Greg Abbott

What real school finance reform is…and isn’t


Gov. Greg Abbott sounded ambitious in his welcoming remarks to the state Senate on the opening day of the legislative session. “We are going to solve school finance reform and property tax reform this session,” he declared.

Maybe they will. But if legislators don’t realistically address school finance and property taxes while they are in Austin, much of the blame will rest on Abbott. So, the governor better quit being an obstacle and start being a leader.

Abbott has been a major hindrance to school finance improvements and property tax relief during the first four years of his administration. He and legislative allies have squeezed state funding of public education while the local, property tax share of the Foundation School Program has steadily risen to 62 percent. And the governor’s only answer so far has been to try to impose arbitrary tax limits on local elected officials that, if enacted, would lead to crippling cuts in important public services.

The governor can start leading by coming up with a new plan, a real plan that starts with a significant appropriation of new state dollars into the public education budget. That’s the way you begin to reform education and provide property tax relief.

“Reform” is a tricky word and maybe one of the most over-used and mis-used words in the political dialogue. Most of the definitions I have read for “reform” include imposing change with the intent to improve, not imposing change merely for change’s sake or for political advantage and certainly not imposing change for the worse.

Property tax “reform,” as I suggested above, is not impeding the ability of local officials to provide for the needs of their constituents. School finance “reform” also is not a lot of things.

School finance “reform” is not diverting tax dollars to vouchers or education savings accounts. That would worsen the school funding system by transferring tax dollars to private schools and undermining our already underfunded public schools.

School finance “reform” is not promoting more takeovers of struggling schools by corporate charter chains and disregarding important instructional standards for students and employment safeguards for educators.

School finance “reform” also is not providing “merit pay” raises to a small number of teachers, based on the unreasonably narrow factor of STAAR scores, while ignoring the needs of their colleagues.

Real school finance reform and property tax reform will begin with a significant increase in state appropriations for public schools to provide resources for all educators and students. Texas spends about $2,300 less per student per year than the national average, ranking us 36th among the states and the District of Columbia.

We must do better than that, and Comptroller Glenn Hegar has said legislators will have $9 billion in additional general revenue for education and other needs this session. They also will have a savings account, the Rainy Day Fund, with a record balance of $15 billion in taxpayer money.

The revenue is there to begin real school finance reform. Now, the governor needs to match his rhetoric with some political will.




Dan Patrick’s Happy New Year greeting to teachers…or maybe not


I received my Happy New Year email from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick the other day. It was mostly a message reminding me of what a great leader he thinks he is and reminding me of his political priorities – a secure border, lean and efficient government, property tax relief, protecting Second Amendment rights, religious liberty, freedom, etc.

It also included this message: “Fixing school finance and giving our teachers the $10,000 raise that I advocated for in the 2017 special session are also top priorities for me when the (new legislative) session begins next week. We must invest in our teachers – next to a parent, they are the most important part of a student’s education.”

Sounds promising…until you remember that Dan Patrick never advocated for a $10,000 teacher pay raise during the 2017 special session. What he did do was call a news conference, display some charts and propose that teacher pay raises and bonuses be squeezed out of the existing, under-funded public education budget. Under his “plan,” if you want to call it that, the extra teacher compensation would have come from lottery proceeds already dedicated to education and by requiring school districts to squeeze 5 percent out of their existing budgets for pay raises.

Patrick didn’t call for a single cent of additional state funding for teacher pay. That isn’t advocacy. That is flim-flam.

Commenting at the time, TSTA President Noel Candelaria called Patrick’s pronouncement “hollow” and a “mythical, pie-in-the-sky promise” because it didn’t include additional state funding.

Gov. Greg Abbott also dangled the idea of a teacher pay raise in 2017, but he didn’t propose a way to pay for one. Instead, Abbott applauded while the Patrick-led Senate killed a House school finance bill that would have provided as much as $1.8 billion in additional state education funding, money that could have gone toward teacher pay raises.

Abbott and Patrick also were the main drivers behind the creation of a new commission to conduct the umpteenth study of school funding. That commission concluded its work just before the holidays with a report that stopped short of recommending a specific amount of increased state education funding. And instead of recommending a much-needed across-the-board pay raise for all teachers, it encouraged districts to create “merit” pay plans – most likely to be based on student test scores — for raising salaries for a small group of teachers

The governor and the Legislature can do better than that, and they must do better than that before more teachers get squeezed out of the profession.


Is school finance study commission the real thing…or a charade?


We soon will learn whether the Texas Commission on Public School Finance will live up to its name or merely be another charade concocted by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Will it actually make recommendations to the Legislature for an improved system of funding our public schools? Or will it prove to be a waste of time and thousands of taxpayer dollars?

We may find out next Wednesday, Dec. 19, when the commission is scheduled to decide on a final report to lawmakers.

Texas’ lousy school finance system has been studied multiple times, and you may recall that this study was driven by Abbott and Patrick during a summer special session in 2017, maybe for political cover, as they were rejecting a proposal by the Texas House to add as much as $1.9 billion to public school funding. So the origins were suspicious.

Both the governor and the lieutenant governor had abysmal records on funding public education but were facing reelection campaigns. So they were eager to go through the motions of “addressing” an issue of critical importance to millions of voters.

Suspicions were rekindled several weeks ago when Abbott began floating a property tax reduction proposal that would squeeze school district budgets even more without saying how he would replace the lost revenue.

Then, things became even more suspect this week when Scott Brister, the governor’s choice to chair the study commission, said he was “uncomfortable…telling the Legislature they have to inject new money” into the school finance system.

“I don’t think that’s our job,” he said.

Well, then, Mr. Chairman, what is your job? Property tax relief? That may be part of the commission’s job, but cutting property taxes without adding significant amounts of additional education funding from the state would make a bad, underfunded school finance system worse.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, one of several legislators on the commission, made it clear that the Legislature must increase school funding.

“I would not be willing to sign a report that doesn’t say that we’re going to spend more money or new money on public education,” he said, comments that seem to have the support of other House members on the study commission.

Huberty was the House Public Education chairman who sponsored the $1.9 billion school funding bill that the governor and the lieutenant governor rejected the last time the Legislature was in session.

Another commission member, Nicole Conley Johnson, chief financial officer of Austin ISD, has proposed several options for raising revenue, options that may be added to an appendix of the commission’s report and all but ignored, if Brister has his way.

Brister may be “uncomfortable” asking the Legislature to increase education spending. But his discomfort pales in comparision to the discomfort felt by Conley Johnson and other Austin ISD administrators and board members. That district gives hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the state for redistribution to property poor districts, yet is dealing with high poverty among its own student body. And now it is so financially strapped it is trying to find $55 million in cuts and is considering closing 12 schools and charging students for magnet programs, among other options.

That’s what happens when the Legislature refuses to adequately fund public education and reform a woefully outdated funding structure, and Austin ISD isn’t alone.



A proposal to cut property taxes is not a plan to fix school finance


Gov. Greg Abbott has floated a proposal to cut school property taxes, but don’t confuse it with a plan to fix the school finance system because it isn’t, at least not yet. The only effective way to cut school property taxes is to significantly increase state funding for public education, and it isn’t clear that Abbott wants to do this.

In fact, the governor has a history of squeezing state education funding, which is one reason (along with rising property values in many school districts) that local property taxpayers are now paying for about 62 percent of the Foundation School Program, while the state is paying for only 38 percent.

Abbott and his ally, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have always been more interested in cutting property taxes by imposing arbitrary revenue limits that could cripple local services than they have been in adequately and fairly paying for public schools. And, so far, the new proposal from the governor’s office doesn’t change that.

The governor would cap increases in school property tax revenue at 2.5 percent per year, a limit that would squeeze school district budgets even tighter without a significant infusion of new state dollars for public education. The governor has hinted that more state funding will be part of the tradeoff for new restrictions on property taxes, but he has not identified an amount or a source for the new state dollars.

Until the governor lays out a goal for additional state education funding and identifies a source, he does not have a school finance plan, and school officials and parents with children in public schools have every reason to be wary.

Abbott’s eagerness to put property tax relief over adequate school funding also could increase inequity between property-rich and property-poor school districts in violation of the state constitution.

You may recall that Abbott also has broached the idea of teacher pay raises – most recently during his reelection campaign – but has never proposed a way to pay for them.

Meanwhile, we still are waiting to learn what the school finance study commisson, which Abbott and other state leaders appointed last year, will recommend. And we are waiting to see what Dennis Bonnen, the new speaker-apparent, may propose. Bonnen has said school finance will be the House’s top priority when the new session convenes in January, and many new members elected to the House with TSTA’s support agree.

The governor has time to prove he really wants to fix school finance. But a property tax-cut proposal without new state funding is not a school finance “plan,” at least not a plan that would do school children any good.

Abbott wants to lower property taxes and boost school spending. But he doesn’t say how he’ll pay for it.