While public school system effectiveness is often seen as academically unacceptable, exemplary is the deserved ranking as these same systems calculatedly walk legal and ethical “fine lines” in questionably using taxpayer-funded resources for political advocacy of issues serving school instead of taxpayer interests.
Earlier this month, Grapevine High School hosted a pep rally organized by leaders of the Carroll, Grapevine-Colleyville and Keller school districts. It was designed to encourage education activism through demanding a restoration of public education funds cut in the 2011 legislative session and opposing school choice options like vouchers or tax credits. A handout reportedly distributed at the event offered opportunity to connect with the Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE) in learning more about legislative actions and in receiving ATPE Legislative Alerts.
ATPE’s legislative priorities were listed as restoring 2011 budget cuts, opposing vouchers, scholarships, tax credits or similar programs that would facilitate taxpayer dollars being used for school choice or other educational pursuits in venues outside the public school system. Maintenance of the existing Teacher Retirement System defined benefit structure was another stated priority.
Meanwhile, the Texas Association of School Boards is circulating a fill-in-the-blank resolution entitled “Vouchers, Taxpayer Savings Grants, Tax Credits and Other Mechanisms that Reduce Public Education Funding” that provides space for school trustees to fill in their district name and signatures.
The resolution reminds of 2011 funding cuts and states schools are subject to “stringent accountability standards” and that “school choice already exists in the Texas public school system.” Vouchers, taxpayer savings grants and tax credits allegedly eliminate public accountability, fail to provide all parents and children with school choice as well as have not been proven effective in improving student achievement and closing the achievement gap as per the document. It also claims these measures are an “inefficient use of scarce resources and “will not guarantee a competitive, educated workforce to meet the demands of employers in Texas.”
TASB’s membership includes government entities and publicly elected officials. Specifically, per its web site, TASB represents “all 1,034 Texas school districts, 20 regional education service centers, 50 community colleges, 38 tax appraisal districts, and 146 shared service arrangements” along with “the largest group of publicly elected officials in the state (more than 7,000 school board members) that serves over 4.9 million Texas students.”
While those officials may theoretically serve students, TASB does not – a point clearly evident with both this description and the resolution.
In offering candidate webinars so “individuals interested in running for their local school board will get useful information,” TASB positions itself as an important source of information for prospective school board members.
That the interests of TASB, government bodies and publicly elected officials are one and the same is recognizable as also is students’ interests being different. School board members aligning with forces whose interests conflict with their constituents – voters usually concerned about student welfare over government bureaucracies – signals a troubling disconnect.
Review of an anti-voucher resolution reported in Tuesday’s Temple Daily Telegram as unanimously adopted by the Belton ISD’s Board of Trustees shows it is the TASB resolution. In supporting the resolution, BISD superintendent Dr. Susan Kincannon noted state Rep. Ralph Sheffield, R-Temple, as a voucher opponent while board President Randy Pittenger explained how taking a stand is important since “when we all band together, that voice does influence public policy.”
BISD is a good example of TASB, school administrators and elected officials choosing to “band together” in protecting their interests. It’s a scenario undoubtedly playing out across the state as districts and other education industry insiders want all funds possible to operate existing and upcoming new schools.
That voice reflecting the general public’s views – from taxpayers to parents to students – becomes questionable, however, after the May 2012 Republican Primary in which voters weighed in on a School Choice State Funding ballot measure asking if “the state should fund education by allowing dollars to follow the child instead of the bureaucracy, through a program which allows parents the freedom to choose their child’s school, public or private, while also saving significant taxpayer dollars.”
Republican voters accounted for 71.1 percent of the total primary votes cast and statewide, 84 percent supported the school choice funding measure. Belton precincts reflected this same voting pattern further emphasizing the disconnect between the general public and the education establishment – another scenario the numbers suggest likely exists across the state.
BISD’s May 2012 bond election only passed 54.1% to 45.9%, but added $60 million in new bonds to then-exisiting debt of $136,530,451 ($88,780,000 principal and $47,750,451 interest). According to the Texas Bond Review Board, 67 school districts passed new bonds in 2012, a point that further reminds of districts’ interests in maximizing public fund access.
Other ways in which school districts are utilizing taxpayer resources to influence public policy have surfaced in promoting a Feb. 23 Save Texas Schools march and rally sponsored by Save Texas Schools, billed as a nonpartisan statewide volunteer coalition of parents, students, educators, business leaders, concerned citizens, community groups and faith organizations.
While a large sign advertising the event hangs on a fence at Austin ISD’s Reagan High School, Karen Miller, identified as coordinator of the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD’s Community Legislative Committee (CLC), sent an e-mail from a school e-mail address during school hours announcing the rally and the availability of buses traveling from a Houston mall to the event.
The CLC’s page on the district web site also promotes the event as well as details this session’s legislative priorities. Another taxpayer-funded page from the 2011 session advocates defeat of specific legislation.
Legal? Maybe, maybe not. Ethical? Attentive taxpayers may think otherwise. Meanwhile, “exemplary” indeed aptly describes school districts’ use of taxpayer funds in political advocacy efforts as the walk along that “fine line” continues.