Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

Somebody needs to fix school funding, so meet Jimmie Don

Kendall Holland, left and Mira Nair work on a science lesson at Eubanks Intermediate School in Southlake’s Carroll school district.
Kendall Holland, left and Mira Nair work on a science lesson at Eubanks Intermediate School in Southlake’s Carroll school district. Star-Telegram

Jimmie Don Aycock has guts — or he’s just crazy enough to take on an almost impossible task.

He’s the Republican state representative from Killeen who is chairman of the House Pubic Education Committee.

Aycock held a news conference in Austin on Wednesday to say that, in the next few weeks, he and 15-20 other House members intend to fix the state’s troubled public school funding system.

Many men and women have tried what Aycock says he intends to do — taking much more time than what he has left before the legislative session ends June 1 — and many have failed.

Maybe he’s got nothing to lose. Somebody has to get started on this sometime, and it might as well be Aycock and now.

By the end of the year or early in 2016, the Texas Supreme Court could rule on a pending lawsuit and order the state to fix the school funding system’s major flaws.

Texas has been through this exercise many times, and Aycock knows exactly how it has gone wrong in the past.

“The fact is, when you change these complicated formulas some people win, some people win more than others, some people lose,” he said at the news conference.

The people who would lose usually team up with the people who win less than others. They all contact their legislators and push them to modify or scuttle the proposed changes until a better deal comes along.

Aycock has a two-pronged strategy this time.

The first is decidedly old-school: Throw in as much money as you can, and spread it around so as many people as possible feel like winners.

The 2016-17 budget proposal scheduled for debate in the House on Tuesday includes an extra $2.2 billion for schools beyond what’s required to pay the increased costs of annual enrollment growth.

Appropriations Committee Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, said at the news conference he’ll offer up a budget rider Tuesday to add another $800 million for schools.

That means Aycock has $3 billion to help make changes to the school finance formulas work for as many districts as possible.

That may not be enough. It depends on how effective Aycock is with his second strategy.

“To change a system that is this badly flawed will require some courage from a great many members,” he said. “I’m asking members to step up this time and not just look at the [results] for their district or their districts, but to think about the philosophy and the policy decisions that we need to make as a group.”

Here’s an example: A lot of the money in the school funding system is driven to districts based on what’s called the Cost of Education Index. Researchers looked across the state and took note of local differences in the cost of what it takes to run a school district.

They came up with an index to plug into the statewide funding formula that would even out those cost differences. But that was 1989.

Cost factors have changed a lot since then, going up particularly in larger urban areas and along the Interstate 35 corridor.

Yet the state still uses the old index, which means money is being driven to rural areas that don’t face costs as high as those in urban areas.

If Aycock changes the index or the formula, rural districts will squeal — or they’ll expect to be given extra money on the side so they’re not losers.

Similarly, the calculation for what the state pays districts to compensate for transportation costs hasn’t changed in more than 20 years.

Aycock also wants to change the formula to better equalize funding between wealthy districts and poor districts.

And there’s a big problem in Houston. By 2018, under the current formula the Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, is expected to have to pay the state $101 million a year to help fund poor school districts.

“I suspect that will not be real popular in Houston when that happens,” Aycock said.

Let’s say Aycock finds workable solutions to the school funding formula problems and the House approves them. What then?

So far, no one in the Senate seems to be making similar efforts. At least Aycock will have laid groundwork for when someone does.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830

Twitter: @mnorman9