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More Cash Won’t Mean Do-Over on School Funding

While Republicans balk at spending new money on schools, life gets tougher for Texas kids
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During a busy day of reintroducing himself to half the reporters in Austin, Gov. Rick Perry told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Dave Montgomery on Tuesday that he very much doubted there’s much interest in Texas for a special session on school finance.

“I would be stunned if there is an outcry from the people of this state or, for that matter, a majority of the members of the Legislature that want to come back in here and have a special session when I don’t think we need one,” Perry told him.

Other folks have a different read on what Texans really want. For weeks, the Texas State Teachers Association has been pushing for a special session on school finance, to fill in last session’s $5.4 billion hole in school funding with some of that fat Rainy Day Fund we’re sitting on. “Most Texans believe it is senseless to leave more than $7 billion of taxpayers’ money in the bank, while their children’s schools continue to suffer cuts,” TSTA president Rita Haecker said in a statement yesterday.

While the damage is already done for this school year, a note from the Center for Public Policy Priorities points out there’s still a way to recover the $2 billion the Legislature cut from schools’ baseline funding for next year, thanks to a $1.6 billion projected bump in sales tax revenue, along with $400 million from the Rainy Day Fund.

Perry’s against spending any of that Rainy Day Fund on schools, and yesterday’s House Appropriations hearing confirmed that a new session on school finance today would be distasteful in the extreme to lawmakers too.

“I don’t think there’s an appetite to go back in and undo what we did during session,” House Appropriations chair Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) said, according to the Dallas Morning News, and Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) agreed re-opening the school finance conversation would be a huge mess.

In fact, it’ll probably be a long time before lawmakers do anything at all with school finance while those school finance suits mosey on through the courts. As quoted in the Quorum Report last week (subscription required) Rep. Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) said even a lower court decision on the suits is “not going to influence what we do state finance wise or ways and means wise.”

It’ll be years until the Texas Supreme Court might come up with any guidance or deadlines for the Legislature.

This may look like a holding pattern at the Capitol, a reluctance to upset tough decisions made last session, but every lean year for a school district makes a difference for its kids—more schools getting shuttered, sports programs cut and new costs, like riding the school bus, passed along to families. Texas schoolkids will get thousands less than the average American student each year. 

It was nearly a year ago that Perry reminded us all how this works: “the lieutenant governor, the speaker, their colleagues aren’t going to hire or fire one teacher,” he said. Think about it that way, and it’s hard to figure why they’d take any responsibility now.

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.