State Senators Start Talking About the Need to Avoid Classroom Layoffs

On Thursday the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Public Education Funding started off with testimony on a proposal to create a state productivity commission of financial experts who would recommend ways to save money while maintaining educational services. Before they were done, though, senators in attendance actually got into a revealing dialogue about their budget priorities for public education.

The idea of a productivity commission has obvious appeal to senators looking for ways to economize, especially because it’s couched in the rhetoric of deregulation and local control. But the idea’s proponent, financier and former University of Texas regent Charles Miller, didn’t offer an entirely comforting message. “Sometimes you do need to spend money to get a good result,” he declared. Miller also told the committee that the current pressure to cut costs is not conducive to sound decision-making about how to achieve greater efficiency and productivity. The current “urgency doesn’t allow you to do it in a planned, effective” way, he said.

After further testimony on this efficiency theme, and quite a few skeptical questions from subcommittee members, the hearing turned into a conversation among the senators in attendance that revealed a good bit about where they may be headed on the education budget.

For instance, Sen. Robert Duncan, Republican of Lubbock, said the subcommittee’s top two priorities should be to fund “accountability reforms,” by paying for end-of-course exams and resources needed to get ready for the new STAAR accountability system, and to avoid layoffs in the classroom. He said the aim should be to keep the current classroom workforce on the job.

Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., Democrat of Brownsville added that lawmakers need to be mindful of the impending retirement of a great many veteran teachers in the next few years and of the need to make sure those positions are filled. Lucio stressed as well the need to maintain classroom productivity, and he noted that class-size limits contribute directly to that goal.

Sen. Royce West, Democrat of Dallas, said legislators should be concerned about the message that teacher layoffs would send to those now studying to become teachers. West further cited the need to restore funding for at-risk schoolchildren under the Student Success Initiative as a key priority for him.

Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, Democrat of San Antonio (who sat in on the hearing though she’s not a member of the subcommittee), joined Sen. Lucio in pressing for funding equity as a priority. She spoke also of the ever-increasing proportion of Latino children in the public schools and decried the omission of funding for textbooks for English Language Learners from the draft budget bill—and from the commissioner of education’s list of priorities for restoration.

Sen. Dan Patrick, Republican of Houston, called for “putting teachers first” on the priority list. He also said an important goal would be to streamline and simplify the highly complex school-finance system to make it easily explainable to the public.

Sen. Kel Seliger, Republican of Amarillo, flagged the issue of the impact of inflation on school districts’ costs. Even the most efficient district is subject to this inflationary cost problem, Seliger pointed out, and he said school boards should be free to raise their local tax rates to make up for  inflation without triggering a tax-rollback election.

The chair of the panel, Plano Republican Sen. Florence Shapiro, said her top priorities were funding for textbooks, financial and academic “productivity,” and updating the state’s Cost of Education Index, which is supposed to adjust aid to districts to take into account regional economic variations but is badly out of date. Shapiro agreed that mass layoffs of teachers are not the solution to the school-funding problem. She and her colleagues all also agreed that the legislature should try to move to a school-finance system that actually flows dollars to most districts through equitable formulas, in place of “hold-harmless” provisions that override the formulas for the vast majority of districts under current law.

There also were hints, especially from Sen. Duncan, that funding for enrollment growth should be provided in some new fashion. We will be watching to see how all of these hastily sketched ideas are fleshed out as the subcommittee continues its deliberations for the next two weeks.