The absurdity of the state “leadership’s” neglect of the public schools was highlighted again this week during additional testimony in the long-running trial of the school finance lawsuits brought by several hundred school districts. This time Austin ISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen was on the witness stand, challenging an assertion by an assistant state attorney general that the $5.4 billion in state education cuts imposed in 2011 were not very significant.
I am not blaming the lawyer for posing such a preposterous question. He, after all, is paid to defend state laws, and there is little defense for an indefensible school finance system. Anyway, according to a report in the Austin American-Statesman, Carstarphen was ready for him.
The state cuts, she said, cost AISD $60 million over the past two years, even though the district will give the state $135 million of locally collected property tax revenue this year to share with poorer districts. Even though AISD is considered one of the state’s wealthier districts, it also has a growing enrollment of economically disadvantaged students, who have social and educational needs that require extra money to meet. Almost two-thirds of the district’s enrollment is low-income, and many of those students have limited English skills
Even with the budget cuts and an overall growing enrollment, AISD has to accept special needs students because they are entitled to a public education. Unlike a private school, AISD can’t cherry pick. And, it can’t limit its enrollment simply because the governor and the legislative majority sharply reduced its funding. If Austin voters were to agree to raise their local school taxes to the maximum allowed by state law, that would raise less than half of the money lost to the state cuts, Carstarphen testified.
Why, the state lawyer asked, doesn’t the district spend more of its reserve funds to cover the state cuts? Carstarphen pointed out that the district needs much of that money for cash flow purposes and is trying to save some of it to protect a modest teacher pay raise.
The superintendent refrained from asking the state lawyer why the governor and the legislative majority didn’t dig deeper into the Rainy Day Fund to avoid or soften the cuts to school districts. That savings account, which is controlled by the Legislature, now is nearing $8.1 billion and will continue to grow.
“We do not have the resources we need to be successful with all students,” Carstarphen said, echoing the warnings of numerous other superintendents throughout the state. Statewide, more than 25,000 school jobs were lost during the 2011-12 school year alone.
But the governor and some legislators are not listening. Instead, they are promoting private school vouchers — which would steal more money from the public schools – and, perhaps, more charter schools and tougher testing, none of which would improve educational opportunities for the vast majority of Texas children. They are dancing in a separate universe.