This commentary was originally featured in the Austin American-Statesman on March 30, 2018.
Austin’s education lobby is pushing the narrative that public schools are underfunded and the state is to blame. Though imaginative, this account falls short in several ways.
To begin, public schools have sufficient funding. In the 2015-16 school year alone, Texas school districts spent a total of $64.8 billion on 5.3 million schoolchildren. That level of expenditure has grown by more than $20 billion over the last 10 years despite only a modest increase in student enrollment.
On a per pupil basis, there’s enough money in the system to spend $12,250 on every student. For the average classroom of 20 students, that yields almost $250,000 for every nine-month school year. Yet, most of us recognize that much of that money isn’t reaching the classroom.
Any parent with a child enrolled in public school today knows just what a regular occurrence it is to get asked to buy bake sale goodies, to hear about a student going without basic needs, or to see teachers pay out of pocket for supplies. So, the question becomes: Where’s the funding?
The answer is that, in large part, school districts are spending it on other priorities, like paying off debt and creating new administrative positions.
Consider that during the 2015-16 school year, school districts spent $7.3 billion on debt service, costing educators 11 cents out of every dollar. Only 10 years prior, that same category of expense was much lower, taking 8 cents out of every dollar.
If you think that all these debts were issued out of necessity, remember that Texas is home to several of the nation’s most-expensive high school stadiums, including: Cy-Fair ISD’s Berry Center ($84 million); Katy ISD’s Legacy Stadium ($70.3 million); McKinney ISD’s as-yet-unnamed stadium ($69.9 million) and its literal down-the-road neighbor, Allen ISD’s Eagle Stadium ($60 million).
Of course, debt isn’t the only drain on the classroom. Administrative bloat is also a big problem.
From 1993 to 2015, Texas’ student population grew by 48 percent while the number of teachers grew by 56 percent. In contrast, the number of nonteaching staff positions increased by 66 percent and many of those jobs cost taxpayers a pretty penny.
In fact, past research suggests that if Texas had limited the growth of its nonteaching staff to the same level of growth as its student population over this period, then $2.2 billion could have been saved annually. Such savings could have gone back into the classroom or given back to taxpayers — either of which would have been a marked improvement over the status quo.
Is the Legislature guilty of not pulling its weight? It’s hard to see how that argument holds up under scrutiny.
Let’s look at the last budget cycle that saw the state commit over half of its general revenue for educational purposes, from K-12 through college. If a budget is a statement of priorities, then it’s difficult to see how education is not a top priority.
Let’s not forget that the state’s share of school funding is determined by local processes. It’s well-established that the state determines how much it sends to each school district after local property tax revenues are estimated.
Setting aside all of this, it’s also important to address the feelings of discontent propelling much of the lobby’s agenda. They are not entirely misplaced.
There’s a sense that public education is moving in the wrong direction — not just from a funding perspective but from the standpoint of educational outcomes. Those concerns are causing many to question if isn’t time to rejigger the system in a big way.
One idea that’s gaining a lot of traction — and rightfully so — is to replace the current outdated system with a student-centered funding model. Under this framework, each child would be receiving a certain amount for educational purposes — and those dollars would follow them into the classroom, wherever they choose to go. The resulting competition for those students would spark a dramatic improvement in efficiency and outcomes.
These ideas deserve serious consideration next session. These are the kinds of reforms that will make life better for students and parents as opposed to simply throwing more money at the problem as too many are making the case for currently.