Senators Grill Texas Education Agency Over Cuts

Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott speaks at the TASA midwinter conference in Austin, Texas February 1st, 2011
Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott speaks at the TASA midwinter conference in Austin, Texas February 1st, 2011

As the Texas Education Agency appeared before members of the upper chamber for the first time since the release of an initial budget that reduced school funding by $9.3 billion, senators offered clues as to where they thought cuts would be most appropriate.

State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, called for a "full picture" of Texas' spending on public education while the state considers funding reductions. Shapiro, the Senate Education Committee chairwoman, noted that over the past decade, state funding has increased 63 percent per pupil. Since 2005, she said, spending on the Foundation School Program, which finances the state's basic educational curriculum, has increased $14 billion — "more than twice the rate of inflation." 

Both Shapiro and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, asked for a more detailed breakdown from the agency on the number of teachers districts employ versus the amount of other staff members employed in administrative and clerical positions. Patrick, the committee's vice chairman, observed that excluding military bases, Texas school districts are the fifth-largest employers in the world. Without fully committing to the idea that districts should be called on to use those reserves, Patrick also asked the agency to find out how much districts collectively hold in fund balance — money that they tuck away for emergencies. "There are a lot of rainy day funds out there," he said. 

During his testimony, Education Commissioner Robert Scott said that determining what money he would ask to be restituted in the final budget was akin to asking "a guy on the operating table whether wants his heart or his lungs back." Scott said his No. 1 priority was to restore funding to the Foundation School Program, which provides money for the state's core education programs. After that, he requested "bare bones" financing for instructional materials and money in the final budget for awards for teacher excellence — something he said would be important as teachers face possible reductions in pay and furloughs.

The committee also took up the possibility of delaying the roll-out of STAAR, the state's new achievement exams, a proposition popular with school officials. "If we need to put a pause on this testing because we don't have the resources, you need to tell us," said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who said he didn't want to see "a bunch of ethnic minority kids being left behind" because the state couldn't pay for the instructional materials to teach them what's on the new tests.  

Scott said the agency is on track to implement STAAR, but added that if the new instructional materials weren't funded in the final budget, it would affect students' performance on the exams.

Shapiro came out firmly in favor of keeping STAAR on track: "I want to make sure we don't use the budget as an excuse to delay something that we've been working on for five years. ... Let's look at it as we are bringing rigor and more efficiency and effectiveness into the classroom, bringing meaningful and rich instruction for the first time."

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