The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

March 20, 2011

Public education should be last to see funding cuts

Palestine Herald-Press

PALESTINE — Texas has unquestionably fared better than most states during the current economic recession.

 While many states have been virtually floored by massive job losses, home foreclosures and stagnant economies, we, by and large, have been spared from the eye of the hurricane.

By now, we have all been informed about the challenges facing the 82nd Texas Legislature  in Austin.

There is a large budget shortfall — perhaps as much as $27 billion for the upcoming 2012-13 biennium according to some estimates — and no corner of state government will be omitted from the pending reductions.

Although school administrators certainly have qualms and disagreement with the current funding formula, public schools historically have mostly been shielded from the specter of significant budget cuts.

That is about to change.

As State Rep. Jim Pitts, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said earlier this year, "There are no sacred cows..."

Translated: Everyone, including public schools, will take a hit in light of the state's economic woes.

Now the question (as well as the argument) becomes, How much to reduce each area of state funding?

Public education's money largely comes from two sources —  state funding and local property taxes.

State funding to schools is about to be reduced, some say by as much as $10 billion, and local property values dropped almost 2 percent last year statewide. That picture may not be best defined as bleak, but it is certainly unfavorable.

On the positive, sales tax collections are gradually beginning to pick up in most regions of the state, but it took us a while to get to this point and it will take us a while to get back.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has asked state lawmakers to address the budget shortfall by sharpening their pencils and identifying more cuts. He has mostly resisted talk of accessing some of the state's so-called Rainy Day Fund (projected to be approximately $9.4 billion at the end of the next biennium), although some political observers are whispering the governor's stance on that matter may be easing somewhat.

Pitts' proposed House Bill 275 would pull $3.2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to soften the blow for the state's public schools.

Whether to tap into the state's Rainy Day Fund is a debate all its own, but our position is clear: No one should be exempt from budget cuts. The state funds many critical programs, but cuts to public education must be considered last and least.

If public education gets cut to the tune of $10 billion as some have projected, pre-K programs will be slashed in half, denying 100,000 Texas children, many in economically disadvantaged areas of the state, access to much needed training. A child who starts out behind in first grade rarely catches up, ultimately setting the stage for  lower career earning potential and greater dependence on social and other programs.

Under the $10 billion scenario, funding would be cut from somewhere between $500 and $2,500 per student per year in Texas. Money is not the cure all, but, if our young people are to be competitive in the national and global marketplace they must be equipped with a well-rounded, thorough education.

Unfortunately, it appears imminent that many Texas school districts will soon begin announcing staffing reductions. Approximately two-thirds of their payrolls go to teachers and teacher aides, with the remaining one-third to auxiliary staff and administrators.

Districts should be committed to keeping teachers and aides in the classroom. Cuts should first come in the front office, not on the front lines.

State lawmakers must put politics aside and spare public education from massive reductions.

There is a time to invest in technology, transportation and even the Texas coast.

Now is the time to invest in our most precious resource — the future leaders of our communities, state and nation.

—— Palestine Herald-Press