Education Cuts Could Cut Into Local Economies

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Gov. Rick Perry can't quit talking about jobs.

    He used the word 19 times in his recent state of the state address and has made it a top spending priority. But if Perry realizes his vision of a budget balanced through cuts alone, 100,000 teachers could lose their jobs.

    That's about a third of the 333,000 teachers employed by Texas public schools.

    "In a small town, the school is the largest employer," said Deborah Ottmers, assistant superintendent for business and finance at the Fredericksburg school district. These proposed cuts would be "a huge hit on the economy in any town."

    Plans for layoffs are stirring panic from Houston to far West Texas. And while the Legislature has until May to write a budget, districts can't wait to see what happens. The pink slips have already started in places such as Austin, Round Rock and Dallas.

    Perry, meanwhile, keeps talking about jobs. Just not teaching jobs.

    "The governor has put a priority on bringing jobs to Texas," said Milton Rister, Perry's director of administration. Rister was outlining Perry's request for millions of dollars to give companies in return for doing business or making films in Texas. None of those programs, though, will save the jobs of Alan and Nikki Guckian.

    Alan Guckian's position as north Austin band director has been cut to half-time. His wife, a high school drama teacher expecting their second child in June, was laid off.

    "It makes me sick to my stomach to see some of the things they're arguing about in the Capitol," Alan Guckian said. "There are a lot of people that won't be able to pay their mortgage and they're still talking about attracting movie people."

    Economists say sudden job losses, like those to the Guckian family, will lead to even more job losses.

    "If you lay off 1,000 teachers you're going to have some greater number of that jobs loss because, presumably, those teachers are not going to be spending money in those communities," said Terry Clower, director of the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas. "That's going to flow through the economy."

    That's already started for the Guckians. Lately, they've traded in dinners out with friends for casseroles and ramen noodles at home. They have started saving hand-me-downs for the new baby. Phone service and cable television will probably be next.

    Still, Perry continues to brag that Texas is a lone bright star in an otherwise dreadful economy. He repeatedly reminds audiences that, at 230,000, Texas added more jobs last year than any other state.

    Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said the governor values public education but plans to follow through on his promise to cut the budget and keep taxes low.

    "The governor has spent a considerable amount of time discussing the importance of public education and how it will remain a priority," Frazier said. "He recognizes these are challenging times and he's going to be working with lawmakers to balance the budget without raising taxes while protecting essential services."

    Perry's office says the Texas Enterprise Fund, a deal-closing account to lure big employers to Texas with financial incentives, has spent more than $425 million to bring more than 56,000 jobs to Texas since its inception in 2003. That amounts to about $7,600 per job over the last seven years.

    But it's not clear whether those jobs wouldn't have come to Texas anyway.

    Perry's office has asked for an extra $50 million to spend in the next budget, a figure that would keep 1,000 teachers employed, based on Texas' average teacher salary.

    By offering incentives to produce movies and television programs in Texas, the Texas Film Commission has created more than 6,700 full-time jobs, Rister said. Perry is asking for an extra $20 million for that program. That money could save 400 teacher jobs.

    In the current budget, schools got $50 billion in state and federal money to teach 4.8 million students. Proposed budgets would short Texas schools $10 billion, a figure that includes money that would be necessary to pay for an estimated 160,000 new students expected to enroll over the next two years.

    Responding with anger and panic, thousands of teachers and parents from across Texas are expected to descend on the Capitol later this month for a "Save Texas Schools" rally, urging lawmakers to use all available money -- including $9.4 billion set aside in the state's Rainy Day Fund -- to fully fund public schools.

    Perry's request has angered some lawmakers.

    "Help me understand ... that we're going to spend millions of dollars on tourism and movie production, but we're going to be cutting back Medicaid, letting teachers go?" Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, asked Rister when he asked for the money. "Help me understand how you sit there and ask for those kinds of feel-good programs that might create some jobs, but at the same time we're letting medical students go, residential residents go, state employees, help me?"