by MORGAN SMITH
The Texas Tribune
The biennial budget shortfall you’ve heard so much about — estimated to be anywhere from $13 billion to $28 billion — will require the Legislature to take a paring knife and possibly a machete to government agencies and programs. The largest single consumer of state dollars is public education, so it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which funding for teacher salaries, curricular materials and the like isn’t on the chopping block, especially if state lawmakers want to make good on their promises of no new taxes.
Nobody knows for sure how drastic the cuts will be until January, when the comptroller releases her revenue estimate and lawmakers unveil their starting budget. But one educated guess in November suggested school districts may have to prune between $3 billion and $5 billion from the more than $35 billion public ed budget, which represents just under 44 percent of the state’s general revenue spending. Where is that money going to come from?
First, expect fewer teachers in classrooms. For most Texas school districts, personnel costs — employee salaries and benefits — account for 80 percent to 90 percent of total expenses. While the goal for belt-tightening districts will be “to stay as far away from the children” as possible, says Wayne Pierce, the executive director of the Equity Center, which advocates for increased funding to districts, there’s only so much they can do without touching such a large chunk of their budget.
With the specter of the 2011 shortfall looming, many districts have already stripped what they can from administrative and custodial positions, he says. And delaying routine maintenance like fixing leaky roofs until better times can only take them so far. That leaves spending on teachers, which in turn means cutting salaries and, in some cases, eliminating positions. “You have to have electricity, you have to have gasoline for the buses, you have to have teaching supplies,” Pierce says. “So bottom line, you have to cut personnel.”
More cost savings could result from lawmakers lightening the regulatory burden on districts. “The Legislature says we’re giving you less money, but we’re not going to make you do this, so you figure out how to spend it,” explains Sheryl Pace, a senior analyst at the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association.
For instance, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has proposed lifting the cap on class size. A state law passed in 1984 requires no greater than a 22-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. If the Legislature decided to temporarily remove that mandate, it would relieve districts from the burden of creating a new class with an additional teacher and classroom every time the number of students in the class hits 23 — something Patrick has said would save them “millions and millions of dollars.”
Teachers’ groups oppose that approach. They question whether the benefit will outweigh the detriment to students’ educational experience, and if it will actually help reduce costs. Districts can already apply for a waiver if they lack the space or qualified teachers to create a new class. Brock Gregg, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, says his organization is “very focused” on making sure the lawmakers understand how essential small class sizes are to effective public education. “If cuts occur,” Gregg says, “the priority should be on keeping experienced, qualified teachers in front of each student in an appropriate-sized class so students can receive individual attention.”
Another legislative mandate that could also be on the chopping block is the restriction placed on schools that want to fire teachers before their contracts expire. “Right now it’s very difficult for districts to reduce the number of teachers they employ,” Pace says. “If they want to lay off a teacher, they have go through multiple hearings, unless the district declares financial exigency.” That proposal — unlike the class-size rethink, which has attracted the support of some superintendents and school boards — isn’t as popular politically. But if the cuts will be as large as some estimates, lawmakers may have to make it easier for districts to shed staff.
Of course, many in the education community hope that the Legislature will find a way to avoid narrowing their part of the budgetary pie. They shouldn’t get their hopes up, says state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, the vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee. “If the numbers are the numbers that people are talking about, and there’s no new revenue,” Hochberg says, “then I don’t see how you avoid it unless you gut everything else.”
Hochberg believes, however, that lawmakers should look for ways to soften districts’ financial hardships without touching class size requirements. “There’s awful lot that’s unmandated that schools chose to do — from athletics to convocation centers to a whole host of other things,” he says. “It would seem to me that before you start cutting away the core education mission of school districts, you [should] look at what I consider to be extras.”
For his own part, Hochberg has filed legislation to ease annual testing requirements for districts. While he says that won’t save much at the state level, it will save districts money at local level by cutting or eliminating the cost of test administration — and allow for less painful scrimping in other areas.
In the background of any conversation about cuts to education is the prospect of a new school finance bill from state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chairwoman of the Senate Public Education Committee, and state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, who announced at a Texas Association of School Administrators conference on Dec. 1 their intention to propose legislation reforming the current system.
Developing a new way of allocating funds in the current financial climate is likely to mean less, not more, money for schools, Gregg says.
“It’s not a happy scenario for school districts, because it means that everyone may face cuts at the same time as funding streams are coming to them in a different way,” he says. “It’s kind of a scary time.”
MORGAN SMITH is a reporter for The Texas Tribune, where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.