Is school finance study commission the real thing…or a charade?

 

We soon will learn whether the Texas Commission on Public School Finance will live up to its name or merely be another charade concocted by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Will it actually make recommendations to the Legislature for an improved system of funding our public schools? Or will it prove to be a waste of time and thousands of taxpayer dollars?

We may find out next Wednesday, Dec. 19, when the commission is scheduled to decide on a final report to lawmakers.

Texas’ lousy school finance system has been studied multiple times, and you may recall that this study was driven by Abbott and Patrick during a summer special session in 2017, maybe for political cover, as they were rejecting a proposal by the Texas House to add as much as $1.9 billion to public school funding. So the origins were suspicious.

Both the governor and the lieutenant governor had abysmal records on funding public education but were facing reelection campaigns. So they were eager to go through the motions of “addressing” an issue of critical importance to millions of voters.

Suspicions were rekindled several weeks ago when Abbott began floating a property tax reduction proposal that would squeeze school district budgets even more without saying how he would replace the lost revenue.

Then, things became even more suspect this week when Scott Brister, the governor’s choice to chair the study commission, said he was “uncomfortable…telling the Legislature they have to inject new money” into the school finance system.

“I don’t think that’s our job,” he said.

Well, then, Mr. Chairman, what is your job? Property tax relief? That may be part of the commission’s job, but cutting property taxes without adding significant amounts of additional education funding from the state would make a bad, underfunded school finance system worse.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, one of several legislators on the commission, made it clear that the Legislature must increase school funding.

“I would not be willing to sign a report that doesn’t say that we’re going to spend more money or new money on public education,” he said, comments that seem to have the support of other House members on the study commission.

Huberty was the House Public Education chairman who sponsored the $1.9 billion school funding bill that the governor and the lieutenant governor rejected the last time the Legislature was in session.

Another commission member, Nicole Conley Johnson, chief financial officer of Austin ISD, has proposed several options for raising revenue, options that may be added to an appendix of the commission’s report and all but ignored, if Brister has his way.

Brister may be “uncomfortable” asking the Legislature to increase education spending. But his discomfort pales in comparision to the discomfort felt by Conley Johnson and other Austin ISD administrators and board members. That district gives hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the state for redistribution to property poor districts, yet is dealing with high poverty among its own student body. And now it is so financially strapped it is trying to find $55 million in cuts and is considering closing 12 schools and charging students for magnet programs, among other options.

That’s what happens when the Legislature refuses to adequately fund public education and reform a woefully outdated funding structure, and Austin ISD isn’t alone.

 

 

Private donations are great, but adequate school funding is the state’s job

 

When the state leadership fails to adequately pay for public education, as it has failed to do for years, parents and local businesses step up, not only with higher property tax payments but also, in many cases, with private donations.

These donations, although well-intended, worsen an already inequitable funding system, not only among school districts but also among schools within the same district. And, to no surprise, the low-income kids who often need the most help are left behind.

The Dallas Morning News story linked below tells how the Dallas ISD administration, with an enrollment that is about 80 percent low income, is struggling to keep up in its private fundraising effort with wealthier suburban districts. Dallas ISD, with 156,000 students, raised about $600,000 last year, mostly from Texas Instruments, a private employer. That amount averaged out to about $4 per student.

By contrast, nearby Highland Park ISD, one of the state’s wealthiest districts, received $10 million in one donation alone through the Highland Park Education Foundation. The foundation spent about $2.5 million last year, or about $350 for each of the district’s 7,000 students, over and above what the district receives in tax money. And none of the Highland Park kids are poverty stricken.

This additional money can be spent on a number of things, including extra teacher pay, professional development for educators, college-readiness programs for students or various academic initiatives.

Nonprofit education foundations aren’t the only inequity problem. PTAs, although well-meaning in fund-raising efforts, add to inequities within the same school district. I have heard of some PTAs at schools in middle- or upper-middle-income neighborhoods raising thousands of dollars at a single fundraiser, figures that can only be dreamed about in poorer parts of town.

Thousands of dollars will purchase extra school supplies or help pay for field trips, but dreams… not so much. This problem was cited several years ago in a report by the Texas Civil Rights Project.

PTAs can share their money with other schools. Perhaps some do, but not many, I suspect. Most parents understandably want to spend their money on their own children’s schools.

But it’s the Legislature’s and the governor’s job to see that tax dollars, the public’s money, is distributed equitably – and in sufficient amounts so that superintendents and principals aren’t constantly having to hold their hands out to private donors. Private donations for education extras are fine. But all too often in today’s under-funded climate, schools need the extra cash for classroom essentials, and many schools can’t raise it.

Dallas ISD may restore education foundation to tap flow of private funds bolstering other districts

 

 

A proposal to cut property taxes is not a plan to fix school finance

 

Gov. Greg Abbott has floated a proposal to cut school property taxes, but don’t confuse it with a plan to fix the school finance system because it isn’t, at least not yet. The only effective way to cut school property taxes is to significantly increase state funding for public education, and it isn’t clear that Abbott wants to do this.

In fact, the governor has a history of squeezing state education funding, which is one reason (along with rising property values in many school districts) that local property taxpayers are now paying for about 62 percent of the Foundation School Program, while the state is paying for only 38 percent.

Abbott and his ally, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have always been more interested in cutting property taxes by imposing arbitrary revenue limits that could cripple local services than they have been in adequately and fairly paying for public schools. And, so far, the new proposal from the governor’s office doesn’t change that.

The governor would cap increases in school property tax revenue at 2.5 percent per year, a limit that would squeeze school district budgets even tighter without a significant infusion of new state dollars for public education. The governor has hinted that more state funding will be part of the tradeoff for new restrictions on property taxes, but he has not identified an amount or a source for the new state dollars.

Until the governor lays out a goal for additional state education funding and identifies a source, he does not have a school finance plan, and school officials and parents with children in public schools have every reason to be wary.

Abbott’s eagerness to put property tax relief over adequate school funding also could increase inequity between property-rich and property-poor school districts in violation of the state constitution.

You may recall that Abbott also has broached the idea of teacher pay raises – most recently during his reelection campaign – but has never proposed a way to pay for them.

Meanwhile, we still are waiting to learn what the school finance study commisson, which Abbott and other state leaders appointed last year, will recommend. And we are waiting to see what Dennis Bonnen, the new speaker-apparent, may propose. Bonnen has said school finance will be the House’s top priority when the new session convenes in January, and many new members elected to the House with TSTA’s support agree.

The governor has time to prove he really wants to fix school finance. But a property tax-cut proposal without new state funding is not a school finance “plan,” at least not a plan that would do school children any good.

Abbott wants to lower property taxes and boost school spending. But he doesn’t say how he’ll pay for it.

 

 

 

A-F school blame game tracks student poverty, not school accountability

It is bad enough that state officials refuse to give low-income children enough support to succeed, but it is worse when they insist on blaming the kids when the kids fall short of the politicians’ expectations. That is essentially what the new A-F grading system for Texas schools is all about, and the practice is contagious.

You may recall that school districts with the largest concentrations of low-income children got a large number of the Ds and Fs when the Texas Education Agency released the first A-F grades last summer. Individual campuses won’t be slapped with letter grades until next summer, unless the Texas law is changed. But based on the numerical grades posted for individual campuses, the same pattern will hold true.

Similar results, to no one’s surprise, where found in Louisiana when that state recently released its A-F grades for the 2017-18 school year. As one commenter pointed out on the deutsch29 blog, “The scores track poverty very well.”

The blog also cites similar, historic results from Florida and North Carolina and credits former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (brother of the former No Child Left Behind president) with coming up with the A-F idea. It then was spread by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), as so many bad ideas are, to legislators and governors throughout the country.

Texas, Louisiana and Florida have a couple of other things in common, besides the A-F school grading system. All three under-fund public education, and all three have poverty rates that are higher than the nation as a whole.

Texas spends $10,456 a year per student in average daily attendance, Louisiana spends $12,030 and Florida spends $9,897, all below the national average of $12,756. These figures are based on the National Education Association’s estimates for the 2017-18 school year.

Some 20.7 percent of Texas children (one in five) lived in poverty in 2017. The percentage was similar in Florida, 20 percent, and Louisiana’s was even higher, 27.8 percent (more than one in four). Texas and Florida also have refused to expand the Medicaid program for low-income residents under the Affordable Care Act, even though the federal government would pay most of the cost.

Poverty impacts a child’s ability to learn in many ways, including through poor nutrition, inadequate health care, and in some cases homelessness. Poverty also impacts a child’s ability to pass the standardized tests on which the A-F grades for their schools are largely based.

Low-income parents can’t afford the tutoring and the special STAAR-prep classes that many children of middle- and upper-income families receive. Many low-income parents also are busying working second and third jobs to support their families and don’t have time to help their children with homework. Many don’t have the educational backgrounds to help their children with school assignments or prepare for STAAR exams. And many don’t speak English well.

I am encouraged that Dennis Bonnen, the new House speaker-apparent, has said fixing the school finance system will be his top priority. While he is at it, he also should get the A-F blame-the-kids law repealed.

“The truth of the matter is that A-F shames and blames poor children, it shames and blames the professionals that love those children and it needs to be repealed,” the Rev. Charles F. Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, told the Austin American-Statesman.

The children whose schools stand to get the most Ds and Fs don’t deserve a stigma from state officials. They need more resources from state officials.

 

 

 

 

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