This commentary was originally featured on TribTalk on August 12, 2017. 

Texas’ school finance system is on life support. For the last 30 years, the Texas Supreme Court has urged legislators to resolve the hemorrhaging system. Complicating things is whether the cure is more taxpayer money or something else. Legislators have long chosen to spend more money on public education, which has led neither to more dollars going to classrooms or improved education outcomes.

While there are only a few beats left in the heart of the current special session, the 85th Legislature can still equitably fund education and direct more dollars to classrooms so quality teachers receive higher merit-based pay.

Unfortunately, inefficiencies plague the school finance system.

In the 2015-16 school year, Texas taxpayers spent $64.8 billion on public education that serviced 5.3 million students — or about $12,265 spent per student. With the average student-teacher ratio of 15.2 statewide, that’s $186,500 per classroom. Given average teacher pay of $51,891, teachers received less than 30 percent of those expenditures.

Where did the other 70 percent go? Buildings, electricity, and other expenses account for part of it, but potential hiring inefficiencies stand out.

The National Center for Education Statistics’ data for Texas from fiscal years 1993 to 2015 show that student enrollment increased 48 percent while the hiring of teachers increased 56 percent, compared with an increase of non-teacher staff hiring of 66 percent.

Since teachers most directly affect student learning outcomes, why the large hiring discrepancy? We can find no good answer. Meanwhile, if non-teacher employment growth had matched student enrollment general growth in Texas over those 23 years, research shows schools could have saved $2.2 billion annually or increased every teacher’s benefits by $6,318.

One way to solve this is by allocating money to school districts through a simple student-centered funding approach instead of the current complex, state-determined funding formulas, This would allow dollars to follow students, thereby providing more choices in the education system based on quality indicators instead of zip codes. Teachers could also benefit by receiving a larger share of education dollars with the means to demand higher pay.

Unfortunately, critics claim the school finance solution is to repeat the same failed experiment that’s been tried before: more state money to schools. But this assumes that spending more on public education delivers desired education outcomes, which hasn’t lived up to the hype.

True reform will come from allowing parents’ opportunities to best meet their children’s needs through equitable student-centered funding, which has also been discussed during the special session.

This will provide a dynamic education market, whereby dollars equitably following students help keep the state out of court and end the public school monopoly, especially for those without means to choose today. The Texas Public Policy Foundation finds that a way to accomplish this is through education savings accounts, which could contribute to substantially higher teacher pay while ultimately helping more students graduate and achieve higher levels of cognitive ability to better master life’s obstacles.

We can’t leave a system that’s not the best at serving students on life support any longer. More taxpayer dollars and minor tweaks will never solve the fundamental flaws of the school finance system.

Although time is running out on this special session, Texas should promptly let students purchase education services that best meet their individualized needs so they can reach their full potential.