Herman: Mars’ role in the future of Texas public education

Mars, people. The solution to what is always the biggest challenge our state faces will come from Mars. Or, says a leading state lawmaker, from people who make believe they’re from Mars.

The suggestion came in inspiring and instructive remarks made late Tuesday by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, as the special legislative session approached its end and he rose to express remorse that lawmakers had done nothing to fix a public school finance system that’s just flat-out out of whack. Lawmakers OK’d some spending changes but left the overall system intact.

I’ve long surmised that Texas suffers under three things that are relics from another time: An 1876 state constitution that’s been amended 491 times. A state university structure divided into six systems and several freestanding institutions. And more than 1,000 independent school districts. All three of those made sense when created in a long-past past.

And odds are good none of the three, if created from scratch today, would look anything like they do. But all continue to exist, sometimes to our detriment, largely because they always have. Change is challenging. The status quo is a powerful force.

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That’s where Mars comes in, at least in Whitmire’s mind. He mentioned the relatively close planet in discussing the public education finance system that will be the focus of a legislatively created commission. Whitmire, who’s been in the Senate since 1983 and is the chamber’s senior member, wants the commission to ponder a couple of political third rails: school district mergers and a state income tax.

Let’s be clear: He’s not calling for either but wants them considered.

First, finance, specifically the local property taxes that are a backbone of how we pay for schools. Whitmire, ever the realist, told his colleagues that local property taxes can’t be reduced “without replacing it with another source of revenue.”

“Don’t leave here tonight saying I’m for it,” he said of a state income tax. “But the bottom line is we have to look at all of our options.”

So there’s third rail No. 1.

No. 2 is equally, if not more, challenging, a notion Whitmire acknowledged would take great “political courage” to address.

“We don’t need 1,050 school districts,” he said. “I come through Brenham, which is an outstanding school district, and you go five minutes up (U.S.) 290 and you got Burton, which is another fine school district. I left Whitney, Texas, in ’65. I go back up there to visit with my old friends in Hill County, and every time I go up there seems like there’s another school district. Aquilla’s got one. Blum’s got one.”

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So Whitmire’s radical idea is to put all school districts through a sunset process to justify their existence, perhaps with an eye towards mergers of all or some functions. We might find some districts are too small and some too large.

“There will be circumstances like Lajitas that can’t travel three hours into Alpine, so that Lajitas needs maybe a 60-student school district,” Whitmire said. “But why don’t we make (Houston’s school district) justify their 200,000 students. Maybe they’ve gotten so large they literally can’t run that size school district.”

What’s he’s saying has been said for years, but never acted on. It’s hard to change things that have always been, and that changing might cause folks to lose jobs.

“We ought to attempt to play like we just landed from Mars,” Whitmire told colleagues. “Don’t worry about the employee groups. … Don’t listen to administrators. … Why don’t we play like we just landed from Mars and just start from scratch? What would you want your school system to look like? … I promise you we’d come out with a pretty good model.”

Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood and sponsor of the measure creating the commission that will study public education, said he’s on board with the notion.

“I think the commission is going to get a great start on getting us into the 21st century,” Taylor said. “We’re 17 years in. We’re a little bit late to the party, but we can do it.”

And there was this earthly yet pie-in-the-sky suggestion from Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound and a longtime player in public education: “If I could pass one law and go home it would be that every child had somebody in their lives that cared about what happened in school. Turn off the TV. Do your homework. Go to school on time. But not every child is fortunate enough to have that.”

Such a simple and sadly unreachable goal. A state income tax and school district mergers are far more realistic goals than a state where 100 percent of parents properly parent.

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