- Julie Chang American-Statesman Staff
Since 2008, when the Great Recession led to major funding cuts to education across the country, Texas has lagged behind most states in restoring those dollars, according to a new study.
Per-student state funding in Texas in 2015, the latest education spending data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, was 16 percent lower than in 2008, when adjusted for inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based liberal think tank.
That was the sixth-biggest decline in state education spending during that period — behind Arizona, Florida, Alabama, Idaho and Georgia. Nineteen states increased funding between 2008 and 2015 by as much as 96 percent.
Increased reliance on local tax revenue and sluggish oil prices, among other factors, have contributed to stagnant state education funding, according to the study, which was released Tuesday night. At the same time, education has become more costly.
As a result, school districts have had to cut teachers, staff and student programs, particularly those that serve low-income students, said Michael Leachman, one of the study’s authors.
“These trends are very concerning to the country’s future prospects,” said Leachman, the center’s director of state fiscal research. “The health of the nation’s economy, our quality of life, will depend crucially on the creativity and intellectual capacity of our people. If we neglect our schools, we diminish our future.”
To soften the blow from the 2008 recession, Texas relied on federal money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But when the money dried up, state lawmakers enacted major funding cuts in 2011, including $5.3 billion from public education, to fill the hole. Although the state has since added money back into education, it hasn’t been enough to bring the per-student funding level back to what it was in 2008 because of inflation and the rapidly growing student population in the state.
Between fiscal years 2017 and 2018, state per-student funding in Texas dropped 1.5 percent, when adjusted for inflation, according to Leachman’s study.
With diminished state money, Texas schools have had to rely more heavily on revenue generated from local property taxes. When local tax dollars are factored in, Texas’ per-student funding level is actually 4.8 percent below the 2008 level.
“Austin and most other Central Texas school districts are in danger of crumbling under the burden of serving as a piggy bank for the state of Texas when it comes to funding education. Property taxes are simply too high, and the state’s investment is too small,” said Drew Scheberle, senior vice president for policy and advocacy at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
Because the Austin school district is considered property wealthy, it will send an estimated $534 million — nearly 50 percent of the district’s operating budget — in recapture payments to the state to help support property-poor school districts.
The study also says tax cuts are to blame for states’ struggles to return to 2008 education funding levels.
In 2015, Texas lawmakers passed a multibillion-dollar tax relief package that increased the property tax homestead exemption and cut the business franchise tax by 25 percent.
“While it might be popular to give tax cuts, we then have to pay for those tax cuts and fill that hole rather than (make) a greater investment in our schools,” said Christy Rome, executive director of the Texas School Coalition, which represents mostly property-wealthy school districts.
Rome said the study doesn’t take into account the greater challenges Texas faces compared with many other states. The state’s student population has grown about 2 percent each year to 5.3 million, with many of those new students non-native English speakers and from low-income families.
Special education services, bilingual programs and services for students at risk of dropping out were hit hardest by the funding cuts in 2011, according to another study released last month by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based liberal think tank.
“When we took a more in-depth look into Texas finances to look at how school districts absorbed the cuts, we saw that it was low-income elementary kids that faced the most cuts in programs that helped them get ahead,” said Chandra Villanueva, one of the study’s authors and a senior policy analyst with the Austin center.
In the Leander school district, officials have had to juggle providing adequate academic services for a growing student population with paying teachers and staff competitively.
In 2010, 43 percent of the district’s operating funds came from money from the state. In 2017, that dropped to 21 percent.
“Leander ISD supports more than 39,000 students in 42 schools despite significant financial challenges,” district spokesman Corey Ryan said. “Since 2010, LISD has seen a 25 percent surge in student enrollment and a significant rise in cost of living for employees, while its state revenues decreased by $15.3 million.”