Why Texas shouldn't run public schools like businesses

Photo by Jennifer Whitley

"We should run public schools like a business!"

And, with a sweep of the legislative wand, our public education problems would be solved. Or would they?

On a recent drive through Hays County, the fastest-growing county in Texas and the fifth-fastest growing county in the nation, I saw a new daycare facility preparing to open, adjacent to an established daycare.

Both of those daycares will be full in a matter of months and will then have to tell folks that they're full. I suspect we could recreate this scene in communities across Texas, as our state continues to welcome more than 1,000 new residents a day. And as private businesses, these daycares get to decide where they build, if they'll expand and when they're full.

But, here's the distinction when it comes to Texas public schools, and it's an important one: Texas public schools do not have that same luxury, nor should they.

While charter schools and private schools can decide if and when to expand, establish admissions policies and close their doors when desks are full, Texas' public schools must welcome all students regardless of educational or financial need — or availability of physical space. And they're reaching a crisis point.

The state's fastest-growing school districts over the past five years educate an overwhelmingly high percentage of new student enrollment growth — 79 percent of all new Texas students reside in just 75 school districts.

Consider Lubbock-Cooper ISD, a bedroom community with very little commercial growth to support its property values. Its high school is currently 80 percent over capacity, and the district operates with a sea of portable buildings outside the school.

According to our most recent data, Lubbock-Cooper is at or near their local debt ceiling, making it very difficult to build a new high school on behalf of their students. At the same time, they don't receive any facilities assistance from the state, thus the burden to build more schools lands squarely on the shoulders of the local taxpayers.

Since Lubbock-Cooper ISD — and other fast-growth districts — can't post "no room at the inn," "lot full" or "try again later" on their school doors, they must rely on class size waivers, overcrowded classrooms and portable buildings.

Ultimately, it's our students and the prosperity of our state that will suffer. The status quo is unacceptable and untenable.

"Run our schools like a business" is a great sound bite, but it's wholly devoid of an understanding of constitutional, demographic and fiscal realities.

Texas public schools will never be businesses, and we shouldn't treat them that way or expect them to behave as such. We should treat them as they were intended to be treated within Article 7 of our Texas Constitution: as "essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people."

The Texas Supreme Court's recent ruling on our school finance system deemed it "undeniably imperfect with immense room for improvement" — hardly a glowing endorsement. So it's heartening to see Texas House Speaker Joe Straus step up and press lawmakers to develop real solutions.

Leaders in Austin are fond of lauding their own efforts to keep state debt low and budgets tight, but Texas is still growing, and the burden of that growth has fallen squarely on the shoulders of local taxpayers. The demand for infrastructure, including buildings for students, will continue regardless of the state's assistance.

Some political leaders like to paint local governments and school districts as the bad guys for taxing their residents, but the simple fact is that when the state decreases its support for public schools, someone still has to pick up the tab.

It's time for state funding to reflect the realities inherent in a state with such tremendous population growth and to allow for greater flexibility in how local communities meet the demands of being a fast growth district.

Run our schools like a business? No, let's invest in our schools in a way that demonstrates our commitment to keeping Texas economically vibrant. Let's make our state a place where businesses continue to flock and where our families can grow and prosper.

Michelle Smith

Executive director of the Fast Growth School Coalition

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