State District Judge John Dietz ruled earlier this month that Texas’ system of funding public education is unconstitutional.
The news was met with a giant yawn from many lawmakers.
It’s a complex issue, to be sure. But just because it’s complex doesn’t mean it should be shuffled to the back of the legislative priority list.
The problem is many of our state’s leaders still don’t see school funding as an issue. Take our Governor, Rick Perry, who stated last month that school funding had outpaced school enrollment 70 percent to 23 percent. He called that “pretty phenomenal.”
Politifact.com rated that claim as “false” on its “truth-o-meter,” explaining that Perry failed to adjust for inflation. Also, his claim apparently didn’t take into account the changes in the school finance law that took effect in 2006. The state kicked in an extra $7.1 billion annually, but that was simply to offset the same amount that local taxpayers saved as a result of the new school finance law.
You might remember that was the year the cap on the maintenance and operations portion of the tax rate began to decline from $1.50 to $1. The property tax buy down would be offset by reform of the franchise tax on businesses.
But not listening to reason is nothing new for Perry. Just before he signed the new school finance bill into law in 2006, then-Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn tried to warn Perry that the plan would not work. She estimated that the legislation would fall $23 billion short of the funds needed to pay for the promised property tax cuts over the next five years.
It turns out she was a bit conservative in her estimate – the five-year deficit turned out to be $27 billion.
Strayhorn predicted that to close the funding gap, either taxes would increase or massive cuts would be needed in essential state service such as public education. And she predicted that the school finance issue would wind up in court again in just a few short years.
Perry now has a chance for a “do-over.” He could take the lead in calling for an immediate increase in funding for public education – current Comptroller Susan Combs said last month that legislators had an $8.8 billion surplus to work with this year, not counting the billions of dollars in the so-called “rainy day fund” – and call upon legislators to begin the process of coming up with a school finance law that is constitutional.
I doubt he’ll find time. He seems to be busy trying to recruit businesses from California to relocate to Texas. I wonder who he thinks will wind up working for those companies if they do come to the Lone Star State? They’ll need highly skilled, educated workers won’t they? And won’t that education come, in large part, from our public school system?
So what have other leaders come up with to take on the school funding issue? Sen. Dan Patrick, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has championed “school choice” as a way to fix the problem.
His Senate Bill 2 is a series of reforms to the way charter schools are set up which includes lifting the cap on the number of schools. There was even a provision that would have required unused or underused public school buildings to be turned over to a charter school at a cost of $1 per year. (He later said the bill would be changed so that the charter school would have to pay market value.)
The problem with this is it diverts more funds from public schools while making it easier for kids to enter these charter schools. So the best way to help our public schools is to get our kids out of there as quick as possible?
And perhaps the reason we have underused or unused buildings on school grounds is that school districts don’t have the money to staff those facilities after $5.4 billion was gutted from public education in the last session.
Rather than hit the snooze button and wait for the school funding case to make its way to the Texas Supreme Court, it’s time for lawmakers to wake up and come up with a real solution to the problem of paying for public education.
Brian Knox is the Messenger’s special project manager.