Recent headlines have emphasized a decrease in the government’s funding of educational programs and institutions, both at the national and state level. Frequent readers will recall that I spent the majority of the first months of this 85th Texas Legislature asking questions such as, “What is the best form of public education?” and, “Should the state enact the right policy or the popular policy?” Now, it is suitable to raise the following questions: What is the state’s formal role in providing education? Should it pursue the best solution to that goal, or a policy that simply educates students rather than enriching them?
There is no easy answer to these questions, and they certainly will not be answered by a short exposé. Still, let’s first consider the role of the government in providing public education.
Some may argue that the government ought not to be responsible for educating its citizens. These criticisms may have merits, but in fact the Texas Constitution dedicates an entire section to the powers and duties of the state to enlightening the masses. Further, they place this section — Article 7 — above most other responsibilities, including taxation, municipal governments and regulations on private corporations. Not only does the article require that the state provide education, its means of provision must be “suitable” for the support of an “efficient” system of schools. It even goes far to say that it should provide upkeep for a university “of the first class.”
The constitution states: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”
In modern language, Texans are afforded the right to a properly funded, efficient system of free public education. This begs our second question: What makes a properly funded system? The answer may well be summed up as, “You know it when you see it, and we definitely aren’t seeing it now.”
For the 2015–2016 school year, the Texas Education Agency rated 1,379 Texas schools as “failing” campuses. That’s not great, although it is a slight improvement from last year’s “failing” 1,532 schools. Evidently, Texas has some work to do in funding its public schools. That is why a recent report by The Texas Tribune that details a $14 million decrease in federal funding for Texas’ AmeriCorps supplementary education programs are so contrarian to the state’s constitution. Certainly it is logical, then, that the Texas government would want to beef up its funding for public schools.
Instead, the Legislature is poised to pass a “school choice” bill, Senate Bill 3, that has been estimated to cost the state roughly $3 billion per year. The bill would inadvertently redirect some of that money from the public school system to the new voucher program that funds private and charter school attendance. All that money, studies show, does not usually improve the quality of education in a state. In fact, a similar voucher program in Louisiana increased the chance of failing a math test by 50 percent. This is a step away from “suitable” funding for an “efficient” system that is already failing many Texas schoolchildren.
In a state whose constitution mandates a solvent education system, Texas is falling surprisingly short. Since our legislators swear an oath to uphold our state constitution, it is their duty to provide Texas children with a suitably funded public education system. Otherwise, they are in violation of the very duties thewy claim to be carrying out — and the public they have sworn to serve.
Morris is a government, history and computer science junior from Port Aransas. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @gelliottmorris.