Republicans, State Sen. Craig Estes, District 30, and his challenger Pat Fallon, were among the politicians who addressed a group of Texoma educators Thursday night at Grayson College.
While the two men have varying ideas on a number of things, they agreed that school vouchers are not the way to fix what is broken in the Texas Education system. They also agreed that the state needs to do away with the STAAR test. They both also agreed that the state should better fund both the teacher retirement system and its health care system.
“I will not tell you what you want to hear,” Fallon said. “I will tell you what I honestly believe.” He said he thinks most of the folks will want to hear what he has to say but that isn’t why he is saying it. He said he has met with a lot of school superintendents while he has been campaigning and he thinks he knows how to address some of the problems he keeps hearing about.
The first question asked the candidates directly about the school choice and voucher issues.
Estes said he has supported school choice and vouchers in the past but has recently changed his mind.
“I do support additional money for public schools especially for teachers,” Estes said. He said he had supported a pilot program in an urban area where the students had very few choices for a good education. Those school districts, he said, were outside of District 30.
“I am opposed to what (Lt. Gov.) Dan Patrick and Empower Texas plan to take money from rural property taxpayers and rural school districts,” he said before admitting that he did vote to support a voucher program for students with special needs.
Estes said he wants people to know that he can change his mind about things when the facts change. He also said that the state of Texas has what he called a “golden opportunity” to change its public school system now that it is not being mandated to by the court system.
Fallon said he has been against the voucher system since September and has not made any changes to his thoughts in the last week before the election. He said he has not seen any substantive data that shows that vouchers will offer a better education for Texas school children over all. “I am not saying it doesn’t exist, but I haven’t seen any,” he said. He said that other states are using the voucher system and there is no proof that it is working for them. Additionally, he said, there are very few private school options for the mostly rural districts in Senate District 30.
The next question asked the candidates what changes to school funding through property taxes they would propose. Estes said he has been around that block a time or two. “I was there in 2005 when Gov. (Rick) Perry created the bipartisan committee to study this issue and as you remember we compressed the tax rate from $1.50 to $1.00 for $100 assessed property value. And for the most part that was a big failure because we failed to revise the business franchise tax to a margins tax.”
Estes said they are looking at it again, but there are 101 ideas on how to do it. He said the one thing that is clear is that the state must step up and shoulder its fair share of the burden of the cost of education. He said he is a product of the public school system as are his three children.
Fallon said they shouldn’t divert money from one thing to the other. He said if the politicians tell people money is going for one thing, they shouldn’t use it to pay for something else. Additionally, he said, one way to free up more money for education would be to end Medicare fraud and then spend the money that is going to waste due to that on education. He said the state currently loses as much as $8 billion on Medicare fraud.
“That would be a game changer,” Fallon said. He also said that tightening up illegal immigration would help Texas schools have more money. Fallon said that the illegal immigration of non-English speaking students puts pressure on the Texas education system to teach those students. He said the whole property tax system is based upon the idea that one gets taxed on their house and then it pays to educate their children and that doesn’t work, he said, if people are living in apartments with more than one family living in a single apartment.
Another question asked the two what they think about the current system of accountability testing and what they would put in its place?
Fallon said he has never heard anyone stand up for STAAR testing and yet it has been in place for six years. “I am all for repeal and replace.” He said they do need some sort of accountability testing so that people know they are getting what they are paying for, but that doesn’t have to be as complex as the current level of testing. Estes agreed that STAAR should be repealed.
Estes said the current system is an obstacle to teachers doing their jobs. He the current system has failed to take include input from the teachers and school administrators. He said there must be accountability but it must be designed at a local level.
Another question asked the two what the would do to fix the funding for the teacher retirement system.
Fallon said they just recently voted to put additional money into that system but it is still underfunded. He said the answer is that the state must prioritize where it spends money and education, including taking care of teachers both retired and active, must be second on that list next to public safety.
Estes said the Lt. Governor’s staff said they wouldn’t fund anything over half a billion dollars. He said given that limitation, the senate did the best it could do. He said the state has tapped into the Rainy Day Fund for roads and water and it may have to do so again for the teachers. Estes cautioned that two-thirds of each of the state’s legislative bodies would have to vote to do so, but he said, the issue is serious enough that it warrants that sort of a solution.