The Lege has started the process of picking up where it left off on school finance. The Trib reminds us how we got here.
[T]he earlier failure of SB 1581, which put a behind-closed-doors conference committee in charge of any decisions about how to distribute $4 billion in cuts in state funding across school districts, was a dramatic warning of just how much further lawmakers had to go to find consensus on what they repeatedly called the “second most important bill” of the session. As lawmakers again tackle the issue in the special session the governor called on Tuesday, it is worth revisiting the demise of SB 1581.
Passing a new school finance plan, said veteran education consultant Lynn Moak, often depends on selling lawmakers on what changing formulas will mean for their districts. That can lead to a situation, he said, where “we’re really passing a printout and having to translate it back into a school finance bill.” Difficult under normal circumstances, that becomes infinitely more challenging when the state is coming up $4 billion short in funding for public education.
“Nobody has ever done this before. Nobody has ever had the kind of massive cuts to deal with,” he said, adding, “The Legislature really did not spend any time prior to January trying to work out a game plan, and wrote one as they went along, and it showed.”
Before the conference committee were three options to chose from: separate proposals from Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, that enacted cuts relative to a districts’ wealth, and a proposal from Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, that chopped districts the same across the board. Each, though, contained a numbers game nobody really wanted to play.
The simplicity of Eissler’s approach — which was originally a last-minute amendment to SB 1581 — gave it a political advantage among House members. In a scenario with no real winners, lawmakers newly unsettled by the stark realization of what the gaping reduction meant for schools in their districts realized they wouldn’t have to return to their superintendents and explain why they voted for deeper cuts for some and not others.
That still wasn’t enough for the House to coalesce around Eissler’s plan in time to pass it as a part of SB 1581. As the bill was debated on the House floor, “there was no single bloc of votes for anything,” said David Anderson, an education lobbyist for the Austin-based HillCo Partners, a government consulting firm, who described a “meltdown” that night between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. as members began taking a hard look at projections of the cuts for their districts.
[Rep. Jimmie Don] Aycock and Eissler both said that until shortly before then, members had been concerned with what the budget cuts were going to look like across the state, and hadn’t had an opportunity to consider the impact on their individual districts.
“People were so focused on the cuts that only those few geeks of us who wade around in school finance even saw it coming,” Aycock said, adding, “It was only late in the session when we figured out the number, and then the question became how do we divvy it up.”
In other words, these yahoos voted to cut billions of dollars from the state public education budget without having any idea what the effect would be on their own school districts. And remember, the House initially voted to cut $8 billion from public ed, which is double the amount that wound up getting cut. If they’re blanching at what that means, imagine what they’d be thinking if the House budget had been adopted as it was. The mind boggles.
Meanwhile, of course, more than enough money is in the Rainy Day fund to cover this shortfall. It still wouldn’t account for growth and other higher expenses, but it would moot this current exercise. More seriously, the legislation that’s being considered, which the Democrats fought tooth and nail against, would not just distribute cuts for this biennium but would mean permanently lower allocations for public schools.
For about 60 years, Texas lawmakers have afforded public education a special status in terms of state funding.
Written into law is a guarantee that schools would get enough money to provide a basic, foundational education for each student. That obligation has dictated what the state has put into the Foundation School Program to cover growing enrollment and a changing student population.
But the school finance plan now under consideration by legislators wipes that guarantee out and makes future appropriations dependent upon how much money is available rather than how much is needed.
“The commitment to fund current law would cease to exist as a legal commitment,” said Lynn Moak, a school finance expert and consultant. “Public education has lost its special status.”
On Sunday, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, highlighted the shift in Texas’ future obligation to schools during an exchange on the House floor with Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, one of the House negotiators on the compromise.
Eissler had already acknowledged that the change would mean that school districts would no longer be legally entitled to a certain amount of state aid.
Hochberg asked him if that change would allow the state to routinely short school districts.
“That would allow us to,” Eissler said, “but I don’t see that happening.”
“This is not a good year to make that argument, Mr. Chairman,” Hochberg responded.
Anyone who thinks that we can simply take the Lege’s word for it that they wouldn’t use their new authority to short school districts to actually short school districts needs to pay attention to Dan Patrick:
State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said the school finance change “is a true cut in an entitlement” and an essential cut at that.
“There are no guarantees, and for a Legislature to say we can guarantee this forever is not being straightforward to the people,” said Patrick, who was deeply involved in the Senate’s school funding discussions.
But in the future, a specific vote to change the law would not be necessary. Lawmakers would simply put less into the budget than the funding formulas call for, as is the common practice for higher education funding.
“That is a very, very big change in the way that we do funding for the schools,” Hochberg said.
Patrick agreed that it is a significant change to how the state has done its business.
“I think it’s a change that is needed as we move forward. We need to have real cuts,” Patrick said.
So at a time when Texas has a population that is much younger than the national average, which is a key driver of the state’s population growth, Dan Patrick thinks we need to cut education funding, not just now but forever. If you think that maybe isn’t such a hot idea, you need to vote that way in 2012.