Passing school finance reforms should be lawmakers’ priority

By Brian Cassidy

The Austin American Statesman, 01.07.2019

Last month the Texas Commission on Public School Finance made a set of recommendations to the Legislature that should provide hope to Central Texas families, students, taxpayers and businesses. While the recommendations are not designed to solve all problems or make all interest groups happy, they reflect broad agreement among our statewide elected leaders, educators and businesses.

The commission recommends redesigning the state’s school funding system to better prepare students for our economy. With well over half of Austin-area open jobs requiring at least an associate degree, post-secondary readiness is a major focus. Readiness begins at an early age so we are encouraged by the recommendations to ensure a far larger percentage of our young people start kindergarten ready to learn.

The commission also embraced readiness for college, career, and military service. Readiness rates for these post-high school endeavors should receive significant additional attention by school districts if they are rewarded with $5,380 for each low-income and $2,000 for each non-low-income student who meets that mark, should the Legislature enact those recommendations. These results-based incentives should lead to improved performance and outcomes.

The commission also makes an excellent recommendation that the Legislature explore ‘last dollar scholarships’ so newly prepared high school graduates can more easily afford post-secondary certification and credentialing.

Here is how Central Texas taxpayers might benefit from school finance reform:

Commission recommendations call for the Legislature to reduce the state’s reliance on local school property taxes. Owners of the average-valued home in the Austin Independent School District have seen school property taxes rise by approximately $1,300 over the last five years, with nearly all of those higher taxes going directly to the state in “Robin Hood” payments. Taxpayers from Austin, Eanes, Lake Travis, Del Valle, Manor, Round Rock, Leander and other districts in the region currently export $820 million in property tax revenues -- by far the biggest donor of any region in the state.

The commission left an appropriate hole in its legislative recommendations: how much additional state revenue to invest in public education to offset those Robin Hood payments. That number will determine whether your property tax increases will just slow or will actually go down. But while there are many details to work out, it is encouraging the Legislature will work on lowering state reliance on ever-increasing regional school property tax revenues. That relief will help us address our affordability challenges.

Employers, those who provide vitally important jobs to our residents, will also benefit. Employers have no limit to annual school property tax increases on their facilities. Some locally have seen school property taxes grow by 150 percent over the last five years, straining their ability to afford to stay in business and compete with internet-based employers. Worse still, their local public schools don’t receive this property tax revenue to improve student performance. Following the commission’s recommendations should mean slowing or reducing runaway local school property taxes and allowing us to invest to increase the preparation levels of our high school graduates.

The bottom line is that the governor, Legislature and Texas business and education communities have an historic opportunity to make major improvements to our local school property tax rates, the life outcomes for our young students and the competitiveness of our employers.

With political and policy stars aligning, the business community will enthusiastically support our lawmakers who make passing reforms a priority.

While we recognize policy details matter, we should not allow this moment to pass. The business community, educators and committed advocates should be a constructive part of this process. No one group will get all of what they want, but we can all agree on two things: our kids deserve a better education system and Central Texas taxpayers deserve relief from the Robin Hood system of school finance.

Cassidy is the 2019 chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Joshua Kumler