If nothing else, Tuesday’s meeting between two state lawmakers and members of the Waco City Council, McLennan County Commissioners Court, Waco Independent School District and McLennan Community College reinforced something political scientists have long recognized: One man’s conservatism is anything but to the next guy who, ironically, also believes himself a conservative. The two strains often break down into conservative ideologues, whose approach to problems is governed by rigidly held principles, and pragmatic conservatives, who see themselves governed by common sense and practical solutions as much as principles — maybe more so.
Too often, when one type of conservative clashes with the other, discussion falters and someone finally labels the other “liberal,” after which all discourse implodes. But that’s not exactly the preferred option when elected officials of different entities try to resolve differences in public (unless, of course, it’s on Facebook). This was evident at the Cooper Foundation Waco Leadership Forum’s joint convening of state and local officials to discuss 2017 legislative priorities.
Highlight: Waco ISD trustee and businessman Cary DuPuy, a pro-business conservative long given to championing free-market principles, calling out state lawmakers about the certainty that conservative ideologues will again press school-choice legislation. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, vows to pass a bill funneling public-school taxpayer money into the sometimes clandestine world of private and religious schools.
The ideology: Make sure parents get a choice of where to send their kids for an education, especially since public schools aren’t always up to the task.
DuPuy tells me that, as a political conservative, he isn’t at all opposed to school choice. What outrages him — particularly when Waco ISD is under intense state scrutiny over three low-performing campuses hindered by chronic poverty — is the idea charter and private schools can skirt standards by which public schools must rigorously abide. He voices concern about private schools picking off promising students while ejecting the “problem students” who then wind up back in the public schools where they can drive down academic scores and campus rankings, thus reinforcing political rhetoric about failing public schools.
“Charter schools and private [schools] tend to poach or select out our highest-performing students and inevitably what we get left with a lot of times are the more challenging prospects for getting them up to grade level or testing at or above state standards,” DuPuy told state Sen. Brian Birdwell and Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, both Republicans. “And in the charter schools and, of course, the private, if you’re not behaving the way they want you to behave, if you’re not performing the way they want you to perform, they have the option of kicking you back to the public school system. That makes our job that much more difficult.”
Birdwell, a Patrick lieutenant who in the past has voiced support for school choice on the grounds it will “increase educational competition and affirm parents having a choice,” repeated that rationale Tuesday. He insisted that “ultimately the parent and the taxpayer is the customer and we want to afford that customer the greatest number of options and the greatest number of choices for what that parent believes is best for their child because it’s about protecting that parent’s right to make those choices.”
DuPuy wasn’t having much of it. He insisted if public-school money is to be rerouted to private schools, then private schools should follow the same standards of accountability and regulation that harness public schools: “We’re being told the charter schools are getting it done and public schools are failing miserably. And we’re not playing the same game by the same rules. And y’all aren’t requiring them to do so. I’d like to hear some talk about that down there. All I hear is the wonders of private enterprise and how it’s going to fix public education.”
When Anderson sought to explain how some charter schools ensure equity by selecting students by lottery, DuPuy was lying in wait. Alluding to the fact that wealthier parents are often more informed than poor parents and have greater flexibility to pursue such alternatives, he snapped: “If you’re depending on the parents to apply for a lottery, that’s a screen in itself. You take the whole population into your lottery. And you can provide the transportation, too, because the really poor can’t afford to get to your charter school.”
At another point, Birdwell expounded on the state constitution’s Article VII ensuring public schools can’t be privatized, but that wasn’t at all what DuPuy was talking about. At one point DuPuy said he would be satisfied if the two lawmakers made his points in Austin when debate erupts in a few weeks: “I just want it to be an honest conversation. I’m counting on you two to keep it an honest conversation.”
This disconnect showed up again when the discussion shifted to concerns that legislators will again bow to taxpayer rage and rein in schools, cities and counties by forcing them to go to voters whenever they want to raise taxes more than 4 percent in a single year. At some legislative hearings, city and county officials have protested, noting that the most significant tax hikes have come from schools.
But it’s far more complicated than even that, something that has escaped taxpayers’ notice. As an excellent Texas Tribune story reported last week, the Legislature has quietly used the benefits of rising property values to pad its own budget and pay out less to public schools, forcing school boards to forgo cuts they ordinarily might have made in property tax rates. Instead, they must raise taxes because the Legislature allocates less and less money to them — 38.4 percent now, contrasted with nearly 45 percent eight years ago.
To quote K. Paul Holt, McLennan Community College board chairman: “It’s very difficult when we receive less funding for education and then there’s an overlay — it has been a threat over the last couple of sessions — of saying, ‘You can’t raise your taxes to compensate for what we’re not sending you [anymore] from Austin.’ It’s disingenuous. We try to keep everything as low as possible, but just in my tenure we’ve gone from about 82 percent state funding down to about 18 percent. And it’s kind of tough.”
And when Birdwell explained the effort to further cap tax hikes is because people’s wages are stagnating while property tax valuations are increasing, Councilman and local banker John Kinnaird — a conservative who has repeatedly voted against city regulations — reminded Birdwell he had left something out of this equation:
“I think it’s important to note that while the median income, that increase is an average, there are many, many more people earning that income. So you’re looking at aggregate revenue growth from the property-tax collection standpoint versus an average that’s being earned by many, many more people. What are we adding — 1,000 to 1,500 people a day to our state? And just this last year in our property-tax increase, fully over half of it came from new construction and the other half from valuation increases. So when you look at that, you have to be able to retain the ability to provide the services of public safety and utilities and roads that this [new] growth demands.”
So it went, including when County Judge Scott Felton — who made his support for the Republican presidential ticket known on Nov. 3 — complained of unfunded state mandates, including one that is a particular thorn in counties statewide — public defense services for poor people accused of crime: “Some years back, indigent defense was paid for by the state. Now it’s kicked to the counties and it’s grown at an absolutely tremendous rate. Go look that one up, because that will be a good one to show what’s happening to whoever’s responsible for the feeding and care of inmates.”
If Anderson and Birdwell scored any points Tuesday, it might have been when DuPuy pointedly suggested hiking the state gasoline tax slightly and thus funneling more money to road construction and maintenance across the state. Birdwell reminded the school board member that a fourth of the revenue goes not to road construction but to schools. But beyond that, it seemed everyone present had clearly reached a fork in the proverbial road to Austin with no assurances where anyone was headed next.