The Texas Legislature cut more than $5 billion from public education in 2011 to help balance the state budget. Then, last month, lawmakers were told previous revenue estimates were wrong — and that they had more than $8 billion left to spend on that budget.
Spending that money
Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News
Last week state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, began pushing the Republican leadership to answer why education funding hadn’t been discussed so far this session.
"I waited 28 days to see if the leadership would address this issue and right this wrong," Martinez Fischer said. "And when I didn’t see it happen, I began to ask questions."
"My questions were along the lines of, do we have money in the bank account? And the answer is yes," he added. "And the second question was, do we have the right to control our own destiny? In other words, can we establish the order of business, even for emergency items? And that answer was yes.”
Martinez Fischer said his questions focused on parliamentary procedure, instead of on a straight debate on school funding, because he’d heard a number of lawmakers say the state’s Constitution prohibits what lawmakers can do early in a legislative session.
"The Constitution simply says we cannot do anything on the floor of the House until the 61st day of the session; that’s almost half the session,” Martinez Fischer said. "What I was asking is, do we have the right to suspend those rules? We can suspend the Constitution, and we can set our own order of business. And we can say public education is the most important thing we have going on and we can work on it today.”
So how does Martinez Fischer think his questions will help get more money to schools?
"People are beginning to say, yes, we do have this money in the bank," he said. "We could restore pre-K education for $200 million. We can provide money for STEM classes, technology classes, at-risk programs. I think all in all we could probably spend about $700 million and repair a lot of cuts. We can restore every single grant that was cut in the legislative session. We cut $1.4 billion to grants and education. We have one year left in the biennium. We can restore for $700 million."
But money isn’t the only hurdle. Many lawmakers say the Legislature is unlikely to touch education funding until the state Supreme Court decides on an ongoing school finance lawsuit.
First chance to spend
A $4.8 billion Medicaid bill hits the House floor this week. The spending measure must be signed into law by the middle of March or doctors and hospitals won’t get paid for Medicaid services. Democrats are asking whether education funding can be added to that bill. Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, a House budget writer, says there isn’t time to delay it with an education fight.
"I think that most of the members out there know that we don’t want to mess with this. ... This is really an emergency," Pitts said. "And if this bill gets loaded up with something, the last thing that I think anybody wants to do is have me postpone it."
The counterargument is that schools should be considered an emergency item, too — especially after the billions in cuts made last session. House Speaker Joe Straus has said that with the school year already under way, it’s too late to restore those cuts. And to some extent, Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, agrees.
“They’ve already had their layoffs. They’ve already downsized their staffs," Strama said. "So you can’t undo that in time to make a difference in this school year."
But he says there’s time to fund summer tutoring programs to help students who failed one or more of the state’s accountability tests.
"They’ve got to know they’ve got that money so that they can plan summer remediation programs that will help kids pass the retake of the STAAR test," Strama said.
Strama owns four Sylvan Learning Centers in Austin. Those centers are on a list of approved providers for schools to contract out STAAR remediation. The Austin Independent School District has funded the remediation program without the hope for additional state money.