Because the current method of funding public education is overly dependent on local property taxes, the 85th Texas Legislature established the Texas Commission on Public School Finance to find ways to fix it.
The Commission, chaired by former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister, recently released its final report. A few of the recommendations included are:
• $100 million a year to school districts that want to develop their own teacher evaluation metrics and tie pay to performance.
• Up to $150 million to incentivize school districts to offer dual language programs, which instruct students in both English and Spanish, and to improve their dyslexia programs.
• $800 million to incentivize school districts to improve students’ reading level in early grades and to succeed in college or a career after graduating high school.
• $1.1 billion to improve education for low-income students, with school districts that have a higher share of needy students getting more money.
• Create a new goal of having 60 percent of third-grade students reading on or above grade level and 60 percent of high school seniors graduating with a technical certificate, military inscription, or college enrollment without the need for remedial classes.
• Cap local school district tax rates in order to offer property tax relief and a small amount of funding for schools —a proposal from Gov. Greg Abbott.
• No extra funding for special education programs until the state has completed overhauling those programs in line with a federal mandate.
The Texas Tribune reported, “In its final report, the commission said it wanted to: balance local and state funding for public schools; to rework “outdated or otherwise inefficient allotments, weights and programs;” to increase equity in schools “with significantly greater investment in low-income and other historically underperforming student groups;” to reduce the growth of property taxes and reliance on the so-called “Robin Hood” system that moves money from wealthier districts to poorer ones; to encourage adoption of “data-informed best practices” and to immediately spend more money to do it; and to increase per-pupil funding in the future based on the results of those practices.”
What the report failed to suggest were ways to replace the revenue that is currently derived from local property taxes. The Tribune report went on to say that “Even if not one more dime is spent on public education in Texas, leveling the fundraising load would force the state to raise more money.”
Statewide the balance between state and local property taxes is roughly 35 percent state and 55 percent local property taxes with the difference being contributed by federal programs. It has been estimated it would cost more than $11 billion to bring that back into balance which is surely an amount that would require the state to find the money somewhere else.
As a homeowner myself, I would like my property tax bill to decrease, however there can be no lowering of local property taxes without revising the current school funding formulas, and there can be no revising of school funding formulas without finding an alternative revenue source to replace the current over-reliance on local property taxes. It is a conundrum.
The new Speaker of the House, Dennis Bonnen, has made these two goals the top priorities of the Texas House. It will require hard work, commitment and understanding of this important issue on the part of the entire Texas Legislature as well as all our citizens to get this done.
As parents, we all want the good things in life for our children. Most of us would agree this begins with receiving a quality education that allows them to graduate from high school ready to enter college, trade schools or the military and then get a job that pays a living wage that allows them to marry, buy a house, raise a family and contribute to our common welfare. So who needs school finance reform – we all do!
All our children deserve a quality education. The legislature has a constitutional duty to support and maintain a system of public schools in this state (Texas Constitution Article 7, Section 1). State statute imposes a further duty upon the legislature: “The mission of the public education system of this state is to ensure that all Texas children have access to a quality education that enables them to achieve their potential and fully participate now and in the future in the social, economic and educational opportunities of our state and nation” (Texas Education Code §4.001).
Just as we hold our school districts accountable for student achievement, we should also hold the Legislature accountable for supporting a public school system that provides a quality education for all students as the state constitution requires.
The Legislature needs to uphold its constitutional duty to support and maintain a system of public schools in Texas, and fund it adequately and equitably. Let us not squander this legislative session with arguments over how schools are funded; rather let us focus our efforts on improving our public schools, which have and always will educate the majority of our students. If you agree, let your legislators know.
(Jim Rice was elected to serve on the Fort Bend ISD Board of Trustees in May 2010. These comments are his alone and he is not speaking on behalf of the board.)