The number-crunchers at the Legislative Budget Board and the comptroller’s office don’t have a political agenda on the issue of school finance. They present the facts, to the public as well as legislators, and the facts are these: State government’s share of public education funding has been dropping and will reach a projected, historic low of 38 percent in 2019.
That neglect is harming school children and burdening local property taxpayers.
Even the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation can’t deny, with any credibility, the state’s poor job of school funding. But it can try to confuse the issue, as it did with a recent TribTalk op-ed by Kara Belew, the foundation’s senior education policy advisor, in service of its political agenda: squeezing education funding while promoting vouchers and other forms of school privatization.
Belew challenged the finding by state financial experts that total education funding — state, local and federal — has dropped from 44 billion constant dollars (adjusted for population growth and inflation) in 2010 to a projected $41.2 billion in 2019. The $44 billion base, she wrote, was inflated by $2.4 billion in one-time recession recovery funds from the federal government.
But even without the $2.4 billion, total public education spending in Texas in 2010 was still about 400 million more constant dollars than the projection for 2019. We are going in the wrong direction, and the main reason is a steady decline in the state’s share of funding.
The state’s share of the Foundation School Program, the basic school finance plan, has dropped from 49 percent in 2008 to a projected 38 percent in 2019. The balance, an anticipated 62 percent in 2019, is borne by local property taxpayers. This doesn’t include federal funds, which account for smaller amounts of school funding.
Texas spends about $2,300 a year less per student than the national average, according to the National Education Association’s 2018 rankings. Based on the 2016 Census Bureau rankings cited by Belew, Texas’ per pupil spending was $2,700 less than the national average, ranking Texas 42nd among the states, although Belew claimed wrongly that Texas was “close” to the national average.
Belew protested that “we are not going to tax and spend our way into improved student outcomes.” But we don’t know that because the funding level per child has decreased by 6.3 percent in constant dollars since 2010, budget analysts say.
Money matters in determining educational opportunities. It matters in class sizes. More than 1,700 Texas classrooms have received waivers from the 22-1 student-to-teacher ratio for kindergarten through fourth grade. Despite the educational benefits of smaller classes, many waivers were granted because districts pleaded financial hardship.
Money determines how well-equipped classrooms are, how up-to-date instructional materials are and how experienced and prepared teachers are. As many as half of the Texas teachers who began their careers this fall won’t be teaching five years from now, partly because of inadequate pay. Teacher pay in Texas is $7,300 less than the national average and eroded by rising health care costs. Almost 40 percent of teachers have to take extra jobs during the school year to meet family budgets.
More funding is particularly critical for the more than half of Texas’ 5.4 million school children who are from low-income families, many with parents who work multiple jobs and don’t have the time or education to help them academically. Although there are pockets of success among these disadvantaged children, their schools are more likely to get Ds or Fs under the narrowly focused A-F school grading system.
We can invest in all students and provide property tax relief. But we can’t impose tax limits that handcuff local officials and jeopardize public services, as the governor, lieutenant governor and TPPF propose. The effective way to lower property taxes is for the state to increase its share of education funding.
This process won’t be completed overnight, but state leaders need to make a down payment during the upcoming session. They can start by tapping into the $12 billion rainy day fund, money taxpayers already have paid.
The cost of not changing the school finance system would be tragic, in terms of lost opportunities for millions of school children, and a drag on Texas’ future.
Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association and the Texas Public Policy Foundation 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.