Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In defense of public education

Pardon me for sounding like a broken record, but those pushing the story that education funding actually got a boost this past legislative session are at it again and I can’t help but respond.

The latest spin comes from Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a nonprofit organization that promotes limited government. In a post on the group’s website titled “When an Increase is a Cut”, Sullivan claims Texas public school districts are crying wolf when it comes to spending cuts, that education funding actually went up. He also paints Texas school districts as wasteful and administratively heavy.

Below are some of the claims made in the post and TASA’s response. We’ll tackle more of the assertions made in the rather lengthy tome in an upcoming EduSlate post.

Empower Texans: The fact is public education spending from general revenues (a term the state uses for money we Texans send in the form of taxes) increased by $3 billion from the last biennium (a two year budget cycle.) Federal funds decreased by about the same amount, because the one-time Federal “stimulus” was not repeated.
So overall, public education spending went up slightly. But when those facts are fed into the “more money means better education” machine, the result is the allegation of a $5 billion cut… because they wanted to spend $5 billion more.
I’m not sure where that “fact” came from, but according to the Legislative Budget Board, General Revenue Funds for education total $51.2 billion for the 2012-13 biennium, an increase of $1.8 billion, or 3.7 percent from 2010-11. As was mentioned in the Empower Texans post, Texas also lost $3 billion of one-time federal stimulus funding. What wasn’t mentioned in the ET post however was that the state used that one-time infusion in 2009 to supplant state funding for reoccurring expenses, rather than using the money to supplement education funding as was intended. Now that the money is gone, it’s equivalent to a $3 billion cut in state funding. 

The important thing to remember about the increase from biennium to biennium is that Texas public schools will serve 170,000 more students in the next two years than they did in 2010 and 2011. The budget actually fell short of funding individual students by $4 billion. Those students will need classrooms, teachers, instructional materials and technology. They’ll need bus transportation to school, a healthy breakfast and lunch, and someone to help them register at the front office or take care of them when they’re sick. Some will need support from specialists because they have developmental delays or disabilities, or they don’t speak English. Looking at the cuts on a per-student basis is the only realistic way to build a budget.

On top of the $4 billion loss in per-student funding, lawmakers also cut $1.4 billion for critical education programs like Communities in Schools, Texas School Ready Program and T-STEM. The Texas Education Agency’s budget was slashed by 36 percent, drastically affecting the agency’s ability to provide crucial services to school districts.

Those who want to make public schools look like the bad guys can cherry pick the stats all they want, but those in charge of school district budgets know the truth. Districts across the state are reeling from significant budget cuts this year and many will see a greater cut next year. 

Empower Texans: When considering how little teachers make compared to administrators, and considering the one-to-one ratio between non-teachers and teachers on the school payrolls, a casual observer could readily assume public education was more about employing adults than educating kids.
The 1:1 ratio argument gained some traction early this year when a study that claimed the ratio of teachers to non-teaching staff members had shifted from 5:1 in the 1970s to 1:1 today became a rallying point for some lawmakers. But, as with any statistic, context is needed. According to research by Moak, Casey and Associates, Texas didn’t count all staff in the 1970s. The largest portion of non-teaching staff – auxiliary personnel – weren’t counted until the PEIMS data system was established in the 1980s, so the two numbers are not an apples-to-apples comparison.

When looking at comparable data, the percentage of teachers to non-teachers has actually not changed substantially since the 1980s. The percentage of staff that are teachers has declined slightly, from 52 percent to 50 percent since 1989, but the ratio has remained essentially the same for more than 20 years. Also in the last 20 years, there have been significant changes in state and federal requirements that require staff for implementation and reporting.

And, by the way, all those non-teaching positions counted in the 1:1 ratio aren’t “administrators”. Central administrators make up only 1 percent of school employees statewide. Even if you add campus administrators into that number, they still only make up another 3 percent of public school district employees.

Who are the rest of those employees counted in that 1:1 ratio? They are professional support (9 percent), educational aides (10 percent) and auxiliary staff (27 percent).

Professional support is a broad category of positions, from people who write curriculum and provide teachers with professional development to computer technicians who run the district’s network. They are also auditors, accountants, risk management experts, special education coordinators and dieticians. Their salaries are commiserate with their education, skills and experience, but most do not make more than their peers in the classroom, as Empower Texans suggests.

Educational aides help teachers in classrooms, often with special needs children, providing one-on-one attention to kids who need it most. Auxiliary staff includes bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and school secretaries. This group of employees, who have incredibly important jobs, make far less than teachers.

Empower Texans: Our teachers have proven themselves highly resourceful in stretching dollars and making ends meet, while administrators lavish upon themselves perks and benefits beyond the dreams of Midas. Check out the portable buildings used for students, and then drive past the temples administrators often build for themselves.
As an education reporter, and now working for TASA, I’ve actually had the privilege of visiting many school districts across the state, and that includes their district office headquarters. I have yet to encounter one of these “temples”. Some of them are very nice buildings, but in every district with a nice central office, the schools and facilities for students are even better. More often, I’ve seen outdated offices in desperate need of a facelift and recently I was at a district where central office was housed in a metal building. 

As far as the amazing perks, benefits and salaries, superintendent contracts are public record and posted on districts’ websites. Elected school boards make the decisions on what to offer superintendents in a compensation package to attract the best person for the job. I’ve seen these men and women work and I can tell you it is a grueling, seven-day-a-week, often 16-hour-a-day job. Texas school superintendents are highly educated – many with doctorate degrees – and often manage multi-million dollar budgets, thousands of employees and are responsible for the welfare of thousands of students. The vast majority are career educators who have dedicated their life to public schools and their students. For them, nothing else matters. For this demanding job that requires the skill set of not only an experienced educator, but also a savvy CEO, the average pay of a Texas school superintendent for 2011-12 is $123,079. 

Empower Texans: Texans today pay more than $11,000 per child on public education in state, local and federal funds, yet no one would argue we’re getting the return so many dollars should buy. Texans are paying top-dollar for an inefficient public education, yet the administrators clamor for more simply because they want it.

Again, not entirely sure where this figure comes from, but according to a survey released this year by the U.S. Census, Texas spends $8,540 per student, ranking 42nd in the country. The only states that spend less than Texas are Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Mississippi, Nevada and South Dakota. The report also found that Texas spent less per student than any other state on employee benefits. The per-pupil average in Texas was $1,005 compared to $2,263 nationally. 

And this ranking was pre-budget cuts. Imagine where we may rank next year.

Contrary to what groups like Empower Texans seem to believe, the leaders of Texas public schools aren’t interested in squandering taxpayer money and investing in programs that don’t benefit kids. What they are focused on is providing a world-class education for the children of Texas and preparing them for college and the workforce. That takes money, especially at a time when the state’s population is growing and shifting, with the majority of incoming students labeled at-risk for a variety of factors. Investing wisely in education will only boost Texas economy and ensure a brighter future for everyone in the state. That should be something we can all agree on.

1 comment:

  1. Finally, someone with the courage and the facts with which to return a salvo! When will someone talk about the individual responsibilities of parents and students within the education framework?