Educators fear that a new measure that will slash $4 billion in funding to Texas public schools over the next two years will permanently handicap them because it removes any long-term obligation for the state to maintain a minimum support level.
Normally, a school's funding level is determined by a formula based on enrollment, but for the first time since World War II the Legislature has reduced per-student funding, a trend that could continue under the new school finance law.
Education advocates argue lawmakers could fund everything else before appropriating education money, potentially leaving schools with a smaller chunk of state money each year.
"The concern is that you end up chronically funding public education on an `as funds are left over' basis, and that's a long-term concern," said school finance expert Dan Casey of MOAK, Casey & Associates.
The cuts aren't as drastic as initial proposals that would have shorted the Foundation School Program by nearly $10 billion of what current law requires, but they are still enough to devastate public education, advocates say.
The state faces a budget shortfall estimated to be as large as $27 billion. Democrats demanded throughout the session to spend more money from the Rainy Day Fund but were consistently overruled by fiscal conservatives backed by Gov. Rick Perry, who maintained that the state's savings account should be left largely intact.
A Democratic filibuster killed the school finance measure on the last day of the regular session, prompting a fed-up Perry to call lawmakers back immediately to deal with the legislation. A conference committee will now approve a final version of the measure before Perry signs it.
Democrats hoped the extra time would bring masses of educators and parents to the Capitol to protest and get Republicans to spend more of the Rainy Day Fund. But conservative lawmakers were running thin on patience, shooting down any pleas to use more of the money, and protests were meager.
Districts have already laid off employees, most working from the worst-case scenario budget lawmakers filed in January. But the larger issue has been the method to distribute the cuts. The $4 billion cut is spread over two years with every district getting a 6 percent cut in 2012 and a $2 billion reduction in 2013 that reduces funding for some schools more than others based on a complicated formula.
Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said the cuts were unfortunate but necessary because of lower state revenues. He said the state is dedicating 60 percent of its general revenue on education, up from 57 percent.
"We have a smaller pie, but a larger piece of it," he said.
The Houston school district, the state's largest public district, already laid off more than 700 teachers and 250 central departmental positions for budget reasons, a district spokesman said.
Some districts will look to raising local property taxes to make up for the loss of state dollars, but that's not an option for districts that have already reached the cap.
Democrats and rural House Republicans argued the formula unfairly hurts their school districts and widens an already-expansive gap between poor and rich schools. Texas ranks 44th out of 50 states in per-student spending, which ranges from $3,000 to $13,000 a year.
Bill Grusendorf, executive director of Texas Association of Rural Schools, said the across-the-board cut simply maintains the status quo, calling it "ridiculous" to cut the same percentage from schools spending thousands per pupil and those spending the minimum amount.
"This punishes those who have been lowest all along," Grusendorf said. "We fought and we fought, we testified and we testified, and it just hasn't been heard."
Most school districts get their funding based on a formula that held total per-student spending at 2006 levels. Opponents say it froze old inequities while creating new, larger ones between school districts.
Lawmakers lowered property taxes and counted on a business tax to make up the difference. But the tax has consistently underperformed, creating a recurring hole in the budget. Lawmakers have been repeatedly criticized for changing the school finance law rather than fixing the rickety tax structure
"That tension is going to be there for a while," Casey said.
Districts already at low funding levels because of the 2006 formula have been cutting their budgets, increasing class sizes and trimming programs and staff positions for years.
Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District has been one of the lowest funded districts in the state for the past four years and has cut more than $70 million from its budget, said Kelli Durham, assistant superintendent for communications.
"If this continues, the quality of education in the state of Texas is in jeopardy," Durham said.
Though some districts haven't laid off employees yet, many are just now discovering what real impact the budget cuts will have on their schools and working quickly to adjust for the school finance plan.
Districts will not only start the school year with layoffs and larger class sizes, but face a fundamental shift in the way they receive state aid that could last for the foreseeable future.
"We are saying to school districts ... that education is not the No. 1 priority in the state of Texas," Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, argued during a floor debate Thursday. "The funding for our public schools is an afterthought. We are giving our children in the state of Texas what is left over."