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We’re from the government, and strongly support public schools

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Jim Opionin by Jim Powers
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A long time ago (1991-1995), in a Texas far, far away from what it is now, there was a Governor named Ann Richards. She holds the distinction of being the last woman governor, and the last Democrat governor, of the state. You’ll also not be surprised that she often did not tell the truth.

Richards, a teacher by profession, represented herself as a strong advocate for public education in Texas. She advanced several efforts at securing equal funding around the state, including the legislation passed in 1993 dubbed by the media as the Robin Hood plan. The law basically took money from rich school districts and distributed it to poor school districts, to put all Texas districts on an equal financial footing. It was later reformed to get around prohibitions in the state constitution, and some school property taxes were ultimately cut by one-third, cuts which were to be replaced by state revenue which were to come from a new business tax and from higher taxes on cigarettes. From the beginning, the funding system has been controversial.

Around this time, the state was looking for ways to raise more money, and the idea for a state lottery was floated, without much initial success. A lot of folks back then had even more moral objections to gambling then they do now, and state-sponsored gambling proved anathema for many people. But the state, under Gov. Richards, had a plan. They pitched the lottery as a way to enhance funding for education.

I sat in on several talks Richards gave in public school auditoriums, pitching to constituents and, directly to teachers, that the money derived from the lottery would go directly to education. 

In the end, this approach was a success. The law creating the lottery was passed, and the rest is history. But teachers who supported it quickly learned they had been duped. Instead of money from the lottery going “directly to education,” it was going into the general fund, and mixed with all the other state money.

I sat in a meeting where Richards was directly challenged by teachers for lying to them about where the money would go. Richards explained to the teachers that they had misunderstood, that the state had not promised that the lottery money would be “additional” money for education. No, she hedged that the intent was always that the money would go into the general fund to offset the existing cost of education, which would give the state a huge boast to use for other purposes. 

“We never promised that it would be new money for education,” she explained to the teachers

Why have I dredged up this bit of ancient history? Because our current governor is hatching up another education funding version of bait and switch, and this version has more sinister undertones. It goes kind of like this.

Property taxes are too high. This is really hurting Texans, especially the elderly, who can never really “own” their homes because, after 30 years of paying them off, they still must pay annual taxes on them. And they can be taken away if they don’t.

To resolve that problem, the state needs to dramatically lower property taxes.  Or perhaps eliminate them. 

Because public schools are largely funded through property taxes, that will inevitably reduce the funding going to public schools, schools that are already struggling with inadequate funding. But, Abbott promises, we are not to worry because the state will make up the difference!

At the same time, Abbott wants to give parents expanded options in school choice, giving parents a slice of the money currently going to public schools to use to send their kids to private schools if they choose. This could be through vouchers, and the increasingly popular (and less potentially legally fraught) Education Savings Accounts numerous states are adopting, which accomplishes the same goal…public money goes through parents to private schools.

My wife and I had no children, but I have never complained about paying taxes to support public schools. It’s an investment in the future of this country. But I object to paying taxes to help parents fund private school education because it’s unlikely that the money they would get from these vouchers or ESA’s would pay the entire cost of a private school. Or that many low-quality commercial schools would pop up to take the money from parents who couldn’t afford the better ones.

What’s the problem, there would still be public schools? The state is going to make up the lost tax revenue. Two things, and I’ll end this diatribe.

Any money given to parents to send their kids to private schools means less money in the public school system, which means poorer quality education and inadequately maintained buildings. More concerning, though, is that we’ve been lied to before on education funding (see Governor Richards above). How long is the state going to continue to make up the difference if property taxes are lowered (or eliminated)? Will it be five years, 10 years before they vote to do so no longer?

It seems to me that the goal here is not so much to provide parents with choice, but to destroy the public school system that has been essential to the success of the U.S., along the way creating an educated wealthy class and an uneducated lower class. A Plutocracy by design.

Why would the Governor be afraid of educating all students in our public education system? Perhaps because I'm a product of Texas' public schools, and I write columns like this.

President Reagan’s top nine most terrifying words, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” seem especially terrifying here.

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