SAN ANTONIO — The $4 billion in cuts to Texas public schools this summer might be starting to hit Gov. Rick Perry where it hurts most — his record on creating jobs.
Texas lost 900 jobs in local school districts in August, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. August is when back-to-school hiring typically resumes after districts purge payrolls in the summer, yet districts statewide kept shedding jobs last month for the first time since at least 1990.
Teachers groups and some economists say it's the first glimpse of deep school spending cuts showing up in the state's jobless numbers.
The job cuts could be politically sensitive for Perry, who has based his campaign for president largely on Texas' record of job growth during his 11 years as governor. When Perry and the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature approved the budget cuts, he said schools could cut back on jobs outside the classroom and other expenses to minimize teacher losses. He has also asserted that Texas has maintained a high quality of education with modest spending.
The Legislature cut public education by about $537 per student over the next two years — the first decrease in per-student spending in Texas since World War II — to help plug a $27 billion budget hole. Perry and Republican leaders held firm against raising taxes or dipping heavily into the so-called rainy day fund to blunt the cuts.
This school year, districts will see a reduction of about 6 percent across the board. Next school year, there will be a $2 billion reduction that cuts funding for some schools more than others.
Government job losses in August, including teacher reductions, edged up the unemployment rate in Texas for a third consecutive month and to its highest level since 1987 — 8.5 percent. Last month was also the first time in nearly a year that net employment statewide fell. Private sector gains in August were offset by the loss of 9,400 government positions. Government jobs account for about 15 percent of the Texas workforce.
"It's an indication that losses in the schools are pretty heavy," said Clay Robison, a spokesman with the Texas State Teachers Association.
On the campaign trail, Perry has boasted that Texas created more than 1 million jobs over the last decade, more than nearly every other state combined. Job creation is a key issue in the campaign because of the soft economy and persistent unemployment.
Responding to the state's recently slumping numbers, Perry's campaign has said that not even Texas is immune to the effects of the nation's sputtering economy.
When Perry was asked last spring about the prospect of widespread school layoffs, he drew criticism from teachers by responding: "The lieutenant governor, the speaker, their colleagues aren't going to hire or fire one teacher, as best I can tell. That is a local decision that will be made at the local districts."
Perry then pointed to what he called a "rather extraordinary rise" in non-teachers on district payrolls and suggested that would be the first place he'd look to make reductions.
There's no authoritative tally of teacher layoffs so far. Robison said his organization projects the losses in public school jobs could amount to 49,000 by the start of the next school year. Last year, there were about 650,000 public school employees statewide.
Next year may be even harsher because the cuts were softened by a one-time payout of $830 million in public education money this spring.
Dax Gonzalez, spokesman for the Texas Association of School Boards, said many districts were trying to absorb the cutbacks by leaving jobs unfilled. "If they were able to take care of their budget cuts through attrition, that was a win for them."
Anecdotal evidence of teacher cutbacks was widespread as students returned to classrooms last month. The Houston school district, the largest in the state with some 204,000 students, eliminated about 400 teaching positions out of 14,000 and cut about 270 jobs in central administration. Near Austin, two newly built schools are empty this year because the Leander school district can't afford to put teachers in them.
Some experts said a clearer picture will emerge from future reports. Cheryl Abbott, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said that despite the losses the figures are in line with the last few years. Last year, the state added 6,900 jobs to district payrolls as schools began ramping up staffing in August, yet it added just 100 jobs the August before. In 2008, the state added about 6,000 jobs in August.
School hiring numbers typically peak in September.