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Fiscal conservatives seek more state budget cuts

By Chuck Lindell

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Published: 9:36 p.m. Tuesday, March 20, 2012

An improving economy may be lifting some pressure from a strained state budget, but an influential coalition of fiscal conservatives gathered Tuesday at the Capitol to press for additional cuts to government spending.

Much of the $15 billion in budget cuts implemented during last year’s contentious legislative session were one-time accounting gimmicks that are no longer available and merely delayed costs until the next budget fight begins in the 2013 session, said Talmadge Heflin, a former state representative and fiscal policy director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Legislators must begin working now, he said, to form a smaller government that requires no new tax money or other revenue.

“We’ve been looking at writing the budget, at funding state government, as a math issue. And now is the time when we have to start looking at it as a governance issue,” Heflin said.

The coalition, Texans for a Conservative Budget, worked during last year’s budget debate to fight tax increases and keep the state’s rainy day fund intact amid a massive budget shortfall due largely to the economic recession.

This time around, the coalition is recommending that state agencies, colleges and universities cut at least 3 percent from their 2013 budgets, estimated to save $1.1 billion, and 7 percent from their 2014-15 budgets for savings of $8 billion to $10 billion.

Some recommendations were broad: cut overregulation, reduce social-welfare spending, shift transportation money from rail to other congestion-relieving projects.

Specific cuts were suggested as well, such as eliminating funding for eight agencies, offices or boards, including the Commission on the Arts and Texas Historical Commission, with essential services shifted to other agencies.

The coalition also suggested eliminating two economic-development funds prized by Gov. Rick Perry: the Texas Enterprise Fund and Emerging Technology Fund.

Budget writers must examine every state agency with only one question in mind, said Julie Drenner with the Heartland Institute, another coalition member: “Do I reform it, or do I eliminate it?”

Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income Texans, said the coalition is proposing cuts that ignore the needs of a fast-growing population.

“They’re trying to starve the future,” Lavine said. “We need to focus on things like investments in education that are going to pay off big-time for us — if we are willing to make the investments now. We will make back that investment many times over in terms of a more prosperous state and a more skilled workforce.”

Texans for a Conservative Budget was successful last year in persuading legislators to pass a two-year state budget that did not raise taxes or tap the rainy day fund to meet shortfalls in the 2012-13 budget.

Expecting the budget fight to be even more intense in the 2013 legislative session that begins in January, the coalition re-formed this spring to offer Tuesday’s broad outline of budget priorities, with more specific recommendations expected in the coming months, said Arlene Wohlgemuth, executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Michael Quinn Sullivan with Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, another coalition member, said failing to heed the call for cuts could jeopardize legislators’ election hopes. “Raising taxes and seeking new revenue sources is off the table for Texas taxpayers and voters, and so it needs to be also for lawmakers,” he said.

The coalition also includes American Majority, Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform.

Contact Chuck Lindell at 
912-2569


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Fond Memories

I have been employed with CIS for the past 4 years & I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience with CIS.

I was first introduced to CIS shortly after I moved to Texas upon graduating from Western Carolina University. I was furiously job hunting & knew very little about Texas or the social work job opportunities here. While scouring the internet for social work jobs, I came across the CIS website. I knew the moment I stumbled upon the CIS website that this job was for me. I enjoy working with children and their families and thought CIS would be the perfect fit. So, I decided to apply for the Project Manager position.

A couple of weeks later, I received a call for an interview. I was so excited and anxious throughout the interview. I really hoped to get this job.

After a second interview, I shortly received a call from Myra letting me know I got the job. I was so excited I did not know what to do. Little did I know the exciting and wonderful journey I would begin by accepting a position with CIS.

My time with CIS has been an exciting. I have gotten to work with and help many families.  I feel that I have been able to make a difference in their lives. I am not going to say it has always been an easy journey, but it has been an enjoyable one.

Although it has been challenging at times balancing the many roles and responsibilities a CIS social worker takes on, I am happy I had the opportunity to have this unique social work experience. It is not often that people can say they love what they do, but I honestly do and would not trade my experience with CIS for anything.

I will truly miss my Azle Elementary and my CIS family when I leave Texas this summer to go back home to North Carolina. I will cherish the fond memories I have made.

-Staci Ward


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Save the Date

For more information, please contact Alejandra Morado at alejandra.morado@cistarrant.org or (817) 446-5454.


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Rediscovered Emotions

I have returned to the field of school social work after about a 10 year hiatus. My first job after receiving my Masters in School Social Work was with CIS (in Bexar County) and here I am again, at CIS of Tarrant County. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the significance of being at CIS again—working for an agency that I really believe in, but starting at the “bottom” again.

In December, I moved with my family into a new home (the final step in our transition back to Texas), and I discovered a box labeled “School Social Work tools” that had been in storage for about 8 years. It was like Christmas morning. I felt like a young graduate who was full of ideas and enthusiasm.

At the bottom of the box, were the magic wand and magnifying glass that the faculty advisor for my cohort gave to each of us upon graduation. She explained to us that the magic wand had many uses—one use was to remind us of all that we’d learned. As a cohort, we had shared group curriculum, therapeutic games, ideas for working with teachers, and many amazing and “magical” tools to help us as we work with kids. The magic wand was also for us to use (in a lighthearted manner and with the right teachers) when we needed to remind teachers that we were, in truth, not magical and that we could not “fix” students by twinkling our nose or waving a magical stick. Change would be slow and our job was to give the kids the tools to make their own change and their own magic. A magic wand is also very fun to use in several group activities and games with our youngest students.

The magnifying glass was a very important reminder to look for and be grateful for the smallest change, improvements or “magic”. As social workers, change is often hard to see and easy to overlook. Some days in my CIS position, I feel like “all I have done is paperwork”, but when I look back at my day, I remember that I shared a smile with a child, I helped a family make a connection to needed resources, or I enlightened a teacher on the bigger picture of a child’s life. I believe we empower families, teachers and volunteers to make magic every day.

Since that “School Social Work tool” box has been in storage, I have added tools that I have learned as a parent, a preschool teacher, a foster care case manager and therapist, a community organizer, PTO Vice President and volunteer. I have filled my toolbox over the years but some days, admittedly, I get frustrated—by the paperwork, by the roadblocks, by the budget cuts–then I remind myself that there is important work to be done.   Each opportunity I have to sit with the other CIS Tarrant social workers and share ideas, I add to my toolbox.  The real magic is that the toolbox has no boundaries and I can just keep on filling it up.

Kathy Roemer, LMSW
Communities in Schools


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New Addition to Our CIS Family

I recently joined Communities In Schools as Vice President and Chief Development Officer. I joined CIS because they make a difference. Cliché, right?

Not when you have the results to prove it.

Since the earliest days of organized altruism, people support charitable organizations because they want to “make a difference,” to “strengthen the community,” to “change lives,” etc. These sentiments, while noble, lead to a key question that many organizations struggle to answer with concrete evidence. And it is a pertinent question that funders are now demanding an answer to: You say you are making a difference. Can you prove it?

I joined Communities In Schools because they CAN prove it.

Last year, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) funded an independent, national research project led by Texas A&M University (WHOOP!) that included every drop-out program in the nation.  This study concluded that Communities In Schools is the only program in America that can prove both reduced dropout rates and improved graduation rates. 97% of the at-risk children served by CIS remain in school.

Our dedicated staff work intensely with children facing a wide range of challenges which, if left unaddressed, will have a devastating effect. Every day our staff see children who face hunger, gangs, lack of shelter, pregnancy, and the list goes on.

You know the story of the man who takes a walk on the beach and sees hundreds of starfish washed up on the shore? In the story, the man sees a stranger picking up one starfish at a time and tossing it back in the ocean. When the man asks the stranger why he bothers (because he can’t possibly save them all), the stranger replies, “no, but I saved that one.” This story, while heartwarming, is little comfort to a social worker who goes to bed on Friday night wondering if one of the children at their school will have enough food to sustain them over the weekend, for it is not the hundreds of success stories that stick with this social worker. It’s the face of the child who desperately needs someone to reach out to them, someone to help them navigate and obtain the resources available in the community, someone to empower them. And there are many in need.

The CIS program works, and it is my goal to support this amazing organization by raising needed resources to ensure the program is available to children who need it, and to the school principals who demand it. Yes, you heard that right. Principals in nearly every district in Tarrant County have heard of the success of the CIS program and have expressed desire to bring it to their school because, at the end of the day, they know the CIS social workers will provide their at-risk students with resources and services the school can’t. Even while school budgets are being slashed, our program, since 1992, has grown from serving 2 schools to serving 38. And the demand is growing.

As Communities In Schools celebrates 20 years of helping children succeed in school and in life, we are thankful to our supporters in the community who have made our services possible, and we look ahead to the next decade of demonstrating that CIS is the proven dropout prevention program.

Lindsey Garner


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Breaking News from Austin

COMMISSIONER SCOTT TELLS EDUCATORS THE SYSTEM HAS BECOME A PERVERSION OF ORIGINAL INTENT

“I cannot and will not certify the ban on social promotions unless there are resources to provide interventions to students who need to pass the test.”

Robert Scott, in a speech before superintendents and school board trustees this afternoon, pulled the biggest gun out of the education commissioner’s arsenal to guarantee lawmakers will start sending new money to schools next session.

Scott’s speech to the Texas Association of School Administrators’ Midwinter Conference was probably the best speech ever has given to the group during his years as interim and permanent commissioner. In it, he included an apology for the recent $4 billion in education funding cuts, plus the $1.4 billion carved out of the state education agency, much of which went to raising student achievement.

Too much has been loaded onto the state’s current accountability system, Scott said, a system which is dominated by a growing number of high-stakes tests that Scott generally supports. That includes a new requirement that high school students pass 12 end-of-course tests in order to graduate, starting with the Class of 2015.

“I believe that testing is good for some things, but the system that we created has become a perversion of its original intent,” Scott said, to thunderous applause from the school officials. “The intent to improve teaching and learning has gone too far afield, and I look forward to reeling it back in.”

So how does the education commissioner do that, when the power to broaden graduation requirements is given to the Legislature, and the power to set standards and curriculum is shared with the State Board of Education? In this case, Scott is going to turn to a provision in law added by Democrat Sen. Royce West when the accountability system recently was overhauled and new requirements added.

“As we move into implementation of end-of-course exams and STAAR, I believe that additional resources will be needed in the future,” Scott said. “And I will tell you that the legislative appropriations request that the agency makes to the next Legislature will reflect that, and I will say this as well, and this is going to get me in trouble when I tell you but the law says it anyway, I cannot and will not certify the ban on social promotions unless there are resources to provide interventions to students who need to pass the test. That is the law. And I cannot and will not do so unless those resources are appropriated by the next legislature.”

That’s one long complicated quote, right? And it’s hard to know, on its surface, exactly what it means without putting in a call from West, who has a clear understanding what such a decision might mean.

“When we passed the legislation several years ago – the legislation with all the social promotion consequences when kids failed to pass high-stakes testing – the state agreed that it would provide the resources necessary in order to make certain all students could pass the test,” West said. “I made the point that if the state doesn’t live up to its part of this partnership, then the children shouldn’t be held accountable for the passage of those tests. That’s what’s meant by certifying.”

So this is how it would go down: Scott would carry an appropriations request to the Legislature. The Legislature would choose to either fund or partially fund that request. If Scott’s not sufficiently confident that the funding will cover the cost of higher standards in classrooms around the state, then he can choose not to certify and render the state’s entire testing system null and void.

How that would play out is hard to imagine and possibly a huge headache for lawmakers, many of whom are not enamored of the current testing system. Would tests count for school ratings but not for student performance? If that section of law is voided, even temporarily, how will students graduate?

“I wouldn’t say that takes the accountability system off the table, but if we’re not providing the resources, the kids shouldn’t be responsible for passing the tests,” West said. “We need to have the revenue necessary to provide the resources.”

How Scott, possibly in conjunction with higher education commissioner Raymund Paredes, would determine the magic number that constitutes sufficient funding is still an open question. West’s amendment was silent on that issue, possibly giving Scott broad latitude to decide sufficient funding levels.

For his part, West, who fought for additional education funding last session, is happy to hear Scott’s commitment to funding.

“I applaud the commissioner for recognizing and taking this responsibility seriously,” West said. “He needs to make certain that the state does its part to get the resources to the classroom for this high-stakes testing that we’re doing in Texas.”

By Kimberly Reeves

Copyright January 31, 2012, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved


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The key is to work together

It always amazes me to hear the arguments when it comes to school reform. Most pundits propose simple answers: better teachers, better accountability, no more testing, more fine arts, more early education, more charter schools, better post high school options … many are viable and yet, all of these work on only a part of the problem.

Communities in Schools works to keep kids in school because research shows that in the end, it is best for all parties involved. The model consists of placing a social worker in schools that want one. These social workers serve as a resource aggregator for teachers and administrators to get what the student needs to be successful. Sometimes it is as simple as a new pair of eye glasses. Oftentimes it is much more complicated. But ours is one part of the solution. Instead of battling it out over the “best” solution, why don’t we look at the problem like it is … a really tough, complex and important problem to fix. We have been talking about reform for more than 50 years … don’t you think it is time to work together to make it happen? I found this from a local media outlet from the fall outlining a program to prevent drop outs. Working together, we can make a difference.

http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2011/09/09/city-leaders-knocking-on-doors-to-find-school-dropouts/

Stacy Landreth Grau
Community in Schools Tarrant County Board Member