Better times for Texas schools?

By Bob Buckel | Published Wednesday, July 24, 2013

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Texas public schools, like businesses and households, have gone through a difficult stretch the last few years.

Budget tightening didn’t start with the multi-billion-dollar funding cuts from the 2011 legislature. Most school districts were already trimming staffs by attrition and watching expenses in the face of stagnant tax values and uncertain state policy.

Being a school business manager has been a tough job for awhile.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

Now that the state has loosened the purse strings a bit and restored some of the funding that was cut, we’re beginning to hear a few cautious sighs of relief – teachers getting raises, programs getting funded, shelved projects getting back on track.

But cautious is the operative word.

Even with some money from the “Rainy Day” pot, the legislature did not restore funding to the level it was prior to 2011.

And remember, it was that level of funding that spawned a massive lawsuit that played out earlier this year. There’s no jury, but the judge is still out. The state’s “Robin Hood” system, in which property-rich districts are required to send local tax money to Austin – may yet get tossed out as unconstitutional.

Some observers believe the legislature’s limited injection of funds this year was an effort to moderate the verdict. But if Robin Hood is unconstitutional, adding money to it won’t change that.

A veteran public servant told me a long time ago that depending on local property taxes to fund education was inherently unequal and always would be – in a state where Highland Parks and Southlakes exist alongside the Rio Grande Valley and the inner city of Houston.

The only way to make it equal would be to tax all property at the same rate, send all the money to Austin, and divvy it up statewide.

But the Texas constitution forbids a statewide property tax – that’s the issue at the heart of the lawsuit.

The constitution also prohibits a statewide income tax, although the late, great Bob Bullock did succeed in getting a loophole implanted before he went to that great smoke-filled room in the sky.

According to Article 8, Section 24 of the Texas Constitution, an income tax would have to be approved by a vote of the people, and two-thirds of the money would have to go toward property tax relief. The remaining revenue would go to education.

That means property taxes would go down twice as much as income taxes would rise.

Under that scenario, property tax money would likely be used only for building schools – the I&S fund – and a certain amount of enrichment, at the discretion of local voters. The income tax would pay for operations.

It would take a statewide referendum to impose an income tax, and even the most daring of politicians are reluctant to sacrifice their careers on that altar. No one thinks it would pass in the lifetime of anyone currently breathing.

With a little belt-loosening, having learned the lessons of tough times, school districts in Texas are enjoying a slightly easier budget season.

Let them.

But the judge’s ruling is coming, and the big questions of school finance will soon be back on the table.

Texas could sure use some creativity, some innovation, some ideas from our leaders.

Buckel is executive editor of the Messenger.

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