I’m Not an Economist but I Will Play One in Court

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If it’s budget time in Texas, the solution to school funding must be vouchers. Or, at least, that seems to be the solution according to Joseph Bast, president and CEO of Heartland Institute, a witness for Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, or TREE as they call themselves. I’m assuming Real Efficiency (not fake efficiency, mind you) involves not using all the letters of your name in your acronym, but I guess that beats spelling Tree with three E’s and then pretending you care about education. Plus, your business cards are cheaper if you use fewer letters.

For those of you who live outside Texas, every 10 years or so, our school districts sue the state in the hopes of getting fair, equal, and adequate funding for public education and every 10 years our legislators moan and groan while they let the courts make all the difficult decisions. They then campaign as victims of activist judges who have removed local control and, since Texas believes in grossly under-funding most essential services at the state level (forcing local governments to raise taxes or do without), they travel across the state and social media touting school vouchers and school choice as the pathway to efficiency. Let education, they tell us, be market driven. Taxpayers fund the lawsuit, the lawyers get rich, and our funding mechanism remains a mystery to the rest of us.

I’m not opposed to the basic concept of school choice, vouchers, or charter schools. In fact, I’m pretty much in favor of the charter school concept mostly because it allows educators to open a school independent of many state regulations that force our public school principles to wade through a river of paperwork every day. Administrators in charter schools have the ability to hire and fire teachers, develop their own accountability systems, work outside the demands of standardized testing, and they have greater budget authority. Hell, if we gave public schools those things we wouldn’t need charter schools or vouchers.

And we clearly need to do something about using property taxes to fund public schools. We don’t need a lawsuit to tell us such a system creates massive inequities in per student spending.

But I’m not writing about vouchers or charter schools today. I’m writing because Mr. Bast, president and CEO of the Heartland Institute, serving as a witness for TREE (E), a group that is not a plaintiff in the case, “has not graduated from college and holds no degree in economics, though he considers himself an economist” and he admits that “neither of the two reports he co-authored, which were entered into evidence, have been peer-reviewed.” In essence, Mr. Bast isn’t qualified to be a credible source on a student research project but he is allowed to testify in a Texas courtroom because, without any credentials or evidence to the contrary, he has declared himself an economist. He may not be able to solve public education’s funding issues, but he just solved our higher ed problems. No more pesky classes, tuition, or professors: we will grant degrees by personal fiat. Today I am a (fill in the blank). If you spell the career choice correctly, you can grant yourself the degree. Have a party this weekend, smoke some dope, and you can have the college experience before your parents turn your room into an office.

And, in a state that loves school vouchers and grasps at anything that will cut funding to social programs, Bast admits “no government entity in the state of Texas ever has agreed with [his] analysis of savings.”

So. If I have this correct: he’s not qualified, he hasn’t submitted his ideas to review, and no one agrees with him. He’s the perfect witness. I’m just not sure for which side.

We wonder why our funding models are so awful? Shame on Judge Dietz. Shame on TREE (E–just add the damn E!). And Shame on Mr. Bast. A court is no place for amateur-hour.

Perhaps, if I might be so bold as to suggest, if we only allowed witnesses with some measure of expertise to testify the trial would go faster, we would save some money in legal fees, and we could funnel those dollars into the classroom. Just spit-balling that idea.

And, more importantly, next time Mr. Bast wants to act the expert, he can just start a blog like the rest of us.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

3 Responses to I’m Not an Economist but I Will Play One in Court

  1. I don’t know if you were teaching yet, when Ann Richards was governor. She was an interesting governor (though I just read up on her, and I see she was the governor who signed Texas’ “homosexual conduct” law). Any idea what state funding was like during her tenure?

    • John Wegner says:

      I was just starting out teaching. Ann Richards was a great governor, but school funding has never been all that great in Texas. Richards started the lottery in Texas in an attempt at equalizing funding (although the money went to the general fund instead of education) and she also was gov. when we created the Robin Hood (take from rich districts and give to poor) in response to, you guessed it, a lawsuit. Texas problems with educational funding, in large part, stem from using property taxes as the sole funding mechanism for schools. If you live in a wealthy district, your school has money. If you live in a poor area, your school has less money.

      • Property tax has other problems too, not the least of which is the inequality, in many towns, between people who have owned their home for 30 years, and people who just bought theirs yesteday. Add to that the volatility of the market, alongside the every-10-years-or-so reappraisal of a town, and the whole thing is a shambles.

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