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The Long-Term Education Change We’re Not Talking About

Texas has automatically funded schools for over 60 years. Do the budget cuts threaten that philosophy?
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For more information on school finance, read my longer story School Daze.

Last week, as the House Appropriations Committee approved a budget that slashed over $8 billion to public schools, Senate Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, held a press conference with fellow Senate Republicans. The point? That they valued education.

Each senator stood up and told the awaiting reporters that they too approved of public schools. “I am committed to keeping classroom funding a priority,” Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, who promised to be a “momma bear” when it came to school funding.

While it’s clear that the Senate will not approve the same funding cuts that the House proposes, the senators can hardly claim the moral high ground on education funding. After all, the Senate Finance committee only added $5.7 billion to public school funding, still around $4 billion short of what the state owes districts based on the current system. Neither body is using a scalpel to make these cuts. More like the Senate is hacking away with a machete while the House pulled out a chainsaw. And while we can’t know the extent of the cuts now, the fact that we’re making cuts at all represents a major shift in the state’s approach to education funding.

For over 60 years, Texas has treated education differently than the rest of the budget. In funding most state agencies, lawmakers first see the state has in the bank and then determine which requests they’ll fund. Agencies don’t know what they’ll be getting until the end of the budget process. But we take a different approach with school districts.  Rather than funding schools based on how much we have, we’ve given schools money based on how much we say they need. While many would say the state underfunds education and funds it unequally, but we’ve been reliable, nonetheless. Districts have known ahead of time roughly how much they’ll receive from the state, and school administrators could count on the state to deliver. With this budget cycle, that entire system may be out the window.

“We’ve given up automatic financing,” explains education consultant Lynn Moak, one of the gurus in the field. “For 60 years, schools have been able, fundamentally and with only minor exceptions, to rely on current law as being fully funded.”

The “automatic funding” system was part of the Gilmer-Aikin reforms in 1949, says David Anderson, an education lobbyist at HillCo Partners. The entire package meant to ensure education for the baby boomers. Since then, if the state has fallen short one year, we’ve made it up to school districts the next. “We largely held on to that concept for many many many years,” Moak says.

Whether or not cuts to education wind up as big as the House version or as small as the Senate’s, both Anderson and Moak said this year’s funding approach likely marks a significant departure from that philosophy. Already, school districts are scrambling to figure out their budgets for the next school year—without knowing how much they’ll get from the state. Teachers are getting pink slips from districts based on the hunch that the state isn’t going to provide. The planning process for school districts is “significantly screwed up,” Moak says. From a district level, no one really knows just how dire the situation will be—just that it won’t be good. “That gives me a great deal of concern about the long term future,” Moak says.

At the Senate press conference, Houston Republican Dan Patrick argued that the while cuts to schools were inevitable this session, “We can minimize that impact to education.”

But there’s more than just money at stake. We may be seeing a philosophical shift in how we fund education. According to Moak, that shift  “destroys a piece of the school finance system that’s been there at least since 1950.”