss the speaker’s race, which has been very contentious.  At issue is whether the new super-majority should elect the speaker of the house without input from the Democratic minority.  Capitol insiders differ on the significance of the meeting since the real vote that counts will be cast tomorrow afternoon after lawmakers are sworn in.  

In previous sessions, the first day has been ceremonial for both the Texas House and Texas Senate.  However, in light of planned protests at the Texas Capitol by citizens groups, tomorrow’s vote on the speaker’s race may be protracted and delay the usual starting time for the jovial festivities that are common on opening day.  If a speaker of the house is elected on the first day as required by the Texas Constitution, the Texas House will discuss adopting rules for the 82nd Legislature this week or early next. 

The key issue facing the Texas Senate in the next coming days is whether to eliminate or modify the two-thirds tradition, which has allowed eleven senators to block legislation from being considered on the senate floor.  Commonly known as the “two-thirds rule,” it has been very effective in killing contentious legislation.  Some senators want to eliminate the rule completely.  Others want to modify it.  The debate over this issue should be lively in the days to come. 

Every session has its own character.  In the next few days, we’ll know what lies ahead between now and Sine Die.

Stay tuned.