Schutze

The public school finance crisis is waking up moderates from their Tea Party-induced slumber.

In the media business, we get paid to keep up with all of this government political stuff. Other people have lives. But I am starting to see signs that the Big Thing is finally hitting home with other folks, or, as we sometimes call them in the news business, real people.

Up until this very moment, I don't think many real people understood the magnitude or the ferocity of the attack being mounted on the basic institutions of our democracy by the ultra-right.

Now they see it. And they are stunned. Maybe even frightened. I hear trembling in voices.

I saw it at a school board meeting last Thursday. Karla Rojas, mother of a student who has gone through the Dallas magnet school system, spoke from the public microphone—one of several parents making eloquent pleas on behalf of their kids, their kids' teachers, an entire school system threatened by a devastating statewide funding crisis.

She started out calm and collected, talking about the magnet schools in Dallas as a haven for smart kids—a place where smart kids can be normal and cool, where teachers know that a smart kid asks questions to satisfy curiosity, not to challenge the teacher's authority.

She had come not to bury the school system but to praise it. "Amanda has just finished auditioning for college theater and acting programs all over the United States," she said of her daughter, about to graduate from the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

"Seeing her stand out at these auditions really brought home to me..."

And here her voice began to give way.

"... really brought home to me how important Booker T. Washington is."

The arts magnet, along with the entire magnet school program in Dallas, is in the tumbrel, rolling over the cobblestones toward the financial guillotine. And there was not a hell of a lot anyone could tell Karla Rojas to comfort her.

The upshot of the board meeting was that no one in Dallas knows what will happen. On February 20, Dallas superintendent Michael Hinojosa presented a worst-case scenario, based on an anticipated statewide shortfall in public school funding of $10 billion, which would have entailed gutting half the faculty at Booker T.

Nobody said it at the time, but the state mandates the teaching of certain basics—those teachers can't all be fired—so that level of gutting would require the firing of all of the arts teachers who make Booker T. what it is.

At last week's meeting, Hinojosa said the shortfall may be only $5 billion. Presumably Booker T. might scrape by with a gutting of only a quarter of its faculty—still enough to break the back of the program and break the hearts of the students, parents and faculty who have come to see Booker T. as a personal partner in their destinies.

But that's only half of the picture beginning to come home for people. The other big piece of the puzzle is the face of Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose attitude toward the school funding crisis has been cocky, sneering and dismissive.

It's not just about how bad the future may be. It's also the fact that our government is in the hands of people who are glad it's all falling apart. That was their goal all along.

Last week Perry told reporters he had no responsibility for the massive teacher firings ahead in most of Texas, in spite of the fact that his so-called tax reform in 2006 is exactly what produced this crisis.

In a column published March 3, "The New Predator Class," I reminded you that former Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican, predicted this crisis five years ago with eery precision.

Strayhorn looked at the amount Perry persuaded the legislature to hack from state and local property taxes in 2006. She looked at the amount Perry had promised to restore to state coffers in new business taxes. Then she took into account the fact that Perry had reneged on that deal and failed to raise the promised business taxes.

Strayhorn couldn't have foreseen the 2007-2008 Wall Street meltdown. She estimated that our shortfall in state revenues in 2011 would be $23 billion.

This is 2011. The shortfall is $27 billion.

But last week, speaking in a sneering cocky tone, Perry told reporters that neither he nor anyone else in Austin was responsible: "The lieutenant governor, the speaker and their colleagues are not going to hire or fire one teacher, as best as I can tell," he said.

Perry suggested school districts cut something other than teachers—pandering to Tea Party dogma that all of the money is stolen anyway by bureaucratic grifters and cheats.

But in Dallas, 87 percent of the general fund budget is in money paid to campus personnel. The suggestion that it can be cut elsewhere is a callous shrug.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze