Conservative questions are not answered with liberal solutions. How to radically reduce property taxes and transform public education cannot be answered with tax hikes and massive new spending for district administrators and teachers’ unions.
The urgency of the debate over school finance began at the start of the 78th Legislature as a consequence of taxpayer concerns over rising property taxes and demands for improved public school performance. After being squeezed between rising tax rates and appraisals, and years of flat SAT scores and increased expenditures on remedial education despite rising public education spending throughout the last decade, the Legislature set to work on rectifying these problems.
But what began as a debate about relief and reform has devolved into a demand for tax hikes to fund new and unjustified spending by school districts. While the most recent statewide assessment exams show a decline in overall performance, the public school lobby, led by the Texas Federation of Teachers and the Texas Association of School Administrators, want more money with no strings attached, to the detriment of homeowners and businesses which fund the schools in the first place.
The public school lobby has successfully scuttled every attempt to bring swift resolution to the school finance and public education through two regular sessions and three special sessions. Twice, relief and reform bills, while imperfect, have made it to conference committee only to see the efforts of the Governor and the Legislature undermined.
Furthermore, the school lobby has once again raised the specter that reforms can only come at an unbearable price; higher standards can only be met, according to them, with significantly increased revenue for the schools. The clear implication is that teachers’ unions will not fulfill their responsibility to deliver the best education to every school child unless their demands for pay raises and more benefits are met. Unionism is in full bloom in Texas.
Now tired and frustrated, some legislators are floating and filing “get out of dodge” education bills that avoid the central challenge of tax relief and reject the premise for reform. These bills would give teachers an across-the-board pay raise and fund textbooks. While it is imperative that textbooks be purchased and delivered, it would be an abject failure if the outcome of this process were new taxes without relief, and new money without reform.
The best response to this challenge is for the Legislature to answer conservative questions with conservative answers. There have been at least five school finance plans recommended or drafted that provide a framework for tax relief and protection for most homeowners and businesses. Notably, the outline proposed by the Joint Select Committee and two plans offered jointly by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute are reasonable proposals resting on sound principle.
Additionally, there were meaningful reforms in early versions of HB 2 and its Senate counterpart, such as November school board elections, end-of-course exams and financial accountability, all drive toward improved performance in public education. More importantly, many members filed excellent bills in the 79th Regular Session that could be incorporated into an omnibus education reform package.
The blueprint for relief and reform is on the table.
With a renewed commitment to conservative principle, this Legislature can win a significant policy debate with a lasting impact on taxes and public education.
Rollins is president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation; Colyandro is executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute.