A hearing began Monday for a combined school funding lawsuit that has been filed by several groups representing concerned citizens, property owners, charter schools and nearly half of the 1,024 school districts in the state of Texas. The lawsuits, which were first filed nearly a year ago, will focus on a variety of factors that are far more complicated than previous lawsuits filed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Yes, we’ve done this before.
One would like to think that the constitutionally required institution of public education should be a proverbial “no-brainer” and receive the adequate and equitable funds that are necessary to meet the needs of Texas children. However, with complicated and antiquated school funding formulas, Robin Hood discrepancies, and structural tax deficits, school funding has become nothing more than political theater. Instead of doing what is required under Texas constitutional mandates (not to mention what’s right by Texans), Texas legislators have been answering to nondescript and non-binding pledges and compacts rather than upholding the oath they took when they began their term in office.
This was evident in the last legislative session when Texas legislators cut $5.4 billion from public education, prompting rigorous debate and ultimately a special session to solve the financial crisis. In the aftermath, six lawsuits were filed against the state legislature to fix the major issues of the school funding system.
When the 83rd legislative session begins in January, the task facing legislators will be, once again, to fix the state funding system. Unfortunately, with a significant deficit of leadership and forward thinking in Austin, they will likely wait for these lawsuits to go through the Texas court systems and let students, parents and school districts continue to languish as they instead pursue other means of defunding public schools, such as school vouchers.
So, with popcorn ready, we will watch the lawsuit and the legislative reaction. Will the legislators address education this session, an issue that this month’s Texas Lyceum poll found is the number one issue of concern for Texans? Or will legislators take a wait-and-see attitude and slap another band-aid on a convoluted and ineffective system when the 84th session meets in 2015? And if so, what will Texas’ public education system look like by the time they get around to applying their latest fix in three years?
There are a lot of unanswered question about the lawsuit, so for the time being, let’s focus on what we do know. The provisions of the school finance system that need to be addressed, and are also the subject of the lawsuit, are efficiency/equity, adequacy and meaningful discretion.
The issue of efficiency and equity has been a hot topic among school districts as they wrangle with the unknown reasons for the vast discrepancies in per student funding between districts. This has been the essence of school funding lawsuits dating back to the 1970s and even argued with far more significance in the landmark Edgewood ISD case. Clearly, this has been a challenge for the state legislature for nearly 40 years as they haggle over the cost of education index, which has not been updated since 1991, and how to distribute funds from the state level, in combination with funds from the local level, to school districts .
For example, there is one school district in North Texas that receives $5,039 per child from the state combined with a $1.04 local property tax rate while the school district across the street receives $6,830 per child at the same local tax rate. The demographics are the same, home values are similar, and they are experiencing similar student growth. There is no explanation for this particular discrepancy, or similar discrepancies across the state, and it must be addressed.
The issue of equity, which is more of a social term than a financial term, is defined in relation to inequities or inequalities in the distribution of wealth or resources. Efficiency is ensuring that the dollars provided meet the requirements established by state policy, laws and mandates. Under our current school funding system. In more simple terms, when a school districts receives $1800 more per students than the district across the street, and both districts are asked to perform the same duties in the same state accountability system, this is neither equitable or efficient…and CANNOT BE SUSTAINED.
Adequacy is defined as having enough funding to meet the requirements of the law. This differs from efficiency because of the vast fiscal differences across our state which is accounted for in the Cost of Education Index (for example, the average Dallas ISD teacher makes $47,867, while in Marfa ISD it is $34,000). However, more significant to the point of the issue presented in the lawsuit comes from the lack of funding for new Texas students who have enrolled over the past two years.
The state of Texas gains 80,000 new students every year. These are students new to our public schools and/or those who have never attended school before. In the last legislative session, the state of Texas lowered the per student funding allotment in their cuts to public education, which ultimately eliminated funds for these new students. Yet, school districts will enroll them and meet their needs as required by law without the funds to support these news students. This is an example of clear inadequacy to meet student needs. Combine numerous state mandates, laws and policy as well as property values differences across the state and we have a formula for continued inadequacy for public students.
School districts in Texas operate as local government entities empowered to make decisions for the local school districts with a locally elected school board drawn from the attendance boundary electorate. When the Texas legislature forced school districts to cut local property tax rates from $1.50 to $1.04 (or lower in some cases) back in 2006, school districts lost more than 30 percent of their local funding with little relief from the state to restore these funds. In addition, the state limited the ability for school districts to raise this rate without a local election (TRE) to address the funding issue. School districts argue they lack meaningful discretion to address the needs of their students appropriately as a results of this mandated structural tax deficit, hence creating created a de facto statewide property tax, which is forbidden by the state constitution. The lawsuit argues that the state has taken much of the local tax action discretion out the hands of local school boards.
Burkett is an elementary school principal in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex who has worked in education for more than 11 years.