When Ross Perot embarked on his crusade to fix the Texas education system in the 1980s, he said the state’s schools excelled in only three areas: drill team, band and football. To fix this, he helped craft and lobby for a sprawling education reform package that boosted state aid to poor districts, funded prekindergarten, increased teachers’ salaries, required high school students to pass a statewide standardized test in order to graduate and prohibited failing students from participating in extracurricular activities.
The package was a bold and controversial move that invested significant resources in Texas’ future while demanding significant returns. Mark White, who oversaw the reforms as state governor, contended that the “oil and gas of Texas’ future will be the well-educated mind.”
Today’s situation is wholly different. Governor Rick Perry recently called state funding for public education “phenomenal,” despite the fact that Texas ranks at the bottom of the pile nationally on state education aid. That same state aid fell 25 percent over the past decade, after accounting for inflation and a 2006 revenue swap. That year, the legislature cut local property taxes and compensated districts for the $7 billion in lost revenue they faced because of the cuts. Although this increased the state’s funding share, it only replaced local dollars and was not an increase in education funding. Aid also dropped drastically last session, when lawmakers slashed education funding by $5.4 billion in order to help them balance the state’s budget.
The Student Success Initiative (SSI), a grant program that serves at-risk students, is a microcosm of Texas' education woes. In 1999, the legislature passed and Governor George W. Bush signed an education reform bill, SB 4. The new law strengthened the state's accountability regime while also investing in schools' abilities to meet the new standards. Among other things, SB 4 required children in certain grades to test on grade level before schools could advance them. To help schools meet these new requirements, Texas provided the largest single increase in state education funding to that time — a 13 percent increase for the 2000-01 biennium.
The additional education spending helped pay for several new initiatives, including SSI. Although the SSI program funds a number of different grants, they generally fall under two main categories: instruction for at-risk students and professional development for teachers. Both of these support underperforming students in order to help schools meet SB 4's new requirements, either directly (by funding instruction for at-risk students) or indirectly (by helping educators develop their teaching skills).
But then tax receipts tanked in the wake of the Great Recession, and federal stimulus money — which had helped the state cover its losses — dried up. Faced with a gaping deficit, the state began clawing back its commitment to public education. SSI funding in last session’s budget fell nearly 87 percent from $304 million to $41 million. The House of Representative's proposed budget for the next biennium, HB 1, would cut that by another 11 percent, despite rebounding revenues.
Furthermore, Texas Education Agency (TEA) data shows that school districts and charters did not receive any SSI funds at all last school year. This year, however, the state has indeed restored some of the lost SSI dollars — albeit, at a lower level than before the cuts. Funding losses (as of January 2) ranged from only a few dollars up to the more than $5 million loss of Houston ISD, with the median cut reaching about $7,073. A select few, fortunate districts and charters received relatively small increases. Around 62 grantees saw some kind of increase, the median of which was about $763. To compare, about one thousand SSI grantees faced some kind of loss between their 2010-11 SSI funding levels and their restored 2012-13 funding.
At the same time that the state has withdrawn its financial obligations to public education, it has demanded even more of principals and teachers. Last session, the Texas legislature replaced the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) exams with the more rigorous State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams and required schools to count a student's end-of-course evaluation as 15 percent of his or her final grade. So far, the state has waived the 15 percent requirement in order to give schools more time to prepare for the new STAAR test.
Education is important to Texans – and polls show that most oppose balancing the state's budget by cutting education. The courts may agree with this sentiment. In early February, District Judge John Dietz ruled in favor of the more than 600 Texas school districts suing the state over the public education finance system. Dietz declared the system unfair, underfunded and unconstitutional.
If only the legislature could understand.