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Education Chief Says Funding Talks On Hold

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AUSTIN (AP) - Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams sidestepped the debate over $5.4 billion slashed from public schools two years ago during his first appearance Wednesday before state budget-writers, who have kept those classroom cuts in place despite Texas’ deeper pockets this time around.

Those cuts triggered a series of lawsuits pitting hundreds of Texas school districts against the state. A judge in Austin plans to rule next month, but his decision will almost certainly be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Williams, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry as the state’s new education chief in October, said after testifying to the powerful Senate Finance Committee that it was premature to discuss public school funding until the court case is settled.

“It’s more prudent now to wait until we hear what the court tells us,” Williams said. “The court is going to make a determination about whether we have adequate dollars or equitable funding. I think it is more prudent for the Legislature not to put loaded sums of money in one area and have the court make a determination that we got to reverse and go back in another direction.”

Unlike the Great Recession that dogged the state’s revenue outlook in 2011, a resurgent Texas economy and a booming oil and gas industry have put state coffers flush with dollars again. Both the House and Senate introduced budget drafts for 2014-15 last week, but neither restored the public education cuts that the Republican-controlled Legislature made in 2011 while faced with a $27 billion shortfall.

State budget officials testified Wednesday that the bills do fund a projected enrollment growth of about 170,000 new students over the next two years, though at the same reduced per-student spending rate installed two years ago.

Asked about the impact the cuts have had in Texas classrooms, Williams spoke optimistically.

“We’re not seeing dramatic numbers of schools becoming academically unacceptable or losing accreditation,” Williams said. “So I think school districts are doing their part with the dollars they have.”

More than 600 school districts across Texas have sued the state, claiming that the reductions to public education and grant programs have made funding for schools so inadequate and inequitable that it violates the Texas Constitution. The trial began in October before state District Judge John Dietz.

Members of the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board told committee members Wednesday that the budget introduced by the Senate — about $89 billion — is about $4.5 billion below what lawmakers could spend if they wanted.

Teachers and Democrats want that unused money on the table put back into classrooms. Perry and other Republicans have made no promises to roll back any of the cuts to state agencies across the board.

Republican Sen. Tommy Williams, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, hinted at the likelihood of the school finance trial forcing lawmakers into a special session this summer. But he also appeared to leave the door open to conversations about restoring some lost initiatives, including spending for pre-kindergarten programs.

“We need to pay attention to that,” Williams said. “These are important programs.”

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

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