Getting the Public Out of Education

by Ryan

The step from demagoguery to enacting real policy change can be remarkably short, and a prime example of this is on full display in Texas right now.

In 2003 state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, had this to say about the state’s obligation to provide public education for its citizens:

“Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education, free medical care, free whatever? It comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell. And it’s cleverly disguised as having a tender heart. It’s not a tender heart. It’s ripping the heart out of this country.”

At the time, Riddle’s remarks were roundly decried as a dangerous, fringe opinion.

Fast forward to 2011, when state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, says almost the same thing, albeit in more diplomatic language. Acknowledging that the school finance plan currently under consideration does away with the longstanding guarantee that Texas schools would get enough money to provide a basic, foundational education for each student, Patrick is quoted in today’s Austin American-Statesman:

“[The school finance change in the new budget] is a true cut in an entitlement… There are no guarantees, and for a Legislature to say we can guarantee this forever is not being straightforward to the people.”

The difference between the two statements is that the former represents the opinion of a single, bitter legislator. The latter will actually become the state’s official policy, if and when the new school finance plan is passed into law. And yet Patrick’s remarks have not, as yet, provoked much of a response, much less a public outcry.

A larger question looms: when the state is no longer in the business of guaranteeing a fully funded education to its citizens, what becomes of education in Texas? A handful of lawmakers are already advancing their solution — Rep. Sid Miller’s private school voucher proposal, filed in the current special legislative session as HB 33, was assigned to the House Government Efficiency & Reform committee earlier today. A cynical person might wonder if the timing of Patrick’s comment and the filing of HB 33 is not coincidental.

“Times have changed,” Patrick went on to tell the Statesman reporter. I’m afraid they are changing right before our eyes, but not many people are paying attention.