Add some common sense into how we fund our schools

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

What if I told you that the state of Texas has chosen for decades to send money to schools every year not based on the property taxes you paid in the current year, or more importantly, the school’s actual costs for that year, but based on out-of-date information from over a year ago? 

This might not surprise you, but that doesn’t make it any more defensible. In the Legislature and school community, this practice is referred to as using prior-year values — funding students who are in the classroom today, based on property values and taxes from the previous school year. 

As you would expect, this causes wildly inaccurate funding levels for students in schools and results in variations in funding — changes as large as $30,000 per student in a single year in some districts. In a classroom of 22 students, that is a swing of over $600,000 per classroom in any given school year, while other schools see their per classroom funding drop by similar amounts — all because the state has not updated the way it recognizes costs and funds our public schools.

This is not an anomaly; it happens to schools all over the state every single year, based on nothing other than fluctuations in property values. Taxpayer dollars that are earmarked for public education should be kept in the classroom where they are needed, and schools should have the guarantee that those dollars are available for all students every single year — not just when property values in individual school districts rise.    

How can we possibly get property taxes right or fund schools correctly if the state is choosing to use year-old tax data for the school year in which students are actually attending? We cannot! And ultimately, it is students and taxpayers who suffer. This simply cannot be rationally defended; while some schools benefit from the present system, more often than not, other students and taxpayers lose. 

The good news is that we can change this. Lawmakers in Austin are currently debating massive changes to the way we fund Texas’ public schools and we have answers as to how to modernize our school finance system and actually put it into the 21st century. 

The solution is simple: our elected officials can ensure that all students statewide receive the funding they deserve by moving away from using year-old tax data and instead using accurate, current-year property tax values. This one change will solve numerous problems that plague our school and tax system that literally cause billions of dollars to be misallocated every year. We can and should be using precious tax dollars more wisely for students’ needs. 

Every parent, student and taxpayer should be watching this issue closely, because either our elected officials will choose to make the necessary changes so that every student and taxpayer are given equal opportunities, or we will continue to embrace an arcane system of funding our schools that no longer can be justified. 

Disclosure: The Equity Center 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.

Josh Sanderson

Deputy executive director, Equity Center