The bullies run school finance in Texas

Sen. Larry Taylor discusses school choice legislation during a press conference on Jan. 25, 2017. Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

* Correction appended

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and most GOP state senators are pushing an anti-public education extremist agenda in special session with Senate Bill 2, an ideologically driven, ill-considered piece of public education legislation.

If it becomes law, SB 2 will siphon an estimated $60 million away from public education in the form of “tax credit scholarships” (read: “vouchers”) to unregulated private schools for special-needs children. While that sounds nice, there only are 51 private special education schools in the state, exactly zero of which exist outside of major cities.

This amounts to a voucher program to nowhere for rural special-needs families — an unnecessary loss of funding for their schools’ already struggling programs. For families fortunate enough to be in areas where private special education is available, there still are serious issues to consider.

The average capacities of these schools would have to triple overnight to accommodate all of the children with disabilities in public schools. With acceptance rates of 60 percent to 80 percent and capacity being a more pressing concern, families will have a harder time finding placement. What’s more, these schools are unregulated by state agencies. The consistency and quality of care and instruction cannot be enforced, reviewed or supervised, leaving parents who choose private institutions little recourse if their child’s needs are not met.

Before this special session, Senate leaders sought every opportunity to bully and block meaningful school finance reform. These efforts preserved the interests of their pet issue, school vouchers, that dozens of education advocacy groups have fought against. They ignored the bipartisan support for school finance reform in the House and destroyed any hope of it happening for another two years. This action resulted in the stalling of much-needed funding for all our children, purely so they could pander to their base.

In the regular session, legislation by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, proposed to give schools a welcome infusion of state money while lawmakers grappled with a more top-down reform of the whole broken school finance system. The proposed $1.6 billion would have benefited about 95 percent of our public schools by raising per-student spending by the state another $210 a student a year. When you rank 46th in student spending, that’s hardly a fix, but it’s a start.

School districts facing huge recapture (or “Robin Hood”) payments to the state would have seen a decrease in those payments over the course of two years. Austin ISD, with the highest payment in the state of about $400 million next year, would have retained an additional $10 million under the new law. Also included was a $200 million grant to help districts adversely impacted by a state-mandated property tax decrease, monies for dyslexia education and transportation funding for charter schools. The measure passed through the House with demonstrably bipartisan support. But then it got to the Senate.

The House had earlier voted 103-44 against using public funds to subsidize private education during budget negotiations. It seemed vouchers were done for, until the Senate received HB 21 from the House.

When the Senate Education Committee was done with the bill, the voucher program had been reinserted, this time focusing on students with disabilities. They had reduced the total available funding by about $530 million. The House wasn’t interested.

“Lawful but awful.” That’s how the Texas Supreme Court described school finance in Texas in 2016. It’s long past time to reform Texas public education so that it works for the benefit of the state’s 5.3 million public education students. Vouchers, “school choice,” “tax relief scholarships” — however you want to dress it up, is a destructive endeavor. Preventing real reform is inexcusable.

Meaningful finance reform only will occur when we reduce the dependence on our local school property taxes, streamline the host of unfunded mandates for teachers and districts, eliminate high-stakes consequences for students and provide support for a well-rounded education for all Texas students.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this opinion piece had an incorrect dollar amount in it; the Senate's voucher program for students with disabilities was a $60 million proposal, not a $600 million proposal.

Steven Kling

State Senate candidate