Texas can fund public education without constraining local control

State Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood (l.), and House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston (r.), talk with Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston (facing), and Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio (back), on May 27, 2017. Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

For more than two decades, state officials have prided themselves on Texas being a low-tax, limited-government state. As a result, our state relies heavily on its sales and property taxes to fund key functions of state and local government. Combined with legislative changes that have tied the hands of local leaders, this fuels tensions and animosities that I believe are undermining Texas’ future, most critically its ability to educate its young people.

According to the Texas Comptroller, over the past two decades, the percentage of public education funding contributed by the state has fluctuated dramatically, ranging from a low of 30 percent to a high of 46 percent. Today, the number is at the lower end: about 36 percent. The last time the state share was this low was 13 years ago.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers have enacted a number of onerous restrictions on school boards’ capacity to collect money locally, including caps on tax increases, limits to when school districts can hold bond elections and a requirement that districts must seek voter approval for any rate above the threshold of $1.04 per $100 valuation.

Most recently, our governor proposed to further limit property tax increases by local school districts and other entities to 2.5 percent, and to require that any local effort to exceed this figure be approved by two-thirds of voters. (Few elected officials, including the governor, have received 66 percent of the vote in recent elections.)

Viewed as a whole, it is clear that the state has been increasing its reliance upon property taxes to fund public education while simultaneously restricting local school board members’ ability to fund their schools appropriately.

This demonstrates an alarming lack of trust in the voters of Texas by state leaders.  Local school board members run in good faith to represent their constituents as best they can, and they are closest to the people. The state should not restrict their ability to try to raise the revenue they believe necessary to create the quality of life they desire in their communities. The limitations placed on them should be the same as those placed on all elected officials: an up-or-down vote by the people holding them accountable for the decisions they make (or do not make) regarding funding and taxation.

Our children are not Republicans or Democrats.  The state should do all that it can to fund our schools — and I believe it will. We can trust that the Legislature and elected state officials will do all they can to appropriately fund public schools, and that local officials will be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and make the best decisions they can to fund local governments as they deem appropriate.  If there are disagreements, the voters will settle the issue, not just at the state level, but in local elections as well.

To safeguard local control is to remain true to the independent spirit for which our state is known. We are all in this together. If we succeed, our children will be well-served — and our future as a state will be secured.

Disclosure: Mike Moses has been a financial supporter 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.

Mike Moses

Former Texas education commissioner

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