Cutting school budgets during this legislative session would be almost criminal, considering the heroic work that teachers and support staff have done to keep their students educated, fed and safe during this health crisis.
Even though Comptroller Glenn Hegar has reported revenue losses during the pandemic haven’t been as dire as he earlier predicted, it will be a tough budgetary session, a sharp contrast from two years ago when the Legislature had a budgetary surplus and spent much of it to increase education funding.
But even now, there are ways to avoid cuts to education and even increase school spending without raising taxes. And these don’t include the legalization of casinos or marijuana, potential and controversial revenue sources that will be aggressively promoted by those interests but may very well fall flat.
The first emergency revenue source that lawmakers should tap is the state’s Rainy Day Fund and its $11.6 billion balance. As its name implies, it is for emergencies, and that includes more than hurricanes, tornados and floods. A pandemic is an emergency, and so is the economic upheaval it has caused.
Here are some other revenue-enhancing steps legislators should take:
- Keep the door closed to private school vouchers.
- Stop the expansion of corporate charter chains in Texas and their growing bite into the state education budget. Charters are taking about $3 billion a year in tax money, and much of that is ending up in the bank accounts of for-profit management companies.
- Abolish STAAR testing and the A-F grading system and find a better, fairer way to measure student progress and teacher effectiveness. The state already has signed contracts totaling $338 million with two STAAR vendors for the next four years. The Legislature needs to find a way to cancel them.
- Legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, must use their influence to convince the members of Congress from Texas to quickly enact President-elect Joe Biden’s education program. For starters, Biden has proposed tripling federal spending for the Title I program, which provides assistance to high-poverty schools, from $15 billion to $45 billion a year. During his campaign, Biden also called for doubling the number of counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers in schools; substantially increasing federal spending for special education; providing more funding for universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-old children; and more funding for school infrastructure improvements. Much of this money could help improve the education budget in Texas.
- Repeal unnecessary corporate tax breaks. This admittedly is an old proposal, fraught with political dissension, but it is worth considering.
The several billion dollars in additional funding that lawmakers provided in House Bill 3 in 2019 was the biggest increase in education spending in years, but it was only a down payment on improvements to a long-underfunded school finance system. We cannot let the funding gains under House Bill 3 be lost, especially at a time when school districts have shouldered extra expenses and suffered declining attendance during the pandemic.
The Legislature must keep districts fully funded this spring at last year’s levels, despite the attendance losses, and then increase school funding for the next budget period.