school finance

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.



Private donations are great, but adequate school funding is the state’s job


When the state leadership fails to adequately pay for public education, as it has failed to do for years, parents and local businesses step up, not only with higher property tax payments but also, in many cases, with private donations.

These donations, although well-intended, worsen an already inequitable funding system, not only among school districts but also among schools within the same district. And, to no surprise, the low-income kids who often need the most help are left behind.

The Dallas Morning News story linked below tells how the Dallas ISD administration, with an enrollment that is about 80 percent low income, is struggling to keep up in its private fundraising effort with wealthier suburban districts. Dallas ISD, with 156,000 students, raised about $600,000 last year, mostly from Texas Instruments, a private employer. That amount averaged out to about $4 per student.

By contrast, nearby Highland Park ISD, one of the state’s wealthiest districts, received $10 million in one donation alone through the Highland Park Education Foundation. The foundation spent about $2.5 million last year, or about $350 for each of the district’s 7,000 students, over and above what the district receives in tax money. And none of the Highland Park kids are poverty stricken.

This additional money can be spent on a number of things, including extra teacher pay, professional development for educators, college-readiness programs for students or various academic initiatives.

Nonprofit education foundations aren’t the only inequity problem. PTAs, although well-meaning in fund-raising efforts, add to inequities within the same school district. I have heard of some PTAs at schools in middle- or upper-middle-income neighborhoods raising thousands of dollars at a single fundraiser, figures that can only be dreamed about in poorer parts of town.

Thousands of dollars will purchase extra school supplies or help pay for field trips, but dreams… not so much. This problem was cited several years ago in a report by the Texas Civil Rights Project.

PTAs can share their money with other schools. Perhaps some do, but not many, I suspect. Most parents understandably want to spend their money on their own children’s schools.

But it’s the Legislature’s and the governor’s job to see that tax dollars, the public’s money, is distributed equitably – and in sufficient amounts so that superintendents and principals aren’t constantly having to hold their hands out to private donors. Private donations for education extras are fine. But all too often in today’s under-funded climate, schools need the extra cash for classroom essentials, and many schools can’t raise it.

Dallas ISD may restore education foundation to tap flow of private funds bolstering other districts