The Texas Legislature Must Reform School Funding This Session, No Delays This Time

The No. 1 issue for the Legislature should be reforming public school finance. The manner in which Texas raises and allocates funds to public schools, commonly known as the Robin Hood system, has been a constant source of controversy for many years. In 2016, the Supreme Court of Texas held that the current system meets the minimum requirements of the Texas Constitution and that primary responsibility for reform lies with the Legislature, not the courts. Nonetheless, the court practically begged the Legislature to take action. Justice Don Willett, writing for the court, said that schoolchildren in Texas "deserve transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid."The Legislature was unable to agree on any reforms in the 2017 session, in part due to disagreements over proposals to allow the use of public funds for private schools. Instead, Gov. Greg Abbott appointed the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, which issued its final report Dec. 31. Although much of the litigation focused on the adequacy and inequities in total state and local funding per student across different school districts, the commission did not take a position on how much money is enough. Rather, it offered 35 specific recommendations, many of them designed to create incentives that would improve educational outcomes for individual students, especially those who are economically disadvantaged or English language learners.I am not advocating a specific set of reforms, but I do have a strong opinion on strategy. The Legislature should devote as much time as necessary to reforming public school finance, and it should seek to pass a clean bill. It should not get bogged down in debates over private school vouchers (or "education savings accounts"), bathroom bills or other hot-button issues that evoke intense feelings on both sides but lack a broad consensus.The Commission on Public School Finance recommends that public school finance reform should include property tax reform, and I agree. There may be a temptation among some to do the politically easy thing by limiting further increases in property taxes while kicking the can down the road on other issues related to public school finance. However, limiting or reducing property tax revenue without considering the consequences for programs and establishing alternative sources of revenue would be deeply irresponsible. I say this as a homeowner whose property tax bill has increased significantly.A consequence of biennial legislative sessions is that missed opportunities fester for at least two years. Each individual student gets only one shot at growing up, and two years is a significant share of the total time spent in the public school system. Failure to pass legislation that reforms public school finance while incorporating property tax reform would mean that over 5 million schoolchildren must endure two more years of what Justice Willett described as an "ossified regime ill-suited for 21st century Texas." It is time to get the job done.Robert Lowry is a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.   Continue reading...

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