Why public school funding isn’t working in Texas

Texas is a prosperous state, but lawmakers are failing to adequately finance public education, and communities and students are suffering the academic, physical and economic consequences.

The upcoming legislative session provides a unique opportunity for our state’s elected leaders to right the past wrongs, but a preliminary budget request from the Texas Education Agency projects a $3.5 billion decline in state funding over the next few years.

More of us need to understand the flaws in our state’s school finance system. We also must hold our elected leaders more accountable for making substantial improvements in the next legislative session. Inadequate and inequitable state funding does harm to schools.

Texas public schools receive both state general revenue and local property tax revenue. State revenue is intended to help increase overall funding and addresses the inherently inequitable system that arises from funding schools based on local property taxes. But the state revenue has been declining. Ten years ago, the state contributed 48.5 percent of the cost of education, but in 2017 that number declined to 42.4 percent.

Put differently, in 2008, the state contributed about $17.1 billion toward education for about 4.7 million students. However, in 2017, Texas public schools enrolled more than 5.3 million students. The state’s contribution was only $19.3 billion. Despite the 13.7 percent growth in the total student population, the proportion of funding the state contributes declined by 12.6 percent per pupil.

Advocates for the state’s current system naively suggest it is existing law that requires the state to use the expected growth in property taxes to fund public education before factoring in state funding. Legislators are elected to ensure state laws benefit its citizens and this law has not protected public schools. At the very least, it ought to be amended.

Texas has a long history of inadequately funding public education and leaving undue burden on local districts. It is time voters demand a new finance system that addresses the significant disparities across districts and regions. A study by the Center for Education Research and Policy Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso found that the highest-poverty districts in Texas receive about 11 percent less state and local funding per student than wealthier, low-poverty districts.

With additional funding, lawmakers could expand professional development opportunities for principals and teachers that can improve student achievement and lifetime outcomes for students in districts serving high-proportions of low and mid incomes families.

The state also has to remedy an illegal cap that delayed or denied special education to eligible students for a decade, which will require districts across the state to invest in identifying previously denied but eligible students and hire additional special education teachers. With more money, districts could hire additional special education teachers and ensure all students with disabilities receive a high-quality education.

Gun violence in schools and increases in youth suicide rates is another issue that must be addressed. The Texas Legislature must mandate that each school have at least one counselor and that the state complies with the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of at least one counselor for every 250 students.

These pressing issues cannot be adequately financed in the current system. And those saying otherwise are not telling the truth if they are not talking about dramatically changing Texas school finance.

In many states, a sizable proportion of school funding is generated through state income tax, which does not exist in Texas. Instead, lawmakers could find additional funding by increasing the sales tax or by reducing expenditures in other areas. During the last legislative session, a Republican state representative suggested an increase in the motor fuel tax, of which 25 percent funds education in Texas. Meanwhile, a U.S. Department of Education study found that growth in expenditures on corrections outpaced expenditures on education in Texas by a factor of 8.5-to-1 since 1980, more than any other state in the country.

Public education is one of the state’s most important obligations. Lawmakers have a duty to uphold the Texas Constitution and ensure each student is provided with a “suitable education.” Educators and voters have a similar duty to be informed and to elect representatives that will ensure Texas youths are well-educated, safe, and provided with equal opportunities to be successful in life.

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