The biggest single expenditure of state government is education. It costs a lot of money to provide, operate and support classes for more than 5.2 million public school children whose numbers are increasing by about 80,000 kids per year.
Most people think what taxpayers spend on public schools is a great investment in our state’s future. Some of our state “leaders,” though, seem to regard it as more of a political inconvenience, which is a major reason why Texas spends about $2,700 less each year to educate a child than the national average.
Educators hope to improve on that effort during this legislative session, but proof of how tough a fight it will be emerged this week when House and Senate budget leaders presented their initial spending proposals for the upcoming two years.
The House’s version offered at least some optimism for educators, students and families, but the Senate’s draft was awful, putting a less-government, less-education ideological mentality over the real-life needs of school children.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his Senate budget team proposed spending enough money on public education only to cover enrollment growth, and much of that amount will not come from state funds but from local school tax dollars.
This means the Senate plan would not cover budgetary shortfalls that many school districts are still suffering from the $5.4 billion in education budget cuts imposed by the legislative majority six years ago. And it would plunge Texas even farther down the lower rung of states in its financial commitment to public school children.
Moreover, Patrick will try to worsen the damage by once again promoting a raid on education tax dollars for private school vouchers and other privatization schemes that would benefit a handful of students at the expense of the vast majority. (Remember this when Patrick pontificates how about much he “cares” about school children at the pro-voucher, pro-privatization school “choice” rally at the Capitol next week.)
Over in the House, Speaker Joe Straus and his budget team also have proposed a conservative spending plan, but it would increase public education funding by $1.5 billion above what is necessary to cover enrollment growth, provided the Legislature makes some long-overdue changes in the school finance system.
This is not as much money as students need, but it is a start in the right direction and signals that Straus is serious about beginning the job of drafting a fairer and more adequate school funding system. The House plan also may prompt lawmakers to dip into the Rainy Day Fund, a state savings account nearing $12 billion, to more adequately fund education, health care and other critical needs.
The final budget will be written this spring after much debate, negotiation and posturing. But the process begins with an ideological mindset on the part of the Senate leadership versus a more realistic view from the House that school kids are more important than ideology.