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It’s time for the Legislature to fix funding for Texas public schools

Editorial By Christy Rome, Executive Director

Texas School Coalition

The Texas Supreme Court was unequivocal in its ruling last May: it’s the Legislature’s job to fix the many problems that cause our public schools to be underfunded, and our taxpayers to be overburdened.

In fact, as far as school funding is concerned, the Supreme Court said the Legislature should undertake “top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid.”

In response to the Court’s ruling, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, promptly instructed the House Appropriations and Public Education committees to address two of the biggest problems with public school funding—the so-called Robin Hood redistribution of local tax dollars and the state’s over-reliance on local property taxes—and to make recommendations when the 85th session of the Texas Legislature convenes in January.

We applaud the Speaker for his leadership, and agree with his statement that, “It’s important that we keep local tax dollars in local districts as much as possible, while still ensuring that all students have access to quality public schools.”

When the Robin Hood, or share-the-wealth, concept was enacted into state law by the Legislature back in 1993, only 34 local districts were required to pay a total of $130 million in order to equalize funding among schools statewide. Now, 23 years and $20 billion later, approximately 250 districts are expected to pay $2 billion in share-the-wealth payments during the 2016-2017 school year alone. That’s nearly a quarter of districts in the state paying an amount that far exceeds even the amount that proceeds from the Texas lottery contribute to public education.

It’s important for taxpayers to understand—and for legislators to acknowledge—that an increase in local property values and by extension also in local property taxes, does not automatically translate into an increase in local school funding. For taxpayers in hundreds of Texas school districts, it’s quite the opposite.

As local property values continue to increase and more-and-more districts are forced to raise billions of dollars that they are not allowed to keep, the state’s funding obligation to public education diminishes accordingly.

To add insult to injury, the Legislature is poised to eliminate a property tax safeguard put in place a decade ago. When the Legislature reduced local property tax rates by one-third in 2006, it guaranteed that school districts would not lose funding as a result through a mechanism that it called Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, or ASATR. However, in 2011 the Legislature cut funding for ASATR and imposed a September 1, 2017, repeal of the safeguard, regardless of how short-changed it would leave districts.

Now, as the fiscal cliff nears, some Texas school districts are faced with the prospects of cutting even more funds from their student budgets or imposing even more tax increases when the state funding goes away.

Our schools need adequate funding to be able to hire and retain quality teachers, maintain manageable class sizes, implement quality early education programming, and prepare Texas’ increasingly diverse student population for meaningful, high-paying jobs. Given the importance of education in the 21st Century economy, Texas cannot continue to rely upon antiquated funding formulas that shortchange public schools and overburden local taxpayers.

Local property taxpayers have paid more than their fair share, and it’s time for the Legislature to take back its responsibility to adequately fund Texas public schools. The Texas Supreme Court has cleared the way for the Legislature to act. Texas school children and taxpayers are waiting.

Christy Rome is executive director of Texas School Coalition