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Education: No Longer an Obligation?

The budget's impact on schools won't just be a $4 billion cut but a change in philosophy.
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My last print column from our Lege wrap-up issue.

For more than 60 years, education has held a privileged place in Texas public policy. Unlike every other part of the budget, funding for public schools was automatic—in 2009, like most sessions, the House and Senate barely discussed the topic. Instead, like almost every other year, lawmakers figured out a method for determining how much districts were owed, and then they paid it. The methods and formulas for funding changed, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, but in the midst of a flawed and unwieldy school finance system, the state could always be relied upon to keep its word when it came to one fundamental obligation: paying to educate children.

For the first time in memory, we’re about to turn our backs on that obligation.

Most people have heard how the state is preparing to cut $4 billion in funding for schools. They’ve heard how the cuts will lead to teacher layoffs, to fewer course offerings and larger classes for middle and high school students. And all of those things are true. But lost in the depressing details of the education cuts is one of the biggest policy shifts in Texas history.

Under the proposed legislation, education becomes like every other part of our budget. “For 60 years,” says education consultant and school-finance expert Lynn Moak, “schools have been able, fundamentally and with only minor exceptions, to rely on current law as being fully funded.” No more. Lawmakers will see how much money they have in the bank, and they’ll determine how much they can afford to give for education. That means districts can no longer count on a minimal level of funding every year. Now they have to cross their collective fingers, hold their collective breath, and pray the legislators are feeling generous.

Making things even shakier for the districts, the new system also lets the state off the hook for future payments. Currently, if the state puts too little into education, whether on purpose or by accident, we settle up in the next cycle—it happened this year, in fact. Until then, the debt is on our books, and the state of Texas makes good on those debts. But under the new plans, the state could purposely allocate far less than our school funding system demanded, and there would be no requirement that the state make good on their obligations.

Of course, the House and Senate leadership have bent over backward to tell us that they’re making education their major priority. They fought for a $4 billion cut to education—as opposed to initial proposals of almost $10 billion. If that’s not enough relative gallantry for you, they’ll point out that school districts will still get more money than they got last biennium, just not enough to cover the thousands of new kids entering our school system. “We’re not cutting school budgets,” said Senate budget writer Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. “We’re not providing as big of an increase as they think they’re entitled to.”

In the face of such stunningly heroic statements, let me make one small correction: We’re not providing as big of an increase as the state told them they were entitled to.

House Public Education Committee chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, proudly defended the plan on the House floor. He said that while appropriations to public schools would become more “discretionary” under his plan, school districts had nothing to fear. “We have made clear our priorities,” he proclaimed. Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who has long held “guru” status in the House for his school-finance expertise, looked flabbergasted. “This is not a good year to make that argument, Mr. Chairman,” he told Eissler wryly.

Indeed not. This was always going to be a depressing legislative session. There were always going to be serious cuts, tough choices that left students in some districts hurting. But the shift away from automatically funding schools is deeper, more far-reaching than even the cuts themselves. The fundamental promise that this state has made to school districts—to parents, teachers and children in this state—may soon be broken beyond repair. We’re watching the state systematically de-prioritize public education.

>You don’t have to be God-fearing to believe there will be a reckoning for such decisions—when this state becomes poorer and less educated. It’s a reckoning that current and future students will shoulder. The state spent the last 60 years fostering trust that it would meet its obligations. In one legislative session, we’ve seen just how fast that trust can be eroded.