Monday, October 29, 2012

Education funding in the coming Texas legislative session

The coming session of the state Legislature will be one of the most important for the future of public education than any other time in the history of this state. Public education funding has been on the front-burner of legislative problems without solutions for over a decade.

Few people outside of education policy “wonks” and administrators truly understand how the state funds public education. Basically, allocations are made on a per-student weighted contact hour based on the type of course taken--for example, school districts receive additional dollars for students in advanced career and technology courses. However, the basic problem with public education funding in Texas is that since the 60's the Legislature has gradually reduced the amount of its share of funding for public education relying more and more on property tax wealth of the various districts. 

Relying on the wealth of individual school districts has created another serious problem in funding resulting in hundreds of lawsuits being filed by the various districts throughout the state. One district may be wealthy and a small tax effort on the part of its patrons produces a large amount per pupil, while its neighboring school district with fewer businesses or oil wells has to make a huge effort, taxing its citizens to the max, yet still producing a relatively small amount for its students.

Recently, the funding of public education was further complicated by the fact the Legislature, led by Governor Perry, chose to leave over six billion dollars in the “Rainy Day Fund” rather than meet the educational needs of students in Texas. The Legislature shortchanged public education over five billion dollars, giving local districts some serious choices on budgeting. The past session of the Legislature was the first time in the history of Texas, since we have had a foundation school program, that the Legislature chose not to even fund the growth in student population throughout the state. [For a comprehensive review of the research on the relationship between school finance and student achievement, See the 2012 report "Does Money Matter?" prepared by The Shanker Institute.]

Some things do not bode well for the future of public education in this state. First, our governor has been on an informal tour touting the fact we will not seek to find any additional source of substantial revenue, even for public education. Second, there is a growing clamor among right-wing Republicans to place more emphasis on school vouchers and fund private schools. This philosophy was recently reinforced by the fact that Lt. Governor Dewhurst has chosen to appoint Dan Patrick, a right-leaning television and radio personality, as chairman of the Public Education Committee. Patrick is a strong advocate of the voucher system and is likely, by using the clout of his chairmanship, to push the voucher proposal at least to a vote on the floor of the Senate, and perhaps further.

A charter school which is granted within a school district takes the per-pupil allocation of whatever students attend that voucher school directly out of the allocation of the school district. While a few charter schools have emphasized quality and have produced good results, the majority produce poor results as to student accountability and financial accountability for those hired by the charter school. The fact is, if you ask just about any Texas school finance expert, dollar for dollar, charter schools overall do not outperform traditional public schools--and yet, public dollars are bled off of the local schools to support them.

I strongly suggest that if you have children or grandchildren depending on public schools for their basic education, you should immediately contact your state senator and state representative and express your concerns about demanding adequate funding for the public school system of Texas. It is critical to the future of this state, its economy; and as I have said many times before, it is in your interest to help educate someone else's child.

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