The pandemic has hit public education hard, so far eliminating half a million jobs in the country, according to federal labor statistics. And it could reach 2 million jobs, many times worse than the Great Recession, according to an analysis by the National Education Association.
In Texas, many school leaders are scraping by as they approve budgets for the next school year. But they’re worried about what comes next, and some remember lessons from 2011, the last time Texas schools found themselves in the crosshairs of a recession.
Back then, Texas lawmakers faced a massive gap in the state budget, so they looked to cut areas like education.
That drew more than 10,000 people to rally in Austin, shouting “save our schools, protect our future” as they marched to the state Capitol. Teachers, students and parents begged the legislature to spare school spending. Instead, lawmakers slashed $5 billion in state aid to public schools — the biggest cuts to education since World War II.
In southwest Houston, HD Chambers was just starting his job as superintendent of the Alief Independent School District.
“We all began kind of trying to dig ourselves out of this — in my case, $30 to $35 million hole over the next several years,” Chambers said.
Chambers didn’t lay off teachers, but left other positions vacant, like some school staff who engaged with families, called family engagement liaisons.
“I asked one person to maybe cover two or three schools,” Chambers said. “So it would be like asking you to cover three elementary schools and work with each group of families on each one of those three schools. That was a mistake.”
In some ways, he said, it was a lesson in unintended consequences. While those staff members didn’t work directly in the classroom, their work with parents had a impact on students’ behavior and performance at school.
“As fast as I could that I was trying to correct not only a issue that by cutting that created a problem, but I was also trying to correct it because it was actually a potential solution to our ultimate goal of educating children,” Chambers said.
Now, because of COVID-19, Texas is staring down a long and hard recession. In May, Gov. Greg Abbott asked many state agencies to tighten their financial belts and cut 5% for the current biennium. So far, school funding for K-12 is exempt. But going into the next legislative session, many educators and experts hope the state doesn’t repeat the same mistakes with the budget as it did in 2011.
“I know history tends to repeat itself,” said Chandra Villanueva, who directs the economic opportunity team at Every Texan, a policy group focused on social justice. “I’m getting so much déjà vu. It’s like back in 2011. I’ve been here before.”
Cuts hit vulnerable kids harder
That year was the first time she advocated in Austin. Since then, Villanueva has studied how those $5 billion in cuts to education affected students, campus by campus.
“What we found was that it was our lowest income students and English-language learners in our campuses with the highest concentrations of low-income students that were hit the hardest,” Villanueva said.
She said one reason is that $1 billion from the funding cuts came from grant programs outside the basic formulas to calculate state aid for public schools. Those programs included money to expand pre-K, support for English-language learners struggling to pass the state’s standardized testing, and programs for children in foster care.
“Once you cut off that funding stream, there is no way for districts to make that up,” Villanueva explained.
It’s one reason why she believes a solution is for state lawmakers to consider using the rainy day fund — “every penny” if needed.
“My number one recommendation is that spending cuts should not be the first option. We have a savings account. There’s other ways to raise revenue and to weather this economic storm,” Villanueva said.
“A rippling effect”
Take the Alief Independent School District again. More than 80% of its students are economically disadvantaged. More than 40% are learning English. The positions to engage with families that went vacant, those positions primarily served these students, helping many immigrant families connect to the U.S. education system for the first time.
Darlene Breaux, who was a principal back then and now serves on Alief’s school board, said it’s important lawmakers remember schools provide social supports: “those types of services that impacted students and their families.”
“We tend to forget that it’s a rippling effect,” Breaux said. “What’s going in the community impacts the household. What happens in the household impacts the student. What happens with the student impacts the classroom.”
Time to recover
The final lesson from 2011 is that once deep cuts are made, it’s hard to get that money back.
“We need to be reminded that it took us a decade to recover from what happened,” said Chambers, Alief’s superintendent.
The cuts in 2011 launched the state’s biggest ever lawsuit over education spending. It eventually led to a major reform package in 2019, when state lawmakers gave $6.5 billion dollars back to public schools.
But state leaders passed that new funding without exactly knowing how they’d pay for it, expecting the economy would continue to grow and not a global pandemic. What’s more, lawmakers also lowered property tax bills. Which means, this time around, Texas’s looming budget crunch could be even tighter.
One troubling sign for some district leaders and analysts is how federal relief money for K-12 schools has been handled.
Texas public schools won’t be receiving all the aid they were expecting from the CARES Act. So about $81 million for Houston ISD, about $61 million for Dallas ISD and some $21 million for San Antonio ISD.
Instead, the Texas Education Agency has decided to use that money to back-fill gaps in the state budget.
“It means districts you’re kind of on your own to keep planning just for what’s coming forward,” said Chloe Latham Sikes, deputy director of policy the advocacy group IDRA. “We can address how we backfill our budget holes from March to essentially May or June, whenever the school year ended for districts. But going forward, districts, it’s up to you.”
Latham Sikes said the biggest lesson from 2011 would to not cut the programs for the most vulnerable kids, including bilingual students, students from low-income households and children with disabilities. “And more broadly, not to operate from an austerity mindset,” she said.