The 83rd Texas State Legislature started with good news from the state Comptroller: Susan Combs told lawmakers they’d have more than $101 billion dollars to spend in the next session. Education advocates are already asking for more dough to head to Texas classrooms, even pre-schools.
Kara Johnson is with Texans Care for Children, a child advocacy group. She quotes a 2006 study from the Bush school at Texas A&M that shows it’s smart budgeting to support early childhood education.
“What the study found was that when you invest in high quality care, the key is high quality, you get a 350 percent return on your investment," said Johnson. "Every dollar invested $3.50 back for local communities. And that’s at a minimum.”
State Representative Mark Strama (D-Austin) thinks that argument may be falling on deaf ears.
“Honestly I think most legislators have tuned out those arguments because every expenditure comes with that argument," said Strama.
Don’t get him wrong, he thinks there can be a savings down the road getting kids better prepared for kindergarten. And he’d like to see a full restoration of state grants that helped school districts fund full day pre-Kindergarten.
But for now he wants to better use the federal money Texas gets for low-income childcare subsidies. He wants to rate child care providers.
“Right now we have high quality providers and we have less high quality providers and we compensate them the exact same amount," said Strama. "And so what we’re really trying to do is put some incentives into the marketplace for child care provider to set higher standards and to provide more resources for kids.”
Get two stars and your reimbursement rate is 5 percent higher. Get 4 stars, you get 9 percent more.
During an interview this week Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams agreed with the importance of early intervention. Saying the greatest influence on student achievement isn’t how much money a school gets.
“It’s who they are when they come to the classroom, as opposed to how many dollars are spent on them," said Williams.
He said low income students are less prepared for school than middle and upper income kids. But Williams won’t get into how much more money schools should get from the state to improve performance. Governor Rick Perry doesn’t see a need to increase funding.
"I think under any scenario over the last decade, the funding that we have seen in the state of Texas for public education has been pretty phenomenal," said Perry. "I’m not sure there’s any state in the nation that’s had that type – certainly not any big state.”
Mind you: Texas public school enrollment is up more than 20 percent over the last decade. And lawmakers cut how much districts get by $500 per student in 2011.
Pre-school quality and the state’s role in funding it are just a small part of the larger public education debate. So to get ready for what’s to come – let’s go over where we’re starting from.
“Last session lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from the public education budget," said Texas Tribune public education reporter Morgan Smith. "That was 4 billion from the general revenue. And then about 1.4 from what are called discretionary grants.”
Those grants were given to school districts to pay for full-day pre-K or after school tutoring from struggling students. The state’s Republican leadership – is not calling for spending to return to pre-2011 levels.
“You’re not seeing, while it might kind of shore up the arguments of why we need to restore the cuts, you’re not seeing that effect the rhetoric from leaders in the legislature just yet," said Smith.
A lengthy school finance trial is set to wrap up this spring. A final verdict is expected sometime this summer. The fact that a court is going to tell lawmakers how much schools should get may freeze legislative action, said Smith.
“Their hands are actually tied by this. Really whatever they do…if they don’t put enough funding back in, that’s going to be undone by the courts. And if they do put more funding in then it’s very likely that the structure of how that’s distributed to schools is going to be changed by the courts,” Smith said.
Whenever there's a final ruling – lawmakers are expected to come back to Austin for a special session to work it all out.
What legislation is at the top of your watch-list? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you’re following this session.