In Texas, Stepping Back From The Failed Austerity Experiment On Public Schools?

What happens in Texas's educational system is closely watched by the rest of the nation, from its textbook selection to a recent rollback of the state's high-stakes testing requirements. We can add funding for public education and universal pre-K to that list.

During the 2011 legislative session, the Texas legislature had cut $5.4 billion from public education for the 2012-2013 biennium, slamming students and teachers with the brunt of the first education cuts the state enacted in more than four decades. The cuts also came as the $3 billion in emergency aid that Texas received from the 2009 federal stimulus was drying up.

As a result, a report issued by PSN member State Rep. Lon Burnam explains, every school district in Texas felt the harsh impact: 10,000 fewer teachers at a time when 83,000 more students are entering the state each year, more crowded elementary classrooms, key programs to help struggling students zeroed out. The result prompted one superintendent to lament that "it’s almost like slow death."

Texas Rep. Lon Burnam

Wealthy and impoverished school districts alike had pushed back, filed suit against the state, and prevailed in court, which ruled that the state had failed to provide adequate funding to local school districts. No doubt the legal judgment was on the minds of Texas legislators when they recently restored $3.4 billion in basic per-student funding for Texas public schools for the 2014-2015 biennium. Clearly, it still leaves a huge funding gap.

Today early voting begins in Texas against this backdrop, with voters in the Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD) starting to weigh in on a $500 million bond package to fund several priorities. One project to be funded is a district-wide initiative to offer voluntary pre-kindergarten to 3,000 more 4-year-olds -- an exciting venture given the scores of research studies show the benefits of pre-K, both in helping very young children get ready to learn on the first day of school and producing compelling societal returns years down the road. The additional funds would also go towards a new high school, classroom additions to an existing high school, and academies for performing and fine arts as well as the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

With these projects in mind, Rep. Burnam and education advocates like FWISD Parents for Kids hosted a community meeting to strategize and continued to speak out in favor of the bond program as part of the National Week of Action. Organized by Progressive States Action, National Week of Action events were designed to lift up the voices and policies that reflect a commitment to all children. As Texas voters look beyond November 5, the hope that they will say yes -- to making sure that their communities are provided the funding needed to make every school work for every child.