Archive for January, 2012

Train wreck coming, engineers needed

Last month, a collection of school districts called the Texas School Coalition sued the state of Texas. They argued that the state, whose constitutional duty it is to provide for a “system of public free schools,” is not providing enough money to educate kids adequately.

The Coalition also argued that local districts don’t have the ability to collect enough local taxes to provide extra enrichment programs. The Texas Supreme Court has ruled previously that each district should have the capacity to put its own “stamp” on its children’s education.

This is not the only such lawsuit pending, nor is it the first time such districts vs. state lawsuits have appeared. The last 20 years of Texas public education history is peppered with them. It has mattered not which political party controls the Legislature.

In 2006, the Legislature responded to a batch of lawsuits by reforming the state business tax to provide more, non-property tax dollars for schools.

But like an evaporating inheritance, the revenue hasn’t materialized as planned. The economy tanked. The projections were off. A hole was left.

In 2009, the Legislature made ends meet with Obama bucks, Rainy Day (i.e. savings) funds and deferred payments. School districts raised taxes to the extent they could without requiring voter approval.

Districts also cut expenses and figured out ways to make do with less (never a worthless exercise, by the way).

But now districts cry out again to the courts for help. As they do, let’s take the chance to review the trends.

The Texas public school system is growing – to the tune of 80,000 students every year.

Expectations are increasing. The Legislature regularly adds “accountability” requirements. It rarely reduces them.

State revenues have declined due to the lackluster performance of the reformed business tax.

Federal funding was up with Obama stimulus dollars. Now it’s back down to pre-2009 levels.

Local funding is flat. Wealthy “Robin Hood” districts won’t raise local taxes only to have a chunk of the bounty shipped to Austin. Plus, districts across the board are reticent to ask the voters for a tax increase during the recent Tea Party surge.

Education dollars are increasingly spreading into the periphery. Pre-school, after-school, tutoring and mentoring, for examples. Luxuries on one hand, burdens on the other. Burdens once carried by parents, families and friends are now borne by the state.

The brain drain to private and home schools continues to siphon invested and engaged families from the system.

Finally, health and human services spending is increasing. Though the area carries no constitutional mandate, it now consumes more state budget dollars than public education.

These trends are like locomotives heading toward each other on the same track. The system needs brighter engineers to steer us safely to our destination: an educated workforce.

At minimum, we must shrink health care funding, even if it means leaving some federal “matching” dollars on the table. Washington, D.C.’s social democrats and their addictive funding mechanisms shouldn’t set our state’s policy priorities or budget.

With limited resources, it’s more important that we fund the education of children than the health care of adults, even impoverished adults. The Texas Constitution supports me on this.

 
 
Kevin Thompson writes weekly in The Boerne Star. Contact him at kevin@kwt.info.

May we please, Lord D.C.?

In 2009, a small water utility district in northwest Austin wanted to move its board member elections from a private home to a local school. Sounds innocuous enough.

But thanks to a dated piece of legislation, the utility had to seek government approval. By government approval, we’re not talking from Travis County. Not even the State of Texas. We mean the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

Not federalism’s finest moment.

Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It aimed to eliminate racial discrimination in voting practices whether intentional or not. A noble endeavor, I admit, on the heals of literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses.

But rather than applying the well-intended law to the entire country, the law singled out nine states, including Texas, that had an historical record of unfair treatment of certain voters.

The thrust of the law lies in its “pre-clearance” requirement whereby the U.S. Attorney General or a D.C. district court must approve any election law change made by the subject states or their subdivisions.

Why are we still unclear when Texas’ primary elections will be held this spring? Because the legislative and congressional maps drawn by the Texas Legislature last spring are still being “pre-cleared” by a D.C. court.

In addition, interest groups can file suit in the name of the Voting Rights Act if maps that state legislatures draw don’t align with their interests. Hence, another reason this year’s Texas primary is up in the air.

The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund complained to a San Antonio federal court last year that the Texas Legislature’s maps diluted minority voting strength. That court then drew its own set of maps which favored Democrats.

The State of Texas appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court which just last week unanimously instructed the lower court to give more credence to the maps passed by the people’s representatives, even while those maps are under review by the D.C. court.

In the macro, these Voting Rights Act-inspired maneuverings confuse the electorate and will likely suppress turnout. Thousands of our state tax dollars get spent defending our state’s right to make its own election law.

All this nearly half a century after the end of voter discrimination of the type the Voting Rights Act intends to eliminate. Regardless of the repentance and reform that have occurred, Texas and its counterparts continue to wear the scarlet letter of sins gone by.

Many conservatives, including this one, question why George W. Bush signed a twenty-five year extension of the Act in 2006. If it were such good legislation, why not include every state in on the fun?

If it were still necessary, where are the flagrant displays of discrimination in the last twenty-five years that justify its continuance?

And if the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution works for the other 41 states in these matters, will it also not work for the nine?

As it stands, the law keeps costing the subject states tax dollars and sovereignty as they get every poll location and boundary change approved by the presumably more enlightened and less bigoted big wigs in Washington.

 
Kevin Thompson writes weekly in The Boerne Star. Contact him at kevin@kwt.info.

An Internet resolution

A productivity expert once said: “The more public you can make your goals, the more likely you’ll be to achieve them.”

A case in point: Dallas Mavericks guard Jason Terry tattooed an image of an NBA championship trophy on his arm before last season. He won the actual trophy less than a year later.

In the name of proper boundaries, I won’t list all my New Year’s resolutions. But I will announce this one: I aim to spend at least 20 minutes a day engaging in online networking.

I love technology. I was the first of my friends to have an electronic personal organizer in the 1990s. I loved that Casio device, complete with stylus.

However, I don’t love annoying people, which is a big reason why I have dragged my feet into social media.

“I lost touch with some people for a reason!” has been my mantra. Facebook represented my generation’s very public race toward middle age. Why would I want in on that? I’ll gain my weight and lose my hair offline, thank you.

But as technology advances tend to go, Internet-empowered connecting would not be denied. So it’s time to admit my denial and admonish my introversion. Henceforth, my New Year’s resolution.

Some points I’ve conceded on the topic:

1. People do care what I had for lunch, if I had something particularly good or bad or unique. People in my network will care (at least a little) because they trust my opinions (at least a little).

2. The world is communicating more through online networking and less through e-mail. E-mail will eventually become the new fax, complete with nostalgic feelings of security and certainty.

3. It’s okay to make mistakes. I will misspell words and miss punctuation. I’ll get a fact wrong. Someone will misunderstand something I post. I will say something extremely average or very un-funny. But I will check my perfectionism at login and at least have a seat at the new table.

4. It’s not just goofy, weird, needy or unambitious people who are networking online. Accomplished, forward-looking, well-adjusted people are, too. The online world is merely a microcosm, make that a macrocosm, of the offline world.

5. I’ll never understand all the parts of Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn or Instagrams. I’ll also never understand any parts of them unless I start poking around. I learned my email software by punching buttons. Why would other tools be any different?

6. It’s not the end of the world, or my reputation, to have annoying people in my network. And it can remind me of what a sage told me recently: What we don’t like about others is often what we don’t like about ourselves.

7. Private people should not fear networking online. Just because you may enjoy a quiet place over a crowded room doesn’t mean you can’t build positive relationships with Internet technology. No introvert would consider foregoing the use of the telephone. Neither should it be with Internet communication.

As for my other New Year’s resolutions – including the one about trimming my nose hairs with more regularity – they’re posted now on my Facebook page!

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star. Write to him at kevin@kwt.info.

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