This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on April 11, 2015.
Any day now the Texas Supreme Court will likely rule on the pending school-finance case. Four issues are before the justices:
- Efficiency: Is the system productive of results with little waste?
- Equity: Is money equitably allocated?
- Adequacy: Do schools have enough money?
- State property tax: Is the state in violation of the prohibition against a state property tax. Texas taxpayers, legislators, and school officials anxiously await this pending decision.
The efficiency issue is before the court for the first time and was plead by the Texas Association of Business and five families. The other three issues have been litigated multiple times in the past and have consistently been brought to the courts by public schools and their various associations. Historically the focus of school-finance litigation has been money and how that money is allocated. However, the court has continued to indicate that money is only one issue and that the school-finance system needs systemic change.
For more than three decades, the Texas Legislature has been wrestling with the thorny issue of school finance and school finance litigation. Time and again the legislature has tweaked the system only to find the state back at the courthouse defending the latest legislative action. Although the Texas Supreme Court has consistently called for “structural” change, the legislative solution has always been more patches to the existing structure.
Clearly, a different approach is required if the seemingly endless cycle of litigation is to ever end. On the first day of the trial in 2012 the lead attorney for the school districts indicated that litigation was just part of the school finance system. That should not be the case.
The way education is funded today consists of a hodgepodge of highly complex outdated formulas that would make a nuclear physicist’s head spin, formulas which the trial court found have little relation to what is required to educate a child. The current formula system has evolved over time based primarily on political considerations. In other words, politicians tweak the school funding formulas to deliver additional funding to whichever school districts politicians wish to favor in order to harvest sufficient votes for passage of their preferred legislation. School finance has become a way to earmark funds for political purposes.
That is simply how the political process works today; however, that was not always the case. Originally the Texas Constitution envisioned completely equal funding for every child and provided for per capita student funding. Once the concept of equal state funding per child was abandoned, the gamesmanship of earmarking for political gain was unleashed. Over the decades, funding decisions evolved based on funding schools rather than funding students. Texas should revisit the original constitutional intent and shift back to student-centered funding.
Every child in Texas deserves the same educational opportunities regardless of place of residence. Every child in Texas should be valued exactly the same by the great state of Texas.
Today, including facilities and operations expenses, Texans spend $12,761 per student in attendance. That is equivalent to over $300,000 for a classroom of 25. However, the average Texas teacher makes only about $50,000. Something is very wrong with that equation. That represents a five-to-one ratio between value-added labor and overhead costs — a very high overhead ratio by any rational standard. The system, as designed today, greatly undervalues the one place where education occurs—the classroom. If Texas is to prosper this must change.
If Texans value the classroom effort we must restructure education funding to reflect that value rather than just continuing to grow what appears to be an ever-expanding bureaucracy. Such a new funding system would fund every student equally and be completely transparent.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation recently released a study Texas School Finance: Basics and Reform which outlines a vision for enhancing Texas’ future through a student-centered funding system for education.
Student-centered funding would focus not only on equity for students but also focus on results for students. Designed appropriately, such a system would empower parents, enhance student performance, provide greater equity, improve efficiency and potentially eliminate future ligation over school funding.
Grusendorf is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Education Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.