State panel suggests school finance overhaul
By Julie Chang
Directing more money toward schools educating poor children, updating outdated funding formulas and curbing property tax growth are among ways the state should overhaul its beleaguered school finance system, according to draft recommendations made by a state commission on Tuesday.
The final report from the Texas Commission on Public School Finance is due to the Legislature by the end of the month. The Legislature, in lieu of pumping more money into Texas classrooms, created the commission last year to develop ways to fix the way the state funds public schools.
The commission has spent the last nine months learning about the state’s complex funding formula, how to redirect money to districts that need it the most. The group also has studied how to drop property taxes, the main source of local revenue for schools, a goal some say runs counter to bolstering school funding.
Although the commission has devised 29 recommendations so far, members on Tuesday were divided on whether to put a dollar figure on how much more money school districts need.
“What I’m uncomfortable about is telling the Legislature they have to inject new money. I read this to say we recommend the Legislature ... increase school finance funding by 2 billion and I don’t think that’s our job,” said commission Chairman Scott Brister, a Gov. Greg Abbott appointee to the panel. Brister is a former justice of the Texas Supreme Court and the only member who disagreed with the court’s 2005 ruling that the state’s public school finance system was unconstitutional.
Brister added that he didn’t want the commission to open the state to a lawsuit if the Legislature, which has many priorities to balance, fails to follow a recommendation to inject a set amount of new money into Texas classrooms.
Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston and chairman of the House Public Education Committee, was adamant that the commission increase the overall pot of money for education.
“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.
The draft report recommends spending:
• $400 million a year, so that districts get extra money for every third grader who achieves reading proficiency.
• $400 million a year, so that districts get extra money for every graduating senior who does not require remediation, as determined by their ACT, SAT or Texas Success Initiative test score, and who earns a job certification, enrolls in a college, or enlists in the military.
• $200 million in 2019-2020, growing an additional $200 each subsequent two-year budget cycle until 2027-2028 to allow districts to create evaluation systems to pay the most effective teachers higher salaries.
• Up to $50 million in the first year for districts to create dual language programs.
• $100 million every year to help students with dyslexia.
• $50 million every year to allow districts, primarily with high rates of low-income students, to add 30 instructional days onto the school year.
The commission also recommends spending $780 million each year for districts to spend on programs that improve third-grade reading proficiency, including full-day pre-kindergarten.
Last year, the Legislature eliminated funding for a $118 million high-quality pre-K grant program and $30 million in supplemental pre-k funding.
According to a recent survey of 95 districts by Texans Care for Children and Commit Partnership, 62 percent of districts said the loss of the pre-k funding negatively impacted their pre-k programs at least “a moderate amount” while 38 percent of districts said the cuts had “a lot” or “a great deal” of impact on their pre-k programs.
“We’re excited to see that the commission urged the Legislature to provide funding in its school finance plan for full-day pre-k so that more children start kindergarten ready on day one,” said David Feigen, Texans Care for Children’s early childhood policy associate.
Michelle Smith with Raise Your Hand Texas said the state should be fully funding full-day pre-K every year.
“First, we do not believe the Third Grade Reading Allotment appropriately addresses funding of full-day pre-K. Funding a full-day pre-K program through the formulas is essential,” Smith said in a letter to the commission. “In Dallas ISD, students who attend full-day pre-K outperform their peers on third grade reading tests. The most effective investment Texas can make in early childhood education is full-day pre-K.”
The panel on Tuesday focused on Abbott’s property tax plan, which critics fear would hamper the Legislature’s ability to fix the school finance system.
Data from the Texas Education Agency shows property tax owners across the state would see tax collection drop by $992 million in 2020 and $3.7 billion by 2023. While the decrease in tax revenue drops, so does the collection of local revenue for school districts — $301 million in 2020 and $74 million by 2023.
The plan would cap property revenue growth that districts can collect at 2.5 percent every year. It would curb the growth of local revenue for districts and decrease recapture payments, which property-wealthy districts must pay to the state to help property-poor districts.
Abbott’s proposal would force the state to increase its share by $3.8 billion in 2023, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. The plan, however, wouldn’t expand the overall pot of money going to schools.
“It’s not a dime of new money in them,” said Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, and member of the commission.
Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, a fellow commission member, has proposed using oil and gas production taxes and growth in state general revenue to fund property tax relief. Some conservatives have backed the ideas.
King, however, doesn’t believe oil and gas production to be a reliable source of revenue.
The commission also recommends reallocating outdated elements in the school finance system including the “cost of education index” that gives districts different funding based on their location in the state, and allotments for high school and gifted and talented programs.
The commission recommends increasing funding for poor students ($1.1 billion), providing transportation funding for property-wealthy school districts ($60 million) and increasing funding to pay for operational costs that districts incur when opening new schools or facilities.
Other ways the commission suggested to save money and to address some people’s criticism of excessive testing of public school students would be to consider eliminating the five end-of-course State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness that high school students must take to graduate. Instead, high school students would take the SAT, ACT or the TSI.
The panel will meet again Dec. 19.
Originally published here: https://www.statesman.com/news/20181212/state-panel-suggests-school-finance-overhaul