Texas Puts Education First
By Wayne Christian
Last November, the voters of Texas sent a loud and clear message that they wanted government to live within its means and be fiscally responsible. I heard their message and voted to pass House Bill 1, the general appropriations bill for the state, because it addresses the reality of the economic recession while dedicating the majority of our state dollars to public education. Without raising taxes, HB 1 puts public education first and appropriates 56% of our state budget to education in general, while still adequately funding our state’s other pressing obligations such as Texas roads and highways, public safety and human services. HB 1 communicates a clear direction and keeps the process moving forward.
The budget process is far from complete. HB 1 must still be considered by the Senate which has allocated more funds toward education. A compromise must be reached in conference committee between the House and Senate bills, then be voted on by both chambers and approved by Gov. Perry. I have been assured that the final bill will appropriate more funds to public education than the current version.
Unlike the federal government, it is mandated by the Constitution that Texas adopt a balanced budget. According to the Comptroller’s Biennial Revenue Estimate issued in Jan., 2011, the total budget from general revenue must be constitutionally balanced at no more than $77.6 billion.
My wife and I are proud products of East Texas public schools. My three children attended East Texas public schools, and God willing, my future grandchildren will attend East Texas public schools. In my private business, I employ graduates of our public schools, so I have a huge personal stake in ensuring that our education system is successful.
HB 1 delivers a budget for the 2012-2013 biennium that reduces spending by 3.7 percent from general revenue and 9.7 percent in total from the budget for the current biennium. The Legislature continues to increase total funds available for K-12 public education by 50 percent from the 2004-2005 levels. How this money is distributed to Texas’ 1,035 independent school districts will be decided later in the legislative session. Bills other than HB 1 will take up the issue of equity for school funding and the formulas to accomplish that. Be assured that I am fighting to see that our students are treated fairly and that our rural East Texas ISDs receive an equitable share of funds.
It is important to understand that HB 1 does not hire or fire local teachers. HB 1 solely deals with appropriating the available revenue from the state. Locally elected school board members working with public school administrators will make the final decisions on how education dollars are spent in their district. I strongly encourage decision makers to focus their belt-tightening efforts on protecting direct classroom instruction of our students.
After communicating with many teachers, superintendents and education advocates, I voted to utilize $3.2 billion from the Economic Stabilization Fund (the Rainy Day Fund) to cover the shortfall in the 2011 budget, thus freeing up funds to apply to the proposed 2012-2013 budget. Maintaining a healthy reserve in the Rainy Day Fund ($6.2 billion dollars after the passage of HB 275) is vital to ensuring that Texas is prepared to meet future fiscal challenges. One such challenge is the significant increase in Medicaid enrollment mandated by Obamacare beginning in 2014-2015 which the Texas Health and Human Services Commission has estimated will cost Texas taxpayers as much as $4 billion per year. While dealing responsibly with the current shortfall in revenues, we must also be wise in planning for the future.
While Texas has consistently put public education first, more and more of the education dollars appropriated by the state have been directed away from the classroom to educational administration and costly overhead. Armies of support aides, administrators, and auxiliary staff have grown in our school districts. The predictable result is that fewer and fewer dollars make their way to the classrooms where they are most needed.
Texas has more public school employees than any other state in the nation, including California, despite having 1,000 less schools and 1.6 million less students than the Golden State! Forbes Magazine has found that if Texas school districts were a single company it would be the fifth largest employer in the world, just short of the United States Postal Service.
Even a modest reduction in non-teachers to a 3-2 ratio with in-classroom teachers would net a $3 billion savings that could be put back into the classroom. If non-teaching staff were reduced only to 2004-05 levels, Texas would save $1.5 billion. That would allow school districts to save many teachers’ jobs.
We have to get back to basics in public education. Texas can no longer afford to spend 50 cents of every education dollar outside of the classroom. We must eliminate unfunded mandates that turn teachers into government compliance officers. I support legislation that would help accomplish that while giving school districts greater flexibility. Results must be analyzed, every dollar scrutinized, efficiencies zealously sought, and old premises reexamined. The Legislature is operating under self-imposed immediate 10% budget cuts this year followed by a 14% cut after the legislative session. It is a small measure considering the overall budget challenges we face, but it is a signal that we are serious about fiscal responsibilities.
While the budget passed in the House is balanced and remains within our means with an eye towards future obligations the state will face, there are still budget cuts which can be made and funding priorities which must be examined further. Our nursing homes are still facing a severe budget shortfall and I will be working with the Senate to restore funding for the nursing homes in the Senate budget bill.
Education is a major priority for state legislators as evidenced by their decision to spend 56% of the state’s general revenue on this vital public interest. Do not let anyone suggest otherwise. Education gets the major share of the budget pie, but the problem is that the size of the pie has gotten smaller due to the economic downturn. Taking measures such as avoiding tax increases and being prepared with a healthy Economic Stabilization Fund will encourage and accelerate continued growth of our state economy which is ultimately our best hope for ensuring fiscal stability and adequately funding public education.