It’s been about a month since a state district judge ruled that the Texas school finance system is unconstitutional, saying it’s inadequate, inefficient and inequitable. The ruling came as no surprise to the millions of Texas parents concerned about the quality of their children’s education amid devastating budget cuts.
The most significant budget cuts came in 2011, when the Legislature cut $4 billion from the Foundation School Program and another $1.3 billion in grants. These were cuts that have directly affected school districts across Texas.
The Austin Independent School District has 195 fewer teachers than it did in the 2010-11 school year. That is a drop of 3 percent. The Houston school district lost 475 teachers, or 4 percent, in the same time period, despite an almost 4 percent increase in student enrollment. Statewide it’s the same story: fewer teachers and more students. Between the 2010-11 and 2013-14 school years, enrollment grew by more than 218,300 students, yet schools employed 6,500 fewer teachers.
Deep budget cuts and the associated teacher layoffs affect student achievement. The timing of the 2011 school funding cuts was especially bad for Texas students’ academic performance. The National Assessment of Educational Progress math scores for Texas eighth-graders had gradually improved from 1992-2011. But in 2013, scores declined, a shift that could threaten the state’s future success if public officials don’t intervene.
We have a long way to go toward restoring state aid per student, despite anything you may hear during the 2015 legislative session. But if we only focus on restoring funding to where it was before 2011 then we are missing the problem. When Texas has more students than ever before — plus inflation — partially restoring funding the Legislature previously slashed is still a budget cut.
The state budget is a good example of how hard it is to understand the real, long-term impact of decisions to cut crucial services in a rapidly growing state like Texas. Our state leaders need a better diagnosis of what it will take for our schools to better educate tomorrow’s workforce.
Our expanding population will require parallel investments in education. According to the Texas Education Agency, public school enrollment in Texas grows at 1.5 percent per year. Any of us who pay rent and buy food know that the overall cost of living is rising, too. Given all these factors, investments in public education should be rising instead of falling.
As long as the debates are about how much funding the Legislature cut in the past and what percentage of those dollars to restore, then we’re not making space for any new investments that are crucial to our future. What about universal, high-quality, full-day pre-kindergarten? What about acquiring the latest technology for classrooms so that Texas students can remain competitive with those from other states and countries?
As the legislative session approaches, we will hear people claim that public schools are well funded and that the budget cuts of the past have little bearing on the students of today. The data — and the experience of Texas students in their classes today — refute those claims and remind us that budget transparency and investments in public education are paramount.
This was published earlier in the Austin American-Statesman on October 7th, 2014.