It’s time for Texans to focus on school finance

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath gives teacher quality data throughout Texas during his testimony before the Texas Commission on Public School Finance on Jan. 23, 2018. Photo by Bob Daemmrich for the Texas Tribune

Sitting commandingly in the heart of Austin, the Texas Capitol is a looming reminder that democracy is how we are supposed to get things done. In its shadow is the less stately William B. Travis Building: a government office that calls little attention to itself. Since January, a group of 13 state appointees has been meeting there to discuss the outdated way we fund Texas public schools. The group, known officially as the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, is expected to recommend changes to the state Legislature by December.

As a Center for Public Policy Priorities intern, I have helped our experts keep up with the meetings and advocate for a remodeled school funding system. Although the commission’s meetings address serious issues that affect virtually all Texans, they are mostly off the public’s radar. This time, it's crucial that we all pay attention.

Now that I’m on the brink (knock on wood) of graduating from college, I realize I owe my current position to my quality high school education. I never thought about how hard my teachers worked or recognized the actual cost of providing that education. Few people do. The school finance commission is discussing test scores, teacher pay, and the distribution of state funding, but the state has not comprehensively studied the costs of providing a quality education since the late 1980s. Many of our state formulas for funding public schools do not fully account for over 30 years of population growth, demographic changes, economic trends, and increased expectations for student outcomes. The state does not allot enough basic funding per student, especially those who require special or bilingual education.

My strong high school experience was a product of the initiative of selfless teachers, not of state-level will power to prioritize public education. My mom is one of those teachers, and watching her struggle has taught me some of the gritty truths about Texas public education. She’s bilingual, fastidious, and passionate – the kind of teacher that students never forget. That appreciation is the main reward for her hard work. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get overtime pay or many opportunities for promotion. She estimates it costs her hundreds of dollars a year to pay for materials and school supplies that neither the district nor her students can afford. She brings home hours of work every night.

Although plenty of news outlets have reported on the creation of the commission and its early meetings, I have been hard-pressed to find anyone outside of the Capitol’s political bubble who knows what it is. The commission is the best chance we have right now to make public schools better for students, teachers, and taxpayers, but it hasn’t seemed to generate much buzz at the grassroots level. There’s a simple explanation: although the meetings are open to public viewing and occasional testimony, they are hard to understand, except for the most astute education advocates. Attendees can expect to sit through hours of PowerPoint presentations rife with inaccessible jargon.

In one such presentation, a senior public education official said, “It appears that the programmatic choices made by districts and the quality of execution of those choices at the campus level – with a special focus on quality instruction – drive outcomes far more than macro-level budgetary decisions.” That’s a lofty way of saying that some state-level authorities are washing their hands of the responsibility to make school funding equitable and adequate, and pointing the finger at teachers for the consequences.

This is a problematic viewpoint that many school districts reject. Local decisions can only make so much of a positive difference when districts cannot afford to keep class sizes manageable, or pay for materials that keep students engaged, or offer reasons for teachers to stay on board. Money matters in education, and ignoring that truth is not productive.

Our state’s school finance problems are part of a decades-long debate that has periodically boiled over, usually only when individual schools and districts sue the state for better funding. An increasingly partisan political climate and decades of temporary solutions and loopholes applied to the school finance system have made it all so complex that there are fewer inroads for public advocacy. This commission, though imperfect, is the best chance for Texans to get involved in the way we fund our public schools. A remodeled school finance system is a fight in which we should all engage.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities and the University of Texas at Austin 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.

Bianca Lopez

Intern, Center for Public Policy Priorities