On School Finance, Texas Republicans Still Say Less is More

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Texas Comptroller Susan Combs
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs at a town hall meeting in Brownwood last summer. Combs is among the GOP leaders who’ve been encouraging folks to look on the bright side of last session’s school funding cuts.

As soon as the Texas Legislature sliced $5.4 billion from public education in 2011, advocates demanded that lawmakers put at least some of the money back.

For the last year, we’ve been hearing how much better the state’s budget picture looks, even as schools lay off teachers and crowd more kids into classrooms. In an october report, the Houston nonprofit Children At Risk found that most districts are coping with the cuts by leaving teaching jobs unfilled and delaying maintenance work in hopes that a miracle windfall might someday pay for it all. With the state supposedly flush with cash now, the next Legislature will probably undo at least some of the damage, right? Some Texas Republicans have an answer to that: Cuts? What cuts?

The dominant story from the GOP is that the Legislature actually did us a favor with last year’s budget. Despite all evidence to the contrary, some conservative lawmakers argue that they actually increased school funding. It’s a dishonest myth with incredible staying power.

House Speaker Joe Straus is one of the latest to board this bandwagon of denial. Texas, he has said, devoted more of its budget to schools last year. “The pie got smaller, but the piece for public education actually got larger,” Straus said, according to PolitiFact Texas.

State Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Lake Dallas, has  trotted out a slightly different version of the myth. She wrote on her website in January that the Legislature “increase[d] state spending on Education by $1.6 Billion [sic] even in the face of the worst recession in decades.” Crownover arrived at the number by cherrypicking just one piece of the public education budget.

Republican Comptroller Susan Combs—whose office spent the year blissfully  announcing all the new money Texas is bringing in—was asked in April for a straight answer to how much the 2011 Legislature cut from education. Her answer, quoted by the Bryan-College Station Eagle: “It was not less, but it was not as much.” Susan Combs, the Goldilocks of budgeting.

Combs and the other mythmakers base their claims on an accounting gimmick. In 2009, Texas lawmakers used $3 billion in federal stimulus money to help fund Texas schools. When explaining the 2011 cuts, GOP leaders want to count only state spending, ignoring the money schools lost when the federal money dried up.

The myth that the Lege actually added money for education may play well at town halls, but state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, says it won’t make the plight of Texas schools any less dire. “Larger class sizes are a result of less funding, not more,” he told the Observer. “Schools have scaled back pre-K, dipped deep into their reserve accounts,
and cut teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians because Gov. Perry and his supporters gave them less support, not more.”

School advocates are still wondering how, and when, Texas will step up to foot the bill for public education. The state’s leadership, meanwhile, looks at the austere school budget and apparently sees nothing wrong.