Jimmie Don Aycock, chairman of the Public Education Committee in the Texas House, sounded proud when he announced last week that he and his colleagues are determined to rewrite the state’s public school finance plan.
He should be proud. The question now is whether he can avoid the old traps that have led to failure and inequity in so many previous plans.
An Austin judge last year declared Texas school financing so badly flawed that it violates the state constitution, and the Texas Supreme Court will examine the issue later this year.
“The Legislature is faced with a decision to either act proactively and try to get something done about education funding or simply do nothing and sit back and wait and see what the courts say,” Aycock told reporters at a March 25 news conference.
The 2016-17 budget bill passed by the House this week would give him $4 billion in extra funding — beyond the $30 billion in general revenue funds needed to continue current programs and pay for annual enrollment growth — to use in a new school finance plan.
That’s important. In his ruling last year, State District Judge John Dietz said one of the flaws of the current system is that it does not deliver enough money to enough school districts to allow them to meet state-mandated education goals.
Aycock has stated some of his “big-picture objectives,” but he has not said how he intends to fix the system.
One of the important things to look for when he lays out his plan — he says he’ll do that in time for the Senate to consider it before the session ends on June 1 — is how much he’ll accomplish through formulas targeting specific educational goals. Formula funding treats all districts the same.
Contrast that with how much of the $4 billion he’ll simply shovel to specific school districts that would lose under a strictly formula-driven plan.
People who follow school finance maneuverings in Austin call the latter approach “hold-harmless” funding, although the term evokes so many bad memories that many try to avoid it.
Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, an Austin organization that has advocated funding for low-wealth school districts for more than three decades, estimated this week that as much as $4 billion out of each two-year state education budget gets spent through “random, haphazard, non-cost-based” hold-harmless provisions in current law.
Initially, those provisions are usually thought of as temporary work-arounds to ease the transition to new funding formulas. But Pierce says one of them has been in use for 23 years.
“If a district can’t find a way to transition in 23 years, we suggest it isn’t going to happen,” Pierce wrote in the Equity Center’s latest newsletter.
The subsidy must end sometime, he wrote. “It might as well be now.”
Another provision sets out “target revenue” for some school districts. It started in the 2006-07 school year, and in 2011 the Legislature said it would end with the 2016-17 school year.
Pierce says by its scheduled end date the target revenue provision will have sent almost $25 billion to some of the state’s 1,000-plus school districts.
Some powerful school districts will lose a lot of money if their target revenue checks no longer arrive. Aycock says Houston ISD is in that group, to the tune of about $101 million.
No surprise, Pierce says some districts want the subsidy continued.
“The Texas Legislature posted a clear warning sign in 2011 that this hold-harmless would end in six years,” Pierce wrote. “A six-year warning that an eleven-year-old temporary hold-harmless is ending is sufficient notice.”
Yes, but it is Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, in the state’s largest city. No fewer than 32 legislators, including some of the state’s most powerful, represent districts wholly or partly in Harris County. Many more are within its sphere of influence.
That puts a lot of pressure on Aycock, who is from San Angelo. But he volunteered for the job.
Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830