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Earmarks for Erasers

On May 27th, the Texas Legislature concluded their bi-annual 180 day session, having just passed a landmark budget that put 6.5 billion dollars in state funding towards Texas public schools, and 5.1 billion dollars towards reducing property taxes. The budget was the result of ongoing negotiations between House Republicans and newly elected Democrats, and came as the largest appropriation made toward educational spending in the state in over fifty years. The stipulations in the budgetary bill set new guidelines for the allocation of state funds to over 1,100 independent school districts across Texas, alongside new metrics for evaluating school success rates that shift focus away from “performance statistics,” such as standardized test scores, and toward “success statistics,” like graduation rates, enrollment rates in post-secondary education like college or vocational school, and estimated income of secondary school graduates ten years after their entry into the workforce. These new metrics and new allocation strategies are part of a serious overhaul of the Texan education system, and the vision that the government has for the state⁠—a dramatic shift from its stance in previous sessions, in which other “hot button” issues, such as border security, transgender bathrooms, and gun rights dominated the debate.

The Republican-led legislature cut education spending by approximately 5 billion dollars in 2012-2013, leading to a slew of tight school budgets across the state. This cut in state funding, along with an increased reliance on property taxes to fund schools, particularly afflicted two groups of school districts: underfunded,overcrowded inner-city areas and far-flung rural districts. In the years following the funding cuts in 2013, Dallas Independent School District had to terminate the majority of its extracurricular academic programs, alongside its after-school programs, professional development programs, and daycare programs for students with children—all funding was spent on keeping the schools open and afloat for the district’s 115,000 enrolled students. Some rural areas, which have relatively small constituencies from which to draw property tax revenue, were forced to decide either to increase property taxes to meet rising costs or close schools to cut expenses. 

As a result, both of these areas faced a rapidly rising wealth inequality gap that came to the front of state and local politics over the next five years. Several school districts filed suits against the Texas Department of Education in the years since the cut, citing a violation of equal protections rights alongside unlawful discrimination by the state against socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, which the state has an unsettling track record of marginalizing. Some lawsuits failed, others were unable to materialize in any lasting change on the state level. 

However, some cases appealed to the federal district level have come back in favor of plaintiffs, with multiple decisions recently issued on the Texas Department of Education by Federal Circuit judges in the past several years that ordered the state to pay out huge compensations to the suing districts. These decisions were highly influential in motivating state legislators to begin discussing how to pick up the slack on state education funding when the Legislature was set to reconvene in 2019.

Additionally, the motivation to address education in the 2019 session came on the heels of a highly dramatic U.S. Senate race in 2018 that gained massive media coverage on the national level as Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke challenged incumbent Republican Ted Cruz for his seat in the U.S. senate.The campaign was a boon for Democrats across the state. The Democratic Party of Texas saw a 15% increase in the number of registered Democrats in the 2018 election compared to its last midterm in 2014, and Texas had the sixth-highest increase in overall Democratic turnout among elections in 2018, rivaling those like the election that upset politically predictable Republicans like Roy Moore in Alabama. O’Rourke may have been unable to topple Cruz, but the Democratic wave brought significant changes to the Texas House and Senate. Democrats won two new Senate seats, alongside 12 seats in the House. These gains brought significant political competition for Republicans, pressuring them to seek new ways to appease their constituents and keep their seats ahead of 2020.

“There’s no compromise in Washington right now, but good thing there’s compromise in Texas” said Michael Hinojosa, Superintendent of Dallas ISD. The failing school district has struggled to obtain Title I funding and other support from the federal government since the restructuring of the Department of Education in 2017, when President Trump appointed the controversial Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. 

Since the contraction of state funding and recent drawback of federal support, Texas has faced dramatic declines in student performance. In 2017, the state was ranked 46th in the country for fourth grade reading proficiency, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress. This is five spots down from its ranking in 2015, which was itself several spots down from its previous ranking in 2013. 

A report published last December by the Texas Commission on Public School Finance also concluded that the state had been facing depreciating returns on its education system since the funding contraction—an estimated four out of five students are failing in the Texas public school system each year. And as a result, the report concluded that the state was missing a critical “opportunity to capture the unrealized potential of our Texan youth.” Roughly a tenth of children in the United States are educated in the state of Texas, according to the Department of Education,meaning that failures like these on behalf of a state are not just shortchanging the potential of that state’s own youth, but of the country’s youth as well. It was about time that the state legislators recognized the stakes and reinvested in equalizing and advancing education in K-12 schools. 

The question still remains as to how the state is going to go about paying for this new investment. Part of the compromise that produced the budget was that property taxes across the state would have to be reduced by approximately 5 billion dollars by the next session in 2021. The state of Texas, unlike other states across the country, solely funds its educational system through local property taxes and state funding. The state does not have an income tax, and draws most of its state revenue from sales taxes, business taxes, and private state-enterprise contracts. The mostly likely means through which the state would be able to afford these new education costs would be to dip into excess revenues in the budget, which it has had the luxury of accumulating in the past several years as the Texas economy has witnessed an upturn. 

Private capital represents a growing portion of the state’s taxable resources, according to the Texas Governor’s Office, with an accompanying growing influx of expendable income in the state budget up nearly 15 percent from the last time the budget was composed. It does seem positive that this economic tide would lift all boats, so to speak, but there’s anxiety among analysts of an impending recession. The unemployment rate is down to 3.8 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but is precariously stagnating, suggesting that the economy is entering a natural recessionary period as increasing wages and employment begin to lose their velocity. A downturn would be bad for the state’s available income by the time 2021 comes around and the legislature meets again to discuss the budget, and it’s unclear whether the newly allocated education money would be a victim of the draconian “last in, first out” policy of financial management that the state legislators have known to employ in the past.

Regardless, it’s reassuring that Texas is being responsive to the demand for educational investment in the state and is recognizing the significance of educational investment at the national level. Education is at the crux of the economy—it offers some of the highest economic returns of any government expenditure, according to a previous report by the Department of Labor—and education forms the foundation of the American dream of equitable opportunity. Perhaps the investment will yield returns by transforming the Texan workforce into a more high-skilled and flexible specimen that can sustain itself through the trials and tribulations of a rapidly changing national and global economy. This would require, however, a sustained effort by the state legislature, the Texas Department of Education, and the cooperation of the federal government regarding the future of the state’s children. Only time will tell if this will happen, or if the state will see a positive change—but if one thing is evident now, it’s that this investment, and the change it will hopefully bring to thousands of Texan youth, couldn’t have come soon enough.