Bringing efficiency, equity and clarity to Texas school finance

Photo by Ingrid Husby

The Texas Supreme Court will soon deliver its seventh ruling on school finance, and no fewer than six plaintiffs are asking the court to declare the system unconstitutional. Each plaintiff has its own reasons: four different coalitions represent school districts, all of which agree that their funding is inadequate. Two school district coalitions claim the system is not equitable. The Texas Charter Schools Association argues that they should be entitled to facilities funding. And a coalition of parents and business leaders contends that the system is inefficient because it doesn’t produce results with little waste.

To most of us, this makes little sense. We sit in the stands and watch this battle unfold every few years, not really sure how the game is played. We’re told who won, but we’re never really sure why or how. Is this argument caused by the Robin Hood system? Is it because of the budget cuts a few years ago? We take an educated guess about the whole thing and move on.

That's a logical reaction to a school finance system that is pointlessly complicated and hard to understand. But it means that we can’t look at the facts and make our own decisions about what needs to be done. This isn’t a recipe for success. The more Texans we have who understand this issue, the more likely we are to find great solutions.

To begin this process well ahead of the 2017 legislative session, we are publishing a comprehensive summary on school finance. In it, we first state the constitutional goal of public education, then show the sources of education revenue, followed by how — and how much — revenue is spent.

This work began with a very basic question: How much does Texas spend per student? The simple answer is $12,761 — according to TEA data for the 2014-15 school year, total expenditures were $61 billion, and there were 4.78 million students attending all public schools.

Despite this fact, Texas kids aren’t getting the results they deserve. The lower court that worked on this issue found that a “disastrous” 14-25 percent of students fail to graduate from high school. It also found that only 18 percent of graduates from the classes of 2010-2013 met the SAT or ACT college-readiness standard. How can we do so much and achieve so little? Somewhere, there’s a disconnect. Our system is not efficient.

We also discovered that our system is not equitable. Before people start throwing stones over Robin Hood, let me clarify: The system is not equitable for students. Everyone knows that some districts receive more money per student than others, even with Robin Hood. But this only scratches the surface of the problem. Within districts, funds are allotted inequitably to various campuses. This issue is also before the Texas Supreme Court in a little-known case: Clint ISD v Sonia Herrera. Parents filed this lawsuit because some district schools receive over 40 percent more funding per student than others. This issue deserves more attention because the search for district equity should never trump the search for student equity.

Inefficiency and inequity are the two biggest problems we found in school finance. These can be tackled head-on if we shift to a student-centered system. In this system, the state would continue to define how much each student is allotted in a school year. However, this allotment would be equitable, regardless of where the student lives.

In addition, the allotment given to each student would be portable and flexible. Portable allotments mean that parents can purchase educational services from different teachers, tutors, schools or therapists. Flexible allotments mean that parents can decide how much of their allotted funds to spend on a specific course, tutoring session or tuition.

Student-centered systems show promise in Texas. Within school districts, Grand Prairie ISD made funds portable based on parental choice. The district’s annual survey finds that parent and staff satisfaction consistently increases under a schools-of-choice model.

Charter schools are another method of fund portability based on parental choice. Demand for those schools is high: More than 100,000 Texas students now sit on waitlists to enroll in these schools.

And there’s much more Texas can do. The Legislature should continue to empower parents by establishing education savings accounts, through which students receive equitable allotments, parents manage their child’s allotment, and unused funds roll-over from one year to the next. Education savings accounts ensure equity and efficiency for students.

Educational choice works in other states; it will work in Texas.

There are children in Texas who have greater potential, ambition, and intelligence than even the greatest world leaders today. Yet we are failing their genius. A lack of college readiness led the district court to rule that the system fails “hundreds of thousands” of Texas students. As we work to help every Texas student, we hope that other Texans will benefit from our study of school finance and put forward other unique and innovative solutions.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Michael Barba

Policy analyst, Texas Public Policy Foundation

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