Straus examines ‘Robin Hood’ school funding


Texas House Speaker Joe Straus
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus Star-Telegram

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is eyeing some fixes for the state’s public school finance system — after the state Supreme Court said it wouldn’t require any fixes at all.

Among the issues he wants discussed is the part of the system that “recaptures” property tax money from wealthy school districts to help fund poor districts. It’s often called “Robin Hood.”

The state system has “immense room for improvement,” the court said on May 13, but the justices refused to tell the Legislature what to do.

This is a brave new world. In cases dating back to 1984, major legislative change to Texas school finance has come only under orders and guidance from the court.

Thursday, Straus ordered two House committees — Appropriations and Public Education — to study two funding issues. He previously had told them to study two others, and a statement issued by his office said the combination “will allow the House to take a thorough look at school finance when the Legislature convenes in January 2017.”

The first issue is a minor one having to do with a part of the school finance provisions adopted in 1996 (after a court order). It’s a category of state education aid that’s scheduled to go away next year, and Straus wants to know what will happen if it does.

That provision is delivering just $350 million to school districts this year, little or nothing compared to the $51 billion in local, state and federal funding going to Texas schools.

The second order from Straus is far more significant. He told the two committees to “recommend ways to reverse the increasing reliance on recapture payments to fund public education statewide.”

Recapture funding amounted to $1.2 billion in 2014, the latest year for which figures are available from the Texas Education Agency. That’s a significant amount.

Political background: The number of involuntary donor districts is growing. The Houston district, the state’s largest, is entering that list and faces a payment to the state of $175 million next year.

Houston has a lot of voters, represented by a lot of legislators. Expect “Robin Hood” to change.

Still, any such change will have to be made up with additional state aid, which is always hard to come by.

Previously, Straus ordered lawmakers to study an outdated index that adjusts how state money is distributed to school districts, and to examine whether districts are able to meet their facility needs (they aren’t).

None of this makes up for a disappointing Supreme Court ruling, but it’s a start.

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