By Kimberly Burkett, PTA Mom
I have been sleep deprived since 2007. As an infant my son once slept through the night, but must not have liked it since he didn’t try that again until he was nearly three years old. I consoled myself through those years of long, sleepless nights by imagining that when he reached school age I might be able to eke out a full night of sleep again.
That full night of sleep has yet to arrive in our busy kindergarten world. Since my son began school in the fall my life has been consumed by guided reading, holiday parties, sight words, yearbook committee, karate class, PTA meetings, flag football, handwriting practice, pee wee basketball, and swim lessons. Of course, that’s in addition to working at my often more than full-time job. My Christmas tree is still up, my dust bunnies are multiplying, and I’m already stressing about what we’re going to do for the 100th day of school project that will creep up on us any day now.
I’m sure some uber-achiever, veteran parents yawn dismissively at my rookie attempts at life as a PTA parent. I understand. We’re all busy. Everyone is stretched thin. Yet somewhere between soccer practice and scout meetings, there seems to be one critical task that easily drops off the radar in our over-committed lives. One of the most important things we can do for our children and their future is to keep a watchful eye on the state legislature and how their actions (and potential inactions) impact education.
If communicating regularly with your state representative about education issues isn’t on your list of things to do, it needs to be. I know – why should you have to watch your elected officials when you have your own children to monitor? The reason is simple – Texas’ legislators haven’t necessarily been acting in the best interests of your children and they’ll continue down that dangerous path if parents remain silent.
Because I understand the hectic pace of parenting typically pushes watching education policy down on your list of priorities, I’m going to give you the abridged version. These are the basics you need to know as the 83rd legislative session begins so you can ensure that your children and their educational interests are protected this session. Here we go – from the top:
- Depending on the study and methodology, Texas ranks somewhere between 46 and 48 nationally in education funding. We’re neither Minnesota nor Massachusetts when it comes to supporting public education financially. I can assure you, those states are laughing at us every time one of our legislators laments about “throwing money” at education. We’ve never had a history of throwing money at education in this state, even though a public education system was so important to the state’s founding fathers that they required it in the constitution. I’ll let you draw your own conclusion about whether waning commitment to public education is a good long-term plan for a growing state and economy.
- Quick history lesson: In 2006 Governor Rick Perry and the 80th legislature developed a plan to alleviate Texas’ heavy property tax burden, give teachers a raise, and re-tool the means by which the state funded public schools. This is where our most recent problems began. They instituted a new business margins tax, which would become the chief source of revenue for state funding in education. There’s been a slight hiccup in that plan, though. The business margins tax grossly underperforms – it doesn’t deliver nearly the amount of revenue for education that property taxes had previously provided. Additionally, slashing local property rates at the same time led to less revenue from local sources to school districts – essentially, a double whammy on schools.
- As if that wasn’t bad enough, this “tax swap” created a structural tax deficit for the state of around $10 billion per biennium. That means when a new legislature sits down to budget all of the state’s obligations, they stare at a big, fat, red $10 billion shortfall. This happens every session since the 2006 tax swap and will continue until the legislature addresses their intrinsic budgetary issues. Bottom line, the swap didn’t work out very well for either public education or Texas’ balanced budget requirement.
- Texas legislators used a combination of smoke and mirrors and old fashioned shell games to cover their budgetary shortfall for some time – using one-time stimulus funds or other gimmicks to cover the state’s actual obligations. However, the Great Recession brought such a loss of tax revenue (due to tightening wallets as well as home foreclosures) that they could no longer hide behind the games that had worked in years past. By 2011 they cut $5.4 billion in education funding and for the first time in 60 years were unable to fund student enrollment growth. That means new students to Texas were not funded by the state of Texas. There have been 160,000 of them since 2011.
- With these cuts came another episode in Texas’ continuing drama of school finance lawsuits. (This has been going on since the 1960s.) Currently more than 600 districts are suing the state, claiming that Texas’ school funding system is neither adequate nor equitable as required by the state constitution. Once ruled upon this spring, the case is expected to be appealed. If school districts prevail, the state legislature will be required to reconfigure school finance and address the state’s disparate, and frankly, illogical school funding formulas.
- In the meantime, $5.4 billion in cuts looks like this: overcrowded classrooms as districts sought a record number of waivers from class size limit laws; new fees to parents in the form of bussing fees, extra-curricular fees, and sizable requests to fund school supplies and the other necessities of education; 15,000 unemployed teachers; cuts to programs like gifted and talented, fine arts, and athletic programs; loss of support personnel like registered nurses, security, and classroom aides; districts dipping into their reserve accounts (which should be used for cash flow accounting purposes) to make ends meet. And, let’s remember – while sustaining these cuts, Texas schools continued to experience some of the highest levels of student enrollment growth in the country.
- Here’s the good news: For 2013 Comptroller Susan Combs indicated that Texas’ revenues are up more than 12%. Plus, the state’s economic stabilization (or “rainy day” fund) has ballooned to nearly $12 billion. A rational person would think that last session’s cuts to education could be restored with that positive outlook.
- Here’s the bad news: it seems Texas’ leaders aren’t particularly rational. Your state leaders haven’t expressed much interest in restoring funding to education. In fact, Governor Rick “Nero” Perry interrupted his fiddle playing long enough to indicate that he thinks the state has done a fine job funding education.
The most positive support came last month from Speaker Joe Strauss, who recommended funding enrollment growth “going forward” by restoring $2 billion to the education budget. While a noble suggestion given the political climate in Austin, unfortunately Strauss’ band-aid approach won’t fix the cuts of 2011, won’t fund those 160,000 lost students from last session, won’t dig Texas school districts out of their $1 billion hole, and it won’t satisfy new requirements and rigor associated with STAAR testing. Few legislators have jumped on Strauss’ partial funding restoration bandwagon. Instead some legislators are looking at a voucher system that will pull more funding from public schools instead of repairing their damage.
That’s where we stand as the 83rd legislature begins. It’s bleak. If you’re a parent, you should be worried that your state, already a national outlier in commitment to public education, isn’t rushing to restore funding cuts and then some. It has impacted your child and will continue to do so until the legislature is forced to act.
So what do we do? Representative Sylvester Turner of Houston recently said parents need to “be screaming and hollering and emailing us starting on Jan. 8 and keep it up to the end of the session.” Turner indicated that in the last session the state funded everything else first and provided whatever was left over to education. Are you comfortable with your child’s future being a legislative after-thought? If not, then take Representative Turner’s advice.
Reach out to your representatives in any and all ways you can think of to share your feelings about the importance of education in Texas – and do so regularly. Call them, email them, fax them, visit their district office, take a road trip and drop in on their office in Austin. Reach out to them via social media, Facebook friend them, tweet at them. Work with your PTA. Try smoke signals – whatever you can fit into your busy day. You are a lobbyist for your child. There isn’t anybody who has the same passion about or interest in your child’s future as you do. I can assure you that legislators (while some are probably fine people at heart) don’t care as much about your child as you do. Yours is the strongest voice your child will have in Austin. Use it.
Let your representative know how the cuts impacted you and your child. Let your representatives know how you think the increased 12% in state revenue should be used. Do you want your tax money going to another $19.4 billion in corporate welfare or would you prefer it be used to meet education needs? Are you comfortable with education receiving the budgetary leftovers of the appropriations process? How do you feel about the millions of dollars spent on testing? Share your opinion. Demand their attention. And demand an explanation when they don’t act in the interest of your child.
Parents are a strong and passionate lobby. You have the power to fix education if you choose to use it. I hope, for the sake of all of our children, that you do.
- Official: Texas public schools face $1B shortfall (cbsnews.com)
- Perry: No promises to restore ’11 cuts (txwclp.org)
- Education Official: Texas Public Schools Face $1B Shortfall (wibw.com)