In a packed Austin courtroom in 2012, the state's lawyers sought to convince a judge that if Texas schools spent their money wisely, they needn't suffer greatly from a $5.4-billion cut to public schools passed by the Legislature. Surely, an assistant attorney general argued, districts could deliver a sufficient education “without iPads or teacher aides or brand-new facilities.”
Nearly two-thirds of the state's school districts had sued, arguing that lawmakers violated their constitutional duty to provide an adequate and efficient public school system by slashing funding to help balance a post-recession shortfall even as a rigorous new testing and accountability systems raised the bar on expectations.
The districts pointed to a host of evidence to underscore their argument: swelling class sizes, truncated staffing and flat test scores. Ultimately, a Travis County district court judge agreed with them, deeming the state's method of funding public education unconstitutional.
Three years later, as the state prepares to argue an appeal before the Texas Supreme Court, a Texas Tribune analysis shows that schools still are grappling with the fallout from the lean budget times even as the Legislature has restored a majority of the cuts.
An examination by the Tribune found:
- Public school staffing remains lower than it was before the cuts, with at least 3,700 fewer teachers in regular, non-charter districts last school year, according to state data. That’s as student enrollment in those schools grew by more than 220,000.
- The state still is approving far more waivers allowing elementary schools to exceed a 22-student class size limit established in 1984. Last year, the total number of campuses requesting waivers exceeded 2,100, according to state data; In the five school years leading up to the 2011 budget cuts, it never topped 1,375.
- Scores on the high-stakes STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) exam remain flat — with success rates hovering in the 70th percentile — even though students have now had several years to get used to the more difficult testing regime, implemented in early 2012.
- Per-student state funding has recovered to pre-2011 levels for some districts, but many still are behind. Under the two-year budget state lawmakers passed this year, lawmakers have restored more than 90 percent of what they cut four years ago, yet nearly 30 percent of school districts will receive less per-student funding from the state than they did before the reductions, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board.
To some conservative and business groups, the numbers are not a sign of underfunding but of pervasive inefficiencies in the state’s public school system — including the 31-year-old class size limit, which they have described as arbitrary and too restrictive.
"I don’t think you can address the funding unless you can address how that funding is spent," said Robert Henneke, director of the Center For the American Future at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The conservative Austin-based think tank is backing a group of school choice advocates and business interests that joined the lawsuit against the state (albeit for much different reasons).
"With the structural inefficiencies within the current system,” Henneke said, “additional funding will not accomplish anything except to lead to the seventh public education lawsuit a couple years down the road.”
The current lawsuit marks the sixth time since 1984 that districts have sued the state over the way public schools are financed.
The state’s Republican leaders also have repeatedly argued that more money is not the end-all to improving public education, while downplaying the lingering effects of the 2011 budget cuts.
“Our first goal has to be creating an education system that will advance students in the best way possible and then funding that program,” Gov. Greg Abbott said last week when asked if schools need more money to help low-income students.
But school officials and public education advocates say the negative effects remain. The trends in staffing, class-size waivers and test scores, they say, signal the inadequacy of the funding increases the Legislature has approved in the years since the budget cuts.
“The fact that we still haven’t added back all the lost personnel and we’re still seeing a large number of waiver requests proves that schools still are struggling,” said Chandra Villanueva, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Austin-based think tank. “It’s a consequence of underfunding our schools.”
The debate surrounding the enduring impact of the 2011 budget cuts — and whether the Legislature has done enough to address them since — looks to play a big role in the state’s appeal of state District Judge John Dietz's ruling last year striking down the school finance system as unconstitutional. The Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday.
The Legislature’s lead public education policymakers say the state’s high court should send the case back to district court for reconsideration, given the funding increases and policy changes enacted during the past two legislative sessions.
“We changed quite a bit,” said state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee. “I think if I were in a black robe, I’d look at it again before I made any final decisions.”
In 2013, lawmakers restored much of what they cut from public education, boosting funding by $3.4 billion while altering graduation and testing requirements and expanding the state’s charter school system. Those changes prompted Dietz to reopen evidence in the case, although he again sided with the more than 600 school districts that sued the state.
Earlier this year, lawmakers gave schools another $1.5 billion in addition to covering student enrollment growth.
“In large part we’ve gone back and covered the cuts that were made in 2011,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee.
“At the very least,” Abbott said in a brief filed with the court last week, “this Court should allow the reforms enacted by the (2015) Legislature to be tested in the real world before passing judgment on the constitutionality of Texas’ public-school system.”
(As attorney general, Abbott appealed last year’s district court ruling directly to the state Supreme Court, on which he used to serve).
But attorneys for the school districts suing the state — who supported Dietz’s decision to reopen evidence following the 2013 legislative session — say the 2015 session is far from a game changer.
“The clear problems that were identified in the trial were not corrected in the ‘15 session,” said David Thompson, who represents many of the state’s larger school districts, including Austin, Houston and Dallas. “There was very little substantive change.”
In the past year, Texas has surpassed a few other states in per-student funding as state assistance and property values have rebounded, according to a recent study. But — at 38th — it still ranks in the bottom one-third, spending $9,559 per student on average. (The national average is $12,040).
In 2016, 29 percent of school districts will receive less per-student funding from the state than they did before the budget cuts, according to the budget board; in 2017, that will drop to 24 percent. And those that have seen state funding recover in the four years since the cuts have not added that much, with funding growing just more than one percent per year on average.
The fast-growing Leander school district, about 30 miles northwest of Austin, cut $22 million from its budget in 2011 and has seen state assistance grow by only $14 million since then. It has absorbed the reduction in large part by adding kids to third- and fourth-grade classrooms so it can hire fewer teachers, said spokeswoman Veronica Sopher. Since the 2011 budget cuts, the number of elementary campuses in the 37,000-student district receiving waivers to exceed the 22-student limit has grown by 83 percent, according to state data. The district expects to file about 90 waiver requests this year.
“There’s no doubt that the budget cuts in education had an impact on how we do staffing,” Sopher said.
Some may cast doubt on the benefits of having fewer children in classrooms, but Texas PTA President Leslie Boggs said “there’s not a parent in this state that doesn’t realize that a smaller class size is the best option.”
Factors including a lingering surge in class size waivers is “a very strong point in favor of the trial court’s ruling,” said lawyer John Turner, who represents some of the state’s property wealthy school districts.
It shows that schools still “are not given sufficient funding to meet this state standard,” he said.
In the 2011-12 school year, immediately following the budget cuts, the number of classes exceeding the 22-student limit grew to about 8,600 from more than 2,200, a 74-percent increase. Last year, the total was nearly 5,900.
In 2011, the Texas Education Agency added “financial hardship” to the list of reasons districts could request waivers — “ a recognition that districts were forced to cut budgets, which often involved laying off staff,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.
It remains an option and a commonly cited one. (Last year, it applied to all of Leander's approved waivers). But school officials say the other available reasons — like unanticipated growth, lack of facilities and inability to find qualified teachers — are all exacerbated by stagnant state assistance.
The partial restoration of state funding in recent years has “helped a lot,” but it’s not enough, said Stuart Snow, chief financial officer for the Cypress-Fairbanks school district near Houston, the state’s third largest and one of the fastest growing.
Snow said where his district needs the most help from the state is with facilities; it hasn’t received any since around the time of the budget cuts. And staffing levels remain lower than they would like, he said.
“It’s just taking several years to be able to get back to normal,” he said. “We’re not quite there yet.”
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation and Center for Public Policy Priorities are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.