School Funding Poses Hurdle for Texas Lawmakers
Texas lawmakers have tentatively approved a budget that will bring major cuts to education, though its final passage is being delayed as they take part in a special session to consider potentially far-reaching changes in the state's funding formula for schools.
Under the spending plan approved by both legislative chambers, which are controlled by Republicans, schools stand to receive about $4 billion less in formula funding over the next two years than is required by law to account for enrollment growth and other factors—about a 6 percent decrease.
Those bleak numbers are, by one measure, not as bad as they might have been, given that lawmakers were considering $10 billion in cuts earlier this year. The spending plan slashes an additional $1.5 billion from other education programs, including performance bonuses for teachers and administrators who raise student achievement and efforts to help academically struggling students.
All those provisions are part of a $172 billion biennial budget, which trims a total of $15 billion from the previous two-year cycle. The spending blueprint would still need to be approved by Gov. Rick Perry.
Yet the legislature’s work is not complete. The Republican governor called a special session, which began May 31, after Democratic lawmakers blocked passage of a second measure that would have allowed legislators to provide less than is required by the school funding formula.
Democrats had fought to increase spending levels, arguing that the state should dip into a $6.5 billion reserve fund before making cuts to schools and other programs. The GOP measure to change the funding formula was filibustered by Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis. Republicans failed to round up enough votes to get around the impasse, resulting in the special session, in which lawmakers are expected to debate potentially major changes to state law that would free them from having to fund schools at prescribed, formula amounts.
Despite the stalled legislation, Gov. Perry—a Republican who is considering a 2012 run for president—praised legislators’ work on the budget, saying it meets residents’ demand to hold down spending.
“The voters of Texas made it clear last November that they wanted a leaner, more efficient state government with no new taxes,” Mr. Perry said in a May 31 statement.
Originally, when lawmakers were planning to chop $10 billion from the schools’ budget, some advocates feared that between 60,000 and 100,000 school employees would lose their jobs. The latest numbers, while unappealing, should lead to fewer layoffs, said Dominic Giarratani, an assistant director for governmental relations at the Texas Association of School Boards. Districts have been giving teachers notices of layoffs based on rough estimates of how much state aid was coming, he said.
“A lot of them had planned for the worst-case scenario, and they will get to invite some employees back,” Mr. Giarratani said. “The ones who tried to wish for the best-case scenario may have to let some people go.”
Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a spokeswoman for the Texas Association of School Administrators, predicted that Texas will continue to struggle until it addresses structural problems in how the state pays for schools, particular given rising state student enrollments.
Schools “are going to have to fight really hard to maintain quality programs,” she said.
Another Republican-sponsored bill introduced during the special session seeks to ease the pressures on districts by allowing them to furlough teachers, with a pay cut in accordance with the number of days reduced. “By providing several options—including furloughs and salary decreases—we will be able to save teacher jobs,” said Republican state Sen. Florence Shapiro, a sponsor of the measure, in a statement.
But Rita C. Haecker, the president of the 70,000-member Texas State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, says the proposal will undermine the caliber of the profession.
“By lowering salaries even more, it’s going to encourage more people to leave the classroom even sooner,” Ms. Haecker said. “I don’t think the legislature is looking at the big picture.”
Vol. 30, Issue 33