June 3, 2011
For 140 days, Texas’ budget writers leaned on the glue and duct tape of gimmickry and denial, trying to patch up the state’s rickety budget and school finance system.
Those in control of the Legislature waited until the last minute to finish their project. And as some of our state’s seventh-grade teachers could have warned them, they didn’t get it done in time. So now they’re back in a special legislative session, trying to keep schools across Texas from shutting down next fall.
But let’s be clear: The proposals now before the Legislature don’t adequately fund our schools. Any theoretical good was undone by a stubborn refusal to put the priorities of Texas first — or keep the state’s promise to fund Texas schools and our children’s future.
The legislation attempts to hide a failure that dates back to 2006, when those in control cynically promised Texans a tax cut but refused to do the harder work of cutting spending or replacing the lost revenue. It opened a multibillion-dollar hole in the state’s finances — one that we’d all have fallen into two years ago without billions of dollars in federal stimulus money.
But that bailout is long gone, and the state’s about $4 billion short of what schools need to cope with more students and escalating costs. It’s the first time in known state history that Texas hasn’t paid for enrollment growth.
Faced with that $4 billion debt to our schools, those in control have come up with a novel scheme. They refuse to reform the broken funding system. They fail to relieve the pain of cuts, some of which are necessary, by using reserve funds that are set aside for just this sort of situation. They allow tax loopholes for special interests. And they compromise the education for a generation of Texas schoolchildren.
The bills before the special legislative session make the broken system permanent by ignoring promises made to local districts. They unilaterally redefine the state’s obligation for funding schools and just call it the new normal. They attempt to cover up the state’s unwillingness to meet its responsibility, throwing a rug over the cracked foundation of our state’s budget.
So who’s on the hook for the $4 billion broken promise? You are. Your kids may be packed into bigger classes, their teachers may be laid off, or your property taxes may go up. Unlike the Legislature, districts can’t just push their obligations onto others. They have to be accountable.
Most Texas districts would lose money under that plan. Austin ISD alone (not counting another recent round of federal aid), would lose more than $90 million over the next two years.
The debate is simply over how to spread the pain among our children — choosing which students and schools will suffer more than others, and deciding which communities have to lay off teachers and which ones “only” have to eliminate important educational programs.
But the problems run much deeper than the special session or certain bills. They’re products of a budget system that’s been tainted for years by debt, diversions and deception. The legislation simply creates another deceptive, 10-figure deficit — even as the Legislature continues to divert around $4.5 billion from its promised purposes to make the books balance, and it blatantly misrepresents things like the state’s Medicaid obligations.
Sadly, it’s possible the only good thing about the special session is that, unlike the frenzied final week of the regular session, Texans can take a couple of days to see what’s in the bills. They can talk with school and business leaders about what the bills would mean in the short term and the long run. They can write letters, testify before committees and make it clear that legislators must not break their promises to our schools, our children and our state’s future.
We owe Texas no less.