By EMILY GUEVARA
eguevara@tylerpaper.com

Texas ranks 49th in the nation in spending per student, according to research compiled by the National Education Association.

The professional organization put the state third to last in the ranking with the other states and Washington, D.C.

Arizona and Nevada spent less per child on education, according to the research, which was presented in a Texas State Teachers Association news release.

Texas spent about $8,400 per student this school year, more than $3,000 less than the national average, according to the data.

Two years ago, Texas spent almost $9,500 per student, which was about $1,600 less than the national average.

The report considers spending per average daily attendance or ADA, which is the way the state counts students for funding purposes.

Texas ranked 43rd in 2011-12 and 40th in 2010-11, according to the state association.

Texas State Teachers Association spokesman Clay Robison said it’s the disparity between the state funding and national average that concerns the organization’s leaders.

He said the difference per student amounts to about $66,000 less funding per Texas classroom if you consider a 22-student classroom.

Texas already placed in the lower half of the states when it came to per pupil spending before the 2011 budget cuts, he said. Now the state has almost doubled the difference between its per student spending and the national average.

“Money is important …” Robison said. “It helps pay for the things that keep the public schools running and contributes to a quality learning environment for the children.”

In a statement, association President Rita Haecker cited the state’s $8.8 billion surplus and a Rainy Day Fund balance of more than $11 billion as reasons why the state should restore the $5.4 billion that was cut from certain public education funding during the past legislative session.

However, local legislators took issue with the idea of a budget surplus. State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said the surplus is minimal, if it exists at all.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said in a statement that the talk of the budget surplus ignores the fact that Medicaid was short funded $5 billion last session and the state now has to pay that.

“We are in much better shape than last session, but we still do not have the huge surplus that everyone claims,” Eltife said. “I do want to see us put more money into public education and I do believe that will happen, but we are not in a position to restore all of the cuts that were made last session.”

Schaefer said the state’s 49th-place ranking must be put into context. As much as 85 percent of a school district’s budget can be spent on payroll, he said. So states that have a higher cost of living, likely will have higher salaries, and if the report isn’t adjusted for that, it’s going to skew the results, he said.

Robison said that cost-of-living differences are not factored into the data, and there are differences within the same state.

“That argument doesn’t change the fact that Texas state government does a poor job of funding public schools,” he said. “We are 49th (counting the District of Columbia) in per-pupil funding. Texas is not 49th in cost of living. Instead of quibbling about cost of living, legislators need to do a better job of funding schools.”

Citing a report by the conservative-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation, Schaefer said public education funding has increased well above population growth plus inflation from 2000 to 2010. During that same time, the state’s average SAT scores declined slightly, Schaefer said.

“I have to say that we can’t always just say that more money is always the answer,” he said, adding that last budget cycle was an anomaly.

Schaefer said it’s too early to tell how much education funding could be restored this cycle. Part of the equation has to be looking at what’s happening with health-care spending and Medicaid, he said.

“Education is something that is the proper role of state government. … (And) we’ve got to fund it adequately,” he said. “My focus is to pull back some of the red tape on our schools that is making it difficult for them to spend money in a positive way.”

Eltife said he will continue to advocate that the state provide more funding for public education.

“We were faced with an unprecedented budget shortfall last session, and we did the very best we could with the resources we had to balance the state budget,” he said, according to the statement. “This included spending cuts to all state agencies.”

Eltife said he is proud of the school districts in his district that have worked with the state to get through these challenging times.

“The state’s ranking in ADA spending is not acceptable to me, and we must work to put more money in public education,” he said. “But, we must be mindful we do not have unlimited funds.”

Teachers had differing opinions about the effects of the 2011 state budget cuts. Boulter Middle School teacher Sharon Holman said she hasn’t seen much of a change at her school since the budget cuts, but she credited that to the principal and others writing grants so the school could receive additional funding.

“Right now, we’re not feeling it,” she said. “We may when the grant runs out, but right now I haven’t felt it.”

Barbara Davis-Staley, president of the Tyler Education Association, the local chapter of the Texas State Teachers Association, said Texas needs to step up to the plate and invest more money into education.

The Ramey Elementary School teacher said spending cuts have contributed to a freeze in teacher salaries and left teachers with exactly what they need, but nothing extra when it comes to supplies for themselves and their students.

“To me I always tell them, you get what you pay for,” Ms. Davis-Staley said. “If you don’t want to go above and beyond, all you’re going to get is mediocre.”

 

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