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Senate Finance Committee Hears Pleas to Restore School Funds

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Tommy Williams
Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands)

Calls for increased education funding dominated the first meeting of the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday. The state’s estimated $8.8 billion surplus is already sparking debate among agencies that were told to hold tight through massive cuts last session, and then cut even more for their funding requests this year.

Senate Finance chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) introduced his budget proposal, Senate Bill 1, last week. Now his committee will revise the bill over the next several months, while public school advocates make their case to increase the funding set aside for education.

But Williams said the ongoing school finance lawsuit makes it difficult to even discuss public school funding—let alone put any more funding back in to restore the cuts. “I wish the school districts would sit down and talk to us,” he said in one wistful moment today.

Several testifying before the committee denounced this train of thought, though, including Patty Quinzi, legislative counsel for the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

“The Legislature has the ability to undo the damages done,” Quinzi told the committee. “There’s really no good reason to wait for the court when we have the revenue right now.”

The Texas Education Agency’s exceptional items, essentially pleas for specific funding, included covered five needs:

  1. Improve student success to meet state standards expected in third through 12th grade.
  2. Maintain current agency staff levels.
  3. Implement the Texas Student Data System, which is part of TEA’s accountability system.
  4. Assessment costs involved with purchasing, administering and grading standardized tests.
  5. More teachers for Windham School District that provides GED-level education to inmates.

The list does not include a request to reinstate grants for full-day pre-K, which the Legislature eliminated in 2011. Education Commissioner Michael Williams said he preferred to wait to discuss restoring funding for pre-K, too, until the court makes a decision on the school finance suit.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) pressed Williams on why he needed to wait for a decision that is essentially about K-12 education.

“Our biggest goal, frankly, has to be closing the racial achievement gap,” Williams said, eventually adding that pre-K is an important step to properly preparing students and closing the gap.

“Perhaps if you revise your exceptional items again I can see it,” Zaffirini said.

Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) said the racial achievement gap is a higher education issue, too, because minority graduation rates continue to drop despite efforts by the Texas  Higher Education Coordinating Board.

“You’re not getting the results, so do you think you need to try something different?” West said.

Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes was on hand to answer that one. The state has strategies in place to close that gap, he said, but it will take time for the results to show. He pivoted to discuss students’ failures to graduate in four years, chastising those students who are shuffling their feet through their college career.

“I think we’ve seen an increase in grazing students do before deciding on a major,” Paredes said. “I think one of the things we need to do is to incentivize our students to work harder. … They’re receiving a significant subsidy from the state and they need to graduate on time.”