Texas Budget Cuts Squeeze Schools

Monday, 12 Sep 2011 07:15 AM

 

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At San Antonio’s McCollum High School, budget cuts Texas Gov. Rick Perry pushed through this year meant no money for a tutoring program that helped teenagers in one of the state’s poorest districts keep up.

“Sometimes that’s the only way a student can pass a class, if they get that extra help,” said Kandice Casias, 17, a McCollum senior. “When I found out it was taken away, I was kind of like, ‘Wow, some of those students were really struggling.’”

Schools have become a focal point for Perry’s critics since his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. After gains on test scores in the first half of his decade-long tenure as governor, progress in the past five years has stalled. Budget cuts this year dented Perry’s reputation for supporting the state’s educational system.

Perry, 61, who is leading in polls of the Republican presidential candidates, is running on his record as leader of Texas, which he says has created more new jobs in the past decade than any other state. Yet some say the gains have come from a low-tax environment that has strained the state’s educational system.

At McCollum, part of the Harlandale Independent School District, teachers and administrators are stretching their dollars this year after the state cut the per-pupil funding by about 6 percent. Harlandale is budgeting $108 million this year, down $5.4 million from its projected spending level, forcing it to hold off on additional hiring, limit pay raises and rely more on reserves to fund basic programs.

“I wish Governor Perry would come visit our schools and see what our students do on a daily basis and how they do more with less,” Superintendent Robert Jaklich said in an interview. “I’d ask him, ‘Please don’t take advantage of us anymore.’”

Texas ranks 41st in per-pupil spending and 36th in high- school graduation rates, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. Perry defended his record in a Sept. 7 Republican debate in Simi Valley, California.

“The reductions that we made were thoughtful reductions,” Perry said. “I stand by a record from what we’ve done with the resources that we’ve had, and I think that the reductions that we put in place were absorbed by our schools and we will continue to have one of the finest workforces made available.”

‘Made Great Progress’

Perry argued that his state had “made great progress” during his 10 years as governor. He cited a high-school graduation rate of 84 percent and scores by 4th grade and 8th grade African-American and Hispanic students that “were some of the highest in the country.”

“Texas has really struggled, and I feel very, very badly for the children there,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an Aug. 19 interview on Bloomberg Television’s Political Capital With Al Hunt. “Far too few of their high-school graduates are actually prepared to go on to college.”

Starting in 2000, when he became governor, Perry benefited from educational gains started by his predecessor, former Republican Governor George Bush from 1992, said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a research group in Washington, and a former aide to President Bill Clinton.

“You can make a case that Perry is basically coasting on what Bush did,” Rotherham said. “The momentum is slowing and you haven’t seen in Texas over the last decade the urgency you saw under Bush.”

Gains Slow

Texas’s gains on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests have slowed in recent years after strong improvement early in Perry’s tenure, said Sandy Kress, an Austin lawyer who was a senior adviser to Bush and has talked with Perry about education issues.

“There’s been a little bit of plateauing,” said Kress, senior counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. “I’ve seen some mixed signals in the last five years.”

Yet Perry deserves credit for blocking efforts to weaken Texas’s graduation standards and promoting more science and mathematics education, Kress said.

“Perry has not been as activist as Bush, but his policies have been constructive and helpful,” he said. “Texans are pretty tight-fisted and they pride themselves on efficiency and good results more than spending money.”

State Aid

After a 2006 overhaul of the state’s education-financing system, public schools in Texas rely less on property taxes and more on state aid. Perry led the effort that resulted in the change to resolve lawsuits alleging inadequate funding of schools with smaller property-tax bases. Business levies, a linchpin of the new system, have missed forecasts by billions of dollars, both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature say.

“We won the lawsuit in 2005 and then in 2006 we wound up with a system that was worse than before,” John Folks, superintendent of San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District, said in an interview. “We have a very inequitable and inadequate system and we’ve made it more inequitable and inadequate.”

Northside, with about 97,300 students and growing by about 3,000 each year, will get $260 less per student this year than in 2006, Folks said. Property levies were raised 1 cent per $100 of value to about $1.38 for the district, where the average residence is valued at almost $161,400.

Job Cuts

The district, with the best performance scores among the state’s largest systems, cut 973 jobs as it reduced its $1 billion budget by $61.4 million to absorb a drop in state funding, according to an Aug. 31 statement on Northside’s website. While many employees had to switch jobs, none were dismissed.

Class sizes also rose modestly in the district, Folks said.

Yet the state’s system outperforms national averages in math scores and isn’t far behind in reading and science, according to ACT Inc., an independent testing organization based in Iowa City, Iowa.

The dropout rate for the class of 2010 was 7.3 percent, down from 9.4 percent a year earlier, state figures show. Graduates in 2011 scored an average of 21.5 on the math part of ACT’s college-entrance exam, up from 20.8 in 2007 and better than this year’s national average of 21.1.

While just 24 percent of Texas high-school graduates are college-ready, based on ACT estimates, that’s not much worse than the 25 percent national average.

California Comparison

With Hispanics accounting for 49 percent of enrollment in Texas schools, comparing it to other states can be misleading. Pairing it with California, another large state with a substantial Latino population, McKinsey & Co. said the Lone Star State ranked higher on standardized 4th- and 8th-grade mathematics tests, based on 2007 scores.

“Texas students are, on average, one to two years of learning ahead of California students of the same age, even though Texas has less income per capita and spends less per pupil than California,” McKinsey said in an April 2009 study. Whites, Latinos and blacks all outscored their Golden State counterparts, according to the New York-based consulting firm.

In Harlandale, with a tax base that ranks among the state’s smallest, 13 of 19 schools got top ratings from the state, up from seven in 2008, Jaklich said. Latinos make up 98 percent of the district’s approximately 13,400 students and almost all qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, he said.

Part of the district’s financial squeeze stems from a drop in state aid after Perry signed a two-year budget that failed to cover federal subsidy cuts and didn’t include money for rising enrollment. That left schools to make do with $4 billion less than projected, based on previous formulas.

With Perry and Texas legislative leaders opposed to raising taxes or using reserves for more school spending, “guess who suffered?” Jaklich said. “We did. It wasn’t our fault but we have to take the responsibility.”


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