The Legislature of the Children
Can lawmakers invest in the future of Texas children with $2.8 billion less to spend?
The Texas Legislature will convene in regular session on Tuesday for the eighty-fifth time since 1846, and, for better or worse, we should call this the Legislature of the Child. However, with available state revenues down $2.8 billion, they may find themselves, like Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, pleading for more.
Governor Greg Abbot wants to save children from abusive parents and caretakers by overhauling the state’s Child Protective Services. This will be at least the third time the state government has called for drastic changes of the agency since it was recreated in 1993, yet each reform has been a mere bandage that did not save 3,409 children from death by abuse or neglect. Between 2010 and 2014 alone, there were 144 children who died despite having had three or more CPS investigations, and the death toll continued even after Abbott started overhauling the agency once more.
At the same time, Abbott wants to end what he describes as “sanctuary campuses,” college and university campuses that do not report undocumented immigrant students to federal authorities – even though the state by law allows many of them to pay in-state tuition because they graduated from a Texas high school. Higher education officials have reported that at least 25,000 students are taking advantage of that law, but Abbott has indicated he may want it repealed.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick wants to crack down on school administrators who “pass the trash” by not reporting improper student/teacher relations for criminal prosecution, allowing predatory teachers to move from one district to another.
Patrick also is promoting legislation to bar transgender people from using the bathrooms of their sexual identity rather than the biology of their birth. Texas Values is selling Patrick’s proposal as a means of protecting little girls from male predators in bathrooms. Texas Values posted a picture on Twitter of an adorable child holding a sign that reads: “It’s common sense, men shouldn’t be in bathrooms with little girls.” (Actually, the photo of the girl is repurposed from a stock photo in which she is clutching an image of a kitten that reads “I ♥ cats.”)
Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus also want an overhaul of Child Protective Services with additional funding to hire and retain more caseworkers. But they split on trying to resolve public school finance. Straus wants to move forward, while Patrick says the issue is too complicated for a busy regular legislative session and needs its own special session. Ultimately, though, the debate is guided by money.
The Legislature of the Children effectively opened Monday as Comptroller Glenn Hegar unveiled the state revenue estimate for the next two years, outlining how lawmakers will have $2.8 billion less to spend on general government, welfare, and education than they had for the current budget. Though state tax collections are rebounding, the Legislature is starting with a smaller surplus than two years ago, Hegar said. The state is also facing a constitutional amendment approved by voters that will divert $5 billion in tax dollars from general spending and dedicate it to highway construction. Hegar said the Legislature will have $104.9 billion in general revenue to spend, down from $107.7 billion for the current budget. The total current budget, when federal funds are added in, is $209 billion.
On the surface of the ledger, all of this looks like money in, money out, but really, it is about children and their future—paying for the needs of kids of Texas, or denying them the finances that could make them more successful later in life. While $209 billion sounds like a lot of money—if I had even a small portion of that I’d be on a tropical beach instead of writing this column—it is not that much when you consider what it buys. The general government, what most people think of as the bureaucracy, only requires three percent of all of state spending. Thirty-seven percent of the budget goes to public schools and higher education, while another 37 percent goes to agencies of health and human services. An enormous amount of the human services budget goes to children, either as direct welfare or protective services and health care. The $2.8 billion spent for Child Protective Services includes $342 million for foster care and $254 million in adoption subsidies, but the salaries are low and the caseloads heavy for the state’s 9,800 employees, leading to burnout and high turnover.
Child Protective Services in its current form was created under Governor Ann Richards and faced its first major crisis under Governor George W. Bush, who like Abbott now, sought more money to hire additional case workers. “Last year, 176 children were killed by abusive parents or caretakers,” Bush told lawmakers in 1999. “For every one who dies, countless others suffer in anonymity. This breaks my heart.” Perry ordered another overhaul of the agency in 2005, including the hiring of 2,500 new caseworkers. Now, Abbott is faced once again with the question whether the problem of child abuse enforcement can be solved once and for all time.
About the same time that former Governor Bush was promoting an overhaul of CPS, he also asked the legislature to reform the so-called Robin Hood system of having property taxes pay for public education. Robin Hood is a system of taking some property tax revenues away from the wealthiest districts and giving the money to some of the poorest districts. Bush said there was only one real cure for rapidly rising property taxes, and that was to have the state pay the majority of the expenses for the public education system in Texas. “The problem is that local property taxes are the major source of funding for our schools and they should not be,” Bush told lawmakers in 1997. “By relying too much on local property taxes, Texas is shirking its responsibility to our children. We are relying on a patchwork system that is inherently unequal and unfair to fund out future.” Unsuccessful, Bush predicted for the next legislature that if the trend continued, “more and more districts will become Robin Hood districts, and our school finance system will be unbalanced, unfair and ultimately unconstitutional.”
In 2006, Perry and then-House Speaker Tom Craddick dramatically reduced school property taxes, but fundamentally did not make major changes to the Robin Hood system of finance. But they still increased the state share of total public education from 33 percent to 48 percent. Then came $5 billion in cuts during the 2011 Legislature, and the state’s share of public education spending dropped dramatically. Even after the funding was restored in the next session, the state’s share still was 44 percent of the total, and the Legislative Budget Board predicts that share will drop even farther in the next two years because local property tax values are rising.
And Bush was right about the system pushing more and more districts into the position of sending tax money to the state for redistribution. Ten years ago, the number was 164 districts, and today it is 238 out of the state’s 1,247 districts. And Robin Hood is no longer taking just from the rich to give to the poor. The Houston Chronicle has reported that Spring Branch ISD will surrender $66 million this year, even though 60 percent of the student body is economically disadvantaged. Galveston ISD may have to borrow money to open its schools because of the local tax dollars it has given up to recapture. It is predicted that by 2019, more than half of ever tax dollar raised by the Austin ISD will go to the state, with none of the money going to property-poor districts.
The Austin American-Statesman recently affirmed state representative Donna Howard’s claim that “thirty-one percent of school districts are still receiving less funding per pupil than they did prior to the dramatic budget cuts of 2011.” In fact, after studying the claim, the newspaper found the number probably was closer to 38 percent.
The only thing Bush had wrong twenty years ago was that the system would be found unconstitutional. The Texas Supreme Court last year ruled that state funding of public education is inadequate but not a violation of the state constitution. The court urged state leaders to implement “transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid.”
Yes, Comptroller Hegar will give lawmakers a financial guideline for the next two years. It’s up to their conscience to remember their spending is about the children who will become the future of Texas.