A recent opinion piece in the San Antonio Express-News by State Comptroller Susan Combs aimed to set the record straight when it comes to the admittedly complex topic of school finance and what happened in last year’s legislative sessions.
“Partisan political rhetoric can always muddy the waters further,” Combs, who maintains that Texas will spend more on public education in 2012-13 than in the previous biennium, wrote. “One person’s ‘reduction in the rate of growth’ is always another’s ‘savage cut.’”
How can a reduction in the rate of growth be termed anything but a cut, when Texas public schools add about 80,000 children to its rolls each year? Those children are entitled to the same education as the ones who came before them. And those children increasingly fall into categories considered at-risk, which makes them more expensive to educate. By law, they’re entitled to services and programs that school districts must provide, and those services and programs cost money.
The op-ed goes on to explain the situation this way: "Texas will spend more state funds for public education in fiscal 2012 and 2013 than in the previous biennium. This will be offset, however, by the loss of federal stimulus funding, which is winding down across the nation."
What the piece leaves out is that when the Legislature in 2009 learned of the impending $3 billion windfall of stimulus funding from the federal government, they promptly cut state public education funding by that same amount, then replaced it with the stimulus funding – which they knew was not permanent.
Combs also emphasized that spending on public education has risen more than three times as fast as enrollment over the past decade. Here are the facts, according to research by Moak, Casey & Associates, and explanation as to where that money is going.
Between 1997-98 and 2007-08, operating funds increased by 59 percent per student. Some of this increase is attributable to increases in federal funds associated with things like IDEA, Title I and the free breakfast and lunch programs. General fund operating expenditures have grown by 54 percent during this time (unadjusted for inflation). Much of this growth was due to legislative decisions to invest in particular areas, like improving teacher wages. For example:
- In 1999, the legislature passed a required teacher pay increase of $3,000 per teacher. It also put the pre-kindergarten grants in place and a 9 th grade initiative aimed at improving graduation rates; In 2001, the legislature passed new requirements for school districts to offer health care benefits, including a $1,000 pay supplement for school staff that could be used for the purchase of health insurance.
- In 2003, the legislature passed a $110 per WADA supplement to school districts that could be used for any necessary educational expenses. In 2005, the legislature bought down property tax rates and established the target revenue system. At the same time, it required a $2,500 teacher salary increase and provided for a new high school allotment that was to be used to improve graduation rates and prepare students for a college readiness curriculum,
- In 2007, the legislature provided $23.63 per student to be used for staff salaries and provide for a substantial number of new grant programs aimed at improving high school effectiveness; and In 2009, the legislature passed a required pay increase of $800 or half of any new dollars associated with formula changes designed to improve equity.
- In all of these years, the legislature provided equalized funding for tax rate increases.
In addition, school districts have been busy responding to a changed student-population as well as changed educational expectations. The percentage of students who are from low-income families has increased from 48.5 percent in 1997-98 to 56.7 percent in 2008-09. However, this has not kept Texas from increasing academic expectations. Districts have worked hard to implement additional requirements for mathematics education, train teachers to instruct to higher-level college readiness standards, and provide student support as more challenging assessments are administered.
School district leaders – as well as educators at every level and parents and community members who support public schools – need to be armed with the facts to combat the spin regarding education funding. TASA staff is available to help with research, facts and talking points so if the issue comes up in your community, don’t hesitate to call.