Month: <span>January 2023</span>

Lawmakers should invest in education and other state needs, not grant selective tax cuts

Near the start of his inaugural address, Gov. Greg Abbott said state leaders will work together during this legislative session to “keep Texas the land of opportunity.” After bragging about the prosperous state economy and an unprecedented $32.7 billion budget surplus, he then promised to provide the “largest property tax cut in Texas history.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dade Phelan then put a price tag on that tax cut — $15 billion, according to the preliminary House and Senate budgets, or almost half of the surplus.

What that means is they will work to keep the most comfortable Texans comfortable, while wasting what may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the kinds of investments that could begin to improve the lives of millions of not-so-comfortable Texans, including thousands of school employees and millions of their students, who vastly outnumber their more-comfortable neighbors.

Patrick insists upon returning a “significant portion of the record surplus to those who created it: the taxpayers.” But he seems to forget who many of these taxpayers are.

They are teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other school employees who have to take second jobs to make ends meet because the state doesn’t spend enough on public education. They are retired educators who struggle to meet their basic needs because they don’t qualify for Social Security and their TRS pensions are inadequate and lack an automatic cost-of-living adjustment (COLA).

They are working, low-income families whose children drop out of school to help their parents feed their siblings. Or their undernourished kids go to school sick and struggle with their lessons because the state, under its current leadership, refuses to provide adequate health care for those in need.

Many of these struggling Texans are under-paid state employees, including thousands in dangerous jobs.

Every Texas resident, regardless of income, has fed the budget surplus. Rich, poor and in-between, citizen or immigrant, they pay the sales taxes that have been rising with inflation. They pay gasoline taxes, fees to register or inspect their cars and a host of other state charges.

Most Texas taxpayers — the not-so-comfortable and the very uncomfortable – don’t need tax relief as much as they need a much larger state investment in education, health care, job training, infrastructure and other public needs the state leadership continues to neglect.

These millions of Texans who need financial help the most are likely to receive only minimal relief, if any, from property tax reduction schemes. That’s because they don’t own their homes. They live in rented housing. Their rental payments help their landlords pay for their own taxes, but most landlords aren’t likely to share any tax relief with tenants by lowering their rent charges.

The biggest beneficiaries of property tax reductions will be corporations and Texas’ wealthiest property owners. Middle-class Texans who may be impressed with their initial tax reductions will be complaining about rising taxes again in a few years as their property values continue to increase. It’s a predictable cycle that will continue unless the Legislature makes a substantially larger investment of state dollars in public education and changes the property tax-driven school finance system.

The record budget surplus is a huge temptation for state leaders to promise tax cuts. Instead, they should use the opportunity to make some lasting investments in Texas’ future. They should help all Texans, especially those who need help the most.

Revising Gov. Abbott’s goal, let’s make Texas the land of opportunity – for all Texans.

Clay Robison

Texas’ “trust-us” system for homeschoolers may worsen a voucher feeding frenzy

It is believed that the number of home-schoolers has increased in Texas since the onset of the pandemic and the temporary diversion of public school students into online learning from home. The public school enrollment of 5.4 million children in 2021-22 had started to recover but was still lower than it had been before the pandemic struck during the 2019-20 school year.

Some of those missing students may simply have dropped out. But the Texas Homeschool Coalition estimates that as many as 750,000 Texas kids are now taking school lessons at home, a marked increase from the pre-pandemic days.

This makes the renewed push for school vouchers even riskier for Texas taxpayers and their underfunded public schools. Some homeschoolers, as well as private school operators, are eager for the chance to get their hands on tax-paid vouchers. Voucher access apparently is a priority of the Texas Homeschool Coalition, and some pro-voucher advocates seem eager to accommodate them with their “parental freedom” and “money-following-the-child” rhetoric.

Until 1994, the Texas Education Agency considered home schools illegal. That year, the Texas Supreme Court, ruling in a lawsuit called Texas Education Agency v. Leeper, ended a long legal battle and held that Texas parents had a right to educate their own children. The court held that a home school was legitimate if parents used books, workbooks or other materials and met “basic educational goals” by teaching at least these five subjects – reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and good citizenship.

Taking tax dollars from public schools to help families pay tuition for their children at unregulated private schools is bad enough. But arguably, giving tax dollars to homeschoolers is even worse because there is no guarantee that every family that claims to be teaching its children at home is actually doing so.

I know of dedicated homeschooling families whose children have gone on to earn college degrees. But Texas doesn’t require any measurement – not even a standardized test – of how well home-schooled children are being taught – or even if they are being taught. Homeschoolers are exempt from the state’s compulsory school attendance law, and parents don’t have to notify their local school districts of their homeschool intentions. They are required only to withdraw their children from public school if their children already are enrolled.

Several years ago, El Paso ISD tried to investigate a homeschooling family after relatives complained there was little, if any, evidence the parents were teaching their children anything except their religious beliefs. After the parents sued the school district, the Texas Supreme Court sided with the parents without addressing the most important issue: Do homeschooling parents have to prove they are properly educating their kids?

As far as the state of Texas is concerned, they don’t. This will only encourage fake “homeschoolers” to try to join the feeding frenzy for a share of our tax dollars if lawmakers create a voucher system to their liking. The most effective solution is for lawmakers to kill all voucher plans.

Clay Robison