Despite the resilience of our political culture, it may currently be entering a period of more fundamental change. The low-taxes, low-services ideology may be losing its hold on society. A couple of recent developments may be eroding the foundation of this orientation, including rapid growth of the population of working class immigrants and their first-generation offspring, as well as generally heightened concern over adequate funding of public grade schools throughout the state.
Over the past two decades, the immigrant population in Texas has swelled. By 2004 the Lone Star State became the fourth so-called majority-minority state in which the populations of all minority groups added together account for more than half the total population. Recent immigrants and their children tend to be socially conservative, but they also tend to have pressing needs for government services. While annual rates of growth of the immigrant and minority populations in Texas may have peaked in the early 2000s, these rates still remain high. And as the state becomes home to ever greater numbers of immigrants and minorities, it could experience a dramatic shift in its dominant low-taxes, low services ideology.
A separate, but overlapping, development in Texas has been heightened concern for improving grade school education. Ever since the Edgewood ISD v. Kirby case in 1984, the state has struggled to find an adequate school funding formula. In that case the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed suit against state commissioner of education William Kirby on behalf of the Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio, citing discrimination against students in poor school districts. The plaintiffs argued that the state's reliance on local property taxes to finance the system of public education was inherently unequal because property values varied greatly from district to district, resulting in an imbalance in funds available to educate students on an equal basis throughout the state - a claimed violation of the state constitution.
The plaintiffs, who ultimately won their case in a unanimous decision by the Texas Supreme Court, set in motion a long and tortuous process of school finance reform. As late as 2006, the legislature and other state officials were still struggling with finding an adequate formula - and adequate funds - to provide for public education. Yet, a year earlier, a poll commissioned by the Texas State Teachers Association showed that registered voters regarded public education as a top priority for state government. Forty-two percent of respondents chose it as the most important public issue, compared to thirty percent for healthcare (another pressing issue) and, critically, only thirteen percent who cited holding the line on taxes as the most important issue.
These poll results suggest that among registered voters, the traditional low-taxes, low-public services ideology might have lost some of its strong appeal. Texans' views of public education may have evolved to the point that the long standing consensus on taxes and services may be shifting. The 2006 stopgap measures that shifted tax burdens without infusing additional money into public education demonstrated the enduring power of the low taxes, low services orientation in the legislature. But public opinion data on education suggest that another formulation may well be emerging that reflects a new constellation of classic liberal, social conservative, and populist influences.