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Texas School Battles Unlikely to Subside in the New Year

December 27, 2011

DALLAS - Perhaps no political issue fired up more Texans in 2011 than did the problems of the state's school financing system, and it shows no signs of moving to the back burner in 2012. It started with billions of dollars of cuts to education aid. Now, more than half of the state's school districts are gearing up to challenge the adequacy and fairness of the chronically-beleaguered school finance system in court.

It's a pivotal time, says Rena Honea, president of the Dallas-area teachers union Alliance AFT. How Texans respond to the current crisis, she says, could permanently shape the future of Texas public schools. For example, she thinks proposals to outsource custodial and other support staff to private companies might be just the first step in a broader movement.

"Outsourcing is one of the biggest ways that privatization comes in to take over a public entity. And we see that as a very big possibility, not only in Dallas, but across the state, and really, across the nation."

Just last week, trustees in Austin voted to turn over two public campuses to a private charter-school company. Proponents tout privatization as a way to cut costs and increase efficiency. Honea says it erodes accountability and undermines what should be a public responsibility to children.

While lawmakers claimed success last summer in balancing the budget without new revenues, critics say the legislature merely passed the buck to local communities, some of which have already voted to raise taxes. Others have laid off teachers, consolidated campuses, increased class sizes, cut specialty programs, or have plans to require families to pick up the tab for such things as athletics, uniforms, and bus service.

Honea says, ultimately, the future of Texas education will be determined at the ballot box.

"We are at a major crisis, so voters are going to have to be vigilant in seeing that the people that are willing to make decisions for the good of the people be put into office - and not the obstinacy that we're seeing right now."

Honea says lawmakers' cuts-only approach to the budget shortfall is not only proving harmful to Texas kids at a time when they are expected to meet new, higher learning standards, but it's also worsening the nationwide jobs crisis.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX