This commentary was originally featured in the Houston Chronicle on March 20, 2018.
Education spending continues to be the buzz around Texas.
As well it should be: Texas spends 52 percent of general revenue on K-16 education — more than on any other item in the state’s budget. Yet every year property taxes continue to skyrocket, and the cries for more money grow louder.
If only the state would spend its fair share, pundits say, all education problems would be solved. But the buzz from the media and others who believe that never seems to address simple reality.
First, state spending is up over time. Our recent analysis using the Texas Education Agency’s data shows that inflation-adjusted total education spending is up 29.7 percent and per student funding is up 7.6 percent since 2005. And Texas increased education spending by $5.2 billion again just last legislative session. But who benefits?
Consider the period from 1993 to 2015. Texas’ student enrollment increased by 48 percent. The number of teachers increased by 56 percent but non-teaching staff grew by 66 percent. We can all agree that teachers are the most important in-school element for success, yet they aren’t being valued.
If public schools would have simply limited hires of non-teaching staff to that rate of new student growth, every teacher could have received a $6,318 raise (or taxpayers could save $2.2 billion every year).
This brings up another important point: 2008 is a favorite year for heavy spenders to use to demonstrate how the state has “decreased spending on public education.” Why?
Because spending then was uncharacteristically high from school finance changes in 2006, and a one-time federal stimulus injection from the Obama administration, including $5 billion awarded to education in Texas.
Artificially inflated spending expectedly declined afterward as funds normalized and federal dollars dried up. Pointing to that high-water mark in history is like saying that a one-time inheritance should increase your monthly paycheck. You can dream, but an exception does not make a rule.
Finally, regarding the state spending its “fair share,” the state’s share of district funding is whatever the district tax revenue says it is. Since the 1940s, the state has determined how much it needs to send to each school district after local property tax revenue has been estimated. Arguing that if the state increased education spending then property taxes would go down is putting the cart before the horse.
A district’s level of formula funding is established based on an admittedly convoluted set of antiquated state-determined formulas. If local taxes will be less than a district’s guaranteed formula funding, the state builds the difference into the state budget and pays it out to a district throughout the school year.
If a district collects more funding than expected, the state portion is reduced so that total funding matches the guaranteed amount. If a district comes up short, the state increases its funding to cover the full amount.
Were local school property taxes to go down, state education spending would increase. But as long as local property taxes continue to rise dramatically, you can expect the state share of spending to continually decline. Whether the money comes directly from local taxes or the state pot, however, the district is guaranteed the funding per child dictated by these convoluted formulas.
The state can’t be hacking away at its share of funding when its funding role is supplemental and guaranteed.
And let’s not forget: whether they are local taxes or the state share, all of the money comes from the same place: us. Whether from local property taxes or state revenues, the Texas education system is funded by the taxpayer. Increasing education funding, whether at the local or state level, means increased taxation or rearranged priorities.
Pointing fingers back and forth doesn’t get what we all want: a system that adequately provides for and efficiently allows parents, students, teachers, and taxpayers more options to prosper. The focus must be on successful teachers, programs that yield better outcomes, and, most important, opportunities for our children to thrive.