Lawmakers should grab this chance to fix school finance

Corina Pannabecker teaches first grade at Ogden Elementary in San Antonio on April 30, 2018. Photo by Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

One of the great frustrations in life is watching unpleasant history repeat itself. I am concerned that history may once again be repeated as the Texas Legislature tries to deal with school finance reform.

Like many who seek public office, I entered the 2006 race for state representative out of frustration. The school finance system was messed up. The most recent legislative session, even with multiple special sessions, hadn’t done much to improve it. “Tax compression” and “target revenue” had become the school finance topics of the day. These were added to “recapture”, “chapter 41”, “chapter 42”, “golden pennies”, “copper pennies” and other phrases in the obscure lexicon of school finance. The system was a mess! That mess was the only thing significant enough to entice me to step out of retirement, with the belief that I could fix school finance.

By my second term in 2009,  I found myself on the Appropriations, Article III Subcommittee — the subcommittee that handles all of education funding. I was also on the House Public Education Committee, the policy-writing panel. It was pretty quickly apparent that school finance was not an easy program to fix. There were many varying opinions on the subject, and they were entrenched in the minds of influential people.

The most troubling of those opinions was from those who believed that public education was a waste, and that private providers could better serve “their kids.” That view, while troubling, didn’t surprise me. The next one did.

Among the various school groups there were large and powerful voices that constituted what I came to know as the circular firing squad. Teacher groups, administrators, librarians, technical instructors, small districts, large districts, poor districts, rich districts — the members of the firing squad were seemingly endless. Unless their particular interest was taken care of, any proposal in the center was doomed, along with the fellow firing squad members across the circle. There were always things that seemed less than fair to some members of the circle.

The 2011 session came with the worst forecast for state revenue in years. Cuts were inevitable. Nobody was happy. Even then, attempts to mitigate the damage were attacked by members of the circular firing squad who, in demanding more, actually killed issues that would have at least helped a little. Many of the 2011 cuts are still painfully present today.

By my last session in 2015, there was a slightly better prospect for school finance. As committee chair, I put together House Bill 1759. House leadership proposed up to $3 billion in added school funding — the largest increase in years — contingent on passing significant reform of school finance. The time seemed right. The public wanted something better for Texas students.

Once again, the circular firing squad assembled. Changes to formula factors were attacked as unfair, even though the existing factors were based on values from the 1980s. Many thought that pending litigation before the Texas Supreme Court would produce even more than the $3 billion. Improvement in “recapture” and “hold harmless” situations were deemed as helpful but not sufficient. Time passed, and with session winding down, I pulled HB1759 down.

I will never know if the bill would have passed in the House. I am pretty certain it would not have passed the Senate. I am absolutely positive that the overall impact of the circular firing squad made it unnecessary for the Senate to even contemplate the issue.

History is often disconcerting. The 2015 session ended with the state spending about half the money proposed and no significant reform. Likewise, the 2017 session ended with minimal funding increase and little reform. Meanwhile, the courts ruled that the school finance system was indeed a mess — but not an unconstitutional mess.

Enter the present legislative session, more than 13 years after my personal frustration prompted me to run, and more than 35 years of political frustration. Once again, money is available. Once again, the public wants action. Most important of all, the children of Texas need an updated school finance system that addresses today’s reality.

House Bill 3 may not be perfect, but it is the best possibility for improvement in a very long time. It addresses both tax and spending concerns. It will result in increased teacher pay. It will drive money to proven programs that address the needs of our most challenging students.

If you are a teacher, if you are an administrator, if you are a parent, if you are a business owner, if you are a home owner — HB 3 is our best opportunity to make significant progress in the complicated realm of school finance. Please don’t be part of a circular firing squad.

If you are a member of the Texas Legislature, please think long and hard about the good HB 3 can do. If you miss this opportunity, I believe you will look back with even more frustration than this former member feels.

Jimmie Don Aycock

Former state representative