Tag Archives: adequacy

Court date set for school finance appeal

The Texas Supreme Court announced today that it intends to hear oral arguments in the appeal of a major school finance lawsuit starting Sept. 1. Lawyers representing numerous school districts across Texas have sued state officials claiming that the funding of our schools is inadequate and inequitable and amounts to an illegal statewide property tax. Since the bulk of funding for public schools comes from locally assessed property taxes, differences in property values and tax rates have caused vast disparities in how much revenue each school district is able to collect. The legislature also devised a complicated “recapture” system to try to redistribute funds more equitably throughout the state – a mechanism that many refer to as a “Robin Hood” plan – and minor tweaks to the funding laws in recent years have only exacerbated long-term problems with the system. The bottom line is that most schools have struggled to generate enough funding to meet rising standards and deal with population increases.

Retired District Judge John Dietz

Retired District Judge John Dietz

Former Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz ruled the state’s system of funding public schools unconstitutional in 2014 in response to multifaceted claims brought by several plaintiffs in a massive lawsuit over which the judge had presided since Oct. 2012. The state, represented by the Texas Attorney General, is appealing that ruling to the state’s highest court. The current lawsuit is only the latest in a string of challenges to the state’s convoluted system of funding schools across our large and diverse state.

During ATPE’s Political Involvement Training and Lobby Day event in February, Dietz spoke about the lawsuit in his first major public appearance since retiring from the court at the beginning of this year. He told a crowded ballroom of ATPE members and reporters, “We are dooming a generation of these children by providing an insufficient education.” Dietz urged the 84th Texas Legislature to take action right away to find a solution to the broken school finance system.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R) flanked by fellow legislators discussing school finance during the 84th legislative session

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R) with fellow legislators discussing school finance earlier this year

Unfortunately, the pending appeal of the lawsuit was one reason cited by legislators who declined to pass a school finance reform bill during the 84th legislative session. As we reported previously on Teach the Vote, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R), chairman of the House Public Education Committee, filed HB 1759 in an attempt to bring about at least modest increases in per pupil funding and equity. After being approved by the House Public Education Committee, the bill died on the House floor when Aycock opted to pull it off the crowded calendar on the last day for consideration. Depending on how and when the Supreme Court ultimately rules, it might become necessary for Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to call legislators back to Austin for a special session to address school finance. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote this fall for updates as the appeal proceeds.

With House passage of a state budget, attention turns to the Senate

The legislature and the business of our great state can (or could possibly) be very simple. All that legislators are required to do every two years when they meet is to pass a state budget. That is all. No bickering over education reform, guns on college campuses, whether educators should be required to have college diplomas to teach, or what the official state food should be. All of those debates, along with special and partisan interests, exist and often dominate the business of the legislature, as well as the news, merely because politicians allow it – or better yet, the electorate allows it. There is an old saying that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. After observing the legislature for roughly the last fifteen years, I can say that this advice should be heeded often.

With that off my chest, I am happy to report that the one piece of required business for the 84th legislature is making progress. At least in the amount of time devoted to it, if not also the passion and direction of the House leadership, the state’s two-year budget has garnered the respect it deserves. Shortly before 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 1, after nearly 18 hours of debate, the House of Representatives passed its version of the state budget. The House budget (contained in House Bill 1) contains nearly $210 billion to cover all state operations for the next two years, including public safety, highways, water infrastructure, prisons, healthcare, and even the state’s portion of public education.

This proposed budget is a mere 3.8 percent increase over the current 2014-15 budget, throwing a rather large bucket of icy cold water on those scoffers who’ve been complaining that the conservative House leadership is spending too much this session. Anyone operating a local budget, from school boards to city councils, knows that funding support from the state has not kept up with actual needs for at least the past decade. Texas ranks near the very bottom compared to other states in state tax revenue generated and expenditures per person. We have a lean budget, and anyone suggesting otherwise simply has not gone through the process of developing it; there is little fat in this budget sausage.

The upside is that there is new money for public education. The House chose to fund enrollment growth (based on approximately 85,000 new students per year) and include an additional $3 billion to address both the legislative and judicial concerns regarding equity and adequacy of our state’s school finance system. While these new funds are much appreciated, it’s worth noting that only $800 million of this extra $3 billion comes from the state, while the remaining $2.2 billion comes from anticipated property tax growth that the state will allow to remain in the education funding formulas. Further, even with this new funding we are still behind the curve when it comes to inflation-adjusted spending per student, having not caught up to our 2006 per student spending levels.

Now that the House can move on to other business, we look to the Senate to see what newly elected Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick can muster. The Senate budget lags that of the House in both overall appropriations and education funding. There are serious differences in opinion between the House and Senate on proposed tax cut legislation (which requires an appropriation expenditure), as well both public education and school retiree health insurance funding. ATPE has and continues to advocate for the Senate to match the House commitment, at a minimum, to fully fund retiree healthcare for the next two years. The Senate is expected to debate its version of the budget soon, potentially as early as next week.

There is no more serious business than that of our state priorities and how we invest in them. It is our message to tomorrow, both because it literally is a budget for the next two years, and because it is what we want to offer our children in the form of opportunity. There is nothing inherently wrong with a well-thought-out, lean budget; however, the bill for necessities will eventually come due, and someone – whether it’s the local taxpayer in the form of property taxes, or the state – will have to pick up that tab. Ignoring this reality only exacerbates the problems and challenges we already face.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for more information as the budget develops.

Vote for candidates who will prioritize education funding

This post is the first in a new Teach the Vote series: A Dozen Days, A Dozen Ways to Vote Your Profession. From now through the March 4 primary election, we’ll explore a top education issue each day– one that is likely to be discussed in the policymaking arena over the next two years. We hope to show you exactly what’s at stake and why it’s so important to elect candidates who will support public education.

At issue: The State of Texas is once again defending itself in a massive school finance lawsuit. Although the case is still pending, a district judge has already said that the state’s system of funding public education is unconstitutional, which means it fails to fund our schools adequately or equitably. Most educators would agree with that, considering these facts:

  • Texas is among the 10 lowest states in the nation in terms of per-pupil expenditures.
  • After adjusting for inflation, state spending on public education rests at about the same level it did in 2003.
  • Our outdated system for equalizing school district funding doesn’t work: Current annual funding ranges from $5,000 to $12,000 per student depending on where the student lives.
  • Even though our student population grows by nearly 80,000 children each year, the teacher population is shrinking because districts can’t afford to hire more personnel.

Legislators have the power to fix our broken school finance system: While schools struggle to do their best with insufficient funds and recover from the devastating 2011 budget cuts (which were only partially restored last session), the Texas economy is flourishing. Revenue estimates from taxes and other sources are on the rise, and by the end of 2015, it’s estimated that Texas will have a budget surplus of $2.5 billion, as well as $8 billion in the Rainy Day Fund (according to Moak, Casey and Associates, Inc.). Shouldn’t we elect legislators who support increasing state funding for public education so that we reach an adequate level of funding and make sure all students can benefit, regardless of where they live?

Your vote in the March primary is the best way to fund education now: If you have a contested Republican or Democratic primary in your district, your vote now will either shape or decide the outcome of the November general election and what it means for public education. Early voting continues through Friday, Feb. 28, and Tuesday, March 4, is election day, so get out and vote.

Find out how your lawmakers voted and see firsthand if history repeats itself: Visit our 2014 Races page to view profiles of the legislative candidates in your districts. Open the Voting Record section to find out whether your incumbent voted to increase public education funding in the budget last year. Pay attention to the candidates’ answers to our first three survey questions, which relate to education funding. Pro-public education candidates will make school finance a top priority, and they need your vote in the upcoming primary.