Less talk, more action on school finance

I know how it goes: Every time lawmakers convene for a Texas legislative session, they talk about how we should fund our public schools. These conversations are always a priority, but they haven’t yielded many results. Many of the formulas we use to fund public schools in our state haven’t been updated in 30 years or more.

In my community — and probably yours — well-funded public schools mean smaller classes, more support for teachers and courses that get kids excited to learn. But our outdated school funding formulas don’t get schools the resources they actually need to meet the standards lawmakers set. It's like our school finance system is an old house that needs a serious remodel, but we just keep patching it up.

Michael Marder, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, found that school districts and campuses have been scrambling to operate with less funding while dealing with growing and diverse student bodies. The giant hole in public school funding, Marder says, is $3.2 billion deep.

To begin the remodel, lawmakers passed House Bill 21 during the 2017 special session to create the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. The first commission meeting is this week, and members will meet throughout the year before making recommendations for the 2019 Legislature.

The commission is a good start, but we can’t fix our school finance system by continuing to study it to death. We need bipartisan support to tackle the challenges we face in funding our schools and making long-overdue investments in public education.

And let's remember that any fixes to school funding should focus on the more than 5.3 million Texas kids who rely on public education.

Let's not let this commission devolve into a useless debate about school vouchers. Vouchers are especially useless to rural Texans like the folks I represented, since there are more private schools in the big cities. Lawmakers need to focus on real, effective ways to fix our public education system that will benefit all students, across class, background and zip code.

As a lawmaker and a West Texan, I have always believed that vouchers are wrong for the whole state. They're nothing more than funding schemes to drain public tax dollars and push them into private schools that benefit just a few students.

Real school finance reform will happen only if all lawmakers come together to make the necessary investments in education.

All Texans who believe in public education — regardless of party affiliation — should tell the members of this commission that we want real investment in our schools.

As the saying goes, it's time for the members of this commission to lead, follow or get out of the way. Texas kids and families have waited long enough for a solution. It’s time for action.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities, the University of Texas and the Texas Association of Business have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Jim Keffer

Former state representative