The Education of the Senate Finance Committee

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For a hearing devoted to proposed cuts in education, Monday’s Senate Finance Committee meeting felt surprisingly grown up. For instance, I didn’t spot a single kid as the state’s commissioner of education began his presentation to the senators. In fact, the room was never crowded, as lobbyists, advocates and state officials mulled around. By contrast, last week when the senators took testimony on the drastic proposed cuts to health and human service programs, state service recipients flooded the Capitol to plead for their case.

The situation in education is just as dire—both the House and Senate budgets have proposed cutting funding by more than $9 billion. But instead of school children making their case, the task of arguing for public schools fell largely to Robert Scott, the boyish commissioner of education who’s bracing his agency and school districts across the state for potentially traumatic cuts.

“It’s like asking a guy on an operating table if he wants his heart or his lungs back,” Scott told the senators as he explained his three priority items. (Just imagine how proud he was of that zinger.) Scott proposed three major changes to the current draft of the Senate budget, and none of them were cheap. His biggest-ticket item came first—$6 billion more for schools. The bulk of that would simply flow to the school districts. Among the uses for the rest, Scott pushed to reinstate a teacher-incentive grant program designed to reward good work.

But when state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, threw the commissioner a soft-ball question, he flinched. (Figuratively, I mean. She’s not that scary.) With the cuts the Senate had proposed, she wondered, could the agency fulfill its mission? Scott promised it could.

“Really?” asked Zaffirini, with undisguised skepticism.

The commissioner nodded. “I will figure out a way to make it work.”

Scott later explained that he didn’t realize that Zaffirini was talking about the cuts to education in general—he thought she only meant cuts to personnel in the Texas Education Agency itself. Still, the exchange left the Democrats on the committee sharing looks of surprise, concern and confusion: Why’s he saying he can make do with less?

Scott proposed buying much-needed instructional materials, particularly in science. Students next year will face a new battery of standardized tests, called the STAARs, based on the state’s latest curricular standards. But schools don’t have the materials that reflect those standards. Clearly, that will make it hard to prepare students for the new tests. Without new materials, Scott said many wondered if there was a chance to defer the STAARs until the state can afford to get students their materials. “I think that’s the underlying debate that we’re having this session,” Scott said, noting he’d seen a room of school administrators burst into applause when someone mentioned test deferal.

That wasn’t an option for Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. Shapiro chairs the Senate Education Committee and authored the bill that created those new tests. After Scott laid out the options, Shapiro told her colleagues that the Legislature was obligated to buy the instructional materials—after all, the State Board of Education gave an unprecedented $2.9 billion to help pay for them. She also wasn’t interested in delaying the new reforms.

So, with Republicans and Democrats both agreeing that Texas schools really can’t make do with $9 billion worth of cuts, the question was clear enough: How to pay for what’s needed?

The senators mulled over potential ways to pay. With a $27 billion shortfall, the outlook for all state services is bleak, and public education ain’t cheap. Amidst the hunting for funds, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, began examining the fund balances for individual school districts; all together, the fund balances add up to a whopping $10 billion. ”There are a lot of rainy day funds out there,” Patrick mused.

While Patrick didn’t make a specific proposal, the speculation was all it took for the outspoken Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, to pounce. “I’ll give you that opportunity all day long,” he chortled—presumably at the idea any politician would try to go after school districts’ fund balances and invoke the wrath of the education community. “In fact I think you ought to do it!” Whitmire goaded.

Throughout, Scott stayed pretty calm as senators peppered him with questions. He argued for more money to go to the school districts and repeated that he was ready to cut agency personnel to get more cash to the schools themselves. But his willingness to take cuts, coupled with an eager-to-please demeanor, left Whitmire at the end of his rope.

“How do you make it work when you’re losing hundreds of millions of dollars?” he exclaimed. When it came to the need for instructional materials, Whitmire pushed Scott to be explicit. “I was asking you to put a face on how that impacts a student,” the senator said, “and why we ought to be concerned.”

Throughout the Finance Committee hearings, Whitmire has encouraged all the witnesses to show that budget cuts are more than just numbers. In the case of education, he argued that the commissioner wasn’t fighting back hard enough against the drastic cuts.

And within the blink of an eye, the rest of the committee Democrats piled on. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, fretted over the impact of the new tests and cuts to minority students. Zaffirini restated her concerns that with cuts this big, there was no way to adequately educate.

“You’re very knowledgable,” Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, told the commissioner. “But you don’t articulate the negative impact.”

In the midst of the piling-on, Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, stepped in. In his ever-calm voice, he said the current draft budget cuts are a worst-case scenario. He cautioned everyone that there was no need to panic. “I just keep hearing the doom and gloom,” he told the other senators.

It was like rattling the lions’ cages. The Democrats came out swinging. “The reason people are concerned is because of the bill in front of us,” exclaimed Whitmire. “You say you don’t want to hear doom and gloom but this is a pretty doom and gloom proposal!”

“We’ve got to come up with some solutions,” threw in West.

Finally, Zaffirini chimed in. “You can’t come up with solutions if you don’t identify the problem,” she said sweetly. “And the problem is Senate Bill 1,” the “worst-case” budget.

The audience burst into laughter, and within moments, Scott’s testimony was over.

Meanwhile, Whitmire has the rest of session to find some “human faces” to testify about the effects of the proposed cuts to schools. Apparently Robert Scott’s boyish face wasn’t enough.