This content was originally featured in the Houston Chronicle on February 5, 2018.
Students across Texas enjoyed a rare snow day – or even two – last week, as ice and snow kept campuses closed from Houston to Tyler to Austin. For most, it was a welcome break, though they knew there would be work to make up when they return.
One critical topic they'll need to address is education.
Although most of the debate has centered on how much money has been or should be spent, the focus should not be on taxpayer dollars spent, but on how to spend that money equitably and effectively. The facts show that Texans need more education for their money, not more money for education.
Texans can prosper by revamping the school finance system through education freedom, not by pouring more money into a broken system. Student-centered funding will ensure that dollars flow to the child and the classroom, not to bureaucratic bloat and infrastructure.
Critics say, as they have always said, that we must spend more. They even contend that Texas has cut funding for public education.
But when the dollars are adjusted for inflation, we see that Texas spends billions more on public education now, on a per-student basis, than the 2004-2005 school year. In fact, education spending is on the rise.
Critics often point to a couple of years – 2008 to 2010 – to show that the Legislature has "cut" school funding. But that's misleading.
It's true that per-student spending was higher, but that was because of a massive, one-time infusion of funding from the federal stimulus bill – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
School district budgets in 2008 also benefited from another phenomenon.
Following a Texas Supreme Court ruling that declared the school finance system unconstitutional, lawmakers enacted a new business margins tax to pay for a reduction in property taxes. But any relief that Texas property owners saw from that cut was short-lived, as appraisals kept their tax bills high.
And that's why it's disingenuous to use 2008 – a high-water mark for education spending in Texas – as the standard. A broader view shows that Texas is spending $23.4 billion more for education than it was in 2004-2005.
But are we getting sufficient education for our money? The evidence says we are not, and the reason is clear. Education spending in Texas is not focused on the students; it's focused on the school system.
In the 2015-16 school year, for example, Texans spent $12,257 per student, with a standard classroom of 20 students receiving roughly $245,000. But teachers – the biggest factor in the quality of education – received only 21 percent of that per-classroom expenditure. The average teacher salary was $51,891.
Where did the money go? In large part, it went to administration.
Since 1993, the number of students in Texas has increased by 48 percent, while the number of staff has increased by 61 percent. Yet the number of administrators and other staff employees, not including teachers, has increased by 66 percent. Our public schools grew rapidly, but their administrations grew more rapidly still.
One study shows that if school districts had kept the growth of non-teaching staff to the same rate as the increase in students, Texas' public education system could have saved $2.2 billion annually or increased each teacher's benefits by $6,318.
What's the solution? We must refocus Texas education on the consumers – students and their families.
The courts have consistently found that Texas education is inequitable on a per-student basis. So that's what our approach should be – equity for students. We should move to student-centered funding, which lets money follow the student and allows parents to decide the best way to meet their children's needs.
Last year, the Legislature created the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. That group has the opportunity to recommend real reform – increasing educational freedom through a student-centered funding model, the kind that research shows will improve educational outcomes.
And when lawmakers are called back from their long break, they'll have the opportunity to make these reforms real, for the benefit of Texas.