Friday, February 01, 2019

History Lessons

You'll just make things worse...

In 1949 the state of Texas implemented the school system the state has functioned under ever since.  It gave school districts the power to raise local taxes to support themselves, and established state funding of 75% state funds to 25% local funds.  70 years later that formula has flipped:  the state provides roughly 32% of funding to schools, the schools have to raise the other 68% themselves.  What schools are required to do, from students it must educate (special needs) to tests it must administer (statewide testing) add to the financial burden without adding money to relieve that burden.

Hang on to this factoid, we'll return to it in a moment.

Several years ago I was involved in a traffic accident; I pulled out of a parking lot onto the street and was struck by an oncoming car, one I couldn't see because of traffic.  When a tow truck showed up, I told the driver to pull my car out of the road into the parking lot.  The attorney for the other driver was there and objected, claiming I had to wait for the police to arrive and write out an accident report.  Now, I was reading those reports and the diagrams of the accident police used to make before this attorney was born (she was quite young), and I also knew the law had changed, certainly before she entered law school if not before her birth, to "no fault," so the police would not be making the detailed report that was once common.  I knew the best thing to do was to clear the road, and get a police report for my insurance purposes.  I knew that because I'm a lawyer, too, and I know that area of the law.  I was quite sure she didn't, but she "knew" what the law was; even though it hadn't been the law for probably as long as she'd been alive.

Don't go away, we're getting there.

In the 1980's the State of Texas was sued, and the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the funding mechanism for education, much tinkered with since 1949, was unconstitutional under the State Constitution.  The legislative remedy was to apply a new system atop the old (rather than remove the old and replace it root and branch, as had been done in 1949), a system whereby "property rich" districts would pay a portion of their tax revenues to the state, which would distribute those monies to "poor" districts and thus make the entire funding system "equitable."  There was much fanfare over this, so much that I knew about it even though I'd left the state by the time the laws were finally passed.  But most people in Texas seemed blissfully ignorant of this sea change.

The school districts weren't, however; but the smaller districts in the large urban areas (there are 5 such districts in the Houston Metro area, most of which barely rate a blip even on otherwise excellent local news coverage on the local NPR station, to this day) were hit first and hardest, being 'property rich' according to the formula, and therefore most able to pay.  The scheme is still called "Robin Hood" for obvious reasons.  Smaller districts went through multiple years of layoffs, and even when it hit the classrooms, the parents and taxpayers didn't seem to much notice.  Then Houston Independent School District (HISD), the largest single district in the state, became a "property rich" district, and suddenly everybody was aware of how public schools were being funded; or, more accurately, defunded.

Part of that awareness led to a new lawsuit against the state, this time by the school districts (the first was by parents stuck in a substandard school system by state laws).  To understand that you need to understand something else as much part of the common knowledge of Texans once upon a time as the need to get an accident report complete with pictures of the wreck, to determine fault in court.  That piece of knowledge is that Texas, by our state constitution, doesn't allow a statewide property tax.  Counties and cities and school districts and other specified entities (there are about half a dozen in Harris County, where Houston is located) can assess property taxes; the state cannot.  This was a rallying cry in Texas politics in my youth; it's where I first learned about it.  So a statewide property tax to fund schools (an income tax, which would solve the problem, is tantamount to declaring the state religion to now be Satanism) is verboten.

And that was the argument against Robin Hood, because the handful of people aware of the law assumed the money going from one school district was sent directly to another; but that was not so.  Monies sent to Austin by the school districts "too rich" by the formula of Robin Hood went into the general fund, to be spent as the Lege decided.  The formula for funding schools from Austin, as I said earlier, flipped in 70 years; the amount of money going from ISD's to Austin, rose dramatically in about 25 years.  Money taxed to fund local schools became money spent to pay the costs of state agencies, or for any other general purpose the Lege had in mind.  Legislators in Austin knew about this; but they didn't advertise it.

School districts facing financial disaster (as HISD now is) for years from Robin Hood did all they could to inform their taxpayers; but you can lead a horse to water only.  The school districts sued to change Robin Hood, but the Texas Supreme Court, brave in the '80's when they tried to solve this problem, blinked in the 21st century, and said there was no state property tax issue involved here (even though there clearly is).  And what did the taxpayers do about this clearly constitutional crisis, this shameless and indefensible decision to not touch this hot potato or defend the plain language of our founding state legal document, this complete capitulation on a crucial issue of state governance?

Nothing.  By and large, they still don't understand it happened.  Small districts in Houston have been bled dry by Robin Hood, and are on the verge of bankruptcy from it.  The local NPR station, which prides itself on its local news coverage, has yet to report on that.  When HISD suddenly had to pay Austin, rather than just receive from it, local NPR (and the rest of the state) suddenly noticed this law was on the books.  But they still aren't reporting on the Texas Supreme Court decision, or the multiple and myriad problems with education funding in Texas.

Something is rotten in the state of the Lone Star.  But if no one talks about it, is it happening?

You can, at this point, put a lot of blame for this on the media; and I do.  But as I say, school districts have been sending out letters annually to taxpayers explaining where the money is going:  no one listened, no one cared, no one noticed.  There was a huge campaign when "no fault insurance" became the law in Texas; 40 years later, people not born when that law changed still think it's not the law yet.  School funding has gone from being a state obligation to a state burden, and yet the burdens heaped on the schools (we started the school testing craze.  Thanks, Ross Perot!, and we haven't realized the folly of it yet.) have gone up (it takes a full time staff of administrators to keep up compliance with those tests, and the bigger the district, the more people you need just to do that).  And what is the real problem?

The real problem is the responsibility of democracy.  If you don't pay close attention to what the people acting in the name of the People are doing, they will rob you blind and thank for your letting them do it.  Texas wasn't always such a benighted and backwoods realm of would-be robber barons; accepting the stupidity of the "free market" philosophy is on us.  But if we ignore what our elected officials are doing, if we assume we know the state of things when we haven't a clue what reality is and we don't want to really pay attention because, you know, we're busy!, then we have no one to blame in the end but ourselves.

Which is why, I suppose, I keep posting from Donald Trump's Twitter feed.  It's there in plain sight now.  He's trying to arrange reality so he can declare victory on a wall that is never going to exist, in a fight only he is having, and it is with himself.  It isn't gaslighting if it doesn't work to perplex the victim; it's just the rantings of a delusional man.  If that man was living under a highway overpass near me pushing a shopping cart full of crap, I would feel sorry for him, or maybe try to help him.  But that man is the President of the United States, and he's saying things so clearly at odds with reality it should make us wonder why the 25th Amendment is not being invoked, and how much more careful we really need to be next time.

And how much attention we have to pay, because Trump's victory and what power he's had, has rested largely on the fact we just assume the person saying what we agree with is the truth, without ever wondering once what the truth really is.  I dunno, maybe once the system was more adversarial or just more responsible, and the competing ideas about foreign policy at least had the core of protecting America and preserving order.  It may be the INF is a flawed treaty and the Obama administration was concerned about Russia's violations, too; but coming from the guy who thinks he convinced North Korea to give up its nukes and that the public testimony of his intelligence chiefs was misreported, I don't trust his actions now, and the Congress is too supine yet to tell him shutting down the government and declaring yourself king are both non-starters and not the way to run a government, and grounds for serious questions about the President's fitness for office.

And the rest of us seem to be interested largely in Anyone But Trump; which is not exactly the lesson we should be learning, here.

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