One of the key issues in the upcoming state legislative election is going to be school finance. With the first of two expected lawsuits already out there, and so many House races in particular in play, we should start hearing a lot of “for the children” and “but it isn’t a fair system” rhetoric as filing approaches.
In fact, we are already hearing it from some quarters, in two notable races in particular. Down in HD 57, where sits Rep. Marva Beck, the Republican who took out the iniquitous Democrat Jim Dunnam in 2010, Republican Trent Ashby has declared his candidacy. Leaving aside the questionable necessity of a primary duel in a seat only recently turned Republican, Ashby should raise eyebrows in a different sense. He’s the president of the Lufkin ISD school board. Lufkin is notable as one of the first school districts to sign on to the school finance lawsuit against the state of Texas; even more notable is the fact that the district’s board of trustees voted to spend up to $1 per weighted average daily attendance (WADA) on their effort in the lawsuit. That’s taxpayer money being used to sue the state of Texas, in case you’re wondering.
Ashby says he’s not campaigning on getting more money for schools, but he is definitely campaigning on the idea that Texas’ school finance system is “unfair.” That’s the essence of the lawsuit he is backing (he told the Lufkin Daily News that he hopes the litigation will “compel the Legislature to do something”). The question I have for Mr. Ashby is what kind of solution he plans to propose as a legislator – is he willing to address the issues of tax rate reform, appraisal reform, and financial accountability and restraint?
The other race, in the open seat in Dallas’ HD 115 features Bennett Ratliff, son of the former lieutenant governor and brother of the lobbyist sitting on the State Board of Education. Ratliff has garnered the endorsement recently of Rep. Diane Patrick (R-Arlington), notable for her history in the Texas Parent PAC’s first major victory in 2006. Patrick took out then-House Education Committee chairman Kent Grusendorf, and is currently making noise that she might jump into a state senate race. The Parent PAC’s reputation was solidified with Patrick’s 2006 win; they later supported Ratliff’s brother Thomas in his race for the SBOE, against conservative stalwart Don McLeroy in 2010. Ratliff’s rhetoric suggests his stripes are very similar to his brother’s and to his endorser’s. But the same question as that for Ashby applies. What solutions will Ratliff champion, if elected?
One thing’s sure. The Texas Parent PAC’s head honcho, Carolyn Boyle, told the Save Texas Schools conference this summer that she believes 40 seats in the Legislature are in play, and that this issue is going to play a role in many of them. The PAC hasn’t given any money since December 2010, and their July semi-annual report showed them with just under $12,000 on hand – not that their next report won’t show some action, of course. Whatever role they play in the upcoming election, their candidates are still out there, and it will be important for Republican primary voters in particular to look out for these candidates and find out just how they plan to address school finance and the other problems our schools face.