Tuesday, December 06, 2005

School funding falling behind

Dec. 6, 2005, 3:51PM

School funding falling behind
National report by teacher union says Texas is only state to cut back, slipping to 40th

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

AUSTIN - Texas is the only state in the nation that reduced education spending during the 2004-05 school year, according to a report released Monday by the National Education Association.

Per pupil expenditures fell by 1 percent from the previous year, and Texas dropped from 36th to 40th relative to other state's education investments.

The state's share of education costs hit a new low of 35 percent, with local and federal funds making up the balance, according to the study by the NEA, a national teachers' union.

Texas now spends an estimated $7,142 per pupil annually, according to the report's annual rankings. The national average for the 2004-05 school year was $8,618.

Kathy Walt, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, said the Texas Education Agency reported actual per-student spending at $7,358 for the 2004-2005 year. The teachers' group said its report was based on the latest information provided from state departments of education.

Although Texas teachers on average earned 1.3 percent more in 2004-2005, their ranking among the 50 states and District of Columbia fell from 32nd to 33rd because other states gave bigger raises to their teachers.

"The Texas Supreme Court just warned the Legislature that we are 'drifting toward constitutional inadequacy,' and this new data indicates that our state education investments may have already failed to make the grade and slipped into that category," said Donna New Haschke, president of the NEA's state affiliate, the Texas State Teachers Association.

The annual report comes as the Legislature faces a June 1, 2006, deadline to rewrite school finance laws. The Supreme Court ruled last month that local school property taxes have become an unconstitutional statewide property tax because districts effectively have no control to set the rates.

However, the court reversed a trial judge's finding that overall funding levels are inadequate for districts to meet rising academic standards. The justices said funding levels are fine for now but warned the system soon could become inadequate without substantial changes.

Texas 3rd in spending

In overall education spending, Texas ranked third behind California and New York. Total spending, including federal funds, was nearly $38 billion.
Texas was No. 2 behind California in student population, with nearly 4.4 million children. Student population in Texas has grown by more than 70,000 students a year for the past 10 years.

The Legislature in 2003 added $1 billion in new spending above what was needed for enrollment growth, Walt said.

Perry in August ordered districts to spend at least 65 percent of their budgets in classrooms.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said that in 2003, the Legislature cut more than $3 billion from public education programs that support classroom instruction, including gifted and talented and after school programs, math and reading initiatives, and textbook purchases.

"This data shows that failed Republican leadership is taking Texas public schools in the wrong direction," said Coleman.

Walt said teacher groups worked against legislation that would have given teachers a raise and boosted school spending.

The unions opposed performance-based pay incentives included in the bills, and said the across-the-board raises proposed weren't enough to raise Texas to the national average.

Salaries rank low

According to the NEA report, Texas teacher salaries fell to 33rd, with the average teacher paid $41,009, according to the report. The national average was $47,808.

Chris Patterson, research director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said higher spending doesn't always result in better student achievement.

"There's a lot of evidence that more money, higher spending in public schools, even higher teacher salaries does not correlate with better instruction," said Patterson.

The foundation, which supports free markets and limited government, last month released an extensive study on teacher salaries. The report said when adjusted for cost of living, the state's average pay "looks almost right."

Patterson, author of the report, recommends phasing out the state salary schedule and paying teachers based on their performance and assignments.

"Reforming the teacher salary system promises to serve as a reliable vehicle to improve teacher quality, restore respect for the teaching profession, and, most importantly, provide all students in Texas public schools with the opportunity to acquire the academic skills they need to be successful," her report concluded.

Haschke said she hopes when lawmakers meet next year to write a new finance plan they will address long-range funding issues.

"It's time to face the facts: Texas public schools are seriously underfunded, and it's past time for the Legislature to invest in Texas students who hold the key to our future economic potential."


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