Students in low-income families are most hurt by cuts the Texas Legislature made to education funding in 2011, according to a study released this month.

The Texas Legislature in 2011 passed a series of education funding cuts from its two-year education budget amounting to $5.3 billion in response to the U.S. financial crisis of 2008.

“From 2006 until 2010, school spending grew every year as well, more than enough to keep up with student growth and inflation,” according to the study released by the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, which bills itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy institute. “Then in 2011, the Legislature cut $5.3 billion from the two-year public education budget, and spending dropped by 12 percent.”

Not until the 2016 school year did inflation-adjusted public school spending reach its previous peak from 2009, according to the study.

“This means that for half a decade, public school spending dropped billions of dollars per year below the level families and teachers previously expected. The result was a funding hole, five years long and 5 billion dollars deep,” according to the study. “Furthermore, when funding was cut, the effects fell disproportionately on programs serving low-income students.”

The study points out that Texas finally returned to investing the same amount in 2016 as it had before the 2011 cuts. But because the number of students continues to increase, the state has not yet returned to its pre-recession per-student funding level of 2008.

“As funding levels began to recover, the gains were uneven,” according to the study. “Educational investment essentially shifted from high school to elementary and from the special programs to basic instruction.”

Spikes in funding seen during the 2009 and 2010 school years for all programs are attributed in part to an influx of one-time federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known as the “stimulus” package, according to the study. But that funding ran out just as the recession hit Texas and affected the state budget.

“Instead of directing existing state resources toward education or using the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund (or Rainy Day Fund) to maintain funding and weather the economic downturn, the Legislature decided to drastically cut funding for public education,” according to the study.

Elementary schools with the highest percentage of low-income students have reduced spending on programs for accelerated education by 21 percent since before 2008 and reduced spending on bilingual education by 40 percent since 2008, according to a study. Accelerated instruction refers to services that increase the amount and quality of instruction time for students at risk of dropping out of school.

“Absolutely we believe that low-income students are some of the most affected,” said Melissa Tortorici, spokeswoman for Texas City Independent School District. “Studies show that many low-income students do not come to kindergarten on the same level as others. In addition, students who struggle academically need more resources and that, too, requires additional funding.”

Education spending in the state only reached the same levels again in 2015, but because the number of students has increased, the per-student funding is $65 less per elementary school student, $268 less per middle school student and $428 less per high school student, according to the study.

The funding cuts were another blow to a state education funding system that area school officials say has long been unsustainable.

More and more school boards across Galveston County are forced to adopt deficit budgets as they struggle with myriad issues. Those include a state system that funnels local tax money to districts with small tax bases, less state funding and the loss of other funding avenues.

Dickinson, Hitchcock and Galveston school districts all passed budget deficits for the 2017-18 school year, and the other county districts passed only slight budget surpluses.

Paul McLarty, the deputy superintendent of business and support services at Clear Creek Independent School District, in August said he thought almost every district in the area would have a deficit this year.

If the school funding system doesn’t change, the chasms between affluent and low-income students will only grow, said Galveston ISD Superintendent Kelli Moulton.

“In terms of dollars, students with greater need will be impacted similarly,” Moulton said. “However, the gaps in experiences, learning and performances will increase at an exponential rate unless funding reflects the reality of need for differentiated instruction.”

The Texas Education Agency ensures schools receive the same per student funding, but schools with low-income students require extra help, according to the study.

“For example, a $1,000-per-student funding increase for low-income students is correlated with a 0.42-point increase in fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress scores,” according to the study.

Some district officials acknowledged the damage the funding cuts had on low-income families, but others said the funding cuts hurt everyone equally.

“School districts always feel the effects of not having enough funds to do everything they need to do,” Hitchcock Superintendent Carla Vickroy said.

“I do not necessarily agree that low-income families were the most affected, because we do not cut programs that help them,” Vickroy said. “Also, schools with high numbers of low-income students receive grants from the federal government that help to supplement programs for this area.”

Area school officials have warned that hard decisions loom in the near future if education finance changes aren’t made.

“You’re looking at cuts across the board at every campus,” Margaret Lee, chief financial officer for Texas City Independent School District, said in a previous interview with The Daily News. “We’ll likely have to eliminate some programs.”

More than just programs, school districts would have to look at numerous cuts, Galveston ISD Superintendent Kelli Moulton said.

Some include eliminating programs such as fine arts, athletics or extracurriculars, eliminating transportation for some students, closing campuses and services, privatization of areas such as custodians, nutrition, transportation and counseling and teachers will continue to leave the profession, Moulton said.

Shortly into her tenure as superintendent, Moulton, at a November board of trustees meeting, discussed plans to reduce staff positions by 10 percent in the next five years.

Restoring statewide education funding to pre-2008 levels would take $3.2 billion in extra funding, according to the study.

Matt deGrood: 409-683-5230; matt.degrood@galvnews.com

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