Guest Column: Use the Rainy Day Fund for Education

When I meet people in my district, one of the first questions I'll ask someone is where they went to school. They don't answer, Texas, U of H or TSU, though they might have gone there. They proudly answer me with their high school — Jack Yates, Worthing, Jones, Westbury — or for some of my older constituents, Wheatley. In other parts of the state, Texans take pride in telling people they went to schools like Permian, Churchill, Dallas Carter, Westlake or PSJ. Schools are the cornerstones of our neighborhoods and communities. However, school funding was cut to the bone in 2011. My fellow Democrats and I represent almost 1.8 million Texan students. Therefore, we stand ready to battle the Republican majority for the future of our public schools and the future of Texas. The opportunity exists now to start making things right by using the Rainy Day Fund to restore funding for education.

No district — rich or poor — escaped the devastating effects of the loss of $5.4 billion for education. Texans saw how Republican-mandated education cuts affected their children's classrooms. Texas classrooms are left with 21,000 fewer teachers and staff. Texas schools have three times as many overcrowded classrooms than before the budget cuts. Funding to expand Pre-K from half-day to full-day programs was completely eliminated. Our public school students are not second-class citizens.

Despite an $8.8 billion budget surplus, the Republican leadership refuses to fully restore funds for education cuts made in 2011. According to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the $9,435 spent per student in the House budget is still $761 less than the amount spent in 2008. By the end of 2015, the RDF is projected to have a balance of almost $12 billion. Just as in the past, we must use a necessary amount of that to close the gap in public education.

When voters approved the RDF in 1988, it was sold as a source of revenue to maintain current and ongoing services during tough economic times. In fact, when the fund was first tapped in 1991, the entire balance was spent on public education. Then in 1993, the Legislature drained the fund to pay for criminal justice initiatives. Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislature used the fund to plug budget holes in 2003 and 2005 to pay for ongoing expenses like the Teacher Retirement System, state health and human services, the governor’s office and the Texas Education Agency.

Spending from the RDF for education and human services was the right thing to do 10 years ago, and it's the right thing to do now. Over the past few sessions, the governor and Republican leaders tried to redefine how the fund can be used for such things as one-time expenses. However, that idea is actually a new interpretation at odds with the fund's original purpose and past usage.

Investment in the human infrastructure of our state is as critical as investment in the physical infrastructure. The Senate proposed spending $6 billion on water and transportation. How can we invest in our roads and dams while not investing in the future of our children who will use them in the future? As the economist Ray Perryman wrote, "It makes little sense to underfund key priorities such as education."

Continuing the Republican policy of grossly underfunding our schools does irreparable harm to our state. Former state demographer Steve Murdock projected that by 2040, continuing to underfund education can lead to a 40 percent increase in poverty, a 50 percent increase in people on welfare and a 54 percent increase to the prison population, on top of a declining average household income. We cannot afford to continue down this path.

My wife and I had a baby girl during the 2011 special session. I would rather have been by her side during her first week of life. However, I was in Austin fighting for public education because it is simply that important to her future and the future of all Texas children. The Legislature needs to act now and use the Rainy Day Fund to restore our public education system and provide a bright future for all of our children in our great state of Texas.

Democrat Borris Miles of Houston represents House District 146.