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School Dazed

January 28th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Polls  |  10 Comments

Over at DadCentric, The Holmes wrote an appropriately pissed piece this week about the school budget crisis in Austin, where he lives:

Now the situation is looking downright grim. The State of Texas faces a budget shortfall of no less than $15 billion, a number so large that it doesn’t even seem real. People who study these things have calculated that you could close every prison in the state and still not close the gapEvery prison in Texas, y’all! And you know how we love us some prisons.

Of course, this spells trouble for school districts across the state. Here in Austin, the school district is looking down the barrel of a budget gap of $100 million. They’re talking layoffs of hundreds of employees. They’re talking school closures, and not just for poorly performing-schools. In short, they’re talking about major reductions in one of the most important government funded services in existence, reductions which have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of said service. Even schools that are doing a lot of things right are on the chopping block.


While I know there are amazing innovations happening quietly in classrooms all over the city, the ones we’ve been hearing the most about lately are being done with scissors and red ink. Cut, cut, slash.

I love that line, and he’s right. The most “amazing innovations” do seem to be in new ways to screw public education. It’s like the Kama Sutra of school-budget-slashing.

I was hoping to respond to his post a little earlier, but I didn’t get to in part because I was finishing a feature—in the new issue of Time Magazine, but not yet available online—about the very similar fecklessness of Arizona’s politics. That state faces a $2.1 billion deficit, which isn’t surprising or particularly unusual. What is unusual is the pledge of most of the leading politicians not to raise taxes no matter what.

This has left, of course, cuts, some of them truly ugly. In the educational arena alone, college counseling has been cut, dropout prevention programs slashed. All-day kindergarten is a thing of the past (just think what that does to working families, who suddenly have to pick up a child hours earlier each day, with no extra support for child care). All of this hitting a school system that was already one of the poorest-performing in the nation. It got ugly enough that the voters of Arizona actually went to the polls last year to raise taxes on themselves in order to fund education. For anyone familiar with California’s proposition system, the idea that the public would make mature decisions—the kind of tough choices their leaders are too afraid to make—at the ballot box is pretty stunning.

One education program hasn’t been touched, however: a program that gives income-tax breaks to any family who sends their kid to private school. That’s right: wealthy families who were sending their kids to private school anyway get a tax break for it, which means less money for the state’s general fund, and, by extension, for public schools.

I appreciate holding public schools accountable. And I am no Randi Weingarten acolyte. But one big problem with the education debate these days is that it is often very hard to tell who is in favor of shaping up the public school system and who just wants to blow it up.

While I was reporting on that piece, I was getting a very different bit of news back home. Having been stymied in our attempts to enroll Dalia in public pre-K last year (as we’ve talked about here before, Universal Pre-K is not quite Universal if there isn’t money for enough seats), we had to send her to private pre-K this year. It actually worked out great—we love the school, the teachers, the parents, the administration. The price tag was manageable, in part because we were given help by the school. But while I was working on the Arizona reporting, we got word that, if we were going to try to enroll our son in preschool, there wouldn’t be any financial aid. And tuition, in a delightfully countercyclical fashion, has gone up yet again. The price tag: $31,000 for preschool, almost three times what we paid this year for our daughter.

$31,000 for preschool.

I know–it’s a private school in Manhattan, a town that somehow still has obscene firehoses of wealth that wash away the rest of us. And we are thrilled to be sending our daughter to public kindergarten next year (although there was a waitlist at our zoned elementary last year). But where does that leave our younger kid? He’s a preschooler. He wants school, he’s ready for it. We can’t afford a fulltime babysitter much longer, so we’re ready for a school for him, too. But there’s no public option, except for the low-income families who are under the very needed umbrella of New York’s Administration for Child Services.

We found a Montessori school that seems to have less usurious rates. I hope it takes him in. But I have a feeling that throughout this city, this state, and this country, there are a lot of families going through different versions of this: how do we find the money to be able to work and have our kids looked after and educated? I suspect things will work out over here, after a little hustling. And most people probably patch together solutions. But as our own individual little dramas solve themselves, it’s still worth asking: why don’t we solve all of them once and for all? Recognize that families are facing impossible decisions. Make early childhood education a priority. Make it available, affordable. I’ll pay more taxes if that’s what it takes. Beats the hell out of paying $31,000.


  1. Tim says:

    January 28th, 2011at 9:20 am(#)

    I’m really hoping the next few years will be a wakeup call for the public that they really could afford a few more taxes to get what they need.
    Every dollar cut at the federal level just seems to add two more dollars on my property tax anyway.
    The Texas tax issue is even more disgusting since Texas was never hit in any substantial way by the recession. They should have been able to tighten their belts a tiny bit and made it through, instead they cut business and rural property taxes.

  2. Nathan says:

    January 28th, 2011at 9:54 am(#)

    That’s a good point, Tim. I hadn’t really considered the fact that Texas just hasn’t been savaged like the rest. But belt-tightening is contagious, especially when it’s done by people who send their kids to private school or homeschool anyway…

  3. Holmes says:

    January 28th, 2011at 10:19 am(#)

    It often feels like many of the decision makers really do want to sabotage the whole thing so badly that it all goes down the toilet, making a real quality education something that only the children of the wealthy can have. After being reinstated, our governor declared voter ID to be the top legislative priority. Declared it an emergency in fact. “Fuck the students,” he said, “I got a xenophobic base to serve.”

  4. William says:

    January 28th, 2011at 11:50 am(#)

    I posted this over at Dadcentric but wanted to also add to discussion here. I currently live in the Fort Worth area I just read that our school district, Keller ISD, having a $16 milllion shortage. They are going to have to ask voters for a property tax increase. It would be about an additional $250 per household per year in property taxes. If it does not pass we will have layoffs and large increases in class size next year.

    I am all for it. Our communities are only as strong as our schools. Being a transplant from California I have seen what happens when people are willing to let their school lose funding and it hurts everyone. Not just kids and their parents, but the whole community.

    The problem with Texas is that it can not continue to act like a small state when it is growing as fast as it is. Just look at our highways/roads. The population growth has outpaced the roads capacity and people are upset. People are mad that the current solution of toll roads continues to grow, but at the same time people here don’t want to pay a higher gas tax to pay for new roads. You cant have it both ways.

    If Texas is going to be a “big state” than it has to start acting like one. That means better funding for all schools, highways/roads, healthcare, police/fire, etc. This no new taxes ever will create a huge mess if the Governor (good luck on that) and Legislature (also unlikely) don’t start dealing with the reality we find ourselves in.

    You can’t be 1st world anything with a 3rd world revenue stream.

  5. Nathan says:

    January 28th, 2011at 12:19 pm(#)

    @Holmes. Ha. That’s a fine translation of the coded language of pandering politicians. I mention in the Time piece a similarly confounding legislative priority: faced with a crushing budget crisis, the Arizona legislature introduced a bill yesterday challenging the 14th Amendment. A bill whose entire stated purpose is to provoke an expensive court battle. Sweet.

  6. Nathan says:

    January 28th, 2011at 12:25 pm(#)

    @William–thanks for the input. Funny you should be shaped by your time in California. I think back to having grown up in Florida, which had a large senior community actively committed to screwing over young families and kids. Essentially: they won’t be using schools ever, and what the hell are kids wearing today anyway and so on, so they fought every type of funding increase or initiative. But when that dopey teen comes and snatches your purse, it’s not because he’s too well-educated.

  7. Tim says:

    January 28th, 2011at 12:26 pm(#)

    Having a kid start school changed my life almost as much as my life was changed by having a kid in the first place, if that makes sense.

    I used to spend my “leisure time” doing what most men my age do: watching sports, playing fantasy sports, occasionally playing actual sports, seeing some movies, listening to music, etc. Once my oldest hit kindergarten, though, it’s been all educational issues all the time, whether it’s books, blogs, going to meetings, negotiating the insanity of NYC public schools, and so forth. It’s not an unhappy development, but I’m just saying . . .

    If you live in a district/zone where there is any kind of resource scarcity, and that’s most of us, you really need to keep your eye on the ball and go the extra mile with advocating for your children. Don’t assume anything or take anything for granted – particularly, as I’ve commented here before, if your child is a good student in a class with lots of kids who are struggling.

    I think all but a handful of misanthropes would agree that every child should have access to a quality education at a safe facility that isn’t unreasonably far from her home. After that, though, there really isn’t any issue that isn’t complicated or debatable.

  8. LOD says:

    January 28th, 2011at 1:25 pm(#)

    @Tim: That totally makes sense. The rigors of wrangling a newborn are but prologue to the research and report cards and attention to minutiae. When my 5yo was “accepted” into his brother’s public school, I thought I’d reserved that sort of exuberance for, say, inheriting a private Caribbean island.

  9. William says:

    January 28th, 2011at 2:04 pm(#)

    @Tim….funny you say that about changing your life. I know that experience so well. Changed our life so much that we moved from Cali to Texas and I have become a full time SAHD. I have done the SAHD thing a couple of time period specific when the kids were first born, but it seems the kids are doing so much better with me home. 2 of them getting straight A’s now. But it is really a full time job. Constant homework and projects. Then when you add in any after schoool program it just adds to the hours it takes to raise your kids.

    I love being a SAHD. Just amazed at how much time is spent on getting the kids through each day. Also wonder how I did it when I worked fulltime. Crazy.


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