On March 12 thousands of parents, students, and teachers will gather in front of the State Capitol in Austin to demand that the Governor and state legislature abandon HB1, the proposed bill that guts funding for education and other critical state programs. They will demand that a quality education for every student in Texas be the legislature’s top budget priority, and not be sacrificed to cover up the legislature’s past mistakes.
Governor Perry and state legislators did not run for election on a platform of gutting education. Instead, they claimed that Texas has been so well governed that it was the sole bright light in a dark national economy. They failed to mention that the state is facing a $27 billion dollar budget shortfall.
Even after the new Texas House budget was introduced, with brutal cuts to education, Medicaid, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and other programs, Governor Perry said,
>"The mainstream media and big government interest groups are doing their best to convince us that we're facing a budget Armageddon. Texans don't believe it, and they shouldn't because it's not true."It is a relief to hear that there is no budget crisis, but if the state budget is in such good shape why are our schools, from pre-K through college, facing a state funding Armageddon?
The Texas legislature has proposed slashing $9 billion in education funding. This comes on top of earlier cuts. In early 2010 the legislature cut funds for state agencies, including colleges and the Texas Education Agency, by 5%, and in December they took another 2.5%. The idea that there is enough fat left to trim or efficiencies yet to be found to absorb still more cuts is absurd. Now the legislature is cutting into bone, and killing vital programs.
Under the current formula, established by state law, the state provides around 43% of a school district’s revenue; local property taxes cover 46%; and the federal government provides 10%. The proposed state budget cuts are so severe that they would be a violation of the existing state law.
If the budget passes, the state will not help public schools pay for growth in student population, expected to be around 160,000 new students over the next two years. Class sizes will balloon, impacting the quality of instruction. Programs for children with disabilities will be slashed, and eligible students will be turned away. Funding for 100,000 kids to attend pre-kindergarten will be eliminated.
The budget cuts could cost 100,000 school employees their jobs, at a time when unemployment is already high and new jobs will be hard to find. The Texas Education Agency and many school districts have already started laying off workers in anticipation of the cuts. State funding for Teach for America, which recruits 1,000 teachers per year and places them in under-resourced schools in Texas, would be zeroed out.
The kids who still manage to graduate from underfunded public schools will have far less hope of attending college than those who came before them.
The Texas Grant, which currently helps 86,000 students attend college, will be cut back to 27,000 students by 2013. Students who already receive the grant would be allowed to finish, but freshmen entering college next fall will not have access to the program. Another scholarship, which aids students who graduate high school in the top 10% of their class, will be cut by 79%. And funds for work-study programs will be cut by 41%.
Community colleges will face $767 million in cuts, at the same time as enrollment is increasing by double digits. State funding to help pay for instructors’ health insurance will be slashed. Ranger, Odessa, Brazosport, and Frank Phillips Community Colleges will be shut down completely. Funding for public universities will be cut by 7.7%, and public health-related institutions will lose 13.3% of their appropriation.
Governor Perry has stated repeatedly that the $9 billion that state maintains in a “rainy day fund” is untouchable, and will not be used to prevent deep cuts to our children’s schools. He has yet to explain what would qualify in his mind as a “rainy day” worth tapping the fund.
The idea that Governor Perry and the Republicans in the Texas state legislature are true fiscal conservatives who can make the tough decisions necessary to fix Texas’ problems is ridiculous. The Texas legislature has been in Republican hands for years, and they caused the budget crisis that we now face.
The $27 billion gap between state revenue and expenses is not simply the result of a bad national economy. It is a structural problem resulting from the legislature’s decision in 2005 to cut property taxes by one-third, and simultaneously raise business and cigarette taxes to make up the difference. Trouble is, the raised taxes have never been enough to fill the gap. The gap gets wider or narrower from year to year, but there will always be a shortfall. Legislators and the governor were warned of this at the time, but chose to ignore the facts and create this ongoing structural deficit.
Governor Perry has also refused to accept $830 million in federal education aid because, he says, the money has “strings” attached. The “strings” that Perry deems unacceptable are the requirement that the education funds be used for education. This requirement is tied to the cash because Governor Perry used $3.2 billion in federal stimulus money that was supposed to be for education to fill non-education-related holes in the previous budget.
Short of cash, Governor Perry and the legislature now call new textbooks, financial aid, and health insurance for teachers luxuries that must be eliminated to partially fill the hole that they dug. Their own pay and benefits, however, are too precious to touch. No legislator has offered to share a teacher’s pain by forgoing their own health insurance, or a parent’s pain by denying their own child a college education.
For years taxpayers have paid $10,000 per month to rent Governor Perry a mansion, complete with three dining rooms and pecan wood floors, while a new Governor’s Mansion is under construction. Perry’s rental mansion has cost $700,000 and counting, but the legislature has not suggested that tightening our belts might include asking a millionaire to pay his own rent.
Like the legislature, Governor Perry has not offered to stand in solidarity with teachers by giving up any of his own state-funded benefits. If Perry did the state a favor by retiring, he could choose to either receive $86,250 per year in state retirement benefits, or take a one-time lump payment of $258,750. In contrast to the governor’s hefty payout, the proposed budget would cut the amount of money that the state pays into an educator’s retirement account.
Following the last election, and a pair of post-election defections, Republicans hold 101 out of 150 seats in the Texas House. Democrats have been so thoroughly marginalized that even if they all stayed home they could not prevent the Republicans from having a quorum, much less stop them from passing a bill. If anything positive comes out of this legislature Republicans will deserve the credit. If our education system is looted, Republicans will deserve the blame.
Democrats have vowed to oppose the education cuts, but the bill will pass unless Republican legislators also fight to defend our schools. Each legislator must decide whether party loyalty trumps the needs of the students, parents, and teachers that they were elected to represent. State Representatives such as Aaron Peña, who switched from Democrat to Republican immediately after the election, will be judged by whether they stand with the families that elected them, or instead vote with the GOP to deny Texas children the education necessary to achieve the American Dream. If Representative Peña and the rest truly believe in that dream, they will vote down HB1, and they will stand with us in front of the state capital building on March 12.
For more information on the March 12 Austin rally to Save Texas Schools, visit www.savetxschools.org