Public education is important in the Texas budget not just because it’s the biggest piece (42 percent of General Revenue spending), but because of its key role in preparing roughly 5 million students to be the college students, productive workers, and informed citizens of the future.
Unfortunately, the 2011 Legislature made $5.3 billion in cuts to state aid for more than 1,000 Texas school districts and 480 charter schools – $4 billion less than what state law required for the Foundation School Program, and $1.3 billion less for grants such as pre-kindergarten Early Start. These cuts left schools with an average $500 less per student for the 2012-13 state budget cycle. The most immediately visible results? In 2011-12, 25,000 fewer teachers and support staff worked at schools, and the number of overcrowded classrooms tripled, compared to the previous year.
Legislators also delayed a $2 billion payment to schools by a few weeks, pushing it into the 2014 budget.
The Texas Education Agency’s 2014-15 budget proposes –
- a $4.7 billion baseline General Revenue increase, to help schools cover basic operating costs like staff; and
- $242 million in “exceptional items” for textbooks and testing costs,
That would appear to be almost $5 billion more to invest in our children’s education – definitely a step in the right direction. But once you factor in the delayed payment, the real increase is $2.75 billion, most of it to cover enrollment growth. That’s only halfway back to where schools were before the 2011 cuts.
Additionally, a “bare bones” look at the Teacher Retirement System budget request results in a $341 million General Revenue increase, much of it needed for retired educators’ health insurance. (“Bare bones” because it excludes $374 million needed for an actuarially sound pension system.)
Texas lawmakers are showing little interest in tackling the latest school finance crisis until after six lawsuits filed against the state work their way through the courts. Those of us who’d prefer a more proactive approach are hoping that January’s revenue estimate is good enough to give legislators the opportunity to undo the 2011 cuts to our local schools and communities, while keeping promises to retired teachers.