Strengthening Our Schools

Dear Friend,

Last session the legislature dealt with a $27 billion budget deficit by slashing funding for services vital to Texas families. No area was hurt more by draconian cuts than our children’s schools, which were slashed by $5.4 billion. Teachers were laid off, programs were cut and, for the first time, the state did not even attempt to fund enrollment growth.

I want to use this week’s Express to update you on the impact of those cuts on our schools, the effort to restore that funding, and a court case that will have a major impact on how — and how much — we fund education going forward.

I hope you find this information helpful, and I look forward to your feedback on this important subject.


Rodney Ellis

Draconian Cuts from 2011 Hurt Our Schools

Last session, the legislature chose to close a record budget shortfall through draconian cuts to vital services, including over $4 billion in state funding from Texas public schools and slashing over $1 billion in grants that would have otherwise gone to help struggling students, provide full-day pre-kindergarten, and fund other essential services. These cuts forced schools to lay off thousands of teachers, pack students into classrooms, and eliminate extracurricular activities which enrich our children’s lives.

For example, from the 2010-11 to the 2011-12 school year, 11,487 Texas teachers and 14,896 other school staff lost their jobs – all while schools served an additional 44,454 students. While the loss of over 11,000 teachers is an astonishing figure, the reality is actually worse. Just to maintain the status quo due to that enrollment growth in students, Texas schools should have added over 4,400 additional teachers above the 11,487 that lost their jobs. So last year, our neighborhood schools should have operated with an additional 15,000 teachers!

This dangerous shortfall of classroom leaders has had an immediate impact on our schoolchildren. From kindergarten to fourth grade, Texas law requires a class size cap of 22 students, as studies show that smaller class size provides lasting benefits for students, especially minorities, low-income students, and students with exceptional needs. School districts can seek waivers from the law, however, and the cuts to our schools have resulted in an explosion of elementary classrooms exceeding the cap: from 2,238 classrooms in the 2010-11 school year to 8,479 in 2011-12, almost a four-fold increase.

Continue the Cuts? I say no!

With the legislature once again in session and facing a better budget picture compared to 2011, we have an amazing opportunity to reverse the cuts to our children’s schools. Tax collections are estimated to be $8.8 billion over what was projected for the current biennium, and the state’s Rainy Day Fund will have almost $12 billion sitting in it by the end of 2015. Unfortunately, those in charge seem to want to continue to bleed our schools.

The initial budget released last month continues the dismal funding levels set for schools in 2011, and proposals to use the Rainy Day Fund to restore funding to public education have been summarily dismissed by those in control of the Capitol.

It is going to be a fight to save our schools. I believe we must restore every penny we can from last session’s education cuts. Last session, I repeatedly proposed to use a portion of the then nearly $10 billion Rainy Day Fund to reduce the cuts to our children’s schools and to health care in Texas. At every turn, those in charge blocked it. Now, the fund is up to nearly $12 billion (!) and they are still dragging their feet on using it to save our children’s schools.

That must change. We didn’t use our reserve fund last session and our kids paid the price, which bordered on willful neglect. To once again refuse to help when we have funds set aside for just that purpose moves from neglect to outright abuse.

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. At the same time, schools’ energy, transportation, and health care costs continue to skyrocket. Properly funding public education is not an extravagance – it is an obligation we must meet to ensure the future success of our state.

School Finance Back Before the Legislature?

In other pressing education news, on February 5, 2013, State District Judge John Dietz ruled that Texas’ school finance system was once again inadequate, inequitable and unconstitutional. The court found that the current system violates the Texas Constitution because the amount of money invested by the state is inadequate, funding is not distributed fairly, and local school districts have little discretion but to tax at the maximum of their ability.

Over 600 school districts representing three-fourths of the state’s five million public school students had sued the state over these disparities. The court’s ruling came as a great relief to those who, like me, believe Texas’s refusal to invest in our children imperils our future.

Evidence in the trial showed that the average tax rate for the poorest 10 percent of school districts is 11 cents higher than the wealthiest districts, but yield $1,400 less per funding per student. That amounts to $28,000 per classroom in a standard elementary school. In 2005-06 — the last time our school finance system was struck down — the per-student gap between students at property-wealthy vs. property-poor districts was $965. That figure has nearly doubled, rising to $1,592 per student today.

Texas currently ranks dead last in percentage of population that has earned a high school diploma. According to the Texas Association of Business — Texas’ leading business organization — only 25 percent of high school graduates in Texas are career or college ready. We rank 46th in the country in per-student spending, 44th in high school graduation rate, and 47th in SAT scores. Texas can do better, but it will require opening our minds and our pocketbook.

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

Call to Action!

For too long, Texas has operated as a government by lawsuit: the biggest, most difficult facing our state are only addressed when mandated by a court. The school finance system has always been patched up rather than perfected, as legislators are seemingly content to see it sputter along another two years in spite of its obvious inequities.

Now that our school finance system has once again been ruled unconstitutional, you may hear some elected officials claim that the legislature cannot act until after the case has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court and the nine justices have had an opportunity to rule. I firmly disagree. If Attorney General Abbott appeals directly to the Texas Supreme Court, a ruling could take a year to 14 months. If he goes to a first level of appeals, a Supreme Court decision may not happen until sometime in 2015. Our children should not be forced to attend underfunded schools and sit in packed classrooms for at least another year while the case slowly winds its way through the judicial system.

While those in charge say we must wait until the Supreme Court decides before we act, there is nothing preventing legislators from treating this situation like what it is: an emergency that must be solved immediately. In fact, there is ample precedent for us to get working on this issue right now. In 2004 and 2005, the last time the legality of Texas’ school finance system was in court, the legislature worked hard to solve the problem in three special sessions and one regular session…all before the Texas Supreme Court finally ruled the system was unconstitutional.

So that argument is bunk.

During his State of the State speech, Governor Perry said “our State is stronger than ever.” If that is the case, then there is no reason to put off the hard work of reforming our school finance system. After all, if we are doing that well, who is to say we will be in a better position two years from now?

The only reason we are not acting today is politics. Those in power want to put off any difficult decisions until after the March 2014 primaries. This is an abdication of responsibility and a cynical attempt to put off difficult decisions for electoral gain. It is unseemly, irresponsible and punishes our school children. Why should they have to wait for us to do our jobs?

This is where your voice is needed. By rallying around public education, Texans like you can put pressure on the legislature to act now and finally get it right by creating a sustainable, equitable and adequate funding system that treats all Texas children and taxpayers fairly. Talk to your neighbors, family, and friends, and urge them to get involved, too. Together, we can create a groundswell of support to invest in our children, their schools, and the state’s future. We must get to work – our kids cannot wait.

Texas Has Underfunded Education for Too Long

“It’s a low-tax, low-service state – so shoot us. The only depressing part is that, unlike Mississippi, we can afford to do better. We just don’t.” Molly Ivins on Texas

When it comes to education in Texas, Molly Ivins was exactly right. Every ranking that ought to be down is up, and every ranking that should be up is down! Contrary to what some say, that is not a strength; it is a glaring reminder of how much more work we have to do to ensure all Texans have the opportunity to achieve their dreams.

While some argue that we have “phenomenally” funded our schools and claim we have dramatically increased state funding, the chart below clearly shows the truth. According to the non-partisan Legislative Budget Board, state spending in 2003 was about $31 billion in “constant dollars” (adjusted for inflation). In 2013, it was slightly above that. That’s despite the growth in student population in that decade from 4.3 million to nearly 5 million, according to the Texas Education Agency.

While it is technically true that state funding has increased, the truth is much of the increase was plan was simply a tax swap, increasing state investment so local governments could lower property taxes an equal amount. Furthermore, those state increases have not kept up with cost inflation and enrollment growth, meaning a net decrease in school funding over the past 10 years! According to non-partisan Politifact , once you adjust for those factors “Texas schools in 2012 fielded 25 percent less in state aid than what they fielded in 2002.”

So we are actually falling further behind, despite “investing more” in education.

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