March 30, 2006
Shirley J. Neeley, Ed.D
Texas Education Agency
1701 North Congress Avenue, Suite 2-185
Austin, Texas 78701-1402
Dear Commissioner Neeley:
By law, the Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (FIRST), the school district financial accountability recommended in my 1999 report, Challenging the Status Quo (ED 4), is to be developed and implemented in consultation with the Comptroller. Although I appreciate the fact that you shared your proposal with members of my staff, I am writing to voice my strong opposition to the Governor's so-called "65% Rule," and most particularly to your proposal that it be embedded in the financial accountability system.
When I was first sworn in as Comptroller in 1999, I set ten principles for this century, the first three were all education related. My priorities have not changed. My goal is crystal clear--I want to drive more of every education dollar directly into the classrooms with the teachers and the students where it belongs. And, as evidenced by the fact that I am the one who recommended a financial accountability system, I wholeheartedly believe that Texas taxpayers deserve to know how their money is spent, and that it is being spent wisely. Fiscal responsibility is more important now than ever before. Our tax dollars should be invested in the long-term solution for our children's education.
Spending on instruction is at an all time low. Today, only 50 cents out of every education dollar is going into classroom instruction--as it has been defined by the Texas Education Agency for decades (function codes 11 and 95) this is down from 52 cents in 1999-2000, when I identified $807 million that allowed then-governor Bush to sign into law legislation that included funding for a $3,000 pay increase for teachers--the last state-funded, across-the-board increase that teachers, counselors, librarians, and school nurses have seen. That's unacceptable!
This 65% Rule does not advance the goal of driving more of every education dollar directly into the classroom, nor is it a true measure of fiscal responsibility! It is a political ploy that may sound good in the media but, as national studies have proven, it does little to improve education or ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely. The definitions in this new rule are convoluted; taxpayers will be misled.
The 65% Rule's definition of instruction has been watered down to include expenditures for extracurricular activities and shared services. The total expenditures against which this watered-down instructional number is compared do not include all operating expenditures such as food service. Diluting definitions or publishing big numbers to give the impression that our Texas schools are better off than they really are is not what we need.
Rather than our state leaders driving dollars into instruction by giving teachers the first state-funded salary increase since 1999, which would just get them to the mid-point in these United States, this 65% Rule is a huge unfunded state mandate. The courts have confirmed that this state has abdicated its responsibility for educating our children, and ignoring state challenges has created local crises. More than half of our school districts are at the statutory tax cap, and each year more and more vital programs are being sacrificed in the name of efficiency. Just shifting dollars around within school budgets isn't enough.
As you are well-aware, my office conducted Texas School Performance Reviews (TSPRs). I believe the Governor's decision to move this program out of the Texas Comptroller's office was a step--a big step--in the wrong direction. The TSPRs found millions upon millions of dollars in savings and revenue enhancement opportunities, and the Governor may say that alone is proof that there is waste and mismanagement in our schools. That is not what I found. I found good people who for the most part were trying to do the right things for the students and communities they serve. But as with any organization, there are always ways to improve--and sometimes that means spending money to make money. Yes, I regularly recommended teacher salary increases funded by local savings--but each district is unique and the recommendations were crafted to address each district's unique needs. When a district was spending huge amounts on overtime because they couldn't recruit and retain bus drivers, food service workers, or security personnel, I recommended competitive salary schedules for these non-instructional staff. Up-front investments in such things as technology and upgrades to energy-saving lighting and air conditioning equipment can net huge savings down the road. The one-size-fits-all, 65% Rule takes none of this into consideration. In fact, under this 65% Rule, districts could actually be punished for trying to make non-instructional functions more efficient.
If we are to truly drive dollars into instruction, let's be honest and drive those dollars into teacher salaries, better benefits, and mentors for new or struggling teachers. We cannot recruit and retain highly qualified and experienced teachers for our classrooms when teacher salaries are not keeping pace with those in comparable occupations and not keeping pace nationally. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work when a district's student population needs social as well as educational services. Hungry, sick, and homeless children require more than basic reading, writing, and arithmetic to be successful in school or in life. They need good teachers, and we at the state level need to do what is necessary to ensure adequate pay and benefits for our public educators.
Yes, we need to hold our schools accountable for educating our state's most precious resource, our children. And, we should step in swiftly to address mismanagement or wrongdoing where it is found. But we cannot and should not hamstring good districts with bad policies.
Carole Keeton Strayhorn