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Political Connections

Texas Hold ’Em

An escalating state budget battle captures the colliding priorities of minorities and whites.

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His base: Rick Perry received 84 percent of his votes from whites.(Ben Sklar/Getty Images)

AUSTIN, Texas—The 2010 census results released last week framed one of the central tests confronting the nation over the coming decade. In the state budget debate due to begin here on April 1, the Texas House will demonstrate why the nation is struggling to pass that test.

The census starkly frames the challenge of equipping minority children with the education and skills they’ll need to ascend into the middle class. Once, that might have been viewed as a question of social justice; it is clearly now an issue of economic necessity. The census found that nonwhites comprise nearly 47 percent of Americans under 18, with Hispanics and African-Americans representing almost four-fifths of that total. Those two groups lag whites in virtually all measures of educational attainment (such as high school graduation) and well-being (such as access to health care). Unless the nation closes those gaps, it will struggle to produce a labor force capable of attracting decent-paying jobs, competing internationally, and generating enough tax revenue to tame the federal debt.

 

These issues are especially pointed in Texas, a state leading the demographic transition. Whites still represent almost exactly half of the state’s adult population, but minorities now constitute two-thirds of Texans younger than 18. Last week, the Texas Education Agency reported that for the first time, Hispanics constitute a majority (50.2 percent) of the state’s 4.9 million public school students. Just 31 percent of public school students are white.

Though rarely discussed, that profound demographic change looms over the state’s budget fight. The fierce dispute illuminates a clash in priorities between a youthful minority community that believes it needs investment in public schools and other services to rise and an aging white community that increasingly resists funding such programs through taxes.

Despite the state’s growing diversity, exit polls found that Republican Gov. Rick Perry received 84 percent of his votes from whites in winning reelection last fall. That same poll found that more than two-thirds of whites believe that government is doing too much, while nearly three-fifths of minorities believe that it is doing too little.

 

With the state facing a $23 billion shortfall in its next two-year budget, Perry has laid out a hard line that reflects those sentiments among his voters. He has not only ruled out raising taxes but has also said he would veto any budget that further taps the state’s rainy-day emergency fund. (Under pressure, he allowed $3.2 billion from the fund to be used to close the hole in this year’s budget.)

Perry’s stance reinforced the instinct of a tea party-infused Republican majority in the state House to close the shortfall solely with spending cuts. The budget likely to shortly pass the chamber will cut college financial aid for as many as 80,000 students; it will also sharply reduce payments for doctors who see low-income children under Medicaid, which will mean that fewer physicians will treat such patients. Most strikingly, even as the state anticipates adding 160,000 students over the next two years, the House budget would cut basic state aid to kindergarten-through-12 education by about 20 percent and virtually eradicate targeted state grants, such as assistance for early-education programs.

In response, school districts are already eliminating programs and dismissing teachers for the fall. In San Antonio’s North East Independent School District, Superintendent Richard Middleton is reluctantly preparing to ax a popular team-teaching approach for middle school (which requires more teachers), and scrambling to maintain a pre-K program that he considers a critical tool for uplifting the district’s growing Hispanic population. “These are kids who need our help more than ever,” he says with quiet passion. “If you don’t educate these children … you diminish the business environment and you decimate the labor pool.”

These cuts will carve into a state budget that already squeezes costs. Texas ranks 43rd in per-pupil education spending and leads the nation, dubiously, in the proportion of children without health insurance. Only seven states have a larger share of their children living in poverty. By further reducing spending for health and education, the budget will compound existing problems, especially for the minority children who most rely on public services. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we are giving up on a generation of kids,” says Democratic State Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas.

 

Republican Florence Shapiro, the level-headed state Senate Education Committee chairwoman, argues that school districts can find economies and that minority young people will benefit from an agenda that holds down taxes and attracts businesses to Texas. Even so, she says, the Senate will try to restore about half of the House’s education cuts and some health care funding. Yet even if that effort succeeds, it only amounts to digging a smaller hole beneath the state’s expanding population of minority youth. The Republican budgets advancing toward Perry seem defiantly, if not dangerously, disconnected from the demographic wave remaking the nation’s second-largest state.

This article appears in the April 2, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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