Fixing school finance isn’t rocket surgery
By the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board
It’s not “rocket surgery” to know that you have to figure out what something costs before you figure out how to pay for it. We’re borrowing that malapropism from Alief Independent School District Superintendent H.D. Chambers, who quoted a third-grader this week in his testimony at a commission hearing on school finance reform.
Rather than fix a system the Texas Supreme Court famously labeled “byzantine” in 2016, the 85th Special Legislative Session punted and opted to appoint a state commission to study the issue. Again.
At the hearings, there was a lot of talk about the rocket science of school finance, school equity, allotments, accountability and educator retention, but there’s no agreement on school finance 101: How much does it cost to adequately educate students to be ready for college, the military or workforce?
Section 42.007 of the Texas Education Code directs the state to determine the cost of meeting its obligation to educate all students. Our elected leaders have broken this law for more than a decade. The Legislature needs to stop with the guesswork and follow its own law by directing the Legislative Budget Board to assess this cost.
The old adage “If you don’t want to hear the answer, don’t ask the question,” applies. Since the cost of a modern education is likely to be more expensive than they’d want to pay, lawmakers have assembled a distinguished group of commissioners, only to blindfold them by withholding the facts.
Without this key information, these hearings are little more than a setup for a political decision, not one designed to meet the needs of students — or the needs of our state economy.
Nevertheless, a stream of knowledgeable educators made their presentations to the commission. Winston Churchill’s famous quote, “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job,” aptly summarizes what they said.
Right now teachers find their toolbox all but empty. One chief financial officer of a school district worked as an alternate bus driver. Teachers are having to stock their classrooms with essentials like Kleenex, paper and pencil by paying out of their own pockets. Some librarians who survived the budget cuts must clean their own libraries. This is no way to treat valued and skilled employees.
Chairman Scott Brister, a homeschool parent, has been at pains to make clear that the hearings weren’t staged for any predetermined outcomes. But anyone who has followed the Texas Legislature knows what the answer will be: The state won’t restore or increase public school funding. Districts will have to find efficiencies.
In a system already on a starvation diet, essentials are too easily mistaken for efficiencies. Schools have had to cut AP and dual credit classes. They’ve axed the arts classes that have been proven to enhance academic achievement and to reach at-risk kids. They’ve increased class size, which has been shown to have a negative impact on student learning. And they’ve cut back on professional development for teachers.
Although there can’t even be a productive discussion without accurate, up-to-date information on how much it costs to educate students, there should be consensus on the consequences of staying the present course.
Our state must stop leaving behind so many of our students — and, with them, our future. As the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has spelled out in the Texas Higher Education Strategic Plan, the consequences are clear: “Those losses will spell a decline in the economic future of Texas and the opportunities available to its people.”
That’s not rocket surgery, either. Just basic logic.
Orginally published here: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/editorials/article/Fixing-school-finance-isn-t-rocket-surgery-12771805.php#photo-15269608