Texas House lawmakers chose moderation over extremism in the early morning hours Friday when they approved by a 131-16 margin a $218.2 billion budget for the 2018-19 biennium. The budget draws $2.5 billion from the state’s $11 billion Rainy Day Fund and restores significant funding for public universities and schools in Texas.
The House budget rejects using tax dollars for voucher programs that would funnel public funds to private schools.
It was a remarkable show of legislative mastery by House Speaker Joe Straus and his key supporters, who delivered more education and child welfare dollars to Democrats and moderate Republicans at the same time they appeased social conservatives with a family planning program meant to isolate Planned Parenthood.
It also was a decided rejection of the proposed Senate budget and the political agenda of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has spent substantial time and political capital trying to win approval for a voucher program as well as secure passage of a controversial “bathroom bill.”
Gov. Greg Abbott, strangely absent from the debate, also saw funding for his state enterprise fund cut in the budget. Both he and Patrick will have to deal with growing sentiment in Austin and around the state for dipping into the state’s substantial savings account to prevent severe cuts to higher education, and the public school districts that now enroll more than 5 million Texas children, a majority of them Hispanic and even more living in poverty.
Straus is the only statewide elected official who has spoken with conviction about addressing public school funding in the wake of last year’s ruling by the Texas Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of the funding mechanisms, even as justices condemned the inadequacy and inequality of the system.
Why haven’t we heard other elected officials speak more passionately about fixing Texas’ broken system of public school funding and the state’s bottom-of-the-barrel marks? San Antonio voters in both parties who support strong public schools and universities should send a message to their legislators that supports the budget passed under Speaker Straus: Stop playing games and start investing in public universities and schools.
The lack of concern or conviction in the Texas Senate is particularly disturbing. Members of both political parties unanimously approved a $218 billion budget that does not draw on the Rainy Day Fund and instead relies on accounting trickery to push $2.5 billion in highway funding obligations into the next budget cycle by a single day. It’s a budget to make a dedicated educator despair.
The proposed House budget offers the first glimpse of a bipartisan conviction that it is time to rise above politics to address education issues in Texas. We can only hope that spirit prevails when House and Senate members meet to hammer out a compromise agreement on the budget.
Nothing can compare with a good education for the upward mobility of a public school student. State demographers predict catastrophe by 2050 if Texas lawmakers and statewide officeholders do not bring a new sense of urgency to education funding.
In the Senate, education was treated by budget writers as a line item, not unlike highway concrete or road tar. The Senate showed that its budget writers are crafty enough to push spending obligations into the future to balance the books now, yet they lack the vision to fund real investment in Texas children.
True conservatives and liberals alike recognize that the state’s future prosperity is tied to improving education outcomes. Texas has to produce more smart workers capable of filling 21st century jobs, and fewer semi-literate individuals who lack the tools to compete. Better educated students are better citizens, more engaged in community, more likely to build stable families, more able to pay their taxes, give to charity, and better equipped to thrive in a complex, diverse, often disrupted society and economy.
Now that the voucher issue is, yet again, dead for two years, the focus should be directed at elevating Texas’ per capita spending on students. Lawmakers should read the Supreme Court opinions and then engage in a true public conversation about classroom and curricula innovation, fair pay and working conditions for teachers, and adequate funding for districts.
Other states and nations have found ways to take the partisan politics out of public education. Great public schools where educators are set free to give students the best possible start in life begin with inspired public leaders who understand the value of investing in children from a very early age.
The student population in Texas is growing at four times the rate of the student population in the rest of the country. The trend for many years now has been to spend fewer state dollars while pushing down costs and obligations to the local level. Even worse, many legislators want to cap local property taxes and further limit the funds that districts can access to do the job.
“Our state is already well below the national average for spending, and we are such a fast-growing state,” said Pedro Martinez, superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District, one day after attending the 15-hour budget debate and vote in the House. “The governor wants 60% of our adults to have their college degrees by 2030, but to accomplish that it’s critical to see education as an investment and not a line item in the budget.”
Inner city educators as well as those leading San Antonio’s so-called wealthy school districts are responsible for a growing population of children with special needs, language challenges, and living in poverty.
“Yet the funding for those programs has not been updated in decades,” Martinez said. “The reality is that the low level of funding in this state has unintended consequences. The children who need help the most are not getting that help. We have one of the most diversified economies in the country and we know that economy is growing. We have $11 billion in the Rainy Day Fund. This is the right time to use it.”