By Paul J. Weber
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Two years after historic spending cuts to Texas classrooms, budget writers in the Senate on Thursday approved a $1.4 billion hike for public education in the first clear signal that the new Legislature may pour money back into financially ailing public schools.
How much lawmakers will ultimately spend on schools remains to be hammered out over the next few months. But education groups who rallied 2,000 supporters during a march on the Capitol last weekend greeted the spending bump by the Senate Finance Committee with optimism.
Republican state Sen. Tommy Williams, the committee chairman, called a new $40 million chunk back into a prekindergarten grant program slashed in 2011 a “down payment.”
“I know that we’ve done a lot more in the past,” Williams said. “This is important. This is very focused on at-risk kids. This is not every kid who is eligible for funding under this.”
The approved budget recommendation, which includes roughly $1.4 billion more in school spending, will move to the full Senate. That addition was part of a $35 billion proposed budget for public schools.
Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson described the additional money as “significant” urged his colleagues to continue prioritizing education spending.
Two months into the new legislative session — the first since Gov. Rick Perry’s failed run for president — education has emerged as a dominant issue at the Capitol. The future of standardized testing in Texas and charter schools has stirred major debates in addition to whether lawmakers will reverse any of the $5.4 billion in classroom cuts made during a severe state budget shortfall in 2011.
Perry made no promises to roll back any deep spending cuts — to public schools or otherwise — when the session began in January. That was despite a booming Texas economy that powered a sunny revenue estimate, which left lawmakers with nearly $9 billion more to spend on the current budget before writing the next one.
The additional public school spending approved Thursday by Williams’ committee appeared to provide the firmest indication yet that the Legislature is open to putting money back.
Rita Haecker, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said she didn’t want lawmakers to stop there.
Restoring some of “the money cut from public schools two years ago was a step in the right direction, but the committee and the Legislature need to finish the job,” Haecker said.
Haecker’s group was among dozens of education organizations that marched at a “Save Texas Schools” rally on Saturday. It was held just one day after the National Education Association announced that Texas’ per-student spending ranked only ahead of Arizona and Nevada.
Texas spends $8,400 per student, $3,055 less than the national average.
The 2011 cuts prompted more than 600 school districts to sue the state in October. A district judge ruled this month that funding levels now violate the Texas Constitution because they are insufficient and not distributed in an equitable manner to schools in different areas.
The state is appealing the ruling, and the case likely won’t be decided until next year by the Texas Supreme Court.