Having presided as Senate Education Chair for many years and grappling with the thorny problem of trying to solve the issue of public school funding, I am familiar with the pitfalls encountered in such an effort. It is amazing to me that anybody of intelligence could look at Texas’ current system of allocating public resources to public education and declare it to meet the constitutional mandate of our constitution. The critical words at issue in our state’s basic legal document is that our legislature is obligated to provide an efficient system of free public education for the children of this state (emphasis mine).
It boggles my mind that our system could be called efficient when it provides some districts with the ability to furnish twice or three times the amount of dollars to educate the children in that district while other districts, even though given a maximum tax effort, can produce only one-fourth as much per pupil.
Another clue as to whether or not our system truly meets our constitutional mandate for free public schools for Texas children is the fact that Texas has now slipped to 37th in ranking for what we do for public education. There have been lawsuits filed concerning the unfairness and inadequacy of school funding in Texas since the early ‘60's. No court having examined the situation has pronounced our system to be what it should be. All trial judges who have examined our system of funding have found it not to meet the constitutional mandate. Frankly, the current situation with our Supreme Court appears, simply, to be one where the Republican Supreme Court wants to let our Republican Legislature off the hook so they do not have to face the reality of adequately funding public education.
In spite of all of our political rhetoric from our governor, lieutenant governor and past governor about wanting to make Texas first and preparing future generations to underpin a dynamic, growing economy for the state, their rhetoric continues not to match their deeds. In fact when things get tight, rather than dip into the so called Rainy Day Fund, our Republican leadership led the charge to simply rob public schools of $5 billion dollars. Incidentally, the $5 billion has not been replaced and we are barely keeping up with same amount for natural growth in the number of school children in our state.
One thing our legislative politicians should awaken to is there is another court system that might reach a different solution than our partisan Supreme Court–the federal court system. Back in the ‘60's, Edgewood School District, a very poor school district in San Antonio, filed a federal suit. By a close vote of the panel of judges hearing that lawsuit, the court ruled against plaintiffs, but in the process were extremely critical of Texas’ system of funding. The courts said although the Edgewood case did not quite reach the status of being a denial of equal protection, it was very close; and unless the state did something to address the problem, the federal courts would take another serious look at Texas’ system. While our past attorney general, now our governor, and the current attorney general seem to enjoy making a hobby out of suing the federal government, the future of our children in Texas is far too important to continue to play political games, particularly with public education.
The real problem that faces our legislature is there is really only one way to solve the inequity in the way we finance public education–that is to raise enough revenue to adequately fund our schools on an equal basis. Doing so would have the benefit of stopping the meteoric rise in property taxes on our homes and small businesses in the state. The means available for doing so are very limited: (1) A statewide property tax that would raise enough revenue and could be divided equally among all of the schools—or, God forbid, (2) a state income tax that would raise enough money to adequately and equitably support our schools. The other choice would be to raise the sales tax or create some new tax to get the job done. It appears, however, that none of these options could garner enough favor among our “no new tax” legislature to get us out of the mess we are in.
Unfortunately, it is my prediction that our legislature will continue to try and find substitutes for money while trying to address our school problem. It will also continue to siphon off the funds — that ought to be going to educate the vast majority of our children — by authorizing more and more private and charter schools to be funded without tax dollars, or continue to force higher and higher property taxes locally.
They say that a true statesman is one who looks years into the future and tries to prepare our government to address it in a way beneficial for the greatest number of citizens. While I pray for more statesmanship in our state, based on past practice and partisan politics, I am not hopeful.