It's wise, particularly at election time, to be leery of folks who simultaneously promise to cut taxes and improve schools. Be even more cautious if they say they also believe in free-market economics.
The idea of a free market presumes that supply will meet demand, and a price that reflects that balance will somehow work out. The problem with public school finance is that legislators tend to under-fund it, and then wonder why results aren't as good as they'd like.
Decades ago, before women's liberation, some Texans were fortunate enough to enjoy a captive population of smart women teachers, whose only other work alternative outside the home was to be a secretary or nurse. We didn't pay them much because we didn't have to.
But now, women can be lawyers, doctors, lobbyists, journalists, airline pilots. And the smart ones can count. They know they can make a lot more money in those other professions than they ever could as Texas teachers.
Rather than truly observing the idea of a free market, and paying what it takes to get a steady stream of the best and brightest in our classrooms, most Texas leaders try to do it on the cheap.
There seems to be a tendency for Texas legislators to tell teachers, "If you get better, we'll pay you more." We are fortunate to have a considerable number of smart and dedicated teachers, despite the "conservative" reluctance to spend more on schools.
Some Texas legislative leaders complain that no matter how much they offer to pay for teacher salaries, it's never considered enough. The teachers always want more. But it takes a 3 percent increase per year just to keep up with inflation.
If the Legislature would try putting up the money for a truly first-class system - including truly significant salaries and small class sizes - we'd see a lot more first-class teachers in classrooms, and a lot more first-class students coming out. If you build it, they will come.
Some countries - and some states - treat their teachers with reverence, and pay them well. Those governments understand that the most important thing in their children's lives is education.
Former U. S. Rep. Chris Bell, the Democratic candidate for governor, has called for a "moon shot" on education. Bell says if America could meet its 1960s goal of putting a man on the moon within the decade, surely Texas could make its schools the best in the nation in a similar amount of time.
Bell cautions that just putting more money in the existing school system isn't enough. In the computer and information age, we must re-evaluate how best to spend it.
Indeed, we should put a laptop computer in the hands of every Texas kid old enough to operate one, have teachers who know how to use them, and provide technical support.
We should involve our public universities more in the public school process, to help make the transition to higher education more seamless.
We should have good after-school programs, run by a cooperative consortium of agencies like libraries, parks and recreation, law enforcement, housing, and health. It would allow us not only to combat delinquency by keeping kids off the streets in a healthy environment, but it would allow the students to extend their education day.
Not enough Texas lawmakers have figured out that our best resource is our people. We need to educate and train them as well as possible. If it takes more money, so be it. It's in the long-term best interest of all of us.
Conserving and developing those young minds is truly conservative.
Reach McNeely at dmcneely@austin. rr.com or (512) 458-2963.