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Monday, November 28, 2011

Bloomberg: Perry's education plan leaves Amarillo schools in shortfall ...

Nov. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Students at elementary schools in Amarillo, Texas, don't get drawing lessons as a five-year-old finance plan from Republicans led by Governor Rick Perry hasn't delivered funding needed to avoid cuts and improve education.

"We'd love to offer art or foreign languages," said Rod Schroder, Amarillo's superintendent. "But we have never had the revenue to put in those programs."

Perry, a contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and legislative leaders in Austin have blamed this year's public-education funding shortfall on a weaker economy and flaws in a 2006 tax overhaul that hasn't met projections for revenue. In the two-year budget that began in September, aid to local schools fell short by more than $5 billion, a situation that business leaders have said threatens the state's economy.

"Texas needs a structurally sound school-finance system that isn't continually underfunded," Harvin Moore, a board member of the Houston Independent School District, said in a telephone interview. The fourth-biggest U.S. city by population has the state's largest system with about 200,000 students.

"Numerous legislators told me and others that they would rather leave the system broken and wait for districts to sue," letting a judge make the hard choices involved, Moore said. The two-year budget passed in May eliminated a deficit estimated to be at least $15 billion and provides $53.8 billion for schools.

A Budget Priority

Perry has said little on the issue this year, while in his presidential campaign he has called for the elimination of the U.S. Education Department, returning the funding it distributes to the states. His budget proposal, submitted to lawmakers in February, made few references to school finances. Its introduction calls public education a priority and says budget writers had to sort needs from wants in completing their plan.

In terms of spending per student, Texas ranked 43rd among states at $8,562 in the school year ending in 2009, down from 36th a decade earlier, Lynn Moak, a partner at Moak, Casey & Associates, said in October at a conference of school administrators. His firm in Austin advises schools on finances. National Education Association data show Texas ranked 39th in the past school year, at $9,128 per pupil.

Local business leaders including Ed Whitacre, the former AT&T Inc. chairman, have warned that a decline in the quality of public education may undermine efforts to increase jobs.

Aid Trails Growth

State aid hasn't kept pace with the estimated 80,000- student enrollment increase each year, dropping as much as $400 per pupil this year, according to Lauren Cook, a spokeswoman for the Equity Center in Austin. The nonprofit organization represents 690 less-wealthy systems and organized a lawsuit that claims the state's financing mechanism is unconstitutional and seeks to force an increase in funding.

Similar complaints have been brought against other states such as Connecticut and New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie was ordered to raise spending in the 31 poorest districts by $500 million. In a 3-2 ruling in May, the New Jersey Supreme Court said "full funding" for the schools was a "constitutional mandate."

Connecticut schoolchildren haven't been given sufficient resources by the state to make up for disparities in local property-tax revenue, according to Philip Streifer, the superintendent of the Bristol system and president of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding. The group is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, which may go to trial as early as next year.

'Expensive' Endeavor

"I wish politicians would understand that given the requirements and labor laws and mandates, education is expensive," said Streifer, an educator in Connecticut since 1971. "This funding problem is systemic. It was in place when I started 40 years ago and it hasn't been resolved."

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