When the Texas Senate approved its version of the budget last month, lawmakers applauded one another for passing a bill that helped undo the $5.4 billion in school funding cuts passed two years ago.
First-time Senate Finance chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) said the budget represented “significant progress within the spending limit,” leaving 400 school districts with more money than they get today. “We have completely funded enrollment growth in public education,” he said, with $1.5 billion more going to schools from general revenue.
But there’s a dirty little secret hidden in the Senate’s budget celebration: when you account for inflation and Texas’ growing enrollment, the Senate’s budget would actually leave schools with less money per student than they get today.
The Center for Public Policy Priorities pointed that out before the budget debate two weeks ago. The state’s per-student funding will increase, they noted, but locally raised funding will drop. The overall impact is that each Texas student will get $86.50 less in 2014-15 than they did from 2012-13 (taking the average across each biennium).
Democrats Wendy Davis and Rodney Ellis challenged Williams on those points during the floor debate, but the finance chairman didn’t sound interested in an economics debate.
“I’d be glad to sit down with you and show you why your numbers are wrong,” he told Davis.
One reason lawmakers can still disagree so much is that the state doesn’t account for inflation. Texas Education Agency spokesperson Debbie Ratcliffe said agencies and the Legislative Budget Board base their estimates on funding formulas, and those don’t factor inflation. ”They just don’t really look at it that way,” Ratcliffe said. “They look at if they’re fully funding the formulas.”
Since school funding levels depend on so many factors, CPPP policy analyst Chandra Villanueva said it’s best to back up and consider long-term trends.
Under this session’s SB 1, she said, the state’s contribution doesn’t match its pre-recession funding level in 2008. The state spent $4,577 per student in 2008, she said, and would spend $3,951 per student under SB 1. When you add in local and federal money, each Texas student got $10,196 in 2008, but would get $9,332 under SB 1.
When the House takes up its version of the budget, it will start with $1 billion more for schools than the Senate wants to spend. There, too, lawmakers have very different ideas about how school spending ought to be measured.
Freshman Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) circulated a chart showing per-student funding year-by-year, based on numbers from the Legislative Budget Board but also accounting for inflation. (CPPP, in turn, adapted Wu’s chart to include the Senate budget.)
Wu said he and his staffers made the chart themselves after they couldn’t find accurate numbers elsewhere. Their analysis countered Gov. Rick Perry’s claim that the state increased education spending by 70 percent from 2002 to 2012.
“Anyone who’s in the know immediately does a face-palm and goes, ‘What are you talking about? What planet are you on?’” Wu said. ”Another representative handed out another flyer trying to counter what I had put out, and it was verbatim. It was actually literally just copied from the comptroller’s website.”
Comptroller Susan Combs’ office includes a school funding analysis in its annual Financial Allocation Study for Texas, but Wu called the numbers “extremely misleading. Some of them we think are just flat-out wrong.” One chart from last year showed school spending far outpacing inflation from 1998 to 2009—but only accounting for the state’s contribution, not local or federal funding.
Frisco Republican Rep. Pat Fallon, another freshman, is the one who shared the comptroller’s chart with other House members.
Fallon told the Observer he’d rather get information from the comptroller than a partisan group. He said former Rep. Rob Eissler (R-The Woodlands) helped convince him that more money doesn’t mean better schools, and the comptroller’s numbers reflect that.
“Why would the comptroller have a dog in the hunt, other than the truth?” Fallon asked. He said he hoped the comptroller’s estimates had better paint an accurate picture of the spending. “If they don’t, we’re going to have to get a new office.”