State Revenue on the Rise, But Key Capitol Players See No Reason to Revisit School Cuts (Time to Change the Players!)

At a Texas House budget hearing Tuesday, state officials confirmed that state revenue is rising rapidly enough to produce a surplus of $1.6 billion for the current budget period and to boost the Rainy Day Fund to $7.3 billion. In fact, we’ve heard unofficially that the Rainy Day Fund is filling up so fast with oil and gas revenue that the total might reach $9.5 billion in available reserves for the 2013 legislature’s use. Whether it’s $1.6 billion plus $7.3 billion, or $1.6 billion plus $9.5 billion, we’re talking about more than enough funding to reverse the $5.4 billion in brutal education cuts enacted last year.

Hence some lawmakers have called on the governor to convene a special session to get a head start on undoing the damage to public education, even forestalling cuts for the 2012-2013 school year that have yet to take effect.  For example, Rep. Sylvester Turner, Democrat of Houston, asked at Tuesday’s House Appropriations Committee hearing: In light of the improving budget outlook, “why should our kids have to continue to bear the brunt” of these cuts?

In response, Republican Gov. Rick Perry emphatically rejected the call for a special session, contending that more than enough money is being spent on Texas schoolchildren already. Said Perry: “We’re not going to have a special session…. I don’t see any reason to be changing course.”

No reason to change course?  One might ask:  What about an average of $500 less per pupil that has already led to more than 8,000 overcrowded K-4 classrooms, and (by a conservative estimate based on our December survey of superintendents) more than 30,000 jobs lost in Texas public schools? What about the total elimination of state funding for full-day pre-kindergarten, the near-total elimination of Student Success Initiative funding for students at risk of failing the state’s required standardized tests, and cuts of $240 million in state funding for Teacher Retirement System pension and health benefits?

In the face of these and many other damaging cuts in state support for public education, Gov. Perry and his legislative allies in control at the capitol tell us (again in Perry’s words yesterday):  “We have a model that works.”

Maybe it works for them, but it’s not working for five million Texas schoolchildren and their families, or for more than a million active and retired school employees and their families—and it’s not working for the future economic health of our entire state, which ultimately depends on the underpinning of an educated populace.

As Rep. Mike Villarreal, Democrat of San Antonio and an Appropriations Committee member, told the press after yesterday’s hearing:  “The only way to change the priorities in the capitol is to change out members of the legislature.”

That’s the real takeaway from yesterday’s back-and-forth over the budget:  If we want to change the results, we have to change the players.

To that end, Texas AFT will be keeping you informed of opportunities to make a difference in the 2012 elections to the state legislature. Currently, we’re still waiting for courts to approve redistricting maps before we’ll know when this year’s primary elections will be held. In the meantime, we encourage everyone to take part in a march and rally to “Save Texas Schools” coming up at the state capitol on Saturday, March 24, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. This event will focus on how to make sure the 2013 session of the legislature is not a replay of the dreadful 2011 experience.  Visit www.savetxschools.org for more information. We also encourage you to sign the Save Texas Schools online petition that you’ll find there. It reads as follows:

The Save Texas Schools Petition

We, the undersigned, believe that a strong public school system is the most important investment we can make in our children and our state’s economic future. Yet Texas had already fallen to 44th nationally in per pupil funding even before the legislature cut an additional $5.4 billion from public education in 2011.

We call on all state leaders–both officeholders and candidates–to pledge their support for the following emergency actions in the next legislative session:

* Make outstanding public education a top priority for Texas.
* Restore all school funding cuts made by the 2011 legislature and provide sufficient resources for our growing student population.
* Revise school finance laws to be fair to all students.
* Fix the $5 billion annual structural deficit to avoid further cuts to education.
* Reevaluate and limit high-stakes standardized testing.

We can no longer afford leaders who fail to recognize the critical importance of a strong public education system to our economy and our future. We’re watching, we’ll remember and we vote.

Our future depends on it.

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