Some 3,000 teachers converged on the state capitol on March 11 from all across Texas to lobby their legislators to restore school funding and talk about issues like high-stakes testing, private-school vouchers, and teacher pensions. The Texas American Federation of Teachers sponsored the rally as AFT members from Brownsville to the Panhandle, from deep East Texas to far West Texas, spent the better part of the day visiting their area lawmakers one by one to make the case for public education.
This is only the latest chapter in the continuing struggle in this session of the Texas Legislature over public education. The state cut $5.4 billion from the education budget in the last session in 2011 due to an impending revenue shortfall, but restoring that funding now that the state has the money has proven problematic. In his State of the State speech in late January, Gov. Rick Perry proposed returning some of the revenue to citizens in the form of tax rebates while remaining silent on restoring the education cuts.
House Speaker Joe Strauss said over a billion dollars would be added to the education budget but that only keeps up with enrollment growth. Meanwhile Sen. Tommy Williams, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said during a markup session that an additional $1.5 billion would be restored for education in the budget.
Less than a week after Perry’s trial balloon about a possible tax rebate, a state district court judge in Travis County ruled – again - that the way the state funds its public schools is unconstitutional, both because the money is insufficient and because it is not distributed fairly. Following a trial that lasted 12 weeks, Judge John Dietz agreed in a matter of minutes that the current funding mechanism violated the state Constitution.
This introduced a further complication into the school funding equation. Attorney General Greg Abbott immediately filed notice he would appeal the decision by Judge Dietz. With the courts unlikely to rule before the end of the session any restored funding would be put in jeopardy.
Rep. John Otto is a Republican from Liberty who sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee. He noted the original lawsuits were filed by districts in both wealthy and poor areas meaning any appropriation that did not address their issues would be null and void should the decision be upheld. He said any resolution to this issue would likely be deferred to a special session, perhaps in 2014. Otto said he viewed the situation perhaps more analytically than some other members.
“I’m a CPA,” he said. “Numbers don’t lie.”
There are other burning issues on the education front. Sen. Dan Patrick is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and has made no secret of his support for vouchers that would divert state funds to private and religious schools. The Houston Republican is a Tea Party favorite who realized he might not be able to pass an outright voucher bill so he instead proposed so-called “Opportunity Scholarships” where businesses could pay 75 percent of their franchise tax into a fund that would provide scholarships for students in low-rated schools or “at risk for dropping out.”
Critics charged that this was simply a back-door voucher bill and its chances for passage appeared slim at best. Sen. Williams offered a voucher bill of his own but it only applied to handicapped students. Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock of Killeen is chairman of the House Public Education Committee and is not a fan of vouchers. He said based on what he knows about the views of his committee members, it is “very unlikely” they would report out a voucher bill – whatever it was called.
James Shannon can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 249, or by e-mail at james [at] beaumontbusinessjournal [dot] com.