When he wasn’t handicapping his own reelection chances, Governor Rick Perry spent a good part of his Tuesday marathon with Austin media discussing education and school finance.
As Patrick Michels of the Texas Observer noted, the Texas State Teachers Association wants a special session, as do Democratic legislators like Sylvester Turner.
“We need to consider how we are going to address the needs of our schoolchildren,” Turner said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing held around the same time as the governor’s press blitz.
“Most Texans believe it is senseless to leave more than $7 billion of taxpayers’ money in the bank, while their children’s schools continue to suffer cuts,” TSTA president Rita Haecker said in a statement quoted by Michels, referring to the Rainy Day Fund.
The governor’s take?
“I appreciate all of the legislators’ input, but I would be stunned if there is an outcry from the people of this state or, for that matter, a majority of the members of the Legislature that want to come back in here and have a special session when I don’t think we need one,” he told Dave Montgomery of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Perry said Tuesday that Texas schools have an “adequate amount of money,” estimating that the state is spending about $10,000 per student.
But according to preliminary figures from the National Education Association, the actual number for the 2011-2012 school year will be $8,908 per student, well below the national average of $11,463 and $538 less than Texas spent last year.
“How that money’s spent is the bigger issue,” Perry said.
After Tuesday’s appropriations hearing, state representative Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio), told Gary Scharrer of the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News that last year’s cuts will be permanent if there’s no special session or willingness to talk about the Rainy Day Fund.
In addition to a $4 billion cut in basic school funding, Villarreal said another $2 billion deferral payment to the next fiscal year means public education will start the next legislative session in a $6 billion hole.
Public education funding will play a big role in the elections later this year, he said.
“The only way to change the priorities in the Capitol is to change out members of the Legislature,” Villarreal said.
But for that reason, suggested the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman, it may be just as well if there’s no special session, not because the problems aren’t serious, but because a lame-duck legislature in the middle of campaign season might make them worse.
Legislators who have announced retirements would be making decisions for which they could not be held accountable. Republican incumbents would not be in a mood to do anything that might resemble increased spending, particularly if they were facing tea party challengers in their primaries.
There’s also the specter of school finance lawsuits. Those will likely head to trial in the fall (perhaps consolidated in a single case), but as the Observer‘s Michels notes, “It’ll be years until the Texas Supreme Court might come up with any guidance or deadlines for the Legislature.”
In the meantime, Michels laments, “every lean year for a school district makes a difference for its kids—more schools getting shuttered, sports programs cut and new costs, like riding the school bus, passed along to families.”