School has started, and it's time to revisit a familiar issue: school funding.
Earlier this summer, in its Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition v. Williams ruling, the Texas Supreme Court failed to ensure access to a quality education for all children. The court reversed the trial court's ruling that the current system is "constitutionally inadequate, unsuitable and financially inefficient."
Since 1989, Texas courts have been the final safeguard when the Legislature fails to provide sufficient and equitable funding for all children as required by the Texas Constitution. In this latest ruling, the court abdicated this responsibility by punting it back to the Legislature, the source of the problem. This is in spite of the court's recognition of our broken system, stating that Texas's 5 million children deserve "transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid."
The school finance system has become outdated, inefficient and, worst of all, insufficient. The worst provisions include "hold harmless," the result of political deals that should have expired long ago. This means that some districts with high property values can tax at lower rates and yet still obtain extra funding from the state, while districts with low property values have to tax at the highest rates — in effect, taxpayers in low-wealth districts are subsidizing the wealthy districts.
We need to address additional inefficiencies borne by financially strapped districts, including providing equitable funding for all districts at all levels; closing the achievement gaps of English learner students and economically disadvantaged students; and alleviating the burden of teacher health benefits on districts.
The Legislature has historically refused to act until the proverbial "gun to the head" from the Texas Supreme Court — and in May, the court declined to force lawmakers to act.
In the absence of a court order, it's uncertain what, if anything, the Legislature will do next session. The House Speaker Joe Straus has ordered House committees to study and recommend reforms for the school finance system.
On the Senate side, the latest hearing involved a discussion of performance-based funding as an alternative to attendance-based funding. Performance-based funding is based on the premise that schools should be run like factories with high production and low costs, but school children are each unique; they are not interchangeable widgets.
For example, experts have found that English learner and economically disadvantaged students need between 20 to 50 percent more funding than an average student, but they currently receive only 10 percent more. On the other hand, the district court in the school finance trial found there was no generally accepted measure of efficiency that could be applied to proposals by the parties seeking to run schools like a business.
The court also found that there was no solid evidence that a teacher merit pay system would have a positive impact on student achievement. Ultimately, a performance-based system would likely add to the inefficiencies of financing our public schools on the backs of the poor school districts. A for-profit model of winners and losers should never be the model for our children's education because all children deserve a quality education, not just some.
The other major problem with performance-based funding is that it would likely rely on standardized tests. The State Board of Education survey on standardized testing and accountability recently found as much of a consensus as you'll find on any issue in Texas — 80 percent of the 27,000 respondents said they do not want high-stakes tests tied to student assessments, and 87 percent said the role of standardized state assessments in teacher evaluations should be reduced. Given the lack of public confidence in the validity and reliability of the state's standardized tests, putting more weight on tests would move us in the wrong direction.
With the 2017 session fast approaching, it's time to tackle school finance issues head on and do something about high-stakes testing. Ultimately, the state's core constitutional obligation is to make sure adequate educational opportunity is efficiently provided for everyone. All legislators need to understand this responsibility.
If we continue to do nothing, our children will pay the price.