It's about more than school finance

As the Texas Supreme Court prepares to hear another challenge to the state's school finance system, it's a good time to think about what we mean when we talk about school finance. It’s not just about copper pennies and funding formulas; it’s about developing a strong workforce and fulfilling our obligation to the next generation.

Texas keeps falling behind in education, and if we want to remain competitive not only with other states, but globally, our education system needs to catch up.

Education is the bedrock of an informed democracy and the bridge to lifelong opportunities. Better-funded schools mean smaller class sizes, which give students more quality time with their teachers, leading to better-developed social, emotional and cognitive skills. Better-funded schools also mean more opportunities for hands-on learning, which allow students to engage with problems and practice what they’ve learned. These learning experiences help our kids become better problem-solvers when they grow up.               

Texans need and deserve an education system that develops productive people and promotes shared prosperity. All children need the opportunity to reach their full potential.

But last year, a district court found our school finance system to be unconstitutional because Texas has failed to ensure that children in one part of the state have a chance to get the same quality of education as kids in other areas. The system was ruled inadequate because it does not provide all students with an opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in college or career.

Our schools are facing some serious challenges that the Texas Supreme Court, and ultimately the Texas Legislature, will need to remedy. Our leaders can and should build on the many strengths of our school finance system. Texas was one of the first states to recognize the different educational needs of different students – such as bilingual students, rural students, and those in gifted and talented programs – in terms of teacher expertise, resources and technologies. The state created a system of weights that directs additional funding to special populations.

Because early education has been a priority for state leaders, Texas is a leading state in the number of students attending public pre-Kindergarten. Early interventions for economically disadvantaged students and English-language learners are proven to help students enter kindergarten ready to learn.

Despite the innovative features of our current school finance system, the state has failed to distribute limited resources equitably or to keep pace with our surging population and economic growth. It has also ignored increasingly complex and demanding educational standards. While the push to increase quality in our schools is important, Texas has failed to accurately determine the level of resources actually required to meet those standards. Districts with higher per-student funding, which they are able to achieve because of higher local property values, have higher test scores.

The system of weights, which directs additional funding for certain student populations like those who are economically disadvantaged or are not proficient in English, has never been adjusted. Bringing this progressive system up to date, and regularly reviewing it, will increase equity for students across the state.

For the past 30 years, Texas has been in a recurrent cycle of court cases and legislative action that result in Band-aids rather than real solutions that Texas kids deserve. The state’s failure to address systemic problems has made the school finance system less equitable. The latest court challenge is the broadest one yet, and legislators must find a better solution while preserving the innovative features of our current system. The longer the Legislature delays, the more expensive the solution becomes as our schools fall further behind.

We increasingly hear that as goes Texas, so goes the nation. That’s especially true when it comes to our schools. One in 10 children in the United States lives in our state. We are responsible for educating fully 10 percent of the nation’s children, our future workforce. The decisions we make in Texas impact not only our state, but the country as a whole.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Chandra Kring Villanueva

Policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities