I lived in Houston for ten years.
It’s where I finished high school, graduated from college, and began my first career as a fuzzy-cheeked radio broadcaster. It’s where I gleefully watched my alma mater, the Houston Cougars, win a C-USA title, my beloved Astros make their World Series debut, and the Rockets come devastatingly close to a championship season after season. It’s a fantastically diverse and dynamic city; yet to many Houstonians, it seems that no matter what Houston does, few outside its boundaries ever seem to notice.
Now a vote on a relatively obscure proposition on Tuesday’s ballot has arrested the attention of many lawmakers in Austin.
On Tuesday, Houston voters decided not to authorize the city’s first recapture payment of $162 billion, part of a roughly $1 billion obligation over the next four years. Under the state’s school finance equalization formula, referred to as “Robin Hood” by some, school districts that are considered “property-wealthy” must return some of the money collected from their local property taxes to the state, which in turn delivers that money to poor districts that lack the tax base necessary to support healthy schools. Ironically, some of those property-wealthy districts still enroll high numbers of students from families living in poverty. Houston ISD officials argue that instead of sending away the funds, their district needs that money instead to educate a high proportion of low-income students in their own district.
It’s a predicament endured for years by Austin ISD, another property-wealthy district that serves a high proportion of economically disadvantaged children, yet is expected to pay more than $400 million in recapture this year. The number of Texas districts paying recapture stands at 250 and rising, and it is a major reason many districts are lobbying the 85th Texas Legislature to reform the school finance system when it convenes in January.
In response to a lawsuit filed by more than 600 school districts, the Texas Supreme Court in May ruled that the state’s school finance system met the minimum requirements under the Texas Constitution. While the final opinion from Justice Don Willett urged lawmakers to fix a “Byzantine” and “undeniably imperfect” system, it removed the threat of a court mandate to do so.
Houston’s new Mayor Sylvester Turner is no stranger to the Texas Legislature. The long-time state representative and former vice-chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee spearheaded a campaign urging Houston voters living within HISD boundaries to reject authorization of the recapture payment this election and force a standoff — gambling that state legislators will be spurred into action by voters and constituents in Texas’s largest school district publicly rejecting the state’s school finance system.
It’s a big gambit.
After Houston voters on Tuesday declined to authorize the recapture payment, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath notified HISD trustees early Wednesday that under the law, $18.2 billion in taxable property needed to meet the recapture amount will be detached from the district and annexed to one or more property-poor districts.
So will the ruckus raised in Houston Tuesday ring in the ears of important folks beyond Space City’s orbit?
The question of whether the move will increase pressure on lawmakers to initiate a long and complicated school finance overhaul is a big unknown. The recapture amount owed by Houston is dwarfed by Austin’s, yet lawmakers have thus far been unmoved by AISD’s many pleas for change. While some House leaders have expressed interest in reform, a requested four percent across-the-board reduction in state agency spending will complicate things significantly.
ATPE has long advocated for meaningful school finance reforms to make the system more responsive to our students’ needs, as illustrated by our member-adopted legislative program, which includes the following:
ATPE supports a public education funding system that is equitable and adequate to provide every student an equal opportunity to receive an exemplary public education. ATPE also supports any form of state revenue enhancement and tax restructuring that accomplishes this goal, empowers the state to be the primary source of funding, and creates a more stable funding structure for our schools. We strongly support efforts to increase funding levels to meet the needs of a rapidly growing and changing population and to increase funding equity for all students.
Ultimately, school finance reform could come by degrees, and meaningful progress could be made this session. I expect calls for legislation to update the decades-old Cost of Education Index (COI) and the similarly vintage transportation allotment, as well as a bill by state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) that would amend the Texas Constitution to require the state to shoulder at least half the cost of public education. We’ll be keeping an eye out for you. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and ATPE.org for updates.