Education Update from State Representative Connie Scott Greetings!
Almost every discussion about the recent legislative session has centered on education -- how and what to fund and how to find enough savings to be able to afford it. I want you to understand what went into this debate and how much effort we have put into taking care of public education.
As with anything else we were charged with funding this session, we had major hurdles to deal with -- a $20 billion budget shortfall and in the case of education, how to equitably distribute the monies once we figured out how much we could responsibly spend.
There was never any question that across the board cuts were coming, because the state does not have the luxury of borrowing money to balance our budget and we are constitutionally obligated to do so. Voters also were overwhelming in their objections to raising taxes or fees.
Public education, which I view as among the most critical issues in Texas, is already the biggest draw on the state's collective checkbook. In 2010/2011, we spent roughly 57 percent of the state's money on schools.
This session we managed to maintain education funding at the same levels as we have in the past, because we made it our top priority. In fact, the percentage of the state's General Revenue directed to schools increased to 60.5 percent or an additional $3 billion in education spending during the coming biennium.
Despite taking the lion's share of the state's money, education bore a comparatively light share of the total budget cuts, 25 percent. Other areas of state government bore the brunt. I am in no way making light of the education funding situation, but please understand that we used billions from the state's Economic Stabilization Fund (also known as the Rainy Day Fund) to balance last year's books. Then we worked down the estimated $9 billion dollars that education would have been short, to about $4 billion and actually agreed to spend an additional $125 million more than we did last session.
I understand that South Texas education leaders are not pleased with the way our schools are funded. My staff and I have been in constant contact with them, trying to find solutions that best benefit South Texas and my district. As lawmakers, we have worked diligently to give school districts the freedom they asked for in terms of things such as hiring and salaries, in order for them to deal with the funding cuts in the ways they see best.
School funding is a tangled, tough to understand mix of formulas that are based on weights and adjustments related to things such as attendance and transportation funding, as well as local property taxes and property values.
Because of this, there are awful disparities in the money the state's school districts are given to educate a child. Using Corpus Christi ISD as an example, the district is given $5,406 annually per student, while other districts in the state such as Austin ISD get $6,539 per student. In some cases districts are getting as much as $13,000 per student annually.
The plan, which has yet to be approved during the current special session, relies on a relatively flat, across the board funding cut for every district in year one. Year two, school districts that are receiving the most money will see larger funding reductions, as compared to district's that receive less. We staggered the methods of the cuts during the first year to give the property rich districts more time to prepare for large reductions. First-year cuts also are slightly less for property poor districts.
While the cuts are uncomfortable for all of the districts in the state, and could force districts to make reductions and spend their own reserve funds, it is critical to remember that the state cannot spend money it does not have. The state's school districts have roughly $10.6 billion in revenue gained from taxpayers sitting in reserve, that they can use to help offset some of their state funding losses. The state does not have that luxury because much of what is left in the state's Economic Stabilization Fund is soft earmarked for anticipated Medicaid spending growth during the next two years.
Because of the way we fund schools, many South Texas schools already were at a funding disadvantage before the current budget crisis. I believe this is something we still have to fix and I admit we are not there yet. But we are working on it.
In the meantime I hope you will work with me. I hope, that until we heal fiscally from the worst economic downturn in decades, that school districts will be as financially responsible as possible. I hope they will focus on keeping teachers and vital programs and cut waste in areas that already have been highlighted in the media such as overloaded administrations.
The new plan calls for the establishment of an interim joint legislative committee to evaluate the overall structure of school finance. I hope that during the next year or so that we can find a way to make school funding equitable.
Please know that you can always call my office with concerns. My staff knows how to listen and I get every message. I know times are tough and I care. We are here to help in any way we can.