Some basic facts on school funding

Superintendent, Milano ISD

With the 83rd legislature now in session, here are some of the basic facts on school funding in Texas.

• Depending on the study and methodology, Texas ranks somewhere between 46 and 48 nationally in education funding. We’re neither Minnesota nor Massachusetts when it comes to supporting public education financially. I can assure you, those states are laughing at us every time one of our legislators laments about “throwing money” at education.

We’ve never had a history of throwing money at education in this state, even though a public education system was so important to the state’s founding fathers that they required it in the constitution.

• In 2006, Governor Rick Perry and the 80th legislature developed a plan to alleviate Texas’ heavy property tax burden, give teachers a raise, and re-tool the means by which the state funded public schools. This is where our most recent problems began. They instituted a new business margins tax, which would become the chief source of revenue for state funding in education. There’s been a slight hiccup in that plan, though.

The business margins tax grossly underperforms – it doesn’t deliver nearly the amount of revenue for education that property taxes had previously provided. Additionally, slashing local property rates at the same time led to less revenue from local sources to school districts— essentially, a double whammy on schools.

• As if that wasn’t bad enough, this “tax swap” created a structural tax deficit for the state of around $10 billion per biennium. That means when a new legislature sits down to budget all of the state’s obligations, they stare at a big, fat, red $10 billion shortfall.

This happens every session since the 2006 tax swap and will continue until the legislature addresses their intrinsic budgetary issues. Bottom line, the swap didn’t work out very well for either public education or Texas’ balanced budget requirement.

• Texas legislators used a combination of smoke and mirrors and old fashioned shell games to cover their budgetary shortfall for some time—using one-time stimulus funds or other gimmicks to cover the state’s actual obligations. However, the Great Recession brought such a loss of tax revenue (due to tightening wallets as well as home foreclosures) that they could no longer hide behind the games that had worked in years past.

By 2011 they cut $5.4 billion in education funding and for the first time in 60 years were unable to fund student enrollment growth. That means new students to Texas were not funded by the state of Texas. There have been 160,000 of them since 2011.

• With these cuts came another episode in Texas’ continuing drama of school finance lawsuits, which has been going on since the 1960s. Currently more than 600 districts are suing the state, claiming that Texas’ school funding system is neither adequate nor equitable as required by the state constitution.

Once ruled upon this spring, the case is expected to be appealed. If school districts prevail, the state legislature will be required to reconfigure school finance and address the state’s disparate, and frankly, illogical school funding formulas.

• In the meantime, $5.4 billion in cuts looks like this: overcrowded classrooms as districts sought a record number of waivers from class size limit laws; new fees to parents in the form of bussing fees, extra-curricular fees, and sizable requests to fund school supplies and the other necessities of education; 15,000 unemployed teachers; cuts to programs like gifted and talented, fine arts, and athletic programs; loss of support personnel like registered nurses, security, and classroom aides; districts dipping into their reser ve accounts (which should be used for cash flow accounting purposes) to make ends meet. And, let’s remember—while sustaining these cuts, Texas schools continued to experience some of the highest levels of student enrollment growth in the country.

• Here’s the good news: For 2013, Comptroller Susan Combs indicated that Texas’ revenues are up more than 12 percent. Plus, the state’s economic stabilization (or “rainy day” fund) has ballooned to nearly $12 billion. A rational person would think that last session’s cuts to education could be restored with that positive outlook.

• Here’s the bad news: It seems Texas’ leaders aren’t particularly rational. Your state leaders haven’t expressed much interest in restoring funding to education. In fact, Gov. Rick Perry interrupted his fiddle playing long enough to indicate that he thinks the state has done a fine job funding education.

The most positive support came last month f rom Speaker Joe Strauss, who recommended funding enrollment growth “going forward” by restoring $2 billion to the education budget. While a noble suggestion given the political climate in Austin, unfor tunately Strauss’ band- aid approach won’t fix the cuts of 2011, won’t fund those 160,000 lost students from last session, won’t dig Texas school districts out of their $1 billion hole, and it won’t satisfy new requirements and rigor associated with STAAR testing. Few legislators have jumped on Strauss’ par tial funding restoration bandwagon. Instead some legislators are looking at a voucher system that will pull more funding from public schools instead of repairing their damage.

That’s where we stand in the early stages of the 83rd legislature. It’s bleak. If you’re a parent, you should be worried that your state, already a national outlier in commitment to public education, isn’t rushing to restore funding cuts and then some. It has impacted your child and will continue to do so until the legislature is forced to act.

So what do we do? Representative Sylvester Turner of Houston recently said parents need to “be screaming and hollering and emailing us and keep it up to the end of the session.” Turner indicated that in the last session the state funded everything else first and provided whatever was left over to education. Are you comfortable with your child’s future being a legislative after-thought? If not, then take Rep. Turner’s advice.

Reach out to your representatives in any and all ways you can think of to share your feelings about the importance of education in Texas— and do so regularly. Call them, email them, fax them, visit their district office, take a road trip and drop in on their office in Austin. Reach out to them via social media, Facebook friend them, tweet at them. You are a lobbyist for your child. There isn’t anybody who has the same passion about or interest in your child’s future as you do. I can assure you that legislators (while some are probably fine people at heart) don’t care as much about your child as you do. Yours is the strongest voice your child will have in Austin. Use it.

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