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By W. Gardner Selby June 3, 2011

Wendy Davis says Texas not funding enrollment growth in public schools for the first time

The Democratic state senator whose filibuster kept lawmakers from advancing a plan determining how much schools will get in state aid in 2012-13 told colleagues she was standing up for history.

Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth said the House-approved plan "sets a new normal that says for the first time, we are not going to fund student population growth," according to a news article posted online May 30 by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Davis opened her filibuster by saying the plan "will mean the very first time ever in the history of funding public schools that we are not going to fund student population growth. Let me say that again. For the first time ever, we are not funding student population growth."

Got it. But did she get the lack of precedent right?

First, some background: The 2012-13 state budget already sent to Gov. Rick Perry allocates $4 billion less in state funds than districts would get under existing funding formulas to accommodate enrollment growth .

According to a Legislative Budget Board summary, that reduced "funding level assumes passage of legislation that adjusts school district and charter school payments to the level of available appropriations." Put another way, the budget is premised on lawmakers divvying up per-student aid in amounts that overlook the state’s expectation that 170,000 additional students will be enrolled by the end of August 2013, according to a February background report on state budget issues by the House Research Organization.

Davis talked the share-the-pain proposal to death May 29, the day before the regular legislative session ended. Perry immediately called a 30-day special session on topics including the school aid changes.

And how did Davis conclude this is the first time enrollment increases aren’t covered?

Earlier this year, the senator asked budget board staff to look into "whether or not the state has historically funded enrollment growth in the Foundation School Program," the state’s primary source for allocating money to Texas schools in an equitable manner.

Since 1984-85, the April 29 memo from LBB analyst Jennifer Schiess to Davis says, "the state has appropriated sufficient funds to fully fund state obligations, including enrollment growth, under the school finance formulas in effect at the time of appropriation." Davis’s office publicized the memo on May 3.

The memo also states: "This analysis should not be interpreted to imply that at any point prior to the 1984-85 biennium the state failed to meet this obligation. Data required for analysis going further back is simply not readily available for a timely response." Anthony Spangler, Davis’s spokesman, told us that the staff did not follow up with deeper historical analysis.

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Separately, experts say school funding has depended in part on student enrollment counts at least since passage of the landmark Gilmer-Aikin laws of 1949 modernizing the school system and creating the Foundation School Program. Even before then--and continuing in 2012-13--the state sent an allotment of money per student from income earned on the state’s education endowment, the Permanent School Fund. The 2010-11 Available School Fund allotment is $455 per student, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Then again, a primer on Texas school finance revised by the Texas Association of School Boards in 1996 says that in earlier years--even back to 1854--state education aid was distributed on a "per-capita" basis. Meaning? Austin lobbyist Dan Casey, its author, told us in an interview that funding was connected to pupil counts. He pointed out that a 1925 book, "The Development of Education in Texas," states that until lawmakers in 1903 offered more money for "manual training" classes, "Texas had always adhered to the policy of distributing state educational funds on the per capita basis."

Our sense? For the first time in more than 25 years, the budget approved by legislators does not fully account for enrollment increases. Prior to 1984, information to prove or disprove Davis' statement is more fuzzy, but it's clear that Texas has allocated education funding on a per-student basis since the 19th century. We rate Davis' statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

Email blast (excerpted), "LBB letter email regarding Texas funding growth," Anthony Spangler, communications director, Office of state Sen. Wendy Davis, May 3, 2011

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, news article, "Texas lawmakers are called right back for special session today," posted online May 30, 2011

House Research Organization, report, "State Budget: Background on the Issues," Feb. 23, 2011

Legislative Budget Board, budget, "Summary of Conference Committee Report on House Bill 1 for the 2012–13 Biennium," May 2011

Telephone interviews, Dan Casey, lobbyist, Austin, June 1 and 2, 2011

Telephone interview, Anthony Spangler, communications director, Office of State Sen. Wendy Davis, May 31, 2011

Texas Association of School Boards, "The Basics of Texas Public School Finance," 1996 (Legislative Reference Library)

Texas Senate, video archives, filibuster by state Sen. Wendy Davis,  floor session, part 2, May 30, 2011 (1:35 mark)

Frederick Eby, book excerpt, "The Development of Education in Texas," The Macmillan Company, 1925

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Wendy Davis says Texas not funding enrollment growth in public schools for the first time

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