Public officials, educators, and others surround Senator José Menéndez following the signing and photo opportunity. Photo by Scott Ball.
Public officials and educators surround State Sen. José Menéndez at a community signing event at WETC in February 2016. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Many Texans held their breath Tuesday as the state Senate heard testimony on the proposed education budget for the 2017-18 biennium.

The budget continues to rely on increases in property value to fund school districts. While no cuts were made to the Foundation School Program, the primary source of state funding for Texas schools, it will likely go another two years without badly needed fixes.

Invited experts and public testimony addressed the Texas Education Agency, Teacher Retirement System, and other public school and higher education services that receive state funding.

Chandra Villanueva, senior analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
Chandra Villanueva, senior analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Chandra Villanueva, senior analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said that the “bare bones” budget does nothing to fix current inequities in K-12 funding.

“We’re not addressing anything for inflation,” Villanueva said. “Every year we’re asked to do more and more with less and less.”

Policy analysts weren’t the only ones concerned with the presentation.

“This budget proposal would barely – maybe – cover enrollment growth, but only by increasing the burden on local school taxpayers, who already pay for the lion’s share of school costs,” Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said.

State Sen. Jane Nelson (R-12), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, called for a working group to pursue a “whole new method of school finance.” The group will be led by State Sen. Larry Taylor (R-11).

Nelson said the working group provides an opportunity to reconsider the shortcomings of the current system, but Villanueva fears that a total overhaul could make room for heavier reliance on charters, voucher programs, or another step away from traditional public schools.

“[The creation of the working group] shouldn’t be an excuse to delay giving Texas school children the resources they need now for success. As legislative leaders of both parties already have suggested, lawmakers should tap the Rainy Day Fund, which is approaching a $12 billion balance. School funding is a true emergency,” Candelaria stated in a news release Tuesday.

Smaller Budget, Fewer Resources

The elimination of the Student Success Initiative (SSI), a support program for students who failed to meet standardized testing benchmarks, is one of several cuts that reduces student support. The program was once a well-funded source for additional tutoring, professional development, and instructional aid for teachers, and literacy training.

For years, SSI has been steadily defunded, reducing its performance capacity. Its elimination was justified due to lack of demonstrable effect. 

“They basically starved the program into not working,” Villanueva said.

The simultaneous removal of such resources and increased focus on public school alternatives calls into question whether public education is as much a priority for this Legislature as it was for those who wrote the Texas Constitution, State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) said.

“They talk about the budget being the only bill we have to pass. Well, (the Texas Constitution) also talks about how one of our responsibilities as a state is to provide an education to our children,” Menéndez said. “Our Founding Fathers and mothers had a vision for a state that needs an educated population to survive.”

Menéndez said lawmakers should focus on strengthening the system rather than reducing spending at all costs. The House budget identified an extra $1.5 billion in additional potential revenue for public schools, revenue potential the Senate chose to ignore, Villanueva added.

While education remains a popular fixture in campaign speeches, Menéndez is still waiting to see his colleagues make good on their promises. Their actions, he said, tell a different story.

“When you keep pulling resources…it feels like some people want to just let the system burn down,” he said.

Pre-K Bilingual Teacher Ms. Godoy gives an alphabet lesson to her class. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAISD’s Stewart Elementary Pre-K Bilingual Teacher Ms. Godoy gives an alphabet lesson to her class. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

State pre-K grants received a small increase in their yearly allotment; however, in the first years it will feel more like a cut. The $59 million per year allotted by the 84th Legislature was not distributed until 2016, so the program received two years worth of funding, $118 million, at once. Now, while the annual allotment has been raised to $75 million, 2017 will see a decrease from the $118 million distributed in 2016.

None of it, not even the $118 million, is sufficient, Menéndez said. Universal pre-K would act as an equitable start to children’s education and as an economic driver that would save money for families currently choosing between time off work and expensive child care.

“Pre-K needs to be a system that is universal,” Menéndez said. “It would have short-term and long-term debt benefits.”

Menéndez understands that tight fiscal years force everyone to cut back and that filing bills that call for more spending is an idealistic move. 

“Any bill that requires funds from the State is going to have a difficult time,” he explained. “But I refuse to not file the bill if they are going to talk about spending $800 million on border security. I will continue to be opposed to spending any money on border security because that’s money that should be going into the education system.”

On Wednesday, Texas A&M University-San Antonio President Cynthia Teniente-Matson will testify before the Senate regarding its proposed budget for higher education. While the general funding formula remains unchanged, the Senate budget eliminates non-formula budget items, or those not affected by student growth. Regional universities often depend on special item general revenue funding, whereas system flagship universities like Texas A&M in College Station can support themselves through funding tied to enrollment.

Under the current Senate budget proposal, A&M-San Antonio would lose $25.5 million, or 56.6%, of its general revenue funding.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.