Who should Texans blame for school cuts, lack of teacher pay raises? Everyone | Opinion

It’s time for a pop quiz.

If Texas teachers are underpaid and schools have to lay off personnel while the state sits on a budget surplus, who’s to blame?

The answer: Everyone.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov Dan Patrick draw most of the fire from teacher groups and school districts, as they should. But there’s a reality that educators can’t escape: By refusing to budge over a modest school voucher pilot program, their leaders left billions of dollars on the table, contributing to the cuts and frustration we’re seeing now.

It’s widespread. Fort Worth ISD laid off technology employees and instructional specialists, among other areas. Dallas ISD has been trying to avoid major job cuts by leaving open positions unfilled. Spring Branch ISD, a district of about 35,000 students in the Houston area, is eliminating school librarian positions.

The gridlock at the Capitol is only part of the reason, as school officials acknowledge. In some cases, extra federal money provided to help districts cope with the COVID pandemic is running out. And public schools in many places are seeing enrollment decline, requiring tough choices about school realignment.

In hindsight, perhaps schools should have been more careful about adding staff for what was clearly a temporary boost in federal funding. As children fell behind, it was important to provide more instructional time, but perhaps current staff could have been repurposed to avoid the difficult cuts we’re seeing now.

Fort Worth ISD’s budget shortfall is a result of all of the problems outlined above. The enrollment decline is now a nearly decade-long trend, a troubling one in an area where the population is booming. District officials know the time has come to close schools, which can be a fraught process for a community.

No one wants to see their neighborhood school close. But it would be irresponsible for a public entity to try to maintain capacity it clearly does not need. The key is to have ample opportunity for public input and try to minimize the effect of politics. It’s a chance for the district to focus resources where they’re needed most, and it shouldn’t be squandered.

We have strongly advocated for a boost in state education funding, particularly to offset the effects of inflation and help keep the best teachers from leaving the profession. In an ideal world, lawmakers would have spent the money with no strings attached.

Legislative hardball is a part of life, though. As Abbott struggled to attract enough votes for his desired plan to create education savings accounts for nearly 58,000 students in Texas, he made increased funding of $5 billion for teacher pay and other school district needs contingent on it.

The public education industry is so dug in against the idea, it pushed lawmakers to hold the line. They declare, without evidence, that any form of “vouchers” would lead to the eventual unraveling of the public schools. That absolutist stance means they must avoid even the most modest of experimentation on the matter, even if it means losing funding and firing employees.

If the argument against vouchers was that they would hurt public schools, isn’t that what we’re seeing now? Was it worth it?

Both sides probably overinflate the meaning and impact of a new school-choice program. The vast majority of students would remain in Texas public schools, which would still need innovation, increased accountability and, yes, more funding.

So, Abbott and his fellow school-choice evangelists also deserve disdain for settling on this one path for improving education in Texas at a time when the situation is so dire in so many places. But they shouldn’t get all of the heat for job cuts and budget woes in district after district.

Intractable public education interests are to blame, too.

Do you have an opinion on this topic? Tell us!

We love to hear from Texans with opinions on the news — and to publish those views in the Opinion section.

• Letters should be no more than 150 words.

• Writers should submit letters only once every 30 days.

• Include your name, address (including city of residence), phone number and email address, so we can contact you if we have questions.

You can submit a letter to the editor two ways:

• Email letters@star-telegram.com (preferred).

• Fill out this online form.

Please note: Letters will be edited for style and clarity. Publication is not guaranteed. The best letters are focused on one topic.