From Staff Reports

The single biggest consumer of state money, the Texas public education system stands to lose millions of dollars as the state grapples with a looming budget shortfall that could exceed $18 billion, according to Education Week on Monday.

Education Commissioner Robert Scott has suggested more than $260 million in cuts from the state’s almost $40 billion education budget for the next two years the Associated Press reported.. Some of those would reach into the classroom, eliminating money for new science labs, textbooks and teacher development, recommendations that have infuriated teachers.

Gov. Rick Perry’s “budgetary policies are wrecking the public schools and jeopardizing our children’s future,” Rita Haecker, president of the Texas State Teachers Association told AP. “The governor can talk all he wants about school savings … but most districts and educators are already stretched so thin, there is little, if anything, left to save.”

Much like the state, school districts are facing declining budgets of their own and many superintendents say they’re digging into reserves and cutting basic programs and staffing just to keep up with rising costs.

Experts say the school financing system in the state needs a major overhaul to make sure schools keep pace with costs of booming enrollment, higher costs on such necessities as utility bills and transportation.

According to the report the struggles are exacerbated by a 2006 law that froze state aid to districts without allowing for the costs of changing demographics or inflation.

Opponents say that provision, which was intended to keep wealthier school districts from taking a hit in the amount of state aid they receive under revised funding formulas, has built arbitrary winners and losers into the system, violating a requirement that school funding be largely equal among districts.

The two major candidates for governor — one of whom will inherit the almost $40 billion school system and its 4.8 million students — both say spending on public education should be a priority, though neither will offer specifics on where cuts should or shouldn’t be made.

Democrat candidate Bill White said “I think as governor, I will convene a broad based group of stakeholders to consider the adequacy and the equity of school funding finance formulas. There seems to be a broad consensus that there are arbitrary inequities, in part resulting from the complex patchwork of the system.

“In light of the financial mess that Rick Perry has left the state in it’s unlikely that issue will be resolved in the first legislative session.”

Perry said that even though he considers education a priority, it won’t be exempt from budget cuts. “There is no place in state government that should be exempt,” he said.

Texas is facing a shortfall that budget officials say could go higher than $18 billion. The recession has pushed state tax receipts down, but the state is also on the hook to fill a hole of about $11 billion left by federal stimulus money and other state savings that were used last year but are no longer available.

The 2006 plan was designed to shift the burden away from local property taxpayers, replacing a portion with revenue from a revised business tax and higher cigarette taxes among other things. But the new business tax has not generated as much money as expected, and a structural shortfall has been cemented into the system.