Richards Buoys Texas Educators’ Hopes for Reform

By Lonnie Harp — February 06, 1991 9 min read

Austin, Tex--Bad news arrived here last month in Texas-sized portions.

Even though last year’s rapid rise in oil prices had helped buoy the economies of neighboring states, Texas lawmakers still found out that they were nearly $5 billion short of balancing their two-year budget.

Then came the unexpected word from the state supreme court that the legislature would be given only a little more than two months to invent a new method of financing the nation’s second-largest state school system, or face a possible court-ordered school shutdown.

It was against this sobering backdrop that about 250 teachers, administrators, and parents from around the Lone Star State gathered here Jan. 26 to contemplate the future of education.

So why, an onlooker wondered, were these people smiling?

Much of the reason, it turned out, entered the Joe C. Thompson Convention Center here dressed in green.

For Ann W. Richards, Texas’ feisty new Governor, the meeting marked not only the fulfillment of a campaign pledge, but also an effort to spark grassroots interest in and support for education reform.

That tactic, observers say, could be critical in winning acceptance for any costly school-finance reform and subsequent classroom improvements.

Further, by urging educators and parents to focus on such “quality issues” as teacher professionalism, community involvement, and new ways of testing, analysts see the Governor creating a long-term agenda that will add context to the short-term equity question.

“I think it’s a wonderful move,” said Representative Ernestine Glossbrenner, chairman of the House Public Education Committee. “We know that we have to solve the equity issue. But if we spend a lot of money solving the equity issue and we don’t have better schools at the end of it, then we will have failed our charge.”

Since her November upset of the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Clayton Williams, Ms. Richards has revived the hopes of many educators and lawmakers who see themselves as prominent figures in the “New Texas” she has championed.

The Governor acted quickly to demonstrate her faith in the state’s educators, who felt slighted by her predecessor, William P. Clements Jr. She named a former classroom teacher, for example, to be chairman of the state board of education.

Ms. Richards also has closed ranks with lawmakers on the school-finance issue, meeting with House and Senate leaders and forming a joint staff to consider solutions.

For lawmakers who last year battled with Mr. Clements through four special sessions before passing a school-finance plan--only to have it met with scorn by a state district-court judge and unanimous disapproval by the supreme court--the Governor’s support is a welcome change.

“In four special sessions, the biggest problem we had was trying to make the Governor understand what the problem was,” said Senator Carl A. Parker, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “Ann Richards doesn’t have to have on-the-job training. She understands this problem extremely well.”

Even with help from the top, though, lawmakers facing the tightening noose of the supreme court’s mandate are unsure if they can produce a plan that will satisfy both the court and the taxpayers of Texas.

“It seems obvious to me that we stand a far better chance of getting better improvements than we have in the last decade,” said Brad Ritter, communications director for the Texas State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

The obstacle “is the magnitude of the problem,” he added. “The court is asking a hell of a lot.”

In overturning the legislature’s initial solution to the school-finance dilemma--the $528-million plan know as Senate Bill 1--the supreme court faulted the state for trying to patch a faulty system rather than create an entirely new one. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991.)

As in many states, schools in Texas rely heavily on local revenue. Since most local resources are raised through property taxes, the court found that some students get a superior education because they live in areas with expensive real estate.

Pointing to alternatives, the court suggested consolidating some of the state’s 1,052 school districts, combining tax bases on a regional basis, moving to a statewide property-tax system, or finding new funding sources to equalize school finance.

Of the likely options, a statewide property tax offered by Mr. Parker has received the most attention. The plan began attracting support even before the January court ruling and has continued to build steam.

Mr. Parker’s bill would set a statewide property-tax rate of $1 per $100 of assessed value. The receipts would fund the state’s basic education program and pay for school facilities. At the local level, each district would be allowed to levy an extra $0.25 per $100 in school taxes.

Because such a system would require a constitutional amendment, it must pass both houses of the legislature by a two-thirds majority and win a statewide referendum.

Despite the strong court warnings, Mr. Parker observed, many lawmakers and school officials from wealthy areas remain unconvinced that the state should take a greater role in distributing local taxes.

“The option of relying on greater wealth which resides in your district--that option is dead and gone,” Mr. Parker said.

The veteran legislator compared his proposed new funding system to a sailboat race in which competitors use the same equipment and contend with the same weather. “Those who move ahead are the ones who operate the boat most efficiently,” he said.

In stark contrast to the estimated $3 billion in additional state funding needed to put poor school districts on par with their wealthy counterparts, Mr. Parker’s property-tax plan would produce little new revenue.

The September district court ruling that initially overturned Senate Bill 1 emphasized the need for substantial new funding. But Mr. Parker’s bill is geared more toward the supreme court’s decision, which noted that even without new funding, “the system would be made more efficient” under a statewide property tax.

“I’m just trying to cure the inequity,” Mr. Parker said. “If the people vote to do that, then the legislature needs to look at adequacy.”

Lawmakers say the Governor’s most crucial role will be in promoting whatever plan emerges, since it almost inevitably will require a special election.

“We are going to need a lot of help in making people understand what really is at stake,” said Representative Glossbrenner.

Ms. Glossbrenner said she now fears that if the legislature does not come up with an acceptable finance plan, the supreme court may shut down the schools until lawmakers find a solution--rather than writing its own plan, as most people previously had assumed.

James R. Vasquez, superintendent of the Edgewood Independent School District, which was the lead plaintiff in the finance case, said he was optimistic that the combination of an ominous court deadline and the new Governor’s leadership would resolve the finance dispute.

“If we can’t do it with her, we can’t do it,” Mr. Vasquez said. “Obviously, with that kind of leadership versus what we used to have, it’s bound to be a help for us.”

“While we’re buoyed with optimism, there’s a little voice in the back of the head saying, ‘Don’t get too excited, somebody could turn it into you-know-what,”’ he added.

Observers say Mr. Vasquez’s lurking spoiler may be Texas voters, who are expected to be wary of any new tax plan.

Mr. Parker said getting the plan to a popular vote would be an acceptable resolution, regardless of the outcome of the balloting.

“It really does put us behind the eight ball when the court mandates something that the majority of the people don’t want,” he said.

“What I like about this plan is that instead of the legislature and court having a confrontation, you’ll have a confrontation between the court and the people,” Mr. Parker observed. “The court says, ‘Make the system equal or else,’ so the people can vote to make it equal or vote to take the ‘or else.”’

But Governor Richards is quick to warn what that “or else” could mean.

In an effort to avoid the kind of court supervision that has already limited state officials’ administration of prison and mental-health programs, the Governor is using the carrot of school improvements to get local educators moving in support of school-finance reform.

The Governor told the audience at her Texas School Assembly that their classroom goals could be imperiled if the courts intervene.

Using educators’ interest in school improvement as a catalyst, aides say, Ms. Richards has put together a strategy in which the short-term need for school-finance changes and the long-term theme of restructuring build on each other, thus enlarging the issue for the voters.

Such a scenario not only creates a wider base of support for a school-finance referendum but also sets up the ambitious education-reform agenda that the Governor’s advisers say is in the works.

“I know that many people in this state thought of school reform as settling the finance issue,” said Sonia Hernandez, the Governor’s education director. “Some people are very sadly mistaken. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

“The Governor has indicated from the outset that she is looking for deep, structural reform,” said Ms. Hernandez, a former teacher, principal, and consultant. “She’s very dedicated to the notion of decentralization and site-based management starting at the state level. When you start talking about that sort of thing--local autonomy and real accountability for student learning--you’re really talking about all of the major reform issues.”

Governor Richards describes her immediate concerns as enlisting more educators and prompting them to speak laymen’s language.

“That’s essential,” the Governor said in an interview. “They’re using phrases and language that all sound very good, but they are vague. They are in ‘educationese.”’

“They communicate very well with each other, but it doesn’t translate to the taxpayer, and that’s our ultimate audience,” she said.

Moving between work sessions at the school assembly, the Governor said it may also take time to convince educators of their pivotal role.

“They are not recognized for their talent, they have been denigrated, they have been blamed for a system they have very little to do with, but the interesting thing is that the consistent thread through all of these meetings is commitment, focus, parental involvement, administration involvement, and flexibility,” she said. “We’re going to hear those words over and over again.”

“We must build a system in which that is allowed to happen.”

Standing in front of the educators, Governor Richards encouraged them not to question whether school reform is too big an issue to tackle.

“If I had done a reality check, I would not be the Governor of Texas,” she said. “I believe that you always set your goals high. I believe that you always lay out what you desire, even if you know it may take you a very long time to get there.”

“We have the ingredients for success,” she said. “That is the willingness on all our parts to plan and work hard.”

“We’re going to stand up and we’re going to fight for what we can get for you in the public school system, but we ask that you be on our team,” Governor Richards urged. “I want when this legislative session is complete for the school personnel of Texas to say we were successful, and I’m going to help you do that.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as Richards Buoys Texas Educators’ Hopes for Reform