Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro got some attention last week by announcing the obvious – Texas needs to scrap its school finance system and rebuild it. Hope may spring eternal, but I would be more encouraged were it not for a couple of things, namely:
# A revenue shortfall now forecast as large as $21 billion – It could inspire courage and creativity under the big pink dome in downtown Austin, particularly if there is a new governor next year. Or, it could spark blind, slashandburn panic.
# The current state leadership – Gov. Rick Perry and legislative leaders have known for years that the school finance system was in trouble but have largely ignored it, unless nudged by the courts. Perry made things even worse in 2006 (only four years ago) by insisting on legislative approval of a law that gave more emphasis to cutting local property taxes than funding schools. The result was a state finance scheme that falls $4.5 billion short each year of fully paying for those tax reductions, while many school districts struggle to balance their budgets.
Talk, even from legislative chairs, is inexpensive. Following through with positive action won’t be. Meanwhile, Texas’ future is on the line.
As reporter Gary Scharrer pointed out in the Houston Chronicle, Texas spends about $50 billion a year – in state, local and federal funds – to educate nearly 5 million children.
But the system is still heavily dependent on local property taxes. And, thanks to wide disparities in property wealth throughout the state, there are still large inequities in funding among school districts, despite the “Robin Hood” school finance law. Many schools are underfunded.
Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Democrat from Houston who understands the school finance system better than most of his colleagues, noted that previous efforts to calculate the true costs of education have been unsuccessful.
“When we get that information, we have historically ignored it because it’s too expensive,” he said.
Charles Miller, a financial expert from Houston who serves on a school finance study committee with Shapiro and Hochberg, proposed the creation of a new, independent policy center to provide legislators and taxpayers with recommendations for making public education more efficient and productive.
That may be a good idea, provided the Legislature doesn’t use it to simply delay providing some overdue financial assistance to school districts next session.