• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2011 •
This just-ended Texas legislative session may be best remembered as one of the most polarized and unyielding in decades. Policymakers faced a revenue shortfall of $27 billion needed just to maintain state services at the prior biennium levels. It was caused, not by the economic downturn, but by legislative actions five years prior that cut local property tax revenues without replacing them from other sources, including the business tax that was supposed to offset the cuts. In response this year, state leaders took a meat axe approach that will no doubt haunt generations of Texans for decades to come.
Education Funding Slashed
Among those hardest hit were Texas public schools with $4 billion in critical state funding slashed over the next biennium, with the prospects of further cuts looming if the state economy does not significantly improve by 2013. In addition, the manner in which education funding was cut was neither strategic nor equitable. Political egos became the driving force for the funding reduction mechanisms that were eventually adopted.
Early conversations of how best to approach funding cuts began with reasoned analyses that focused on reducing state aid that is non-equitably distributed through either target revenue or related hold-harmless funding mechanisms. But when computer runs showed the effect such cuts would have on high wealth schools, the focus quickly changed.
What emerged as an alternative approach were cuts that would, in theory, spread the pain more equally among school districts regardless of their property wealth or the disparities that would be perpetuated by the proposed funding cut approaches.
In the end, the funding plan adopted included both variants. One reflected the House leaders’ preference for a 6 percent across-the-board cut to all school districts. This clearly was the most inequitable of options since the differences in revenue between high and low wealth school districts were ignored.
In the second year of the biennium, the state will cut school districts across the board by 2 percent (accounting for about $500 million in that second year) with added reductions in districts’ target revenue allocations (which will generate the additional $1.5 billion in revenue cuts projected for the upcoming biennium).
These were the first cuts to public education in over four decades. In addition, the state reduced funding to schools by another $1.2 billion by eliminating a number of specialized programs distributed as direct grants by the Texas Education Agency. Taken together, the $4 billion in formulae funding plus the $1.2 in supplemental program funding, Texas education has $5.2 billion less than what would have been provided under previous law.
Adding insult to injury, state appropriators chose to ignore growth in school enrollments of 140,000 to 180,000 students over the next biennium. As a result, school districts that are experiencing growing student populations (especially in the state’s suburban areas) will have to spread whatever reduced funding they receive for educating current students even more thinly to cover the costs of additional students.
Another example of state leaders’ efforts to transfer fiscal responsibility from the state to local school districts was the attempt to change the way the state covers the underestimates in state funding that is owed to local districts at the end of a biennium. As a result of proposed changes in law, local school districts – and not the state – would have been responsible for covering any shortfalls in funding that may have resulted from state-generated underestimates of districts’ state aid. Only fierce opposition from school organizations led to the elimination of that proposed change to current law.
English Learner Education Improvements Pushed Aside
In related developments, practically any reforms that required some kind of increased outlay of state funding were left to die in committee by the House and Senate education committee leaders. Efforts to improve secondary level English learner programs championed by Senator Leticia Van de Putte were granted a hearing but never emerged for a vote before the full committee. A proposal filed by Senator Judith Zaffirini to strengthen state monitoring and accountability provisions related to EL programs across K-12 levels also was granted a hearing and left pending in committee by the committee chair.
Teaching Quality Weakened
State leaders chose to reduce the minimum salary schedule for teachers, reduce the notification dates for non-renewal of contracts from 45 to 10 days, and provide school district officials authority to mandate furloughs of school personnel under state exigency conditions to be defined by the commissioner of education. Of concern to equity advocates is the probability that low wealth school districts, strapped to raise funds to provide competitive salaries or benefits, will once again revert to becoming training grounds for entry-level staff, only to lose those individuals to higher wealth school systems as they become more experienced and acquire advanced credentials.
Student Disciplinary Policies Neglected
In other education areas, efforts to eliminate corporal punishment being applied without parent approval were rebuffed by the majority of legislators. The policy that emerged only allows parents at their own initiative to communicate their objections to the use of corporal punishment on their children. Rationale for the opposition stemmed from what one member expressed as reservations that it would be the parents of “those children who should be paddled” who would be the primary ones raising objections to the use of physical force on their children. No research on the effectiveness of using physical force on school children was ever presented during floor debates on the issue.
Related efforts to modify and improve the states’ disciplinary policies were strongly resisted by state leaders. This was despite yet another report (Fabelo, et al., 2011) revealing that disproportionately large numbers of Texas school students were subjected to disciplinary action, with a disturbing over-representation of Black males and special education students subjected to suspensions, expulsions or referrals to disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEPs). IDRA has raised these issues repeatedly in research dating back over 10 years (Cortez & Cortez, 2009).
Accountability System Debated
Policymakers considered delaying implementation of a complex end-of-course exam exit system and setting up a more simplified approach. The proposed system would have required students to pass a combination of English, mathematics, science and social studies exams in order to graduate. The measure was adopted in the House and included in conference committee deliberations during both the regular session and special session, but it was eventually excluded in the final plan adopted by the legislature. Concerns with the billion-dollar cuts in funding on the quality of teaching that would be available to many students created some pressure to modify or delay exit-level testing requirements. Yet recognition that these requirements would only begin to apply to the incoming freshman class of 2011 may have contributed to any minimal concern by some state policymakers.
In the interim, sophomore, junior and senior students enrolled in Texas high schools must continue to pass the state’s exit-level standardized exam in order to be awarded their diplomas. It is conceivable that the state’s funding cuts will be seen as inhibiting schools from providing students the teaching required to meet exit-level assessments and will thus be incorporated into a new legal challenge to the state school finance system.
College Access and Success Hit
Higher education fared not much better than K-12 in the biennial budget. State colleges and universities were cut by an average of 7.8 percent. Numerous need-based financial aid programs, including Be on Time (which rewarded students for graduating in four years) and Texas Equal Opportunity Grants (TEOG), were cut by 20 percent. Texas Grant funding was cut by more than $40 million, notably reducing the number of new students who will receive funding. New “merit” criteria for what had previously been need-based funding were added to Texas Grant eligibility requirements.
Many of the state education funding reforms are projected to move the state backward, threatening to push Texas to the bottom of national rankings in a number of education areas. Based on the funding cuts, it is anticipated that Texas achievement levels will decline, the number of students enrolling in college will decrease and state efforts to remain competitive with other states in a number of key economic areas will suffer.
Billions of State Dollars Untapped
A critical area of disagreement centered on whether the state should have used over $6.8 billion currently sitting in the state’s “Rainy Day” fund (which is projected to grow to nearly $10 billion by 2013) to avoid the high cuts to education, programs for children and care for elder Texans. Texas political leaders (including the Governor, Lt. Governor, the House Speaker and their appointed committee chairs), citing the need to save the reserve for possible future shortfalls, refused to tap the state’s reserves in what was clearly a critical budget period. How many and how long Texans citizens will suffer from such short-sightedness remains to be seen.
Cortez, A. The Status of Texas School Finance – A 2009 Update (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2009).
Cortez, A., & J.D. Cortez. Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in Texas – A 2009 Update (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2009).
Fabelo, T., & M.D. Thompson, M. Plotkin, D. Carmichael, M.P. Marchbanks, E.A. Booth. Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement ( New York: Council of State Governments. Justice Center, 2011).
Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is director of policy at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2011, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2011 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.]