This commentary was originally published in The Quorum Report on August 30, 2018.
This week Governor Abbott made a case for boosting state funding to our public schools. We agree that money matters in education, and the 5.4 million public school students in Texas deserve smaller class sizes, state-of-the-art technology, enriching art programs and more.
In the last decade, the state’s portion of public school funding has plummeted, leaving local property taxpayers to pick up the difference. In 2008 the state and localities split the funding responsibility for public schools almost equally, 50-50. In 2019, local school districts pay about 62 percent of the price tag for schools, while the state pays only 38 percent.
There is already plenty of talk, again, about revamping the property tax system in the upcoming legislative session. To be clear, if we really want to lower property taxes, then the state needs to invest more money in public schools. It’s a see-saw, and right now the heavy weight is on local property taxpayers.
Where will lawmakers find additional funding for public schools? We have some common-sense ideas, including updating the tax code to close some outdated loopholes.
We also agree with the Governor that the state must bolster the pension and health care systems for retired teachers. Educators who dedicate themselves to our children and grandchildren deserve the compensation they were promised.
There are some notable places where we have to be cautious about the Governor’s approach, however.
First, we should remember that teachers as well as support staff and administrators are critical to helping educate our children. The majority of a school’s budget always goes to personnel costs, and when the Legislature cuts funding to schools, the results are bad for students. Schools would still need to hire 11,000 more teachers, for example, to meet the same student-teacher ratios Texas schools had in 2010-11, before massive budget cuts took effect.
Beyond teachers, we know that psychologists, mobility specialists, corrective therapists and other non-teacher staff are critical to ensuring all students can learn. Recent calamities in the Texas special education system have only highlighted the need for non-teacher staff, and these positions deserve adequate funding.
Second, we should ensure that any boost to state funding of public schools isn’t accompanied by draconian restrictions on local governments’ ability to raise revenue. The Governor has proposed preventing cities, counties and school districts from collecting more than 2.5 percent more in property tax revenue than they did in the previous year without voter approval. That’s a far lower cap than controversial thresholds that twice failed to make it through the Legislature last session. And the Governor’s plan would require that two-thirds of voters — well beyond a simple majority — approve any increase above that 2.5 percent threshold. Tying the hands of school board members, mayors, city councils, and county commissioners would hurt our public schools and also mean deep cuts to police, fire and other public safety services.
Third, the Governor picks on the recapture, or “Robin Hood” program. We can all agree that a child’s ZIP code shouldn’t determine whether they can access a high-quality public education. Recapture is working as intended to level the playing field between districts, giving more Texas students the chance to compete and succeed in life. As long as school funding is based on property wealth, we need recapture to maintain equity in the school system.
Recapture gets a bad reputation because Texas public schools are so severely underfunded. The lack of funds mean that many property-wealthy districts find themselves lacking sufficient funds to meet the growing needs of their students. The formulas used to determine the guaranteed level of per-student funding are outdated and do not reflect the true cost of providing a high-quality education. As a result, some districts have seen their recapture payments grow—and more districts are subject to recapture. But if the state paid a substantial share toward funding public education at both adequate and equitable levels, then local taxpayers would experience a win-win of lower property taxes and more well-resourced schools.
Finally, the Governor suggests a possible tweak from funding schools based on attendance to funding schools based on “achievement.” If this means allocating public school funding based on high-stakes standardized testing, then state leaders should pause and consider the implications. Districts with large percentages of low-income students and districts where local property values are lower could suffer under such a reallocation, penalizing the students who need the most academic supports.
The Governor has the power to make boosting state funding to public schools a priority item in the 2019 Legislative Session, and we hope he will use his authority to do so. We all look forward to the report from the Texas Public School Finance Commission, which has been meeting all year. And we applaud the Governor for calling for boosted state investment in our public schools.