A recurring theme heard from various candidates who are running for election this November, is the candidates’ professed support for both giving teachers a raise while admonishing school districts to become more efficient in how they spend their tax dollars.
Perhaps these statements stem from a lack of understanding as to how school finance works in Texas. It is an overly complicated system which the State Supreme Court has called byzantine and urged the Legislature to streamline. As a school board trustee, along with my colleagues I must approve a balanced budget and a tax rate to support that budget each year. In order to form a considered opinion and cast an informed vote, I have had to learn the basics of public school finance.
Unlike counties and municipalities who can actually lower their tax rate from time to time, school districts cannot. This is because the State of Texas relies heavily on local property taxes to fund the lion’s share of the state’s contribution. Here is how it works – when the appraised property values in a school district increase, the school district benefits from the increased yield but only for a period of 12 months. A year later, the state’s Comptroller Property Tax Division looks at the property values from the previous year and the corresponding increase in the local property tax yield and then reduces the state’s contribution for the current year by a corresponding amount.
I call this the “clawback.” The result is that school districts can never get ahead even though the effective tax rate continues to increase. County and municipal governments do not have this clawback, which is why they can lower their tax rate as the appraised property growth value and the tax yield within their appraised area increases.
In a previous editorial, I cited the Commissioner of Education’s recent appearance before the state’s legislative budget board in which he reduced his funding request for the next biennium by $3.5 billion dollars. In a state that is adding 80,000 students per year statewide, this can only come about because of increasing property values and the property tax yield it generates. In fact, in his testimony, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath cited his reliance on the projected statewide property tax growth of 6.8 percent in order to support the $3.5 billion drop in his funding request.
Not only are the majority of our public school districts efficient, they are struggling to make ends meet. If the Legislature wants to support our teachers, they will find a way to streamline and improve school funding. Until the current system is corrected, there can be no property tax relief regardless of what some politicians might claim.
All of 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 State 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 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.)