School finance ruling is a call to action for the Legislature

Photo by Todd Wiseman

As the co-owner of a small business, and certainly as an elected school board member, I know firsthand that customers and listening matter. If half of my customers think the product or service I am offering is faulty, I will go out of business.

So when over 600 public school districts – approximately one-half of the total — sue the state because they're not getting the funding they need, the message is clear no matter the outcome.

The Texas Supreme Court's school finance ruling was narrow, unanimous and ended decades of numerous lawsuits that claimed the state public education financing system was unconstitutional in funding and design. Our highest court opined that the system is broken and needs a “transformational, top-to-bottom reform” but ruled that the laws meet a basic floor of constitutionality.

The court ruled that it is up to the Legislature alone to determine the “specific cost of a constitutionally adequate education.” “Good enough” is neither good nor enough.

While some fear the ruling will be seen as encouragement for the Legislature to do nothing, I believe it is a rallying cry for lawmakers who have the unencumbered moral obligation — now unable to hide behind the excuse that they're waiting to see how the court case plays out — to appropriately invest in the next generation of Texans. The Legislature has a unanimous mandate to implement policy that ensures high standards and adequate and equitable funding in support of positive outcomes for all Texas school children.

Some will argue that money and educational outcomes are two distinct issues. That's true, but it only goes so far; when the state finance formulas include weights and indices that haven’t been updated in 20 to 30 years, it is disingenuous to say that more money isn’t needed to keep up with the increased costs and basic inflation. The impacts of this "imperfect" model are felt most gravely in areas such as Austin, where the cost of living continues to increase but a majority of its student population is considered poor and in need of additional education resources.

But improvements to the funding model must not stop at basic services. By 2020, 65 percent of all new jobs will require postsecondary education, but only 38 percent of Texans age 25-34 have postsecondary degree or certificate . Disaggregated statistics are worse for African-Americans and Hispanics, the latter of which make up the majority of our public education student population. Because public education is the largest feeder into postsecondary, this needs to be a focus of legislative changes.

The Republican-led legislature has signaled prekindergarten, teacher quality and school choice as focus areas for public education. There is no debate about the value of high-quality prekindergarten, and all folks will recognize the need for highly skilled and fairly compensated teachers. Both of those require a commitment of not just policy changes but also funding.

Choice in education is important too, but it isn’t just about vouchers, taxpayer savings accounts or a wider array of alternative education models. It's also about supporting traditional public schools that are adapting to the increasing needs and demands of its families. This diversity of choice is more expensive for all education providers, much more so than the one-size-fits-all, agrarian 20th century education model of the past. Upgrading investments in public education can’t be done on the cheap.

Our demographic shifts and higher workforce requirements demand huge changes in how and where we focus our educational dollars. Our challenges are too great not to work across the political chasms and have nuanced dialogue about what our problems are and how to collectively solve them. We must summon the political will to, yes, invest more dollars in public education, as any upgrade requires — but also to define success for our schools, our students, and our leaders, and do whatever it takes to achieve equity in educational outcomes for our students. We must also listen to our customers and our families, and we must hold our elected officials accountable to what our students need, our families want and our future demands.

This is a call to action. If our Legislature wants to “upend (the) ossified regime ill-suited for 21st century Texas” for the benefit of our 5 million school children, it must be courageous and make public education policy and funding the top priority for its upcoming session.

Kendall Pace

President, Austin ISD Board of Trustees