State legislators will be making decisions over the next few months that will determine the success or failure of millions of young Texans who will pass through public school doors for years to come. The state’s current budget problems have cast a spotlight on public school district funding woes that have been brewing for years – before national and state budgets were everyday news.
The economic downturn in Texas has legislators staring at glaring holes in the state’s revenue estimates for the upcoming biennium and has exposed a $4 billion shortfall in the current 2010-11 biennium. Using the Texas comptroller’s revenue estimate of $77.3 billion for the 2012-13 biennium, the state is facing two budget deficits: a $15 billion deficit if legislators decide to fund all state agencies at 2010-11 biennium levels or a $27 billion deficit if they decide to fund all agencies at what is required to adequately fund state services taking population growth and other factors into account.
Legislative leaders have been adamant about not raising taxes to address the budget shortfall, and many legislators have gone back and forth on accessing the $9 billion Rainy Day Fund to help fill the gap. This would be catastrophic for public school districts that have been operating under a broken school finance system for years.
The current school finance debacle started in 2006. That is when legislators, determined to lower property taxes for Texas homeowners, passed House Bill 1. In essence, the bill reduced local property taxes by one third and increased the state share of education spending to make up for the loss in local revenue. What this bill also did was freeze state funding for school districts at 2006 levels based on student attendance with no mechanism to account for inflation or the increasing costs of fuel, utilities and other district expenses. Districts do receive more money for additional students, but at 2006 funding levels.
Often you will hear politicians (think Governor Rick Perry during his State of the State address a few weeks ago) claim that Texas has “increased” state spending on public education by billions of dollars. While it’s technically true, the reason is because the state performed a tax swap with local school districts, which saw no net gain in revenue.
Traditionally, the state has devoted a substantial amount of funding for public schools. After health and human services, state spending on education represents the largest part of the state budget, spending over $30 billion during the 2010-11 biennium alone. And while you will hear some claim that Texas spends more on public education than many other states, much of that is due to the sheer size of our student population – currently 4.8 million students. Per-pupil spending in Texas, however, ranks near the bottom among the other 49 states and the District of Columbia – with most studies ranking the state in the bottom third.
Some might think that public education’s share of the state budget makes it the natural place to start when discussing budget cuts, but cutting education funding would be a costly mistake that would have a negative impact on our kids and the state for years, if not decades, to come.
Over the past several years, the state has incrementally increased the academic standards students and schools must meet. Our students have generally met those state standards, but it has taken additional instruction, school resources and technology to get them there. Legislators will erase these gains made by schools and students if they cut public education funding.
With less funding available, districts that have the capacity will be forced to raise local taxes, others will have to cut staff and programs – most will find a solution that includes some combination of the two.
Make no mistake about it – if the legislature cuts funding for public education, the effects will be felt in the classroom. Because this crisis has been years in the making, districts have already reduced their budgets by cutting administrative positions, reducing program budgets and finding other creative ways to stretch public dollars. For many districts, any additional cuts will have to come in some part from personnel, which accounts for between 80 to 90 percent of district budgets.
If legislators are committed to providing generations of young Texans with equal opportunity and access to a free, high-quality education, they must be willing to do as school board members have done and will do: seek out all possible solutions to addressing public education needs. That includes searching for new revenue streams, accessing some of the Rainy Day Fund and not relying solely on cuts to balance the budget.
It is time to tell legislators to make education a priority and not balance the state budget on the backs of our kids.
Dax Gonzalez is the Communications Manager for the Texas Association of School Boards