The Three Way Attack on Texas Public Education; Part One: Fiscal Responsibility

by Dr. Jerry R. Burkett
Originally Published: July 7, 2011

When the fall semester begins in August, I will enter my 12th year as a public educator. I began as a high school social studies teacher and moved Texas State Capitolthrough college, certification, and promotion to become an elementary school principal. I have seen many changes to education in my short tenure but this coming school year will present many changes as well as challenges I have not yet seen nor could I have foreseen.

The Texas State Legislature wrapped up their special session this week ending a tumultuous six months in session. The session saw across-the-board cuts, debates over using the state’s $9 billion Rainy Day Fund, and no indication of raising taxes to meet the needs of students and the elderly for the coming biennial budget.

“This Legislature will go down in the history books as the worst for public education in a generation,” said Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio. “Now it’s time for legislators to go home and explain to their communities why they voted for or against these historic education cuts.”

Through the cuts, particularly to education, it became evident that the issue was not only about fiscal responsibility, but also motivated by stresses placed on the state from immigration and growing opinions related to the injection of religion (through vouchers or charter schools) into our schools. For the first time in state history, education, which has been championed by legislative sessions in the past, was now being attacked, blamed, and snubbed due to excess fear related to three major issues for the 2010-11 session: fiscal responsibility, immigration, and charter schools/vouchers/homeschooling.

Fiscal Responsibility
The Tea Party asked for it and voted lawmakers into office who campaigned for it. Thanks to the workings of the federal government on both sides of the aisle, the voting populace voted for the kind of change  they could believe in and placed people in office to invoke fiscal responsibility.  The populace was tired of seeing tax dollars go out the window and they voted for politicians who would vow to protect taxes and government spending.

What this really meant for the voting public, this fiscal responsibility, was to cut government spending without raising taxes. When lawmakers entered Austin in January, they were faced with a $27 billion shortfall created by a structural tax deficit, created in 2006, a failed business excise tax, and a deflated housing market and recession. To balance this budget, the Republican majority senate and the super-majority Republican house, began hefty cuts to social services and state programs that overwhelm the budget. Two of the largest services in the state budget, public education and Medicaid, were expected to take the biggest hits in the next budget cycle.

After months of bills, committees, debates, and an eventual filibuster to stop potential cuts to public education, the state settled on a $4 billion slashing to the education budget which would touch the 1,024 school districts in the state on an average of about 6 percent (in some cases more) per district. For the first time in a long time, the State of Texas will choose to cut funding from education at a time when Texas is experiencing the highest population growth in the country. Under this current budget, public education will not receive enough funding from the state to adequately educate every student that will enter a school this fall semester.

This fear of government spending has now transcended into the public sector whereby what was once thought as a sacred cow, as represented from previous legislatures, is now under scrutiny and treated like every other government agency that overspends the taxpayer dollar. As such, the lawmakers in Austin did what they were sent to do: they cut government spending and did not raise taxes. In fact, they even failed to use the $9 billion Rainy Day Fund reserve for education (part of the fund was used to plug holes in the current budget deficit). After these things were completed, they did nothing more. The structural tax deficit was not corrected and the state did little to relieve school districts of the cuts they would be facing in their fall budgets.

The response has been, and will continue to be, an effort to seek local revenue to supplement the lost funds that will not be received from the state. One example, the Keller Independent School District, which sought a tax ratification election  of $0.13 in mid-June, lost by 17 percent of the vote to create that property tax revenue.  The election was largely lost due to a local uprising from a well-funded group known as the Keller Families for Fiscal Responsibility, a Tea Party organization that originated in the neighboring town of Southlake.

It will be this fear of government spending that has caused radical changes that most have not expected. At a time when oil prices are at an all time high, defense spending is higher than ever, yacht owners are receiving tax breaks, and taxes are continually cut, public services that we have taken for granted are becoming the new enemy. Welcome to the new era of fiscal responsibility.

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