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Senate committee restores some money to public education

Emphasis on the “some”.

Texas public schools would get back a chunk of the $5.4 billion in state funding they lost two years ago under a budget proposal adopted by the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

But they probably should not expect much more than the $1.5 billion the committee added to the 2014-15 state budget, said Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

“It is going to be very difficult given the other demands we have in the budget to add any more,” said Williams.

Williams plans to pay for all the demands, including water projects, highways and some form of tax relief, without exceeding the constitutional spending cap. That would leave about $1 billion of projected state revenue over the next two years unspent. Lawmakers could exceed the cap with a simple majority vote in both the House and the Senate, but there is little appetite within the GOP to do so.

Many Republicans are also reluctant to increase education spending until the Texas Supreme Court rules in the pending school finance litigation. A district court judge found the school finance system unconstitutional earlier this month.

“Based on the politics of the state, we will not see the $5.4 billion that was cut last time go back into” education, said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

More from the Trib:

The money would come on top of the proposed $35.1 billion in general revenue for public education, which unlike the 2011 budget did, accounts for new students expected to enroll in the state’s public schools. The additional funding approved Thursday would also restore some of the $5.4 billion reduction in state funding that lawmakers passed during the last legislative session. The full Senate must still approve the Finance Committee’s recommendation.

During Thursday’s hearing, lawmakers on the committee suggested they might fight for more education funding, including money for measures like early college high school programs and the Student Success Initiative, which provides remedial help for students who fall behind.

The $40 million for pre-kindergarten — which Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands and chairman of the committee, referred to as a “down payment” — would replace a fraction of the $200 million in competitive grants the Legislature eliminated in 2011 for full-day programs for low-income children. The funds would be distributed proportionally to school districts based on eligible student populations.

Again, note the partial and incomplete nature of this. The Observer highlights one salient feature.

Finance chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) said the new amount would mean “no net revenue losses for any school district for 2014.

You may recall that HISD was talking about raising their tax rate to make up for an operational shortfall next year, which was caused by the 2011 budget cuts. If this extra funding, which keep in mind only represents 28% of the $5.4 billion that had been cut in the first place, prevents the need for that, it would at least be something. That question hasn’t been answered yet.

Anna Eastman, president of the Houston Independent School District’s board, called the Senate panel’s decision a step in the right direction.

“It’s good news and I’m glad to see the state making this effort, but I still think it doesn’t come close to restoring the large cuts made two years ago,” Eastman said. “We’re at a place right now where we have a big gap to fill to maintain what we’re doing.”

Until that gap is closed, Eastman said, HISD cannot consider hiring new teachers or taking on additional costs.

Texas State Teachers Association President Rita Haecker said lawmakers can restore all $5.4 billion cut from school spending in 2011 “and meet other important state needs without raising anyone’s taxes.”

Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, who also serves on Finance, disagreed, citing other pressing needs, finite dollars and a constitutional spending cap. The $1.5 billion increase is recommended on top of the committee’s starting-point budget, which accounted for student enrollment growth.

“We don’t have those dollars. It’s not a choice,” said Patrick, R-Houston. Asked whether it may be an option to exceed the spending cap, which would require a majority legislative vote, Patrick said, “Not in my world.”

So yes, it is a choice, just not one that Dan Patrick wants to make. But it’s very much a choice, and don’t let anyone mislead you about that.

Assuming this survives the full Senate and the House, this is good in the sense that it’s not bad, but it’s not good in a quantitative sense. How can it be, when schools are still down almost three quarters of the original total? I’ve been trying to come up with a snappy analogy for this, but really, what it comes down to is simply the fact that the Lege cut a bunch of money last time, and has now restored just enough of it to keep things from getting worse, but not enough to make anything better. We’re stuck with this until the Supreme Court rules on the school finance appeal. Just take a look at that chart I embedded above of inflation-adjusted dollars per student, provided by the office of Rep. Gene Wu, and you’ll see how little that $1.5 billion will do.

On a side note:

The committee left just one piece of the education budget in limbo: funding for a new charter school authorizer that would be created under Sen. Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 2—a seven-member appointed board to oversee the state’s charter schools.

It was a telling diversion in an otherwise agreeable budget meeting to watch a pair of Democratic senators try to make Patrick, the usually tight-fisted tea party favorite, defend the extra cost of his school reform plans.

Dallas Democrat Royce West began by saying he wasn’t convinced Texas should create a separate board for authorizing charter schools. That’s already the State Board of Education’s job, West said. He worried about putting charter school approvals in the hands of an unelected board and questioned how they’d be held accountable.

The move clearly irritated Patrick, who said he wished West had told him about his reservations sooner. (West said he already voted against it once in their workgroup, which should have been sufficient notice.) Members of the charter school authorizing board, Patrick said, would probably need Senate confirmation, and might answer to the State Board of Education—though those details aren’t final yet.

SB 2 is still pending in Patrick’s education committee after a hearing last week. The Legislative Budget Board has estimated Patrick’s bill would carry other huge costs to the state, growing every year—from $24 million in 2014, up to $55 million in 2018. Those costs include students coming from private or home-schooling into a charter school, new funding for charter school buildings, and state employees to oversee all the new schools.

Today’s argument focused on what the new Charter School Authorizing Authority would cost.

“Why would we turn to more government as a solution?” Houston Democrat John Whitmire asked Patrick. “Because I know that’s not your philosophy; I do listen to you closely.”

“Instead of fixing the agency that is in charge of this responsibility, you want to turn and create a new bureaucracy, more state employees, and I promise you this [charter school authorizer] budget will not remain where it is,” Whitmire said.

“I will bet you, whoever evaluates us,” Whitmire said, “this will be a measurement by the folks that advocate less government, that we’re creating another governmental entity. It is what it is.”

I wouldn’t take that bet.

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