With only occasional exceptions, a government’s policy priorities and its funding priorities go hand-in-hand. Policymakers can call repeatedly for building more roads and highways, but if they don’t spend more money on highway construction, the roads don’t get built. Or, they can pontificate forever about improving education, but if they continue to shortchange public schools, it is extremely difficult for teachers and students to effectively teach and learn.
In his news conference yesterday, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott continued to claim education is a top policy priority. But except for some limited initiatives — including limited expansion of pre-kindergarten programs — he has yet to show that he means what he says. Instead of calling for a significant increase in funding for public schools that haven’t fully recovered from the 2011 state budget cuts, Abbott is still defending an inadequate and unconstitutional school finance system that includes the budget cuts.
“I want to ensure that all children finish the third grade reading and doing math at or above grade level,” he said. That’s a laudable goal that would be much easier to reach if thousands of kids weren’t still parked in overcrowded classrooms and forced to sacrifice real learning opportunities in preparation for excessive, counter-productive standardized tests.
With Texas now spending about $460 less per student than it did four years ago, with school enrollment increasing by about 80,000 children per year and with most of those kids coming from low-income homes, Abbott isn’t going to come close to realizing that goal without a greater investment of state revenue in public education and support services, such as health care. And, with billions of additional tax dollars generated by the state’s strong economy, the new governor and the Legislature can make that investment without raising anyone’s existing taxes.
Abbott identified his top priority yesterday, and it wasn’t education. It was highway construction, for which he proposed a $4 billion a year funding increase. Texas needs to increase funding for highways, and Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a proposition diverting additional oil and gas production tax revenue to the highway fund. That diversion is expected to total about $1.7 billion next year, and it is included in Abbott’s $4 billion proposal.
The Legislature will have enough revenue next year to pay for Abbott’s highway proposal AND increase funding for public schools and other critical services. Abbott needs to start giving public education the same status he is giving roads because it will take more than new highways to keep Texas moving forward.