Politics & Government

All agree Texas’ school finance system is broken but can’t agree on a fix

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. AP archives

As the Senate Education Committee began studying how to improve the “efficiency” of Texas public schools, a hearing room full of education professionals, lobbyists and school and minority advocates generally agreed this week that the Legislature should scrap the way it divvies up the more than $40 billion of state money spent on public schools.

“You’ve basically gotta blow it up,” said Ray Freeman, deputy executive director of the Equity Center, which represents property-poor school districts.

There was little such agreement, however, on what to do instead.

Conservative lawmakers, expressing exasperation with suggestions that the state isn’t spending enough on schools, have begun searching for a system of benchmarks that could be used to allocate state dollars based on how schools perform, not primarily on how many students they enroll.

Educators and advocates from small schools and poor districts fear the stage is being set to sacrifice struggling schools on the altar of “efficiency” and argue that lawmakers should close the wide gaps between districts before using money to reward or punish districts.

“Looking at the numbers, 2015 was the most money that the state of Texas has ever spent in the history of the state on a per-student basis, and we still have people coming and complaining we’re not spending enough, and it’s just so frustrating,” said state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano. “When’s enough enough?”

The emphasis on efficiency comes from the Texas constitution: “[I]t shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

In May, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Texas school financing system “satisfies minimum constitutional requirements,” but described the system as “byzantine” and “with immense room for improvement.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick instructed the 11-member Education Committee to re-examine school financing before the next legislative session begins in January and urged lawmakers to overhaul the process.

You’ve basically gotta blow it up.

Ray Freeman of the Equity Center, which represents property-poor school districts

In what could be the only hearing on the issue, the participants in Wednesday’s meeting took predictable positions.

School officials, Latino groups and some Democrats on the panel questioned the GOP focus on efficiency, saying ranking schools by academic and financial performance is fraught with inaccuracy and inequity unless the state first closes vast funding gaps among districts or increases funding for schools.

“I believe it would be very difficult to fairly and accurately create and maintain a system in which all districts would be adequately measured, compared and grouped, and I believe previous attempts to create these comparison groups have been unreliable at best,” said Johnny Hill, assistant superintendent for business, financial and auxiliary services for Lake Travis schools who testified on behalf of the Fast Growth Schools Coalition and the Texas Association of School Business Officials.

But the panel’s Republican members said finding a way to tie funding to performance needs to be explored now.

“It’s all about productivity,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who chairs the committee. “And I don’t think we’re looking at cutting any spending, but we’ve got to do as well as we can with the money we have.”

Officials from several companies, and one university researcher, testified about ranking systems they have developed to compare the money schools spend with student academic performance. They argued that public education overall would improve if lower-performing school districts were required to mimic the best practices of the most efficient school districts.

Some lawmakers and educators pushed back, saying it would be unfair to place the same expectations for academic and financial performance on smaller, poorer districts with needier students than larger, wealthier ones with less poverty.

State Sen. Jose Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said he wasn’t sure how lawmakers could feasibly require a tiny district like Fort Davis in West Texas to mimic the practices of a larger, better funded, urban district. It has had to cut its UIL program because of lack of funding, he said.

The committee is to publish official recommendations ahead of the 2017 legislative session.