Why school finance data can be deceiving

Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez

An influential member of the Texas House says he wants to do what’s right for the students in our state — fix what’s broken in our school finance system.

While many lawmakers are inclined to wait until after the Texas Supreme Court hands down yet another school finance ruling, House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, this week proposed spending an additional $800 million to correct the illogical aspects of the state’s school funding formulas, including funding inequities.

But Texans should remember that fixing the school finance system isn’t as easy as making sure funding among schools is precisely equal.

If you compare District A with District B and see that District A is able to spend $1,000 more per student, then surely the system is inequitable. But maybe not. You can’t always take these kinds of funding comparisons between school districts at face value.

First, you must look at whether the two districts are taxing at the same, or at least a similar, rate. The decision to adopt a different rate is rightfully a matter of local control. But what if District B is taxing at a higher rate than District A and there’s still a per-student funding disparity in favor of District A? Surely that shows inequity, right?

Again, not necessarily. You have to look at the districts, not simply the numbers. The Miami Independent School District, located in the Texas Panhandle, receives 32 percent more funding per student than the Amarillo School District, about 80 miles to the south. However, Miami’s roughly 200 students don’t generate nearly as much money as the more than 30,000 Amarillo pupils. Economies of scale mean that even with $2,800 more per weighted student, the much-smaller Miami can’t possibility provide all the opportunities and services that Amarillo provides to its students. In fact, teachers in Miami earn only about 80 percent of what teachers in Amarillo are paid. So which district is worse off?

And if a district is made up mostly of students in poverty and must educate many students from homes in which English is not spoken, wouldn’t it make sense for that district to receive more dollars per student to meet those educational needs?

There are components of Texas’ school finance system that are intended to level the playing field and address differences in cost that are due to factors beyond the control of local districts. Special funding weights are provided to educate students who are English language learners, who are economically disadvantaged or who don’t have resources to enrich their education at home. Special allotments also exist to help cover the additional costs associated with operating a smaller district.

The problem is that these components have not been updated in 20, or sometimes 30, years. If the formulas accurately covered actual costs, then we could take formula-adjusted per-student funding in one district, compare it to another and decide if those numbers are equitable and fair. But until the Legislature makes those updates, we must examine the data closely, and ask some tough questions, to determine the story behind the numbers.

Rather than focusing on whether the distribution of funding among schools is precisely equal, we should be looking at whether the funding allows schools to provide a meaningful education to all students. Homes, groceries and utilities all cost more in certain parts of the state than they do in others. The same is true for school districts. What a dollar will buy in one Texas school district is not the same as what it will buy in another.

And don’t forget the importance of local control. While state policy and court precedents require a substantially equitable educational system, school districts shouldn’t be precluded from spending more of their own local tax dollars on enrichment programs, if that’s the community’s desire.

We cannot — and should not — achieve equitable funding by causing any district to suffer funding cuts, or by sending even more local property tax revenue to the state through the Robin Hood program. Districts already send well over $1 billion in local funds to the state every year.

Texas’ school finance system must provide equitable opportunities to all students, and sufficient state funding for communities that cannot pay for those services on their own. It should provide enough funding to ensure that all districts can meet state requirements. And it should protect the principle of local control. 

Achieving these goals won’t be easy. It never is. Hopefully other state leaders will join Aycock and have the courage to invest available state revenue to ensure that real educational opportunity is within the reach of all Texas students.

Christy Rome

Executive director, Texas School Coalition