Out of the Schools and Into the Polls

Lege (and voters) still fighting over how much to cut public schools

Rep. Debbie Riddle, second from left, tells public school advocates that Obamacare is to blame for Texas lawmakers' unwillingness to allot more money to public education.
Rep. Debbie Riddle, second from left, tells public school advocates that "Obamacare" is to blame for Texas lawmakers' unwillingness to allot more money to public education. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Whatever happens with school finance this session, everyone agrees on one fact: There will be less money per child, and it's too late to add any cash to the pot. So lawmakers are faced with a new conundrum: Which pressure group will hit them hardest in next year's primaries over this year's votes? The potential answer is still very much in doubt. Late Monday, the last-ditch school finance reforms in Senate Bill 1581 died as lawmakers failed to reach a consensus on how to distribute the cuts. Unless a last-minute patch can be added on to SB 1811, the fiscal matters bill, an education special session is a virtual certainty.

Earlier this session, right-wing think tank Americans for Prosperity launched its Red Apple Project to "name and shame" what it saw as profligate districts. Fellow conservative ideologues at Texans for Fiscal Respon­si­bility have a website, Protect the Classroom, hosting a series of videos promoting the idea that Texas public schools are larded with profligate administrators and that anyone who is not a classroom teacher is a drain on school resources. The purpose was to encourage lawmakers to cut education budgets; however, not only the anti-spending lobbyists have been putting the spotlight on legislators. Nonpartisan nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas raised its public profile by releasing public service announcements featuring actor Tommy Lee Jones and former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre calling for a meaningful investment in schools. Save Texas Schools is taking a more direct approach. On May 21, 300 protesters gathered in the state Capitol to send a clear message to lawmakers: "The eyes of Texas are upon you, and we will vote you out," they loudly sang in the House lobby.

The response was mixed. Some lawmakers applauded and high-fived the protestors as they walked to the rotunda. Others took a quick left turn out of the House and down the stairs, avoiding the gantlet. It was a similar situation later in the afternoon when the protesters visited district offices: In some, they found a warm reception from staff, while at others they were met by locked doors. While it may be too late to change many minds, event organizer Allen Weeks said, "We made a statement to the education supporters that they are not alone."

Yet House Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, argues that the per-student cut in school finances simply reflects last November's conservative sweep at the ballot box: "That's the mood of the state. That's the direction of the election." That said, the Legislature is tempering some cuts. When the budget conference committee emerged on Monday afternoon, word spread quickly that they had agreed upon the less-damaging Senate draft. That leaves education roughly $3.8 billion short of maintaining current funding levels, rather than the $8 billion proposed by the House. Eissler defended the cuts, saying, "I know people like to throw around numbers like we don't spend enough, but does spending equal quality?"

For Austin Democratic Rep. Mark Strama, that kind of thinking depends on "an extraordinarily specious logical leap that 'Maybe if we cut spending, then test scores will start going up.' That obviously doesn't make any sense."

The big question will be whether school investment is a real priority to voters, and Save Texas Schools may have the numbers on its side. A recent statewide survey by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Tribune shows that only 15% of respondents back any cuts to public education spending. Breaking down the numbers, the highest level of support was for cutting the provision for pre-K, and even that could muster only 40% support. Even with those numbers, the final budget is expected to cancel funding for full-day pre-K through Early Start grants, leaving parents with only the less useful half-day provision. Similarly, many educational assistance and early graduation grants are under the axe, while both House and Senate zeroed out the technology allotment intended to help districts with their computer needs. Austin Rep. Donna Howard argued that all runs counter to last session's commitment to making every graduate college- or career-ready. "Whatever movement we having been making [will] suffer a setback," the House Higher Education Committee member said.

All that's really left to argue is how to spend what little funding will be put into the Foundation Schools Program. That is a change from the interim, when major budget figures like Senate Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, talked publicly about the need for sweeping school finance reform. Strama praised Ogden for being "very intellectually honest about the structural deficit" created by the Lege in 2006. "The problem seems to be that he is a very lonely voice in the Republican caucus," he added. However, Save Texas Schools plans to make sure he is not so lonely next session. The group is already organizing a statewide convention for July and is discussing both backing pro-education candidates and recruiting primary challengers. Weeks said the May 21 demonstration "made that first initial statement that, 'You may think it's over, but it's just begun.' The next election cycle had begun."

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