The scene: signs waving, buttons blazing, cheers berating. Monday’s Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) press conference was packed full of Texas school administrators already in town for the TASA Midwinter Conference. The reason: the announcement that that the Make Education a Priority campaign has amassed support from more than half the 1,030 school districts in Texas. Education makes up over forty percent of the state budget. With an unprecedented $27 billion budget shortfall, the cuts to schools could be extreme—the initial drafts of the House and Senate budgets both propose cutting funding by over $9 billion. Apparently it got people’s attention. This is the first time that a majority of school districts have adopted a common resolution, and advocates are hoping it will convey an overwhelming message to the state legislators.
The Make Education a Priority campaign is meant to persuade lawmakers to protect current funding levels for public education in the state’s 2012-13 budget. It’s hard to see how that can happen—education currently makes up over forty percent of the budget—but the advocates are adamant. As John Folks, Superintendent of Northside ISD, said, “These are desperate times for public schools in Texas.”
Throughout the speeches, one theme emerged: the fundamental cause of these public school budget shortfalls is not the economic recession, as many politicians might have you believe, but rather structural problems in the tax system. Much of the discussion danced around the current tax structure, which was largely re-written in 2006. Lawmakers lowered property taxes by a third, arguing that the new business franchise tax and higher cigarette taxes would pay for the cut. Instead, the franchise tax hasn’t performed nearly as well as expected, contributing to the current budget short fall. Folks argued it was unfair for lawmakers to drastically cut education funding for a problem they created—and unfair to ask schools to take brutal cuts.
Speakers advocated using the Rainy Day Fund, a $9 billion state piggy bank. While many conservative lawmakers have opposed spending any of the fund, one of the speakers pointed out that it’s officially called the “Economic Stabilization Fund”—and what better time to stabilize than now?
Mr. Folks pointed out that according to House draft budget, proposed last week, the cuts would be “draconian,” and his school district would be forced to take a 28.5 percent cut. And if that happens, he’s not even sure his school district would be able to operate.