Simple Math for Texas Legislators – What Can You Buy with $1.5 Billion?


(Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

By Dr. Jerry R. Burkett (original post from March 6, 2013)

What can you buy with $1.5 billion? It certainly sounds like a lot of money. When the Texas Senate Finance Committee voted to put $1.5 billion back into public education last week, many people probably rejoiced, believing the budget disaster of 2011 was behind us. But, simple math shows that what the legislature is considering amounts to little more than saving face and throwing a bone to Texas school children.

Let’s take a hypothetical look at what $1.5 billion could actually mean to Texas school districts.

1)     The 82nd Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion from education in 2011.

$5.4 billion
– $1.5 billion
$3.9 billion—this is the amount still owed to public education

2)     Of the $1.5 billion that the senate recommended, $40 million is designated for pre-K programs, $20 million for the state’s Virtual School Network, and $4 million for Teach for America.

$5.4 billion
– $40 million to pre-K programs
– $20 million to Virtual School Network
– $ 4 million to Teach for America
$1.436 billion—amount remaining for school district operations

3)     In Texas, there are 1,024 public school districts serving five million students.

$1.436 billion remaining for school district operations
÷ 1,024 school districts
$1.4 million—additional funding provided to each school district using the assumption that each school district would receive the same amount of money (which they won’t because of the erratic state funding formulas, but let’s keep it simple and assume that they will.)

4)     School districts spend their money on a variety of necessities including payroll, curriculum, transportation, heating and cooling, maintenance, and administration. After funding these necessities, how much of the $1.4 million could a school district use to make important changes that could impact students, like hiring more teachers?

$1.4 million
x .49% (average percentage of a school district budget required for standard operations excluding instructional personnel)
$686,000 – amount remaining to fund additional instructional personnel

5)     How many teachers could be hired with $686,000?

÷ $60,000 (average teacher salary plus benefits)
11.43 – additional teachers per school district that can be afforded with the additional funding.

Now, think about your local school district and the number of schools it operates.  Is 11.43 teachers enough to fill the holes that were left when 12,000 teachers loss their jobs in 2011?  In my district, 11.43 would provide one new teacher in only one third of the schools in the district.

In other words, it’s not enough.

In 2011, the Texas legislature cut $5.4 billion from education based upon low-balled revenue projections. It turns out those projections missed the mark so much that legislators actually had the money to fully fund education (and Medicaid) but weren’t able to act based upon the data they were provided. This year, tax collections and revenue are exceeding estimates, with an anticipated budget surplus of nearly $10 billion and a healthy rainy day fund of $8 billion and growing.

This time around, the state has the opportunity to fully restore those needless funding cuts from last session, yet they choose not to do so. Even after a school funding lawsuit that established that our public schools are inadequately underfunded, federal sequestration that will impact Texas education to the tune of $517 million this year, and increased standardized testing requirements, the Texas legislature is only considering throwing Texas students a $1.5 billion bone.

It’s not enough.

Instead, state legislators like Senator Dan Patrick offer a variety of excuses for why they can’t restore the funding – excuses like bumping up against the state constitutional spending limit, the need to fund the bills they didn’t pay last session, the rising costs of Medicaid, and the impact of Obamacare. Each of those excuses is based upon the actions or inactions of politicians with poor planning skills tainted by political ideology. And they expect Texas school children to pay the price for their bad choices.

Texas school children deserve an explanation as to why our legislature left unpaid bills, underfunded schools, and refused to fund new Texas students for the first time in modern history. They deserve to know why members of the Legislative Budget Board (including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Strauss, and other senators and representatives) voted for the second most restrictive spending cap offered to them with full knowledge and understanding of the unpaid obligations waiting for them at the beginning of the 83rd session. The spending cap selected was their choice Further, these elected officials could vote to exceed the spending cap (it takes a simple majority vote and was last done in 2007), but Senator Patrick gleefully said “not in my world.” Again – the spending cap excuse is a choice made by our legislature.

There are complaints about pressures on the budget due to Obamacare and associated costs. Obamacare was signed into law three years ago and it was the responsibility of our state legislators to plan accordingly. Many school districts planned accordingly for the budget cuts they knew would come in 2011 because of the structural tax deficit the legislature created in 2006. Their planning softened the blow for some districts – perhaps the legislature could reach out to school districts to learn a few things about proper budgetary planning. Regardless, it is not the fault of Texas school children that the legislature let political ideology drive their budgetary planning. School children should not suffer for a short-sighted and politically obstinate legislature.

Perhaps the members of the state legislature should explain to Texas school children why they refuse to tap the rainy day fund (which has grown about 40%) to restore the unnecessary education cuts of 2011.To be clear, the rainy day fund is an economic stabilization fund designed to offset fluctuations in the budget due to unforeseen economic conditions. It is not similar to a school district reserve fund, which is used for cash flow and accounting purposes. And it does not belong to the legislature. By definition, that fund should have been tapped to offset the impact of the recession (or so we thought) in 2011. But, again, the legislature will choose to not entertain that funding source. Perhaps legislators can explain to Texas students why politics is more important than their futures.

Perhaps the state legislature can also explain why the focus this session isn’t on its constitutional requirement to fund Texas public schools, but rather on boondoggles such as creating new government boards to expand charters, school voucher schemes, and selling off public school buildings for $1 (although Senator Patrick had to walk this folly back after pushback on both sides of the aisle – now charters can mount their land grab for market value only). Lawmakers have chosen to concentrate on these fiscally questionable pursuits rather than restoring funding to our public school obligations. Perhaps they can explain that despite the fact that they can fully restore funding without raising taxes by a single cent, they choose not to do so.

Apparently everything is bigger in Texas – including its legislative failures. Texas has fallen to 49th in the United States in education spending per student (outspent by the District of Columbia and all states except Arizona and Nevada). Texas students deserve a world-class, college and career ready, and competitive education system that meet the demands of the 21st century. Members of our state legislature choose not to make that a reality.

While the $1.5 billion is a step in the right direction, it does not come near covering these requirements and expectations. Not even close.

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