We’re all aware of the beating public education took this past legislative session. A total of $5.3 billion was cut, representing the first time Texas deliberately underfunded its schools. As a result, thousands of teachers lost their jobs and hundreds of innovative programs were ended.
However, a less familiar, but equally unfortunate reality of our school finance system is how inequitably the reduced amount of money schools did receive was distributed. This problem is not the result of the most recent legislative session (though actions taken this time around did little to correct it), but has been built into our school finance system over decades of lawsuits, lobbying and legislation.
Taxpayers across the state are not able to raise similar amounts of money for their schools at comparable tax rates. Property wealth varies wildly across the state, and while Texas does account for this to some extent through what’s commonly referred to as “recapture” or “Robin Hood”, other parts of the school finance system allow wealthy districts to generate tax revenue that is exempt from these provisions.
This allows property-wealthy districts to take advantage of this disparity and charge lower taxes, yet receive more money per student. For example, this past school year, the bottom 10 percent of districts in terms of money received per student — $5,221, on average—had a high average property tax rate of $1.15. However, the top 10 percent of districts received $7,701 per student on average, which they were able to achieve through the much lower average property tax rate of $1.00.
Even if the residents of a poor school district voted to raise their taxes in an attempt to improve their schools, they could not come close to the amounts generated by their neighbors living in wealthier districts. This prevents taxpayers and voters in low-revenue districts from having meaningful control over the quality of education their children receive.
And this inequity in tax revenue is only regarding the Maintenance and Operation portion of the property tax rate. Districts can also levy a tax that is specifically designated for facilities and other capital needs that are not subject to “recapture” or “Robin Hood” at all. The disparities between the tax rate and the revenue generated in this portion are even more stark.
Additionally, the system is inequitable from the student perspective. Because of the disparity in per student revenues under the current system, an at-risk student in San Antonio ISD has access to far less funding than an at-risk student in Alamo Heights ISD, despite their similar educational needs and the fact that both districts are in the same city. Despite decades of tinkering with the school finance system, our legislators have effectively sanctioned de facto discrimination based on something as arbitrary as what school district a child is lives in.
Other elements of the school finance system also add to these student-level inequities, but affect all schools evenly. Though the current funding system does adjust somewhat to reflect the cost of educating needier student populations, the amount used to offset those costs is based on research that is decades out of date.
For example, the state increases districts’ per student funding by 10 percent for every student who is learning English as a second language. However, research has consistently indicated since the 1980’s that the cost to educate these students is actually much higher. Such outdated laws penalize districts for taking in our students that are the hardest to educate and deny those students their fair share of state education funding.
Unfortunately, in this time of belt-tightening and reduced budgets for all school districts, many of those who benefit under the current system are only fighting to restore the cuts to public education and make their unfair share just as big as it was last year.
Though the recent cuts were irresponsible and short-sighted public policy, simply baking a bigger pie won’t fix the inequitable way it’s sliced up. It may be better for those individual districts to fight for a bigger piece in the short term, but Texas as a whole will continue to suffer if resolving these inequities is not a major part of the fight to improve funding for our schools.