It’s time to reform school finance for meaningful relief

Ongoing renovation and construction work at Runge's middle and high school campuses, which was made possible by the $22 million bond local voters approved in 2014. Photo by Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune

If Texas lawmakers are serious about providing real property tax relief to Texans, then they must reform school finance.

But, here’s a new spin on that age-old broken record and one that we hope lawmakers and voters will consider. Fast-growth public school districts — those public schools that welcome 80 percent of the state’s new student growth each year — are troubled by a renewed push to tie facilities funding for charter schools to facilities funding for traditional public schools.

Why are we talking about additional money for charter schools when our local property taxpayers in fast-growth districts are already suffering from a lack of state support for facilities debt relief? It’s a question that we hope causes leaders in Austin to pause and consider.

The state’s portion of public school facilities funding peaked at 45 percent in 2000-2001, but now stands at a meager 7 percent. As state support declines, families’ annual property tax bills increase across the state — especially in our most desirable suburban communities which, ironically, are represented by some of our most conservative legislators.

Yet some in the Legislature appear committed to slashing the state’s already paltry support for public school facilities by intertwining public school facilities funding with charter school facilities funding. Make no mistake: Funding for charter facilities means less funding for property tax relief.

We know it’s no easy task to reform our school finance system. It will take an equal mix of ingenuity, compromise and courage. That’s all been in short supply in politics these days.

But fast-growth schools and the families and local communities we represent remain hopeful that cooler, more thoughtful heads will prevail, especially when it comes to appropriately meeting increasing demands for facilities and classrooms to keep pace with student population growth.

We’ve been traveling down a road of grossly diminishing state support for public education generally and public school facilities, specifically, for far too long. Critics decry runaway spending for public education, but the fact is the Legislature has not kept its share of public school funding in line with inflation. Real estate and construction costs have also risen, and it’s increasingly difficult for public schools to keep pace with the influx of students our fast-growth districts experience year after year.

Enough is enough. The present system is simply not sustainable for Texas students, schools and local taxpayers.

Local taxpayers will only see real property tax relief when the state funds its public school system sufficiently, including school district facilities. We’re grateful for the speaker’s leadership and the work of the Texas House in the regular session to take on the tough policy issues and find real solutions, and we’re hopeful and ready to work with Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas Senate and the House to ensure school finance reform is accomplished.

To keep the Texas economy strong, we cannot neglect a key component of the foundation on which our state’s economic success is built: strong, high-quality Texas public schools.

Disclosure: The Fast Growth School Coalition and Guy Sconzo have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Guy Sconzo

Executive director, Fast Growth School Coalition