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It’s not just about cutting public education funding

Abby Rapoport explains one of the potential long term consequences of the violence that’s being done to public education funding this session.

For over 60 years, Texas has treated education differently than the rest of the budget. In funding most state agencies, lawmakers first see the state has in the bank and then determine which requests they’ll fund. Agencies don’t know what they’ll be getting until the end of the budget process. But we take a different approach with school districts. Rather than funding schools based on how much we have, we’ve given schools money based on how much we say they need. While many would say the state underfunds education and funds it unequally, but we’ve been reliable, nonetheless. Districts have known ahead of time roughly how much they’ll receive from the state, and school administrators could count on the state to deliver. With this budget cycle, that entire system may be out the window.

“We’ve given up automatic financing,” explains education consultant Lynn Moak, one of the gurus in the field. “For 60 years, schools have been able, fundamentally and with only minor exceptions, to rely on current law as being fully funded.”

The “automatic funding” system was part of the Gilmer-Aikin reforms in 1949, says David Anderson, an education lobbyist at HillCo Partners. The entire package meant to ensure education for the baby boomers. Since then, if the state has fallen short one year, we’ve made it up to school districts the next. “We largely held on to that concept for many many many years,” Moak says.

Whether or not cuts to education wind up as big as the House version or as small as the Senate’s, both Anderson and Moak said this year’s funding approach likely marks a significant departure from that philosophy. Already, school districts are scrambling to figure out their budgets for the next school year—without knowing how much they’ll get from the state. Teachers are getting pink slips from districts based on the hunch that the state isn’t going to provide. The planning process for school districts is “significantly screwed up,” Moak says. From a district level, no one really knows just how dire the situation will be—just that it won’t be good. “That gives me a great deal of concern about the long term future,” Moak says.

Maybe this is just a one-time blip, and we’ll look back in 2013 and think “thank God we’ll never have to do that again”. And maybe this is the new normal, and we’ll go 60 years before any significant changes are made. Which outcome would you bet on right now?

Meanwhile, Martha has been busy tracking all of the school district layoff stories that have come out lately. A hundred jobs here, two hundred more there, it all starts to add up. But don’t worry, I’m sure David Dewhurst and Rick Perry and Joe Straus will explain to us that if we’d done something to fix the structural deficit it would have forced other people to get laid off somewhere else. I think it’s a little-known corollary of the conservation of mass principle.

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