Dallas ISD wants more money, and it’s going to the taxpayers in November to request a tax hike. A tax ratification election on the ballot would authorize a tax rate increase. Other Texas districts, including Frisco, Richardson and Duncanville, will hold TREs on Nov. 6.
Great! Taxpayers should have a say in what their taxes will be. But tax increases requested by school boards should not be rubber-stamped. Too often, Texas school boards ask for tax increases without being able to explain how their school district is using existing tax money or how new tax revenue will be used to improve student reading and math results.
Answering critical questions about how property tax money will be used is more important than ever; high and increasing tax bills cause Texas families to lose their homes and, further, could discourage employers from locating to or expanding in Texas.
Are we getting our money’s worth? That’s a question we should all be asking. We know that 70 percent of Texas’ economically disadvantaged third-graders read below grade level.
So a district simply saying “we need more money” isn’t nearly enough. We need to know specifically how existing taxpayer money is being spent and whether it is being used effectively to improve student results at every Texas school district.
Let’s take Dallas as an example. There is no doubt DISD is doing many things right. In the state’s new A-F school district accountability system, Dallas ISD shines, with a B grade. That’s because Dallas ISD students are learning and growing faster than the state average. Furthermore, Dallas ISD’s economically disadvantaged students, who are from low-income families, are making more progress than students in school districts with similar levels of poverty.
But that doesn’t mean DISD deserves a blank check. The TRE should spark detailed and data-driven conversations.
During the 2016-17 school year, Dallas ISD spent more on a per-student basis than the statewide average; specifically, Dallas ISD spent $13,194 per student, while the statewide average was $12,787.
Further, data from the Texas Education Association shows there’s no significant correlation between spending levels and student results. In fact, some high-performing districts in the Rio Grande Valley — including Alamo ISD, Edinburg CISD and Valley View ISD — are spending less per student than Dallas ISD, and serve the same or even higher percentages of economically disadvantaged students. Yet these districts are achieving better reading and math student results.
Compare for example, Dallas ISD to Edinburg CISD. Both have 86 percent of their students coming from economically disadvantaged families. As mentioned, in 2016-17, Dallas ISD spent $13,194 per student. In 2018 accountability data, Dallas ISD had 36 percent and 44 percent of its economically disadvantaged students reading and doing math on grade level, respectively. Using the same data, Edinburg CISD spent $10,881 per student, and had 41 percent and 51 percent of its economically disadvantaged students reading and doing math on grade level. Instead of asking for more tax dollars, could Dallas ISD replicate practices of higher-performing school districts?
One thing Dallas says it will spend the new taxpayer money on is teacher pay structure. Everyone, including Gov. Greg Abbott, supports identifying and rewarding good teachers. Dallas has already pioneered a system that recognizes and rewards its best teachers. But DISD is also continuing to give costly across-the-board pay raises to all teachers. These raises give money to teachers who are doing a great job, and also to those who are not. Without rewarding excellence, how can DISD hope to retain the best teachers?
The district also says it will use tax ratification election money to create more specialty campuses. That’s great; if you look at the Texas Education Agency’s list of Blue Ribbon schools released last week, you’ll see many of them are early-college schools.
But DISD may have options for expanding these kinds of opportunities for parents and students without going to taxpayers for more money. For example, partnering with an outstanding charter school could provide options and benefit both the district’s bottom line and its educational outcomes.
The important conversations we should be having about TREs can easily be derailed by tired talking points, especially the claim that districts are forced to raise taxes because the state isn’t doing its part.
But “the state” refers to state taxpayers, the very same taxpayers who are also paying their local DISD property tax bills. Furthermore, the state has not cut funding for public education. Overall funding for public education increased from $43.1 billion in 2007 to $60.6 billion in 2017.
The fact is that schools have more dollars to work with on a per-student basis than ever. Voters on Nov. 6 will decide the fate of these tax ratification elections. It’s up to the school districts to persuade them to vote yes.