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Who will build Texas if her own people do not?

The line is an adaptation of a famous 1957 photo by Larry Obsitnik of the Arkansas Gazette. It’s taken looking back at the Broadway Bridge in Little Rock as paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division rolled into the city. They were entering Little Rock on the eve of Little Rock Central High School’s historic integration. A simple statement on a billboard at a turning point in Arkansas’ history but it said so much at that time. I remembered that photo today as I sat in a press conference hosted by Rep. Mike Villarreal as he discussed the impact an epic budget shortfall will have on Texas education. In so many words, Villarreal asked that same question of Texans going into the upcoming biennium.

Today Texas State Comptroller Susan Combs released the revenue estimate for Texas for the next two years, estimating $72 billion in expected revenue based on current sources. Apply that to the current state budget needed to continue the current level of services – adjusted for population growth – and you have a shortfall of $27 billion. That’s larger proportionally at 27% than California’s expected budget shortfall of 19%. For all the rhetoric of Gov. Perry during the election, it appears Texas is worse off than California but you would have never guessed that from his political stump speeches.

Villarreal and several Bexar County education officials highlighted the impact such a budget shortfall will have on education for students locally. Pointing to the legacy left by prior legislatures, Villarreal said that “Our generation may be the first to drop the torch handed to us by our forefathers.” He pointed out that this state legislature must take responsibility for our children’s education.”

Texas legislators will be expected to close the $27 billion gap to achieve a balanced budget for the next two years, a constitutional mandate in Texas. During a panel discussion held by the Texas Tribune in Austin after the November election, several panelists said that even with the state’s Rainy Day fund estimated at $9 billion severe cuts will have to be made, possibly new fees raised, and finally cost shifting to beneficiaries to help close the gap. While gambling was listed as an option, with a larger conservative base of representatives many have said this option is dead on arrival this biennium.

Villarreal proposed a new plan with four components this morning in the press conference held at San Antonio College. First is a bi-partisan citizen panel made up of business and public citizens to review the current tax structure. Second is a citizen’s commission similar to the Sunset Commission to review existing tax loopholes. Third is a budget process reformation to respect 5 year needs. Finally, fees should never be spent on anything other than their stated purpose.

When looking at the impact these budget cuts might have on local educational institutions, Chancellor Bruce Leslie said that Alamo Colleges had already begun a process of cutting up to $12 million from this year’s budget. However, with the magnitude of expected state cuts that figure will have to be revised and increased. This will probably require shifting costs to the local community in one of the fastest growing community colleges in the nation. To meet budget needs Leslie said Alamo Colleges’ open door policy may have to be reviewed.

Leslie spoke to me about where some of the cuts might end up. Alamo Colleges today provides entry education for college students planning to enter four year institutions as well as job training for local business. Pointing to the need for skilled workers in a growing economy, Leslie noted that cuts in programs like newly created Alamo Academy, a partnership with businesses and the city, would most likely face severe cuts. Students from those programs typically earn more and stay locally when entering the workforce.

Speaking for local secondary schools, Dr. John Folks, superintendent for the Northside Independent School District and 4th largest in the state, said that the cuts could result in between $30 and $40 million cuts in the district’s budget. Folks said that the current school funding model is inequitable. “I hope the legislature sees that education is key to economic development,” said Folks.

While Villarreal’s proposals have the support of local educators, it is unclear what kind of support can be expected in the state legislature this biennium. The November elections netted the largest Republican freshman class in recent history, with many elected with support from the Tea Party on a platform of reduced government and taxes. Villarreal said that while that may have been their election platform, when they get to Austin and reality sets in those Republicans may have a change of heart.

Personally I support Villarreal’s position on the matter. Texas has lagged the nation in graduation rates and education. While Texas may have survived the past economic downturn, unemployment rates are actually higher compared with neighboring states. If Texas wants to remain competitive and meet the needs of a growing workforce, education will be critical in that foundation. If corporations look at Texas and see continual decline in the education environment it will only be in their best interest to relocate to states with a better education system.

So the question asked of Arkansas 50 years ago rings true for Texas today – Who will build Texas if her own people do not?

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