You might have expected the mood to be awkward Wednesday in the Senate Finance Committee. After all, the lawmakers were trying cut $4 billion from public schools in Texas and begin to fix a failed school finance system—that they’d created. The cuts will come to every school district in the state, including those that have spent the last five years scraping by on a fraction of what other, similar districts get. The bill wasn’t as drastic as the House version, where members cut $8 billion from school districts, but I expected most of the senators to be seriously concerned.
Instead, the mood was, at times, hesitatingly triumphant.
“People said we couldn’t do it but we have,” said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who oversaw the committee’s work on school funding and is carrying the bill.
“This is an heroic effort,” lauded Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Longview, who has spoken out against drastic cuts.
Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden took it a step further. “I think this bill has the potential of saving public education in Texas,” he told the members. “If we don’t pass the bill, I think public education as we know it is in big trouble.”
Of course, the subtext here is “The House version stinks”—and if it passes, public education is in trouble. In terms of the overall cut to public ed, there’s no question that the Senate has taken the more moderate approach, cutting just around half of what the House cut. The commissioner of education told the Legislature that anything more than a $4 billion cut to public ed would be fundamentally unsustainable. The Senate listened; the House did not.
But in the world of school finance there is always the follow-up question: How do the cuts get delivered to individual school districts?
As I’ve written before, the state’s school finance system is broken in many ways. Thanks to a 2006 tax-swap that led to school finance reforms, most school districts get funded based on a “target revenue system” that’s based on, among other things, on past property tax collections. The target revenue system, which was supposed to be temporary, has led to vast inequalities between districts. But no one has been able to work on a long-term solution—which would update funding formulas based on the actual costs of education and move districts onto those formulas. Currently those formulas are woefully underfunded and only the very poorest districts get funded through them. “We can look in the mirror” for the system’s current problems, noted Sen. Tommy Williams, R-Woodlands, rather wryly.
Advocates hoped that the cuts to education might be a chance to at least deliver equity to a system that, according to many, is inadequately funded.
Shapiro—who carried the legislation that created this rather irrational system—says her ultimate goal is to get away from what’s become an arbitrary target revenue system and put more districts back onto formulas. Under her plan, 650 districts will move off of target revenue and onto formula. (Currently only around 120 districts get their funding that way.) But equity advocates aren’t happy about the Senate plan because it still cuts from the very poor districts.
The Senate committee called it a “share the pain model.” Every district in the state gets cut somewhat in the plan, but those with more money get cut more. Of the $4 billion in cuts, the first $1 billion comes from about a 1.5 percent cut to all school districts. The other $3 billion comes from districts on target revenue. But districts only get cut until they’re receiving the amount they would get under the formulas. The wealthiest districts can get cut up to 8 or 9 percent under the plan—but they’ll still be getting more than everyone else. Thanks to an amendment from Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, the bill does require that the target revenue system end by 2017.
When Democratic Sens. Eddie Lucio and Chuy Hinojosa raised the issue of equity, Shapiro shrugged her shoulders. “This bill is about meeting a financial crisis,” she told her colleagues. “That is what we were focusing on.”
“When will equity in school funding by a priority for the Texas Legislature?” asked Lucio, noting that “it isn’t a priority when we have the money.” He didn’t exactly get an answer.
In the mean time, there’s no guarantee that this bill will make it through the House. The House has appeared firmly unwilling to spend additional revenue, and senators agreed that the bill’s key provision—that education only get cut by $4 billion—was non-negotiable.
For a few senators, the $4 billion cut to education—almost 10 percent of current funding—was still too abysmal to support. Democrats, as well as Republican Sen. Bob Deuell, voted against the measure, saying it hurt too many school districts and didn’t do enough in terms of equity.
Democratic Sen. John Whitmire pled with his colleagues. ”I would propose that we find $4 billion,” he said, pointing to the Rainy Day fund. “I would do whatever it takes. I would work with you around the clock.”
“The people of Texas expect better,” he declared.
But then again, this is a session of lowered expectations.