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Texas School Funding Trial Resumes After Holidays

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AUSTIN (AP) — A state budget expert testified Monday about the scope of the projected budget deficit Texas faced when the Legislature slashed public school spending by nearly $5.4 billion, as testimony resumed following a three-week break in school districts’ lawsuit over the funding cut.

Rob Coleman, the Texas Comptroller’s Office’s assistant director of fiscal management, detailed how lawmakers in 2011 had to close a projected $27 billion shortfall when passing their two-year budget because the state’s finances were on shaky ground due to the economy.

Coleman, who was called by the state to testify, acknowledged under cross-examination that the Legislature could have tapped Texas’ reserve fund, commonly referred to as its Rainy Day Fund, to avert the steep education cuts. But he said that was a decision for those elected to lead the state.

“It was their discretion to take from that fund, or not,” he told the court.

Coleman was the first witness to testify following a holiday hiatus in the trial. More than 600 school districts representing three-quarters of Texas’ more than 5 million public school students are suing the state over the 2011 funding cut, which they say has left schools unable to provide students with an adequate and equitable education, in violation of the state constitution.

The districts spent nearly two months presenting their case, describing how the funding cut has led to larger class sizes, teacher layoffs and the elimination of many pre-K programs.

The state contends that current funding is adequate, and is expected to continue calling witnesses for another two weeks.

District Judge John Dietz has said he plans to rule quickly once testimony concludes. An appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely, no matter which side wins.

Texas lawmakers have tapped the Rainy Day Fund six times since they created the pot of money formally known as the Economic Stabilization Fund in the late 1980s, according to Coleman. During the 2011 legislative session, tea party activists and Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who was mulling a run for president at the time, pressured lawmakers not to touch the fund and to use it only following a natural disaster.

Districts say the funding cut has been particularly hard to deal with because Texas’ population is booming means public school enrollment is increasing by about 80,000 students per year. Nearly all off the enrollment growth is made up of students from low-income families and students who require extra English-language instruction. Both student groups cost more to educate.

During cross examination, Rick Gray, an attorney for a coalition of school districts, showed Coleman figures from Texas’ nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board indicating that the roughly 156,000 new students enrolling in state public schools during the current two-year budget cycle are expected to cost an additional $2.2 billion to educate — money that hasn’t been allocated.

He then presented Coleman legislative budget board documents that show that among the 15 most populous states, Texas ranks first in student enrollment growth but 12th in per-pupil spending and 13th in teacher salaries.

Is it “safe to say that Texas ranks in the bottom third in how we deal with our kids?” he asked Coleman.

“I see what the information says,” Coleman answered, “but I don’t really have an opinion.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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