All across Texas, early morning commuters are beginning to see the familiar sight of flashing red lights on school buses and the warnings at student crossings. These signals remind us to ask ourselves if every child is out of the way.
Too bad school finance discussions for the past several years were not similarly equipped with warnings. We must proceed with grave caution. This opportunity to tinker with our tax system and method of education delivery could be either a glorious achievement, or an abject failure.
Since the start, Texans have hated the so-called “Robin Hood” property tax scheme of public school finance. Even people living in “recipient” school districts say they do not like the system, recognizing its basic unfairness and inappropriateness.
But I have a nagging fear we may have allowed ourselves to be whipped into such wild-eyed frenzy of hating Robin Hood, we might inadvertently – like the late worker who speeds recklessly past a loading bus – be trading something bad for something horrible.
Let us all be clear about three very important things. First, as Texans we pay lower taxes than nearly everyone else in the nation. That is a good thing individually, and is an even better thing economically. Texas is one of the most competitive economies in the nation, and indeed the world, because our taxes are low. While other states have gone on spending sprees, Texas has generally kept spending in line while protecting core services.
Second, our tax system is pretty well structured, economically. Improvements could be made, but cautiously. Almost as important as how much is taken from the economy, is the manner in which taxes are levied. Our use of sales and property taxes is far preferable in every sense to income taxes. We should never allow one, for any reason. States with income taxes have far worse economies, far worse school funding issues, and far more problems than we do.
Third, Texas’ educational system, while needing improvement, is in far better shape than many others. In places like Washington and Oregon, schools were forced to shut down for weeks due to a lack of funding. Our schoolhouse doors have remained open. In other places, teacher pay checks are in serious jeopardy every day. Teachers may not like all their benefits in Texas, but at least getting paid isn’t a worry.
The experts I speak to agree: Robin Hood is a bad system, as bad as so many of us intuitively believe. But we must have all the facts before we drive a stake through the heart of one monster and create another.
So is our problem one of taxes or spending?
“To me, the form of replacement taxation is far less an issue than the improvement in the efficiency of the schools,” said economist Dr. Richard Vedder, an internationally acclaimed tax expert speaking before legislators about school finance.
We should heed his point: in this debate the first question shouldn’t be where the money comes from, but how it is spent. We must ask fundamental questions regarding our expectations for education. We must allow our most basic premises and presuppositions to be challenged, even proven outdated.
No sacred cows can be allowed. Everything should be on the table for discussion and dissection. Education isn’t about teachers, administrators, buildings and football stadiums, but children and their academic future. Right?
What is the purpose of public education? Better yet: what is the public purpose for education? For far too long, Texas has confused the two. Is it time to separate them? Perhaps an answer is found in “student-centered funding,” where tax dollars follow the child to the school meeting his needs?
Is it time we examine the programs and projects crowding the academic day? Maybe we should re-think the way we pay teachers, and even the qualifications for entering the profession? Does class-size matter? What do we expect students to know for graduation?
Why are barely 50 cents of our education tax dollar spent on classroom instruction? Are our schools operating at peak efficiency? Why do the highest-performing schools under-spend the worst?
Why are public schools rated “acceptable” when only 50 percent of students pass state assessments? Should students be forced to stick it out with bad teachers and failing schools? Why can’t we give school choice a chance?
Let the flashing lights of Texas’ school zones remind us to proceed with grave caution, taking care to steer clear of a “solution” that erodes educational opportunities and crushes economic competitiveness.
Texans have the opportunity to choose a sensible vehicle for school finance that will drive academic achievement – not programs and politics – to the head of the class.
Michael Quinn Sullivan is Vice President of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based non-profit research institution.