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Lessons From Texas School Budget Woes

By Walt Gardner — April 23, 2012 3 min read
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Even in a behemoth like Texas, cuts of roughly $5.4 billion to public schools made during the last legislative session to balance the state’s two-year budget can’t be ignored. They’ve resulted in larger class sizes, more layoffs of teachers and support staff, and fewer services and supplies (“At Texas Schools, Making Do on a Shoestring,” The New York Times, Apr. 9). But the factors surrounding the cuts are less known. That’s unfortunate because they have application to other states as well.

First, the Texas Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that a cap on local school taxes amounted to an unconstitutional statewide property tax since many districts were at or near the limit (“Court rules state school finance system unconstitutional,” Houston Chronicle, Nov. 22, 2005). At the time, Texas was spending almost $10,000 per student, an amount that the court held satisfied the funding “adequacy” requirement of the state constitution. (By contrast, Texas spends $8,908 per student for the current school year.) But what made headlines in 2005 was the court’s declaration that “more money does not guarantee better schools or more educated students.”

Second, like all border states in the Southwest, Texas has a large number of undocumented children in its public schools. According to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, there were roughly 135,000 undocumented students in public schools during the 2004-05 school year. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe in 1982 that children of parents who are in the U.S illegally have the right to an education. No one wants to see them denied an opportunity to learn because of their parents’ status, but at the same time it’s important to remember that their growing presence in public schools adds to the budget shortfall. Since the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in 2005, an average of more than 80,000 students a year have been added to public schools in the state. Not all of the additional students are from undocumented families, of course, but their presence cannot be ignored. Despite the growth, the Legislature has not provided funding to cover the costs.

Third, an increasing number of school districts in Texas have been driven to engage in desperate strategies to raise additional revenue, such as selling advertisements on pieces of property (“Seeking Money, Texas Schools Turn to Advertisements,” The New York Times, Feb. 16). But these measures have produced revenue amounting to only a fraction of one percent of the overall budgets. Also disappointing is the business tax that was created to replace lost property tax revenue. It hasn’t come even close to doing so. As a result, it seems that Texas has finally run out of ideas.

The reflexive solution to what is happening to schools in Texas and - by extension - to schools in other states is to increase school funding. At least that’s been the way the problem has been addressed in the past. However, I agree with critics who say it’s not how much money is spent but how the money is spent. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District is broke and yet it recently spent $578 million to construct the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex on the site of the former Ambassador Hotel. This made the school the most expensive ever built in U.S. history.

But putting aside such extravagance, even the most prudent fiscal plans cannot possibly make up for draconian cuts. That’s why 64 percent of voters in California support Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to increase the sales tax and raise levies on upper incomes to help fund schools and balance the state budget, according to a recent poll by USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times. It also explains why the Corsicana Independent School District and other districts across Texas have recently joined together to challenge the way the state funds its public schools (“CISD joins legal action,” Corsicana Daily, Jan. 31). Let’s hope they win. If they don’t, public schools will deteriorate at an accelerated pace.

Correction: Expenditures per student in Texas for the 2004-05 school year were $7,823, according to the NEA Rankings and Estimates report.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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