• by Laurie Posner, M.P.A. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2012 •
In Harris County, Texas, where one in three high school students does not graduate, the Texas legislature cut over $550 million from public schools for the biennium. In Bexar, where 35 percent of students are lost to attrition, the state cut almost $240 million. And in counties along the edge of the south Texas border, where the annual attrition rate is 41 percent (Johnson, 2011), the legislature cut more than $170 million.
In all, lawmakers eliminated $6.4 billion from the state’s public education system for the 2012 to 2013 biennium, cutting $4 billion from public school funding; $1.2 billion for increased student enrollment; and $1.2 billion for special programs, including pre-kindergarten programs, dropout prevention and teacher training These cuts weren’t made in a vacuum.
Texas already ranks 37th in per pupil spending in the nation (43rd by some rankings). The state spends $1,359 less per student than the national average – a $34,000 difference for a class of 25 students. In some Texas communities, there is as much as a $7,000 gap in per student spending from one public school district to another.
Texas pays its school teachers less on average than 30 other states (Johnson, et al., 2011). And while the state had achieved greater school finance equity in years past, it has since reduced its share of funding, shifting costs to local communities.
If it is widely known that quality pre-kindergarten programs, smaller class sizes, and better, more engaging curricula help keep students in school, why would lawmakers opt to cut them?
Veteran news analyst Ross Ramsey suggests the reason is that dropout prevention only pays off in the long term and budgeting in Texas is on “a two-year clock” (2011).
When students leave school, Ramsey writes: “The immediate result is that the dropouts save money, [and] budgeting is a short-term exercise… The dropout problem has a longer fuse. The reward for fixing it is somewhere in the future, way past the next election.”
The observation echoes testimony by IDRA President, Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor: “We need to be honest about the fact that, right now, we plan on one third of students leaving school before they graduate. This assumption is built into classroom assignments, teacher hiring practices, curriculum purchases and facilities planning” (2007).
Dr. Robledo Montecel points out that where states are banking on school failure, local communities must have a mechanism to advocate on their children’s behalf. IDRA’s Fair Funding Now! initiative is designed give people the tools and resources to do just that.
Fair Funding Now!
The purpose of Fair Funding Now! is to mobilize statewide, grassroots leadership toward a public education system that is funded fairly and serves all Texas students. The initiative has two major strands. The first is to ensure that the state upholds its constitutional obligation to children. As the Supreme Court of Texas affirmed in 2005, “If the Legislature substantially defaulted on its responsibility such that Texas school children were denied access to that education needed to participate fully in the social, economic and educational opportunities available in Texas,”the suitable provision clause would be violated” (Neeley vs. West-Orange Cove, 2005).
IDRA has been working in partnership with MALDEF and the Equity Center as they, along with other coalitions, bring together one of the largest challenges to Texas school finance policies in the state’s history. Already, a majority of students in rural, inner-city and suburban schools are represented in one or another of the lawsuits now filed against the state (see story).
The second major strand of Fair Funding Now! is to present the case for equitable, appropriate school funding and to develop local, regional and statewide strategies for securing equity for all children. Taking up this work in the fall of 2011, IDRA collaborated with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Mexican American School Board Members Association (MASBA) and Texas Center for Educational Policy (TCEP) at the University of Texas at Austin to convene a series of school funding roundtables in five regions of the state. Since September, more than 300 school, family, community and business leaders have participated in local roundtables in
San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Houston, Austin and El Paso. The Fort Worth
session was held in conjunction with the Texas NAACP state convention, and the Houston roundtable was also held in conjunction with the Texas LULAC quarterly leaders meeting.
To support the leadership of a growing network, we are providing bilingual (Spanish/English) analytical tools, data and resources – from policy briefings to interactive data maps on how funding cuts are impacting local schools (see box on Page 2). Through our schoolfunding.crowdmap.com, people are posting stories of how funding cuts have specifically impacted their schools. In South Texas, parents using the school funding crowdmap have reported how funding cuts left their children without school bus service, forced teachers to buy basic supplies for a science lab, and reduced class time for their kindergartners.
Equipped with these tools and a compelling case for equity, school and community leaders around the state are now convening their own gatherings, calling attention to the impacts of funding cuts and underlying structural inequity, drafting resolutions that call on the state to change course, and engaging new partners in the press for school finance equity.
The Fair Funding Now! model is also serving as a resource for other states. This is important, as funding cuts to preK-12 and higher education have occurred in more than 40 states since 2008. And almost all states have seen legal action or lawsuits challenging funding disparities. Most recently, at NAACP’s invitation, IDRA shared Fair Funding Now! resources with local and national advocates for and leaders in education, participating in NAACP’s Daisy Bates Education Summit in Memphis.
In every gathering, participants have shared a concern for children whose schools face serious cuts; expressed frustration with school funding policy; and proposed plans to spread the word, share their story, pass a resolution or mobilize others. And participants have provided key feedback and criticism that is helping us to continuously build on and improve the effort.
Money, managed well, makes a difference. Schools with the right resources can hire and hold onto teachers who are well prepared, and they can invest in and support teachers’ ongoing development. They can set up science and other learning labs, bring technology into play effectively and engage students with curricula that develop skill and inspire creativity. And they can focus their attention, not on bad trade-offs like whether to cut pre-kindergarten programs, lay off counselors, teachers and school nurses, or stretch classroom sizes, but on doing excellent work for children.
Center for Public Policy Priorities. The State of Texas Children website (Austin, Texas: Center for Public Policy Priorities, 2011).
Embry, J. “Perry: Don’t blame state for teacher layoffs,” Austin American-Statesman (March 10, 2011).
Fair Funding Now! website (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2011, 2012).
Johnson, N., & P. Oliff, E. Williams. An Update on State Budget Cuts – At Least 46 States Have Imposed Cuts That Hurt Vulnerable Residents and the Economy (Austin, Texas: Center for Public Policy Priorities, February 9, 2011).
Johnson, R. Texas Public School Attrition Study, 2010-11 – High School Attrition Continues Downward Trend – Universal High School Graduation is Still a Quarter of a Century Away (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November 2011).
Neeley vs. West-Orange Cove court opinion, argued July 6, 2005.
Ramsey, R. “School Dropouts Save Texas Money But Only in Short Term,” Texas Tribune (October, 28 2011).
Robledo Montecel, R. Graduation for All Students – Dropout Prevention and Student Engagement Strategies and the Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, testimony before the Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives (April 23, 2007).
Laurie Posner, M.P.A., is a senior associate in IDRA Support Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at email@example.com.
[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2012 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]