This commentary was originally featured in the Houston Chronicle on April 13, 2018.
When La Joya ISD’s $20 million Sports and Learning Complex (which includes the state’s first public school water park) opened last week, Superintendent Alda Benavides called it “exciting.” The complex includes tennis courts, a natatorium, a golf course and a planetarium.
“I think it’s a dream come true and it will provide a lot of opportunities for kids,” she said. “Sometimes, this could be the only water park these kids get to see, and there’s no price for that.” Of course, there is — $20 million. At a time when many in Texas are focused on school funding, La Joya serves as a reminder that it’s not just how much we spend on public schools but how we spend it that’s important.
In general, of course, Texans support public schools and are willing to invest. Here are the facts: Texas spends 52 percent of its general revenue on K-16 education. That’s the biggest item in the budget. In the 2015-2016 academic year, public school districts throughout Texas spent $64.8 billion on 5.3 million students. If you do the math, that means we’re spending $12,226 per student — except that we’re not. Only a portion of that money makes it to the classroom. Where does it go instead?
Much of it goes to debt service. In that same 2015-2016 school year, about 11 percent went to pay down debt. It’s not all for new schoolroom facilities; some of the most expensive high school stadiums are in Texas, including Cy-Fair ISD’s Berry Center at $84 million and Katy ISD’s Legacy Stadium at $70.3 million. Those make La Joya’s water park seem almost Spartan in comparison.
Some Texas public school funding goes to pay for ever-increasing administrative costs. While student enrollment and teacher hires increased during the period from 1993 to 2015, the fastest growth over that time was seen among non-teaching staff. If public schools would have simply limited hires of non-teaching staff to the rate of new student growth, the savings would have been enough to give every Texas teacher an average raise of $6,318.
Texans do support their public schools, however. But that doesn’t mean they support wasteful spending that has only a tenuous — at best — connection to educational outcomes. Projects like La Joya’s water park only muddy the waters and confuse the debate. So does a new survey released by the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium. That survey claims 69 percent agree that, “the state’s financial contribution to public education has declined significantly over most of the last six to eight years, leaving local taxpayers to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the burden.” The problem is that survey respondents are agreeing to a “fact” that just isn’t true.
State spending has not declined significantly in the last six to eight years. According to the legislative budget board data for the most recent two-year budget cycle (’16-’17), state spending is up roughly $5 billion from six years prior. And as it turns out, the 2008 two-year budget represents a particularly high-water mark stemming from a one-time-only influx of federal stimulus dollars. If we look at the numbers from just before that influx, state spending is up over $14 billion through 2017.
It’s also misleading for the survey to describe anyone as a “local taxpayer.” Aren’t the people who pay local property taxes the same people who send gobs of money to the state through sales, gasoline, and business taxes that also go to pay for education? “Local taxpayers” — all of us — pay for every dollar of public education whether the money is first circulated through the state or through local districts. Taking more money from one pocket instead of the other is not relieving the burden, it’s a shell game.
Of course, local taxes are up — but not because state spending is down. Local property taxes are high because local entities are raising our local property taxes. Under a state funding system that has been around since the 1940s, the revenue generated from local property taxes goes in the education bucket first, and the state guarantees the difference. Thus, the state’s share of funding is whatever the district tax revenue says it is.
The real solution, of course, is for school districts to do better with what they have. Texans deserve more education for their money. La Joya’s water park serves as a reminder that Texans can support their public schools without endorsing every spending decision — and tax hike — made by school officials.