Funding Our Values
Budgets are moral documents. Where we allocate our resources determines what we value. What we spend becomes who we are.
It’s no question, then, that the state of Texas, from its lawmakers to its taxpayers, values education. Public K-12 education is the number one line item in the state’s budget year after year. And the majority of every homeowner’s property tax bill is collected by his or her local school district.
But is what we’re spending truly “adequate,” as our Texas Constitution prescribes? Is it adequate for all students, or just some? And are Texans satisfied simply with adequacy, or should we instead strive for greatness? If we want to truly answer these complex questions, we have to go beyond simply calling for “more money” and determine what it is within our education system that we value the most.
Determining the values of our current public education budget is difficult because our funding formulas are incredibly complicated. They’re complicated for a reason, and each idiosyncrasy points toward a set of shared values. State lawmakers recognize low-income and English language learning students require additional resources, so they assign them weights that increase funding. They acknowledge that a student’s zip code shouldn’t determine the amount of resources he or she can access and equalize funding through the use of recapture. Extra niceties like football stadiums aren’t seen as necessary and as such aren’t formula funded; local voters must approve of them in bond elections.
Nowhere in our current funding system is any value whatsoever placed on student achievement. We have an accountability system that assigns an A-F grade to every campus and district, but these accountability measures have no direct impact on state spending. An A school receives the same amount per student as an F school. And, except for in a handful of districts, a highly effective teacher is paid the same amount as an ineffective one with the same amount of experience.
This runs counter to the values of Texans. In a recent Raise Your Hand Texas poll, nearly 93% of respondents believed “education programs receiving taxpayer dollars must be academically and financially accountable and transparent to taxpayers,” the closest to a unanimous response achieved in the survey. And the “greatest concern about Texas schools” was “poor teaching,” surpassing “standardized testing” and even “lack of funding.”
Texas taxpayers and lawmakers want academic accountability for their spending. In a state and government that value fiscal conservatism, any new investment must necessarily have a projected return. When it comes to public education, that return is an increase in academic outcomes for all our students.
We already do this in higher education. Since 2014, we’ve provided millions of dollars to our state’s community colleges for achieving “Student Success Points,” such as credential completion or transfer to a university. When it was first proposed, these schools opposed the measure. In every legislative session since its adoption, they have advocated for its continuation and expansion.
That’s because outcomes based funding allows for a steady increase in available resources without difficult adjustments to funding formulas. Which is why the Texas Commission on Public School Finance has recommended $800 million, a fraction of their multi-billion dollar reform package, go toward encouraging school districts to prioritize student outcomes on third grade reading and college, career, or military readiness.
Every single district across the state of Texas will see new money as a result of this program. Furthermore, the funding will be distributed equitably, which means that districts that improve literacy among low-income and English language learning students will see even more benefits as a result. Combined with the rest of the Commission’s recommendations, historically overlooked campuses will see a remarkable influx in funding. They’ll also see an incentive to direct these new resources to improving early literacy rates and postsecondary readiness.
This is not meant to increase our over-reliance on high stakes standardized testing. The fact is, early literacy and postsecondary readiness has and always will be extraordinarily high stakes for every student. And by emphasizing the importance of 3rd grade literacy, we can incentivize our schools to place their most effective educators in K-2, where they traditionally aren’t placed because those grades are not tested. Moreover, college, career, and military readiness is determined by a host of factors, of which a standardized test is only one. You'll be hard pressed to find anyone in the legislature or otherwise who believes STAAR and SAT are perfect. But it is imperative we measure student success because we can’t impact what we don’t understand.
Only four in ten Texas students are literate by third grade. Less than three in ten receive a postsecondary credential. And it only gets worse for low-income students, English language learners, and students of color. These numbers are unconscionable. They’re also changeable if we provide the financial resources to make change possible.
Our budget determines our values. If we want to improve outcomes for every Texas student, we must, quite literally, assign value to this important goal. Otherwise, we’ll continue paying into a system that simply doesn’t see the difference between failure and success.