Other Voices

Texas sorely needs new solutions for school funding

Rapidly changing conditions across a variety of fronts, including growth in the student population, is putting pressure on Texas to find new ways to fund public schools.
Rapidly changing conditions across a variety of fronts, including growth in the student population, is putting pressure on Texas to find new ways to fund public schools. Star-Telegram

I’ve served on my local school board, a college board and as a state representative.

In the House, I’ve served on the Higher Ed Committee, chaired the Public Education Committee, chaired the Article III Appropriations Subcommittee (which deals with all education funding) and listened to thousands of hours of testimony and reports.

I think I know why education policy — especially the funding — is so hard.

Texas has no income tax and no state property tax, so our schools depend heavily on local property taxes.

Unfortunately, there are vast differences in the “taxable wealth per student” from one area of the state to another.

In general, the courts require a substantial amount of “equalization,” which means moving money from property-wealthy districts to property-poor districts — the so-called “Robin Hood” plan.

Massive changes occur as time goes by. Plans that seemed workable are altered by unexpected student growth, property value changes, demographic changes, technology changes, political shifts and other factors.

Even if one could “fix school finance” today, the system would need to be fixed again very soon.

The Public Education Committee met for two days recently with the Appropriations Committee to discuss school finance.

There are some immediate crises facing education funding in Texas.

Property value increases have triggered the Robin Hood feature of the funding system requiring the Houston school district to send money to other districts.

Many other districts have faced this same issue. Houston cannot be treated differently.

Dallas, if present trends continue, is probably only two to three years away from the same situation.

Some other districts are about to lose some of their state funding.

In 2006, districts were given state aid in exchange for property tax reduction, with assurances the aid would be ongoing. More recently, the funding plan has been changed to expire in 2017.

Some districts lose a little. Some would lose 40 percent or more of their funding.

Fast-growing districts are caught between tax limits and continued growth.

About 75 or 80 of the state’s 1,219 districts are absorbing most of the 80,000 new Texas students annually. A cap on bonded debt taxes prevents many of these districts from borrowing to build new schools, while growth just keeps coming.

So, what solutions are possible?

A statewide property tax would solve the equity issues, but it seems highly unlikely that such a constitutional amendment would pass.

Another possible solution is to reduce the number of taxing districts from over 1,000 to a much smaller number with less wealth variation.

The concept would still redistribute taxable wealth but would do so within a group of districts with a common interest and common tax rate.

The state funds would then be the same to every weighted student, thus avoiding distribution fights.

While there are lots of kinks to work out in such a plan, I believe it may be the long-term solution.

Texas needs to fund schools better than our current position, which is near the bottom of all U.S. states — by most measures, we get results near the national average with funding near the bottom.

A few years ago, I suggested an increase in the motor fuel tax. Under our Constitution, 25 percent of that tax goes directly into school funding, and the road fund gets 75 percent.

These added funds, combined with savings from rising property values, would allow the state to raise the basic allotment to schools. As basic allotment increases, the problems of recapture and additional state aid are reduced sharply.

The fuel tax is transparent, consumption-based, efficient to collect and dedicated in its use. That’s exactly what conservatives demand from a tax.

Various groups are coming forward with their plans. All should be seriously considered.

There are no easy solutions.

Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, is chairman of the House Public Education Committee. He did not seek re-election this year.