Just a few short months ago, the Texas Legislature faced a $27 billion budget shortfall, the largest in the state’s history. To fix this fiscal mess, those in power decided on an irresponsible “cut first, ask questions later” agenda, slashing vital funding for Texas schools, health care and seniors. Each of these disinvestments in our state’s future will have long-term negative impacts, especially the conscious decision to underfund public education.
The state’s 2012-2013 budget slashed more than $4 billion in state funding from Texas schools and eliminated another $1 billion in public education grants. These cuts mean fewer teachers, older and fewer supplies, fewer bus routes, cuts to extracurricular activities and more. Already we are seeing the effects in our local schools. In just one year, the Houston Independent School District, for example, has seen a 51 percent increase in the number of elementary school classrooms that require a waiver from the state’s class-size cap. In fact, almost a quarter of the district’s elementary classes – 1,048 classrooms – top the limit this year. Studies show that smaller class sizes provide lasting benefits for students, especially for minority and low-income students and students with exceptional needs.
It’s not just Houston-area schools that are suffering. Across the state, the number of elementary school classrooms exceeding the state’s class size cap has more than doubled compared to last year. A recent statewide survey of school districts suggests that 32,000 staff positions have been eliminated due to the budget cuts, and most districts anticipate additional staff losses next year.
Fortunately, our schools are fighting back against these draconian cuts and the school finance system as a whole. Hundreds of school districts across Texas have recently joined together to file lawsuits against the state for its failure to adequately and equitably fund public education, arguing that Texas schoolchildren and taxpayers are being treated unfairly by the current public school finance system.
The state has had many recent opportunities, but it has repeatedly failed to address the broken system and fund public schools in an efficient, equitable and adequate manner, as required by the Texas Constitution. The Constitution states that public schools are provided for a “general diffusion of knowledge” and education is “essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people.” Most recently ruled unconstitutional by the Texas Supreme Court in 2005, the school finance system was allegedly fixed in 2006. Gov. Rick Perry’s plan created a new business tax and raised cigarette taxes so the state could undertake a larger portion of public education spending. But those taxes have fallen far short of what was predicted, resulting in a $10 billion structural deficit that must be made up each legislative session.
Money does matter, after all. Effective teachers, small class sizes and intensive interventions for struggling learners all cost money and have been proven to deliver results. Accountability systems from Austin and Washington, D.C., increase expectations and punish schools that fail to meet them. Schools’ energy, transportation and health care costs continue to grow rapidly. Properly funding public education is not an extravagance – it is an obligation we must meet to ensure the future success of our state.
For too long, Texas has operated as a government by lawsuit: the biggest, most difficult issues facing our state are only addressed when mandated by a court. The school finance system has always been patched rather than perfected, as legislators are seemingly content to see it struggle along another two years in spite of its obvious inequities.
As the lawsuits make their way through the judicial system, the Legislature will once again be hesitant to act until the Supreme Court weighs in.
But by rallying around public education, Texans can put the pressure on legislators to finally get it right: a sustainable, equitable and adequate funding system that treats all Texas children and taxpayers fairly.
In describing the benefit of a sound education, Sam Houston said that “knowledge is the food of genius.” It is all of our responsibility to ensure that future generations’ minds are well fed through the power of public education.
Ellis, a Democrat, represents Texas Senate District 13.