On Friday morning The Texas Tribune hosted a conversation about school finance reform in Texas with four members of the Texas Public School Finance Commission. Community Impact Newspaper was a media partner for the event.
Speakers were State Representative Dan Huberty, R-Houston; State Representative Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio; Todd Williams, education policy advisor to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings; and Nicole Conley Johnson, Chief Financial Officer of Austin ISD. Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune, moderated the conversation.
Here are four takeaways from the event:
1. Meaningful school finance reform requires accountability.
Bernal, who was appointed to the Texas Public School Finance Commission by House Speaker Joe Straus, said, “honestly, I think expectations are low” in regards to the commission’s effectiveness.
Bernal encouraged teachers, principals, parents and residents to advocate for school finance reform by testifying before the Legislature and holding accountable lawmakers who decline to make the issue a priority.
Huberty, chairman of the commission and another Straus appointee, said that accountability is a two-way street. Many of his conservative peers at the Capitol were reluctant to increase the education budget because of examples of excessive spending, Huberty said, citing school districts that had elected to fund water parks.
“If you’re going to put tax dollars into a system, there has to be accountability,” he said.
2. School finance is inextricably tied to property taxes.
“We certainly know that you can’t solve the property tax issue without solving the school finance issue,” Conley Johnson said.
While most states have four revenue streams to fund its schools and other resources—sales tax, property tax, corporate income tax and personal income tax—Texas only has two, Huberty said. This places a disproportionate burden on property taxpayers, even as they save money in other areas.
“We have to find meaningful tax relief,” Huberty said, placing responsibility on lawmakers to address the issue. “If you run for office, you’ve got to be able to make tough decisions.”
Conley Johnson added that recapture—the system by which property-rich school districts, such as Austin ISD, redistribute some of their tax revenue to property-poor ones—needs to be reformed as well.
While she understands “the need to equalize,” Conley Johnson said “recapture highlights the perversions in the funding formula.”
A district’s recapture payment is calculated using cost estimates that are over 30 years old, and they system does not take into account the contemporary need for language services or new federal poverty guidelines, she said.
3. Special interests play a role in reform.
Williams said school finance reform is a “political problem” that will require the business community and special interest groups to stop pressuring the Legislature to cut funding even more.
There is no doubt about which programs are effective in raising the graduation rate and preparing students for work, he said, citing pre-K and early college programming. But securing funding is the challenge.
“The districts have been [making cuts]for a long time,” Bernal said.
Conley Johnson said Austin ISD has made as many efficiency cuts as it can. Now, the district is “contemplating significant budget cuts” that will affect students and teachers directly.
“We have to own up and face the fact that we have to put more [money]into the [school]system,” Conley Johnson said.
4. Reform should maximize student potential.
Without adequate funding, Texas public schools are failing to prepare their students for middle- and high-skill jobs that pay a living wage, Williams said.
“We don’t maximize the potential of our graduating classes,” he added, pointing out that although Houston and Dallas have two of the fastest growing job markets in the country, they also have the first and second highest child poverty rates in the state.
Williams also mentioned the 60x30TX plan, which aims to see 60 percent of Texans age 25-30 achieve a certificate or degree by 2030. Today, public schools in Texas only see 24 percent of their students reach this goal.
Huberty said this means that state public school graduates are not contenders for jobs at Google in Austin or the possible Amazon HQ2, should it be located in Texas.
“Education is a non-partisan issue,” he said. “We need to fix this.”
Watch the full panel, courtesy The Texas Tribune: