The Texas budget massacre

June 20, 2011

Cindy Beringer explains where the cuts are coming down in the new Texas budget.

THE TEXAS Budget Massacre of 2011 is almost over, with state legislators preparing to pass a budget that, according to Abby Rapoport of the Texas Observer, "will impose widespread pain on millions of Texans for years, if not decades, to come."

In the process, the few rights that public school teachers have in this right-to-work state have been put through the shredder.

Even before the great influx of Tea Party freshmen in 2010, Texas legislators were already known for their stupidity and downright meanness. They're now in a special session to finalize draconian budget cuts in a state that is already in a race to the bottom with Mississippi in all areas of education.

On June 4, about 200 students, parents and teachers gathered in the Capitol rotunda for a rally to urge legislators to fully fund education by using the rainy day fund and ending temporary tax incentives for oil and gas companies.

Save Texas Schools, the largest coalition fighting education budget cuts, called the rally.

State legislators had planned to meet but decided to stay home when they heard we were coming. Protesters marched around several levels of the rotunda, chanting, "Fund our schools" and "What do we want? Funding! When do we want it? Now!" and singing a version of the well-known "The Eyes of Texas"--with the lyrics "The eyes of Texas are upon you / Fund our schools today / The eyes of Texas are upon you / We will not go away."

Texas Governor Rick Perry
Texas Governor Rick Perry (Gage Skidmore)

The chants echoed through the building, and activists who had been threatened with arrest for protesting and chanting inside the Capitol were supercharged by the experience.

Finally, the crowd marched upstairs and down a narrow corridor to a room where a small group of legislators were meeting. Someone held the door open as we chanted our demands loudly and angrily.

Soon, the legislators began to file out one by one, forced to pass very close to the protesters lining their exit. Several were visible shocked at the level of our anger.

The rally continued in the rotunda, where children, parents and teachers spoke about the way the budget cuts would change public education in Texas.

The American Federation of Teachers called for a rally the next Monday, promising busloads of teachers from around the state, which failed to materialize.

However, more than 200 people, many of them returning from Saturday, turned out again. The angry group marched around the second level of the rotunda and listened to speeches from labor leaders.

A union organizer had arranged for the group to "sit in" a House session which we were told would not be on school financing. We were told several times that we had to be very quiet and respectful of these stuffed suits who making life miserable for the majority of Texans.

The experience was more than surreal. Only a handful of representatives were present, but laptops were running at every seat. The formality of the language, the super civility of the parliamentary rituals, and the elegance of the chambers in no way covered up the stench of the sludge into which these legislators descend.

After the protesters were seated, Democrat Donna Howard had us stand and be acknowledged as parents, teachers and students--"special guests."

Then the session began. Someone asked what the business of the day was; someone replied that it was the bill to force Amazon to pay sales taxes on profits made in shipments from its distribution center.

However, another legislator mentioned the name of someone related to the legislature in some way who had died during the year, and the House group adjourned in that person's memory.

The legislators took off, and the protesters left in annoyed silence, mouths agape at the politicians' cowardice.

GOV. RICK Perry boasts that Texas hasn't suffered the high employment and reduced property values rocking budgets in most of the country, but for some time before the legislative session started in January, public schools and all state agencies were warned of massive budget slashing to come.

The funding of public schools kept legislators working until the last minute, way beyond the time when contracts for teachers and auxiliary school employees are required to go out. All schools knew they were going to have drastic cuts; they just didn't know how much.

Many school districts sent layoff notices to hundreds of teachers and aides in early spring before contracts were due. Many districts sent out contracts with caveats. There have been estimates that as many as 100,000 Texas public school employees will lose their jobs.

School districts made plans to cut electives and art and music education. Some schools will charge students to participate in school sports.

Several activist groups made up of parents, students, concerned citizens and teachers sprang up in support of public schools, which slowed down the slash-and-burn plans of the legislators.

There were groups with goals as large as Save Texas Schools, to groups trying to prevent district school closings, and groups with small, but important goals such as Save Our German Classes.

There was a huge rally in March called by Save Texas Schools that drew about 12,000 people. In addition to the two rallies mentioned above, there have been other rallies in the Capitol--and a lot of lobbying.

Although it is rarely mentioned, the financing crisis for Texas schools has nothing to do with the recession, but is the result of legislative screw-ups--which a few legislators have been forced to acknowledge.

A few years ago the legislature lowered property taxes with the loss of revenue to be made up from a special business tax--which didn't happen.

More importantly, the crisis in school funding comes from the Texas legislature's Robin Hood problem.

IN 1984, the predominantly Latino Edgewood School District in San Antonio sued over unequal funding of Texas public schools, and after a lengthy court battle, justice won.

Texas politicians, never fond of equality or minorities, had a problem, and they called the solution the Robin Hood plan--richer school districts were to share with poorer ones.

Not surprisingly, the plan was a colossal snafu, and legislators have failed for years to deal with the mess, instead throwing a little state money here and there with neither equality nor better education achieved.

Texas ranks 51st--including Washington, D.C.--in the number of students with high school diplomas, 47th in teacher pay and abysmal in SAT scores.

Perry's "miracle budget" makes for a skyrocketing poverty rate--one in four children in Texas are below the poverty line. In Austin, the poverty rate for children has grown from 40 to 60 percent.

Many Texas families have no health insurance, and the current budget makes massive cuts in Medicaid in order to inadequately fund schools. Texas already spends less per resident than any other state in the country.

The last day of the legislative session was May 31. By the end of the day, both the Senate and the House had approved a rotten bill that cut $4 billion from public schools. Those cuts are to be distributed across an already vastly unequal school system.

In the first year of the biennium, approximately 6 percent will be cut from all districts. The next year, the richer districts will be cut $1.5 billion and poorer districts $500 million.

The fact is that rich districts, those with high property tax revenues, don't always cater to wealthy students. Manor ISD east of Austin, for example, has high property tax revenues from industries but a high poverty, high minority student mix.

In addition to cuts to public schools, more than a billion has been cut from higher education. Many community colleges will close. Tuition will likely increase while the budget slashes state grants for college. And the family planning budget was cut by 60 percent.

THE BUDGET fails to address the structural problems with education funding and includes a lot of smoke and mirrors and messy accounting that everyone knows will make the end of this biennium and the budgets to come a whole lot worse.

According to the Texas Observer, the legislators resorted to "unseemly accounting tricks. They delayed payments, intentionally monkeyed with enrollment estimates and raised every fee in sight."

But the budget only covers 18 months of state funding needs. Medicaid was essentially shortchanged by 4.8 billion, which will eventually have to be paid by deficit spending.

Legislators are betting on improved revenues from a growing economy--not a safe bet considering the massive unemployment that will result from their finance bill.

Republicans praised the resulting state funding bill for not having raised any taxes or used any of the state's $9 billion rainy day fund. The rainy day fund has been used in the past for less drastic concerns than education funding, but Perry insisted that the state use none of it.

Using a portion of the fund to close the $4 billion education gap was considered, but it didn't end up in the bill.

For the first time, the Texas school budget fails to provide for the rapid new growth in the school-age population. Considering the number of anti-immigrant bills this legislative session, there's no doubt that there is a racist component to the cuts in school funding.

Sen. Dan Patrick, whose bill forcing women seeking an abortion to have a sonogram passed early in the session, referred to education as an "entitlement."

This concept, says Kate Alexander of the Austin American-Statesman, ends the special status for state funding that public education has had in the state for about 60 years. "Future appropriations [will be] dependent upon how much money is available rather than how much is needed," wrote Alexander.

Patrick, who was very involved in school funding issues, said, "There are no guarantees, and for a legislature to say we can guarantee this forever is not being straightforward to the people."

The budget was pretty much a done deal until Democrat Sen. Wendy Davis staged a filibuster on the last day, forcing a special session. Her call for more time to argue for funding for education made her the darling of the Democrats and the protesters at the Capitol and boosted her political career.

But special sessions in Texas nearly always make bills worse. The special session gave legislators the opportunity to revisit several controversial measures that did not pass in the regular session because of a two-thirds majority tradition, which is not recognized in special session.

The Senate has passed basically the same funding bill, but has revisited and passed legislation which is a vicious attack on teachers.

The bill gives superintendents the "flexibility" to deal with budget cuts by cutting teacher pay, giving unpaid furlough days, lengthening the time for districts to give out contracts, and ending seniority rights. The legislation is expected to pass the House.

When the legislation was reintroduced, Davis' attempt to limit the devastation to two years was defeated.

ONE OF the most disturbing aspects of this legislative session has been the lack of involvement and outcry by teachers' unions. These direct attacks on teachers' rights were introduced stealthily, and when I first learned of them in the regular session, few others knew.

If even one-tenth of the public school teachers in Austin had come to the Capitol last Monday and demonstrated in the rotunda, there would have been no room to move.

Legislators would probably still have weaseled out that afternoon, but I doubt that the funding bill would look as grim.

Now that these measures against teachers have been added to the school funding bill, the silence has been deafening. One union representative said only that he thought the pain should be applied "equally."

There has been no talk of the obvious need for legal challenges. The Texas constitution guarantees a free education in the public schools.

In Texas, teachers and state workers have no collective bargaining rights and are not permitted to strike. Texas has a variety of unions. Some are local affiliates with national groups, some are strictly local groups, and some districts have forged a type of union combine.

Most teachers join unions for legal protection against being fired illegally; such protection is no longer possible under the "flexibility" given districts.

Texas was one of the first states to limit class size for elementary students. Ironically, teachers unions were proud that they were able to prevent changes to those limits, although schools were given more leeway to grant waivers.

How fewer teachers and a rapidly growing student population will be able to sustain those limits remains a mystery.

There are a variety of ways that the state of Texas could have prevented cuts to public education and other areas of human services, only a few of which have been suggested. Most often mentioned was cutting oil and gas exemptions and otherwise changing the tax structure, plus use of the rainy day fund.

A last-minute bill to use money from the rainy day fund that is added to what already exists has been introduced and passed in the Senate. The bill still may not pass, and Perry may veto it if it does.

Other possible sources of funding include: taxing corporations such as Bank of America, which pay no to almost no taxes; stopping drone surveillance of the Texas-Mexico border and further building of the border wall; and closing all charter schools.

Charter schools funded by taxpayer funds are not included in the budget cuts, and a proposal for vouchers for private schools has been brought up again in special session.

These are just a few suggestions. My personal favorite would be to stop the massive outflow of cash to standardized testing.

The Texas budget crisis is a microcosm of the budget battles in the U.S. Congress. The majority of people in Texas want education fully funded.

They don't want teachers forced to moonlight with cans along the freeway or their grandparents kicked out of nursing homes. The vast majority of people nationally don't want Medicare or Social Security destroyed and do favor cutting endless wars abroad to fund them.

Legislators from Texas and the nation appear determined to smash the will of the people with shock and awe, and many people are just now learning how to fight back.

Leaders from Save Texas Schools and the teachers' unions have said that each rally is just a small skirmish in a much longer war to save Texas' public education system. So far the main weapons they are using in this war are lobbying and voting.

Most of the people involved in saving Texas education are just learning how to fight, but they are determined and their cause is just. The painful effects of the biennial Texas budget will begin soon, and hopefully a real fight back will begin.

Texans need to look for examples in Wisconsin, Egypt and Spain--to name just a few places--to see what a winnable class war should look like.

Further Reading

From the archives