Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Executioners of neighborhood schools

    Two disasters blackened the blast-furnace summer of 2011 in Texas. Against one, man was defenseless: the duo of drought and fire. The first took almost half a billion trees. The later, nearly 4,000 homes. 

    It was horrific, but only marginally worse than what the Legislature did to Texas schools. That disaster was man-caused.

    Something similar was happening to schools in Arizona, Florida and Georgia. Indeed, the forecast remains dire wherever red-state values put blue-sky budgeting above children's needs.

    This is felt in many ways — prekindergarten programs squandered, teachers fired by the thousands, larger classes awaiting those remaining (along with stacks of costly new state mandates).

    As with a fire scene, it's hard to find what loss feels most damaging. But I'm going to pick one.

    In recent months, to save teachers' jobs amid millions in budget cuts, the Waco Independent School District board voted to close nine schools. That includes my sons' grade school, Meadowbrook Elementary.

     Nine schools. That's a ton of disruption and heartbreak, not just for children, but for their neighborhoods.

     Dallas is pondering something similar as it looks at its own stark budget numbers.

     Last year was the first since Dust Bowl days that Texas had an actual cut —  $4 billion — in school spending. What had been "budget cuts" heretofore were reductions in the rate of growth. The difference is significant, and staggering, because state population continues to grow, as does enrollment (1.5 percent per year).

     Maybe Texas shouldn't feel so bad. In Arizona, over the last four years the Republican-controlled Legislature has cut per-student funding 22.8 percent. One result: a wave of school closures and consolidations.

    The irony is that this budget devastation is crashing up against an idea long promoted by Republicans: neighborhood schools.

    My old haunt, Waco, certainly bought into the concept when it built several small inner-city schools in the 1990s. Since then it made major investments in all of its schools with a succession of bond issues. The place that used to be our neighborhood school was one of several that got new gymnasiums. And now: the wrecking ball, courtesy of the budget wizards in Austin.

   A nearly Great Depression (set in motion by smarter-than-y'all guys from Texas?) was cited as the reason for the decline in revenues that necessitated these budget cuts in state after state. That's true to a degree, but it lets red-state leadership off too lightly.

    In Texas, so-called school finance reforms in 2006 — a new business tax that didn't come close to canceling out deep property tax cuts — created a budget hole felt almost immediately by schools. That helped make matters cataclysmic when the nation's economy was tanking in the blackened summer of '11.

     Wayne Pierce of executive director of the Austin school-funding organization Equity Center, called the budget cuts bearing down on Texas schools "catastrophic," with no comfort to be seen down the road from lawmakers.

      "From all indications, they don't have any intention of stepping up and doing what's right for children. They are going to lowball education."

       In Arizona, business tax cuts didn't stimulate the economy to the extent legislative barkers said they would. Instead, what came with them: deep, deep budget cuts.

    "You cut your school budgets by 22 percent. That's a lot of real money," said Tom Powers, superintendent of Greenlee County in southern Arizona. "The ones who are putting that 22 percent in their pockets are the fat cats."

     Iisn't that the way it always works? "Trickle-down." "Grow the pie." "Guv'mint is the problem, not the solution."

     Well, let's grant credence on that one count. These glad-handers were right about the problems faced, and deepened, when "guv'mint" came into their custody.

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:  

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