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.