Texas Education Agency's list of cuts includes English, science textbooks

AUSTIN -- Thousands of new textbooks and a steroid-testing program for high school athletes would be among the casualties if the Texas Education Agency is forced to cut its budget by 10 percent over the next two years, according to its newly released budget plan.

State agencies, courts and universities, acting on orders from Gov. Rick Perry and other state leaders, are presenting supplemental plans for 10 percent cuts as they submit their spending requests for the 2012-13 budget. The recommended cuts are designed to help lawmakers deal with a projected budget shortfall of at least $18 billion.

In what is by far its biggest cut, the agency proposes eliminating $48 million for English and science textbooks that were scheduled to be purchased over the next biennium.

"It's going to raise a lot of issues," TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said. "It means there will be some classes that won't have the new material students are supposed to learn."

School districts could use existing texts and workbooks, but unless lawmakers decide to finance the purchase, schools would not have access to the newer materials, which are scheduled to be in classrooms by 2011.

The materials include English language arts for grades two to 12, Spanish language arts for grades two to six, English as a second language for kindergarten to grade eight, handwriting for grades one to three and spelling for grades one to six, as well as certain biology, chemistry and physics texts.

The more than $260 million in cuts proposed by the TEA would eliminate the 3-year-old steroid-testing program championed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. His intervention helped spare the program from a round of 5 percent cuts imposed for the current biennium, although it was trimmed by $250,000.

The program, conducted by the National Center for Drug Free Sport, started in 2007 under a $3 million budget but has been reduced to $1 million annually. Critics questioned the need for continuing the program because it has produced only a few positive tests. But Dewhurst has touted it as a deterrent.

"We're just beginning the budget process as agencies submit their budget proposals to be considered by the Legislature next year," said Dewhurst spokesman Rich Parsons. "But clearly the mandatory random steroid-testing program is deterring young people from using illegal steroids and harming their bodies."

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott said the TEA tried to limit the impact of the 10 percent reductions by first proposing the elimination of programs that are not related to the agency's core mission, do not have significant statewide impact or can be funded through other school sources.

"The Texas Education Agency has a reduction target of more than $260 million," he said. "With a reduction of this size, we had to make tough choices."

The optional cuts would also eliminate $11 million in physical fitness grants to middle schools, but Ratcliffe said most of the schools have already bought equipment under the program. The grants were targeted at schools where most of the students are economically disadvantaged.

Also, the TEA reported that it plans to use only $3.6 million of the $10 million allocated by the Legislature to equip school buses bought today or afterward with seat belts.

The law requires new buses to have three-point seat belts that cover the riders' laps and shoulders. When Perry signed the measure in 2007, he said it would "not only save lives, it will give parents peace of mind every morning their children leave their home for school and climb aboard a bus."

TEA officials said they cannot distribute even the reduced amount of seat belt money until they receive instructions from the state's Legislative Budget Board on how to implement the program. Those instructions are expected as soon as this week.

"It's a brand-new program, so we don't know how great the demand will be for it," Ratcliffe said. "We'll assess it when that money runs out and see what we need to do next."

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294