The Political Calculus of Education Cuts

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If there’s any consensus in the Texas Capitol, it may be that education is a good thing—but I wouldn’t expect much harmony when it comes to education funding this year. The Senate Finance Committee, which spent this week hearing testimony on health and human service programs, turns to Article III—education—next week. Among the cuts and slashes to every part of the budget, the proposed Senate budget slashed funding for public schools by over $9 billion. In case that doesn’t sound drastic, consider that if we spent the entirety of the state’s Rainy Day Fund—the piggy bank ostensibly for emergencies—all the dollars would only barely cover the cuts to schools. 

Texas is constitutionally obligated to fund education. The state has already undergone countless lawsuits for unfair and inadequate funding—in fact, that’s been the main way that school advocates have made headway when it comes to funding. Not through law, but through lawsuits.

Under current law, the proposed Senate cuts to education couldn’t go into effect. They’re contingent on changing the state’s funding requirements. But it seems state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano and state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, are working on school finance reform legislation this session, to both make some shifts to the bizarre and complex system generally and—more than likely—to specifically pave the way for the coming cuts. (Of course, we don’t know the specifics yet.)

It’s clear why Eissler and Shapiro, the chairs of House Public Education and Senate Education respectively, would carry bills to that effect. The Republicans have promised to solve the budget crisis through cuts—not raising revenues—and that’s what they aim to do.

What’s not clear is why anyone would vote for such legislation, when it would hurt their own districts directly. 

The truth is, very few legislators (or people in general) understand our school finance system. The laws have been built on court orders, old requirements and grandfather clauses—it’s a mess. To sell an education finance reform bill, the bill authors usually have a pretty simple job—in normal budget years, that is. Instead of getting into all the arcane and technical bits, they can simply explain how the bill will help bring more money to each member’s districts. For those members whose districts won’t benefit, they at least promise things will stay the same.

That ain’t gonna work this year. There’s no way around the fact that these bills will hurt school funding. And, most likely, they will hurt some districts more than others. (If the cuts are prorated on how much the school districts have in the bank, to give one example, it could unfairly hurt those districts that have tried to save money in fund-balances and reward those that have spent more wildly.)

No matter what, lawmakers are facing tough votes. In the proposed Senate budget, there’s almost no money for educational materials. It postpones money for schools to buy new English Language Arts and science materials. (That’s particularly ironic given that next year, schools will start getting new standardized tests based on new material. They just won’t have the textbooks that explain the new stuff.) Gone are a slew of grants to public schools—everything from all-day pre-K grants to grants to fund school science labs.

Those kinds of cuts are hard enough to swallow. But can lawmakers vote for a bill that would cut funding for all districts, and cut some more than others?

Next week, we’ll get our first lesson.