Tommy Williams

What good is a water fund without good schools?


House Bill 11 deserves a watery grave. Yes, that is a bad pun for the water bill that was shot down in the Texas House last night on a procedural point. And, yes, Texas needs to start spending more money developing future water resources, which HB11 would have done. But Texas also needs to start spending more money on its public schools, and HB11 would have failed to do that.

HB11 would have taken $2 billion from the $12 billion Rainy Day Fund to establish a revolving account for future water-supply projects. But, ignoring the priorities of most Texas voters, sponsors refused to include any additional funding to complete the restoration of the $5.4 billion cut from public school budgets two years ago.

What good would it be to spend money on water projects if you don’t have enough well-educated architects, engineers and managers to design, build and operate them?

Despite what Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas Association of Business and other government privateers think, the answer to a quality educational system doesn’t start with standardized tests for third-graders. It starts with adequately funded schools, and proposed budgets in the House and the Senate still fall short of repairing all the damage from the education cuts inflicted in 2011.

The Senate has approved SJR1, a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide if they want to spend $4.9 billion of the Rainy Day Fund for roads and water projects and $800 million for public education. But that amendment doesn’t seem likely to win House approval, and – with the regular session ending in four weeks – there is talk of a summer special session because Gov. Perry wants money for water.

If only he had the slightest bit of enthusiasm for funding schools as well, this problem could be more quickly resolved.

Without using the Rainy Day Fund, the House has approved a budget that would restore $2.5 billion of the lost $5.4 billion and has approved a separate bill that would add another $500 million. Without SJR1, the Senate’s budget would restore only $1.5 billion of the education funds, although Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams has pledged to add another $1.4 billion made possible because of increasing property wealth.

The final version of the new state budget – and how much money it includes for public education – will be negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee while legislators continue to disagree over the Rainy Day Fund.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston, a strong advocate for dipping into the Rainy Day Fund for schools as well as for water, raised the point of order that torpedoed HB11 last night. And, according to a bipartisan poll commissioned by TSTA earlier this session, most Texas voters agree with him.

Some 66 percent of voters said lawmakers should use the Rainy Day Fund to restore public school funding. That includes 39 percent who chose education funding over water (5 percent) or roads (4 percent) plus 27 percent who believe Rainy Day money should be spent on all three needs.

As the poll shows, most Texas voters have their priorities straight. But they continue to be ignored by many of their alleged “leaders” in Austin.



Don’t feel good about the Senate education budget


Despite all the well-scripted posturing, a few things were missing yesterday from the state Senate’s “Kumbaya” session over SB1, its budget plan. There was no music and dancing to go with the choreographed exchange of political back-patting and backside-covering. And, there wasn’t a decent budget either.

As we were reminded ad nauseam, SB1 is an “improvement” over the budget drafted during 2011, but that isn’t saying much, since the 2011 document ravaged education, health care and other important state services. SB1 would restore some of that funding, but it still would leave thousands of public school students in overcrowded classrooms, thousands of struggling college students without enough financial aid and thousands of low-income Texans without health care.

Calling SB1 an “improvement” is kind of like saying living in a leaky tent is an “improvement” over living on a park bench when you have enough money to buy a house. In the case of SB1, budget writers left $12 billion of taxpayer money sitting untouched in the Rainy Day Fund, more than enough money to fully restore the education and health care funding and meet other state needs with raising any additional taxes.

As approved by the Senate, 29-2, SB1 would restore only about one-fourth of the $5.4 billion – or $1,062 per student – slashed from public schools two years ago. Only Sens. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and new arrival Sylvia Garcia of Houston, both Democrats, dared to break with the Senate’s go-along-to-get along clubbiness and vote against the bill. Davis also made an articulate argument about how the measure “fails Texas children.”

Freshman Sen. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, the Tea Party and Texans for Lawsuit Reform darling, may still be learning her way around the Capitol but she has quickly learned one of the moldiest clichés of the statehouse’s right wing. She dissed the idea of “throwing money” at education. In truth, Texas has never “thrown money” at education, but before the privatization champions took over the Capitol, the Legislature tried to do a decent job of budget-writing.

Defending his budget, Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams of The Woodlands tried to dispute the severity of the education cuts and suggested that tapping into the Rainy Day Fund to restore all the cuts – which he called “ongoing operations” – could harm the state’s credit rating.

The cuts are severe on their face. About 5 million students are enrolled in Texas’ public schools. That means each student’s share, on average, of the $5.4 billion in cuts, spread over two years, is about $1,000. The National Education Association calculated the average per-pupil cut at $1,062, using Texas’ own data.

Texas’ per-pupil spending is more than $3,000 below the national average and ranks Texas 49th among the states and the District of Columbia. That poses a larger threat to the state’s economy and its future credit rating than spending part of the Rainy Day Fund to repair the damage to students’ learning opportunities.

The next step in the budget-setting process is the House. Ultimately, the final budget will be written by a House-Senate conference committee later this spring. More than two-thirds of Texans, according to a recent bipartisan poll commissioned by TSTA, support using the Rainy Day Fund to restore education funding, and that support crosses partisan lines. If you are among that majority, you need to let your state senators and state representatives know – and keep reminding them. If you don’t who your lawmakers are, click on the following link and type in your address to find how who they are and how to contact them.



School Security Act? Let’s wait for the details


I can say at least one positive thing about the proposed Texas School District Security Act that was outlined yesterday by three legislators, including Senate leaders Tommy Williams, a Republican, and John Whitmire, a Democrat.  The positive part is this. It would bolster the presence of licensed peace officers at school campuses instead of attempting to arm teachers, as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was proposing a couple of weeks ago.

Although it is an improvement, this proposal, however, may not put an end to Dewhurst’s half-baked idea.

Since the actual legislation has yet to be drafted, there still are many unknowns about the proposed school security law. But I sense a couple of potential problems. The first is equity and fairness. The plan, as explained by the senators and State Rep. Dan Huberty, would allow voters in school districts to raise local property or sales taxes to pay for enhanced security.

That may make it easier for some wealthy districts to increase security for their students. But what about property poor districts, which for years have been struggling for more equity in school funding? Their students are no less worth protecting from potential danger, but the reality is those districts and parents may not be able to afford the greater tax burden. Maybe the sponsors can figure something out.

The second problem with this proposal is that it strongly signals that the legislative majority still is unwilling to increase the state’s commitment to public education funding, beginning with a restoration of the $5.4 billion cut from school district budgets two years ago. The new security plan would be paid for with local tax dollars, not state money.

Let me make clear that the legislative majority doesn’t include Sen. Whitmire, one of the proposed security act sponsors. Whitmire voted against the school cuts last year and has been a long-time advocate for public education and educators. But his co-sponsor, Sen. Williams, the new Senate Finance Committee chairman, voted for the cuts and now is sponsoring a proposed budget that would fail to restore the money.

“I know just how tight state and local budgets are these days,” Williams said.

Most local school district budgets are tight, thanks in large part to the cuts in state aid imposed in 2011. But the Legislature is sitting on an $8.8 billion surplus and a Rainy Day Fund balance of $11.8 billion. That is more than enough money to restore the education cuts and take care of other pressing state needs.

The only thing “tight” about the Legislature’s budgetary outlook is the unwillingness of the legislative majority to do the right thing for the education of Texas school children. The quality of that education will go a long way toward determining their future economic security.