Other Voices

Robin Hood needs a new act, but still has a role in school finance

As the Kansas Legislature sought a compromise over school funding, teachers rallied at the Capitol.

Congressional candidate Paul Davis showed support for the teachers who rallied at the Kansas Capitol on Saturday.
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Congressional candidate Paul Davis showed support for the teachers who rallied at the Kansas Capitol on Saturday.

Robin Hood, that take-from-the-rich, give-to-the-poor outlaw hero of folklore and fiction, has gone too far in Texas. He’s taking too much from the rich and even from the just sorta rich.

Some powerful people in Austin want the legislature to change that this year.

“Robin Hood” in this case is what many people call parts of the state’s school finance system that take local property tax revenue from wealthy school districts and use it to help pay for public education in poor districts. Those provisions have been in place since 1993.

For a quarter of a century, many Texans have said it’s just plain wrong to take local tax revenue from one part of the state and move it to another.

The state Supreme Court has long disagreed. Through many years of lawsuits, court rulings and appeals, the court has blessed the Robin Hood plan as a legitimate use of state authority.

Court rulings in the 1980s and early 1990s established that Texas wasn’t doing right by students in poor districts, where there was not enough money to educate them as well as students in wealthy districts.

Nor could the state afford to make up the gap on its own. Lawmakers’ backs were against the wall, so they adopted Robin Hood.

The state Supreme Court said that the Texas Constitution requires the legislature to provide a good public education system, that school districts are created by the legislature and the legislature can move school district property tax revenue around in order to meet its constitutional responsibility.

But a lot of people never have liked the idea.

Now a special 13-member Texas Commission on Public School Finance, appointed by the governor and other state leaders, has spent the past year studying the state’s $60 billion-a-year school funding system.

The commission’s final report, dated Dec. 31, includes recommendations for ending $3.5 billion a year in outdated and wasteful spending and for using that money in better ways.

The commission would target key state education problems. Only four in 10 Texas third-grade students could read at grade level last year, and only 28 percent of the state’s high school graduates get a college degree, occupational certification or military acceptance within six years of completing high school.

Teacher pay must improve, and there must be incentives to move the best instructors to schools where they are needed most.

Gov. Greg Abbott apparently believes schools need more money. He hasn’t formally introduced a plan yet, but documents on the commission website indicate Abbott wants to put almost $1.3 billion in new state funding into Texas schools next year, presumably from expected increases in state general revenue.

That’s not as much new state money as some commission members initially said schools need. An early draft of the commission’s report sought $1.73 billion for specific programs next year, plus more for key enhancements to the overall statewide school funding formulas.

But Abbott has additional goals — like reducing property taxes, the largest share of which go to public schools.

And the governor apparently wants to reduce Robin Hood’s role.

When Texas adopted the Robin Hood plan in 1993, only 34 school districts out of more than 1,000 across the state had to give up some local tax revenue to support poor districts.

But much of Texas has grown and thrived since then. Unless the legislature adopts changes, next year more than 200 wealthy districts will be required to send a total of more than $3 billion to Austin to be redistributed to poor districts. Politically influential central districts in Austin, Houston and Dallas are now on the list of wealthy districts.

More than 50 percent of the $1.3 billion in new state money Abbott would provide to schools next year would be used to reduce wealthy districts’ obligations under Robin Hood, commission documents say.

Abbott would also require school districts to reduce property taxes by almost $1 billion, the documents say.

At this early stage, it’s hard to see exactly how all the numbers will add up and how they will affect students across the state.

We won’t know the details of Abbott’s plan until he lays it out. And legislators could change the plan greatly before the session ends in late May.

Texas school finance plans need to be refreshed from time to time. The latest major formula revision was in 2006, and many of the current plan’s elements have been in place since long before that.

Key education reforms also are needed, as the commission’s work amply shows.

It’s OK if Robin Hood gets a comeuppance at the same time. But students and teachers and schools should come first, and benefits should flow equitably to every district in the state.

Mike Norman is a former editorial director of the Star-Telegram.