Is a 142% budget increase over 20 years too much?
Mon September 20, 2010 12:55 pm

The Texas Tribune's Web site has an audio clip today by KUT's Ben Philpott about Texas Education Agency budget cuts totaling $250 million. Philpott interviews advocates on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. The Texas Public Policy Foundation's Bill Peacock tells Philpott, "From 1987 to 2007, school district funding increased by 142 percent after being adjusted for inflation, and yet we're not seeing any results."

That led me to wonder:

(1) Is a 142% increase in the state's biggest and most important program out of line? That doesn't seem obvious to me, especially when part of the increase is due to annual enrollment growth that must be funded. It doesn't seem like a huge growth over two decades. I went back and looked at the 1998-1999 budget, ten-plus years after the first year TPPF focuses on, and the Foundation School program was $8.72 billion in 1998 and $8.98 billion in 1999.

(2) When Peacock says, "and yet we're not seeing any results," my question, had I been holding the microphone, would have been, "How do you measure results?" Without an answer to that question, Peacock's statement is just ideological rhetoric.

I have great respect for some of TPPF's work, in particular Marc Levin's research into how to save money on prisons and reduce crime and recidivism. But Peacock's statements have no context and nothing to measure them against. A 142% increase over two decades doesn't seem shocking at all. (I asked my wife, "If I told you that a budget item had increased 142% over X years, how many years would you say is reasonable for X," and she said, pretty quickly, "twenty.") No, this is not our typical conversation.

Next in the clip came an interview with Jodie Smith, the political director of Texans Cares for Children. She was objecting to TEA cuts for Communities in Schools, which emphasizes dropout prevention, school lunch matching funds, and regional service centers. "We are looking at some serious compromises," Smith said. "You can't separate students' performance in the classroom from their overall well being."

I have a lot of admiration for Communities in Schools. They do great work in dropout prevention. But if the state is facing a budget crunch, I would cut programs that do not directly affect educational performance. Unfortunately, CIS falls in that category. I would also cut urban regional education service centers. In rural Texas, regional service centers provide a lot of technical assistance to small school districts that lack expertise in meeting reporting and paperwork requirements. Urban school districts don't need the help. They have plenty of expertise. The service centers overall were a $21 million budget item in the 2008-2009 school year, the latest for which budget figures were available to me. I don't think they would be missed. The third cut that Smith cites is school lunch matching funds. I can't imagine making kids go hungry. Smith is right on this one.

Philpott could have been tougher on his interviewees--especially Peacock--but the interview did lay the foundation for the debate that is going to take place in the Legislature. Is education spending increasing too fast? What results should we be seeing? Why aren't we seeing them? Picking out some number like 142% doesn't tell us anything about what we are getting for our money. We're supposed to measure outputs, not inputs. As George W. Bush famously said, "Rarely is the question asked, 'Is our children learning?"

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