Equity Center In The News

Size matters: Texas penalizes smaller school districts

By   /   January 18, 2017  Access story online

Are smaller schools better schools? Texas is doing its worst to make sure they’re not.

The Lone Star State last year slapped a $244.7 million penalty on districts that had fewer than 1,600 students and spanned less than 300 square miles.

Port Aransas ISD photo

Port Aransas ISD photo

FIGHT ON: Port Aransas Independent School District lost $703,000 in funding last year because its boundaries did not encompass at least 300 square miles.

In all, 467 independent school districts were penalized because they failed to consolidate into larger systems.

Schools sued over the unequal funding formula, but the Texas Supreme Court upheld the policy.

“Our Byzantine school funding system is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements,” Justice Don Willett wrote.

State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, says lawmakers need to stop abusing the districts, noting that the state penalty, which started as a 25 percent funding reduction, now tops 37 percent.

Four rural school systems in his district were penalized more than $32 million last year: $808,724 for Idalou ISD, $747,612 for New Deal ISD, $837,694 for Roosevelt ISD and $820,766 for Slaton ISD.

Burrows introduced HB 565 to equalize small- and large-district funding statewide.

Barry Haenisch, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Schools, said several districts are within a few square miles of meeting the 300-square-mile threshold. “A couple of square miles is costing them a half-million dollars every year,” Haenisch told Watchdog.org.

Julee Becker, superintendent of Slaton ISD, said the penalty is creating a teacher shortage there as instructors move on to bigger, wealthier districts.

The base salary for a Slaton teacher is $32,000 annually versus $43,000 in Lubbock, she told KAMC News.

The Texas penalty is predicated on the notion that smaller districts are less efficient. Among the 300 Texas districts that impose the highest allowable local property tax rate, the majority are smaller districts.

“When they launched this [penalty] in the 1970s, politicians wanted consolidation, so they tried to starve out the smaller districts,” said Ray Freeman, executive director of the Equity Center, a nonpartisan education research and advocacy group based in Austin.

Though school districts are creations of the state, Texas lawmakers have not taken direct steps to shut down the smaller ones.

“If you’re going to allow districts to exist, you need to fund them,” Freeman argues.

Smaller districts may lack economies of scale to provide a full range of specialized and high-tech classes, but their administrative cost ratios tend to be lower than larger K-12 systems, which are typically unionized.

Haenisch pointed out that one Panhandle school administrator serves as superintendent, principal, substitute teacher and even fill-in bus driver.

“Most small districts are running at maximum efficiency because their limited number of students requires them to make critical decisions on every dollar received. This is especially true with personnel,” he said.

Large urban districts ring up bigger overhead with multiple layers of non-instructional staff.

San Antonio Independent School District, for example, floated $450 million in additional debt last year and raised its taxes to the maximum rate – even as the urban system has multiple campuses on the state’s “inadequate” list.

In Port Aransas, meantime, that small beach town’s school district took a $703,000 hit from the state penalty.

“That’s 10 percent of our budget,” noted Superintendent Sharon McKinney, who bridled at the idea that consolidation is always more efficient.

“When you’re on an island, consolidation doesn’t make a lick of sense,” she told the Port Aransas South Jetty.

Asserting that the state’s complicated school funding formulas pick “winners and losers,” Freeman said, “It’s almost like we have 1,018 different formulas for 1,018 school districts.”

Freeman said the state could balance the “loss” of scrapping its small-district penalty by equalizing funding across the board.

Small, independently operated charter schools do not incur the state penalty.

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EQUITY CENTER IN THE NEWS 

Cy-Fair ISD gears up for legislative session in 2017

Community Impact - September 14, 2016 - Access Story Online

Major public education issues that could affect Cy-Fair ISD are expected to be at the forefront of the conversation when the state Legislature convenes for the 85th legislative session Jan. 10.

In the last few months, a historic Texas Supreme Court decision critiqued the school finance system, test glitches this spring caused delays in the release of statewide standardized test scores and new talking points have emerged for school choice. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said these three issues are likely to consume this legislative session.

“There is no question that those three topics are recognizing the obvious—that Texas taxpayers are all interested in improving the state education system,” he said.

Meanwhile, CFISD officials are gearing up for major decisions in these areas and are sharpening their advocacy efforts.

“There needs to be a recommitment to universal public education,” Superintendent Mark Henry said. “It is the backbone of democracy, and the further we get away from believing all children should have the opportunity to succeed, the closer we get to having an unstable country.”

Cy-Fair ISD gears up for legislative session in 2017Finance reform
Teresa Hull, associate superintendent of governmental relations and communications, said school finance remains at the top of CFISD’s legislative priorities.

“We can’t do anything without being adequately funded and making sure we have support from the state,” she said.

In the 2016-17 school year, CFISD projects to receive $377.3 million of its $894.6 million total funding from the state. That is roughly $35.5 million less than the previous academic year and almost $50 million less than in the 2014-15 school year, despite the addition of students.

In May, the Texas Supreme Court responded to a lawsuit involving two-thirds of Texas school districts, including CFISD, which argued the state’s funding scheme did not fulfill the constitutional requirement of providing suitable support or maintenance of public schools. The Supreme Court said the existing funding scheme was constitutional, but also “Byzantine” and in need of reform.

Some lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, said the decision put an end to debate on school funding. However, public school officials still call for reform in this upcoming session.

Stuart Snow, associate superintendent of business and financial services for CFISD, said he would like to see two changes to funding in the next session.

“One is to develop a school finance system that is systematically transformed to one that is less complicated and one that is equitable,” he said. “And two, legislators [should be] funding schools at a level that exceeds the minimum standard and that includes changing technology and programs that are mandated by the Legislature.”

Snow said it would be challenging to pass the comprehensive change he believes is necessary just by working in the confines of the upcoming session.

“In order for [legislation] to be comprehensive and transformational in nature, I believe it needs to be a system that has been developed and studied over a long period of time,” he said.

Snow and several other school district finance officials have been meeting since November to create a suggested framework for a funding scheme. The group’s findings are still in progress and are not ready to be released, he said.

Cy-Fair ISD gears up for legislative session in 2017 Ray Freeman, the deputy executive director of the Equity Center, a statewide school finance and research advocacy organization, said inefficiencies imbedded in the funding scheme make it detrimental to public education.

“An efficient system means it is devoid of waste,” he said. “Until we get rid of things with no basis in cost, we won’t have an efficient system in public schools.”

These inefficiencies include the provision for target revenue, which dictates that districts will receive the same level of funding as they did more than 10 years ago, regardless of whether the district has changed in size or needs.

Freeman said this specific provision will reportedly cost Texas $350 million next year and is not based on any justified cost. He said any solution must start with removing noncost-based provisions.

Patrick charged the Senate Education Committee, of which Bettencourt is a member, to study performance-based funding, another proposed solution for improving the school-funding scheme. Bettencourt said state funds should reward districts for high performance.

“I think we are taking a look at how you incentivize people for good behavior and not reward people for poor performance,” he said. “There should be a big push for financial accountability.”

One methods for holding schools accountable, standardized testing, could also be revamped this session.

STAAR testing has experienced numerous challenges in the past year. In April, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that technical difficulties caused more than 14,000 exam results to be lost. None of the affected tests came from CFISD.

As a result of the errors, the Texas Education Agency announced in August it would be fining the STAAR testing administrator, Educational Testing Service, more than $20 million. This breaks down into a fine of $5.7 million and a directive to invest $15 million more in online testing system enrollment, shipping, online testing, precoding, scoring and reporting. This past academic year was the first in ETS’ four-year contract to administer STAAR tests.

The mistakes have led to a discussion among legislators about what to do going forward. Some legislators are calling for STAAR’s abolishment entirely. State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said schools should be given the choice of standardized tests used elsewhere in the United States and not be hampered by one with so many flaws.

The Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability focused on this topic in its meetings over school accountability this summer. It was tasked with finding solutions to these problems and present recommendations to Gov. Greg Abbott by Sept. 1. Some recommendations include using year-round computerized testing and aligning state standards with national ones.

Linda Macias, associate superintendent for curriculum, instruction and accountability, said it is important for CFISD to fix the problems brought about by STAAR testing.

“Certainly we are not opposed to testing as we have to be held accountable for our student’s learning, but it is how those tests are administered, how they are used,” Macias said.

The two priorities Macias identified are aligning testing subjects with federal requirements and allowing local control over nonfederal requirements, such as social studies and writing.

Cy-Fair ISD gears up for legislative session in 2017School rating systems
Another key element of accountability revolves around the new rating system for public schools that is set to go into effect in the 2017-18 school year.

Cy-Fair ISD gears up for legislative session in 2017In the 2015 legislative session, House Bill 2804 passed, introducing an evaluation process that would more specifically identify differences between schools and the quality of education they are providing. Although this system is set to go into effect next year, CFISD officials said they are hoping legislators will do away with it in the upcoming session and maintain the existing rating system.

As it stands now, the new system will designate an A-F grade for both individual campuses and districts, replacing a system that marked schools as “met standard” or “improvement required.”

District officials and trustees have both expressed concern over the proposed A-F grading system. CFISD trustee Bob Covey said the system would devalue communities, and grades could possibly correspond more to student wealth than performance.

“I think there is an interesting correlation between ‘A’s equaling affluence and ‘F’s equaling free and reduced lunch,” he said.

Covey said he would like to see legislators repeal the law entirely.

School choice funding State legislators will also consider legislation surrounding school choice—a concept based on the idea that students at failing public schools should have the ability to attend school elsewhere, typically at private or charter schools.

Debate focuses on the best way to fund school choice. Bettencourt said a number of options will be considered.

“There is everything from the $100 million in the pilot program on tax credit scholarships all the way up to full blown education savings accounts,” he said.

In 2015, Bettencourt introduced legislation to establish tax credit scholarships. These scholarships would be funded by donations from businesses and distributed by nonprofit organizations through grants. Businesses that participate would receive a tax credit for their donations. The bill passed the Senate but did not make it out of the House.

“It is a way to bring new money into the system,” Bettencourt said. “I think it would be very popular. If you can donate money to a nonprofit and get money back for it, who wouldn’t?”

States such as Nevada and Arizona offer education savings accounts. These accounts take the average amount Texas spends per student—roughly $8,500 in Texas—and puts it into an account that a student or parent can spend on educational costs, including private school tuition or homeschool curriculum.

Thomas Ratliff, vice chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, estimated it could cost Texas an extra $4.7 billion not already spent on education.

Public school officials said legislative efforts to expand school choice will take money away from public schools.

However, Stephen Novotny, executive director of Cypress Christian School, said he believes parents should have the right to use state funds to pay private school tuition should a public school not be the right choice for their students.

“We advocate for freedom of choice for Texas parents,” Novotny said. “If the state has designated a set amount of dollars to educate their child in a public school, the parent should have access to those dollars the school is no longer using.”

Bettencourt hailed school choice as families’ ways to find the best education.

“We want public education to do a good job, but we also need to recognize that we have charter schools, districts of innovation, homeschoolers, parochial and private schools,” he said.

Henry said regardless of any specific debates, the Legislature should focus on creating positive educational experiences for students at all levels.

“Everything that goes on in Austin will be about providing opportunities for all students, not just some students,” Henry said.


School finance equity begins by eliminating inefficiency 

TribTalk - August 31, 2016 - Access Story Online

Our inefficient public school funding system results in significant lost funding to the majority of districts and an increased burden on their taxpayers. It may be a cliché, but it remains true: there are no free lunches — someone always pays.

Our basic system is geared to reflect differences in the cost of providing educations across the state. The statutory objective is that all districts willing to exert the same tax effort would be able to provide appropriate educational opportunities of similar quality for all children. This principle is the foundation of the Texas Supreme Court’s first school funding decision and was reiterated in the most recent decision: Districts must have substantially similar revenues per pupil at similar levels of tax effort.

Along the way, this principle was lost. “Band-aids” and “quick fixes” took the place of good policy decisions. Our system became increasingly complex and inefficient, unreasonably favoring some while detrimental to all others.

When a district receives funding that is not based on actual, state-recognized costs, every other district and its taxpayers are forced to foot the bill — either through higher taxes or lost opportunities for their children. In non-privileged districts across the state, taxpayers are taxed at higher rates and still receive less funding for their children. Texas loses when we fail to use the State’s resources in responsible, efficient and productive ways that benefit all Texans and their children.

Our system provides hundreds of millions of precious and limited taxpayer dollars every biennium that serve no cost-based purpose. For example, our system has a “temporary, transitional” hold-harmless provision that has been in effect since 1993 — starting its 24th year. It is now permanently in law and has a formula that makes it grow, even though it is not related to any known cost. Another funding source called the early agreement credit is based, incredibly, on whether a district signs a piece of paper before or after a certain date — again, not reflecting a known cost.

Target Revenue, another hold-harmless provision, guarantees districts the same funding levels they had more than a decade ago, regardless of current needs. This no longer applies to most districts, but for some, it provides big money. This biennium alone, Target Revenue will cost taxpayers nearly $600 million. Although this coming school year is set in statute to be its last, there is already a move to continue the funding into the future.

This is funding by habit, not by cost. Not by need. We used to do it, so we must continue to do it.

These and other inefficiencies result in many districts receiving tens of thousands of dollars more per typical classroom of 22 children not justified by a greater need, even when taxing at rates below the state average. In some cases, the advantage is over $100,00 per classroom. This waste is borne by taxpayers in other districts whose children do not benefit.

Before we can even begin to decide whether these districts need these additional funds to meet state standards, we must first make the hard decision to eliminate the inefficiencies that have become imbedded in the system today. After that, whatever funds are legitimately necessary must be provided in a responsible way — and they must be provided to all Texas children, not just some.

It’s time to step back and look at the system objectively. We cannot continue making funding decisions solely based on district runs; instead, we must address the cost-based needs associated with educating kids with different educational needs and the cost-based needs of varying districts. An efficient and productive funding system is one based on cost and devoid of waste. We cannot afford to have it any other way.

We are hopeful the conversation will start here in the coming legislative session. The result should be a system that makes sense to everyone and benefits each taxpayer and child across the state in a fair and equitable way.

Republished in: Fort Worth Star Telegram, Longview News Journal


THE BRIEF: A CONSENSUS ON SCHOOL FINANCE, BLOW IT UP

TEXAS TRIBUNE - AUGUST 4, 2016 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

The Big Conversation
Members of the Senate Education Committee and a room full of interest groups agreed at a panel meeting Wednesday that Texas should drastically change how it allocates more than $40 billion to the state’s public schools. They disagreed on where to go from there.

Ray Freeman, deputy executive director of the Equity Center, representing property-poor school districts, offered: “You’ve basically gotta blow it up.”

As the Tribune’s Kiah Collier writes, “the fault lines that will define efforts to improve the state's system of funding education came into sharp focus” at the meeting. Conservatives are looking “for a system of benchmarks that would tie state funds to how schools perform, not primarily how many students they enroll,” Collier writes, while representatives from poor and smaller schools “argue lawmakers should close the wide gaps between districts before using money to reward or punish districts.”

The panel is tasked with issuing a set of recommendations on the school finance system ahead of the next legislative session in 2017.


SCHOOL FINANCE DIVIDING LINES EMERGE AT HEARING

TEXAS TRIBUNE - AUGUST 3, 2016 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

The fault lines that will define efforts to improve the state's system of funding education came into sharp focus Wednesday as a Senate panel began studying how to improve the "efficiency" of public schools in Texas.

The 11-member Senate Education Committee and a hearing room full of education professionals, lobbyists and school and minority advocates generally agreed that the Legislature should scrap the way it divvies up the more than $40 billion of state money now spent on public schools.

“You’ve basically gotta blow it up,” said Ray Freeman, deputy executive director of the Equity Center, which represents property-poor school districts.

There was little such agreement, however, on what to do instead.

Conservative lawmakers, expressing exasperation with suggestions that the state isn't spending enough on schools, have begun searching for a system of benchmarks that would tie state funds to how schools perform, not primarily how many students they enroll.

Educators and advocates from small schools and poor districts fear the stage is being set to sacrifice struggling schools on the altar of "efficiency" and argue lawmakers should close the wide gaps between districts before using money to reward or punish districts.

“Looking at the numbers, you know, 2015 was the most money that the state of Texas has ever spent in the history of the state on a per-student basis and we still have people coming and complaining we’re not spending enough, and it’s just so frustrating,” said state Sen. Van Taylor, a Plano Republican. “When’s enough enough?”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick instructed the panel to re-examine school finance before a May state Supreme Court decision that upheld the school finance system as constitutional but urged lawmakers to overhaul a process it described as flawed and byzantine.

In what could be the only hearing on the issue, Wednesday's meeting gravitated toward the points of friction that have long bedeviled such explorations.

School officials, Latino groups and some Democrats on the panel questioned the GOP focus on efficiency, saying ranking schools by academic and financial performance is fraught with inaccuracy and inequity unless the state first closes vast funding gaps among districts or increases funding for schools.

“I believe it would be very difficult to fairly and accurately create and maintain a system in which all districts would be adequately measured, compared and grouped, and I believe previous attempts to create these comparison groups have been unreliable at best,” said Johnny Hill, assistant superintendent for business, financial and auxiliary services for Lake Travis schools who testified on behalf of the Fast Growth Schools Coalition and the Texas Association of School Business Officials.

But the panel’s Republican members said finding a way to tie funding to performance needs to be explored now.

“It’s all about productivity,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, the Friendswood Republican who chairs the panel. “And I don’t think we’re looking at cutting any spending, but we’ve got to do as well as we can with the money we have.”

Officials from several companies, and one university researcher, testified about ranking systems they have developed to compare the money schools spend to student academic performance. They argued that public education overall would improve if lower-performing school districts were required to mimic the best practices of the most efficient school districts.

Some lawmakers and educators pushed back, saying it would be unfair to place the same expectations for academic and financial performance on smaller, poorer districts with needier students than larger, wealthier ones with less poverty.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said he wasn’t sure how lawmakers could feasibly require a tiny district like Fort Davis in West Texas to mimic the practices of a larger, better-funded district. It has had to cut its UIL program because of lack of funding, he said.

The education panel will publish official recommendations ahead of the 2017 legislative session.

Republished in: Fort Worth Star Telegram, Amarillo Globe News


EQUITY IN STUDENT FUNDING SOUGHT AT LONGVIEW SUMMIT 

LONGVIEW NEWS-JOURNAL - JULY 14, 2016 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

Area educators and representatives from state agencies called upon lawmakers Thursday to retool Texas' public education funding system into one that is equitable for everyone.

"You can't cheat the children. ... You've got to fix the structure," said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, a statewide school finance research and advocacy organization in Austin.

State representatives and senators from East Texas, Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth and other areas met Thursday at Longview High School for the Texas School Funding Public Education Summit. The event was organized by Jay Dean, who recently was elected as the state representative for Gregg and Upshur counties, to give lawmakers an opportunity to learn more about the state's education funding system as they prepare for the legislative session that begins in January.

"Education funding is an issue that affects the entire state, but — as we heard today — funding varies by where you are," said Dean, who takes office in January.

On Thursday morning, Dan Casey of Moak, Casey and Associates presented an overview of the state's funding system. Schools are funded by local property taxes, state and federal revenues.

State and local funds are determined by the Foundation School Program, which is administered by the Texas Education Agency. The program provides school funding per student and has variables such as the Robin Hood formula, in which revenue from "property-wealthy" districts is redistributed to "property-poor" districts.

However, the state uses a complicated funding formula that places a higher value on some children than others when allocating funds to districts.

As Pierce said in an afternoon session, the funding formula has created a $3,264 difference in the value of a child between the highest- and lowest-paid schools in terms of state revenue per what is called "weighted average daily attendance."

Children in the top 5 percent of the state are valued at $9,021, while those in districts in the bottom 5 percent are valued at $5,757, based on the state's funding formula.

Pierce said that in finding the system to be constitutional earlier this year, the Texas Supreme Court determined that school districts have substantial equal access to "similar revenues" per pupil. However, Pierce said he didn't believe anyone else would say such funding disparities between school districts actually guaranteed access to "similar revenues per pupil" when the difference equates to tens of thousands of dollars a year.

"(The Texas Supreme Court) put 100 percent of the weight on our Legislature. The Texas Legislature has the toughest job. They have to fix this on their own with no support from the courts," he said.

Pierce advocated for a simpler funding formula that would equalize the wealth, noting that "you cannot say that one child is valued more than another."

Pierce said Texas has a good funding structure, but over time, the state has added to it to make it complicated. He advocated for eliminating hold-harmless clauses that "eat up available resources."

Catherine Clark with the Texas Association of School Boards also advocated for a simpler funding system that would replace the state's two-tiered funding formula with a single-tier system; however, TASB's proposal includes a hold-harmless clause to help ensure that districts do not lose revenue. TASB's single-tier formula allows for recapture above a designated amount.

Clark said she hoped lawmakers left Thursday's meeting with a sense of urgency that they might not have felt before.

"I hope they realize there really is a need to fix things," she said.

Dean said the state Legislature must tackle education funding either in its regular session in 2017 or in a special session, making it all the more important for lawmakers to get a basic understanding of the issue, as they did Thursday in Longview.

"This is a hot-button issue that we are going to be facing; at the same time, we have reduced revenues because of the oil and gas industry," he said.

Longview ISD Superintendent James Wilcox said he is not confident that education funding can be fixed in the 2017 session alone, but he said he was glad the school district could provide at least a starting point for lawmakers to learn about the system.

"I hope the experts we had here today gave them a better understanding so that when they get to Austin in January, they'll be better prepared when this topic comes up," Wilcox said.


TEXAS IS PUMPING MONEY INTO PRISONS FASTER THAN SCHOOLS

SAN ANTONIO CURRENT - JULY 15, 2016 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

Texas' financial investment in jails and prisons has grown dramatically faster than its spending on education.

From 1979 to 2013, money spent on prisons in Texas grew by 850 percent, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education. Back in '79 and 1980, the state spent nearly $15 million on education compared to just over $600,000 on correctional facilities. In 2012-13, education dollars hovered just below $42 million while spending on prisons grew to nearly $6 million.

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said the research shows how misguided this country's priorities are.

“For far too long, systems in this country have continued to perpetuate inequity. We must choose to make more investments in our children’s future," he said in a statement. "We need to invest more in prevention than in punishment, to invest more in schools, not prisons.”

Public school districts in Texas have sued the state multiple times for decades arguing that the way it funds schools is unconstitutional. In May, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the state's system meets the state constitution's bare minimum requirements. That same month, the National Education Association released its annual ranking of how much states pay per pupil and Texas ranked 38th in spending just at under $9,000 per student, about $3,000 less than the national average.

Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, a nonprofit that advocates for school districts in the state, told the Texas Tribune that public education is a preventive measure to stop poverty, which saves taxpayer dollars in the long run.

“Texas has chosen to fund public education at low levels for decades, and the result is that we’re increasing the amount of poverty and the high cost of incarcerating young adults,” Pierce told the Trib.

The U.S. Department of Education's study echoes that statement and its authors say states should increase investment in education to improve career outcomes for at-risk children and youth.

The findings also seem to conflict with "The Texas Model" of prison reform. Through a series of measures like increased use of drug treatment and pre-trial diversion programs, the state's inmate population decreased from 173,000 people in 2010 to 168,000 in 2013,The Washington Post reported. By 2016, the inmate population dropped to just over 143,000. The numbers do not include local and federal inmates; according the the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the total amount of inmates in lockups across Texas in 2014 was 699,300.

Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, told the Tribune yesterday that lawmakers need to address tough sentencing guidelines and expand drug treatment courts to reduce the cost of incarceration.


RATE OF PRISON SPENDING GROWTH OUTPACES SCHOOLS

TEXAS TRIBUNE - JULY 14, 2016 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

Texas spending on prisons and jails is the highest in the nation, a new federal study concludes, and has grown about five times faster than the state's rate of spending growth on elementary and secondary education over the past three decades. But the state still spends significantly more on its schools than its prisons.

new analysis of federal data released last week by the U.S. Department of Educationfound that Texas corrections spending increased by 850 percent between 1989 and 2013, while the rate of funding for pre-kindergarten to grade 12 education grew by 182 percent. In the 1979-80 fiscal year, for example, Texas spent $14 billion on education and almost $604 million on corrections. In 2013, it spent about $41 billion on schools and $5 billion on incarceration (in constant 2013 dollars).

On average, growth in spending on prisons and jails in other states tripled the rate of growth in funding for public K-12 education over the same period, the report found.

The wide disparity in Texas is caused by the state’s harsh sentencing laws and the strict enforcement of non-violent offenses, which have quadrupled its incarceration rate, the report asserted.

“Budgets reflect our values, and the trends revealed in this analysis are a reflection of our nation’s priorities that should be revisited,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. in a statement. “For far too long, systems in this country have continued to perpetuate inequity. We need to invest more in prevention than in punishment, to invest more in schools, not prisons.”

Advocates for reforming both the nation's schools and criminal justice found ammunition for their arguments in the report. Education advocates said the data analysis shows that lawmakers’ should make efforts to cut the incarcerated population and divert funds to the Texas education agency so schools can be adequately funded.

“Texas has chosen to fund public education at low levels for decades, and the result is that we’re increasing the amount of poverty and the high cost of incarcerating young adults,” said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, a nonprofit group that advocates for more 700 school districts across Texas. “If we would concentrate more on public education as a preventive measure to stop the tide of poverty, we would be able to spend less and save more in the long run.”

Public school funding has long been an issue in Texas, and hundreds of school districts have filed numerous class action lawsuits against the state dating back to 1984. The latest casechallenging the constitutionality of Texas’ school funding system — brought by more than two-thirds of the state’s school districts — ended in May. The state Supreme Court ruled the system is constitutional but urged state lawmakers to implement "transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid." The lawsuit came in response to the $5.4 billion budget cuts lawmakers approved in 2011, which school districts say left them with unfairly distributed funding.

"[The court] criticized the system, but they didn’t put teeth in their decision," said Pierce, who represented more than 440 low- and medium-wealth school districts in the case. “It was a tremendous surprise and disappointment.”

Texas ranks 38th in per-pupil spending, according to 2016 numbers from the National Education Association. It spent an average of $8,998 per student this school year, more than $3,000 below the national average. As of the 2014-2015 school year, there were 5,215,282 students.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Houston, who chairs the Senate’s Education Committee, could not be reached for comment.

While Texas has made strides curtailing its once explosive prison population growth, experts said it still hasn't addressed long-lasting structural problems.

The number of men and women held in state prisons and jails peaked at 173,649 in 2010,according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice. The state currently has about 150,000 inmates. It pays an average $20,000 each year per inmate.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D- Houston, who heads the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee and is the longest-serving member of the Legislature, said his highest priority for the 2017 legislative session “is going to be pretrial release and services because most people in local jails cannot pay for bail.” He said some are even being forced to plead guilty because they cannot afford it.

“There're too many individuals in our county jails who don’t belong there because they are poor,” he said. “We’re just wasting millions upon millions of taxpayers' dollars.”

In Houston jails, for example, three-quarters of the people haven’t been tried in court. He said monitored pretrial release for non-violent offenders is an alternative.

Whitmire has also called for expanding prison education programs at the Windham School District, which he said would allow inmates to learn marketable skills, boosting their chances of finding employment after their release and reduce the recidivism rate. But Whitmire voted for steep budget cuts in 2011 that forced the statewide prison education system to eliminate more than 250 full-time positions and reduce its program. He told the Tribune that the school district was “wasting money" and that lawmakers were not seeing results at the time.

Marc Levin, the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, said a reducing the inmate population would allow the state to redirect funds to needed programs. He emphasized that tackling the sentencing guidelines and expanding drug treatment centers courts are crucial moves lawmakers should take.

“What it’s about is holding people accountable, but putting them behind bars doesn’t mean they’d far less likely to pay restitution, and it’s going to be a burden on taxpayers,” he said.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story credited a Texas state agency for a prison statistic that came from the U.S. Department of Justice.


Call for state budget cuts includes plenty of exemptions

Houston Chronicle - July 1, 2016 - Access Story Online

AUSTIN – In what has become a biennial rite of summer, Texas' top three officials on Friday directed state agencies to plan on spending 4 percent less in the next two years, even though legislative leaders already are predicting the next budget will be at least that much larger than the current one.

The directive from Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus comes as the state is expected to start next year's budget process with $10 billion less to spend because of lagging oil and gas revenues.

Between that and the ongoing pressure from many Republican leaders to reduce taxes again, the tension between cutting and growing spending already has lawmakers and interest groups in Austin calculating their next moves, even as some of the state's biggest costs – including border security, child protective services, health care and mandatory school funding – are exempt from cuts under Friday's directive.

"It's a positive sign that state leaders recognize the need for more smart investments in (Child Protective Services), education and mental health. But if we want Texas kids to be healthy and on track to succeed, the state should not reduce funding for the health, early childhood development, and other effective interventions critical to children's success," said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children. "We hope the governor and legislators make investments in our children and families the priority next session."

"Limited government, pro-growth economic policies and sound financial planning are the key budget principles responsible for Texas' economic success," states the Friday letter from Abbott, Patrick and Straus. "It is imperative that every state agency engage in a thorough review of each program and budget strategy and determine the value of each dollar spent."

In 2015, the Legislature approved $209.1 billion in the current two-year state budget, 4.3 percent above the previous spending plan. And while that budget was heralded as conservative by Republican leaders and fiscal-conservative groups, the appropriations of state funds grew 7.1 percent, faster than population growth plus inflation – a metric frequently cited by conservative groups already arguing for smaller budget growth in 2017.

"Low tax, low spend states perform better than high-tax, high-spend states. To cut the tax burden on Texans from previous spending excesses, the Texas Legislature should build on the momentum of last session by passing a historic second consecutive conservative budget," said Talmadge Heflin, a former chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee who now is director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a leading conservative policy group in Austin. "Doing so will provide the state with, at most, a spending increase of $9.4 billion to cover basic public necessities while prioritizing spending and cutting the tax burden on Texas taxpayers so that they can reach their full potential."

Tough session ahead

Eva De Luna Castro, a longtime budget analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a policy organization that takes a more liberal stance on social services and spending than Heflin's group, said the directed cuts have become a way for state officials to dampen expectations going into a budget-writing year. It also "helps make room for other priorities that they may put at the top of their budget proposals," she said.

"They're doing it more because they are worried that the next session is going to be tough," Castro said. "They're going into the next session with almost $10 billion less in room to work with, so maybe they're giving themselves a little more breathing space to deal with."

While initial reaction from agencies to the budget-cut directive ranged from eye-rolling to complaints that tighter and tighter spending is only exacerbating a downward slide in some key state services, state officials and GOP policy analysts insisted that those who are complaining are missing the point: Every state dollar that is spent should be justified every two years.

"Agencies should always help us identify opportunities for savings. We need to move away from the idea that every budget starts at current levels and simply grows from there. We will look across the budget to determine which programs are serving their intended purpose and producing results," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, whose committee helps write the budget.

Under the Friday directive, the stated purpose of which is partly "to restrain the size of government," many programs may escape that review.

Exempt are such items as statutory funding for the Foundation School Program, border security initiatives, debt service, pension and benefit requirements for state employees and funding for Child Protective Services.

Exempted programs

It also exempts funding needed to maintain current benefits and eligibility in Medicaid programs, the Children's Health Insurance Program, foster care, adoption subsidies and permanency care assistance – all will beadjusted to account for projected population growth.

Most legislative leaders predict school funding will be discussed, but, perhaps, only as a part of the continuing push to further cut property taxes. The Texas Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the state's school finance scheme was flawed but constitutional, which may give lawmakers clearance to leave it alone.

Even if it is exempted from cuts, education funding should go under the microscope, said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, a Texas research group advocating for the elimination of inequities in education spending.

"We should look within the state's funding structure to see what things are in there that aren't necessary," Pierce said. "If you have an expenditure of public funds and you can't say this goes to effect that particular cost throughout the system, then you shouldn't be doing it."


Despite Texas Supreme Court ruling, the fight over public school finance continues

San Antonio Express News - May 15, 2016 - Access Story Online

Wayne Pierce was the 37-year-old freshman superintendent of a tiny school district east of Temple when his mentors convinced him to join a lawsuit bucking the state.

He was green, scared and, frankly, clueless about what was happening at the state level as he juggled new and daunting responsibilities of running a school system with some 800 kids. Relying on people he trusted most, he decided Rosebud-Lott Independent School District would lock arms with other school districts and take Texas to court fighting for money he hoped would flow through his schools and into his classrooms.

He didn’t know he was joining a legal battle that would wind up at the state Supreme Court a few years later, and again and again years after that. School districts have dragged the state of Texas to court seven times since the mid-1980s, arguing in a seemingly endless loop for more money that goes something like this: lawsuit, Texas Supreme Court ruling, action by the Legislature, wait to see what happens, repeat.

More than 30 years later, Pierce still is fighting.

“The reason we’re still in court like this is because the Legislature never fixes the underlying causes of what leads people to go to court in the first place,” says Pierce, now executive director of the Equity Center, the largest school finance research and advocacy organization in the country. “(Legislators) don’t fix school funding because it’s something they think needs to be done. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a trial. They, ‘fix schools’ or do what they do because the Supreme Court forces them to do something.”

Not this time.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday declared the state’s school finance system meets “minimal constitutional requirements.” While hardly a resounding endorsement of the Texas education system, the high court expressed its reluctance to get involved in policies better set by the Legislature but stressed lawmakers should work on improving the system.

Ensuring the money used to educate 5.3 million public school children meets the needs of districts rich and poor is anything but settled as the more than 600 school districts and education gurus who sued lick their wounds and figure out how to turn the legal defeat into a possible win in the 2017 legislative session.

In spite of the high court’s ruling, Texas’ decades-long struggle with education funding shows no sign of abating. Hours after the court ruling, Republican and Democratic lawmakers sounded ready to take the justices up on their urging to fix it.

Can they?

The myriad challenges facing public schools are well-documented: Growing numbers of low-income, non-English-speaking students who need more attention; the gulf between rich districts and their poor peers fighting for scraps to hire quality teachers and afford modern technology; growth of charter schools and a home-schooling movement that undercut traditional education funding; the struggle to rewrite the narrative - sometimes voiced by the very lawmakers who control the state’s purse strings - that public schools are failing while being expected to excel on state tests; pressure from Republican leaders to cut the property taxes that fund the local share of school districts’ costs.

None of those, experts say, compares to the political courage it takes to make people unhappy tearing up a patchwork system they say protects some districts more than others.

“Making hard choices is seldom the best political road to travel, given that someone will not be happy,” Pierce says. “Also, it has gotten complicated over time because, instead of making a real fix when it was simple, and of course, hard, it just gets more complex and less easy to know the right thing to do.”

The current state of education funding in Texas has left more teachers taking money out of their pockets to pay for materials and fewer tools or technology in the classroom, said Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers union. The shortage of funds makes it harder to cut through the poverty, childhood trauma, special needs or lack of language skills that make some students a challenge to teach, experts say.

“People need to walk into our schools and, unfortunately, will see the need all over our kids’ faces,” said Capo.

Texas ranks low among states for education spending, coughing up $9,561 per student this year compared to the national average of $12,251, according to calculations from the National Education Association, which represents teacher unions across the country. On average, Texas spent two dollars more per student this school year than the previous one, a figure the Texas State Teachers Association calls “shameful” for a state ranked Texas 38th in the nation for education funding.

From education experts on the right, left and everywhere in-between, the reason Texas cannot get education funding right boils down to a lack of political courage to make significant change instead of patchwork repairs.

“Anything that you do that is destructive, you’re going to have people mad at you. Politicians don’t like to have people mad at them,” says Ken Grusendorf, a former Texas state representative and director of the Center for Education Freedom, a right-leaning think tank. Speaking from experience, he adds, “it’s a lot easier to try to try to make everybody happy.”

The conundrum of Texas’ education financing is enough to put most people to sleep. Few in the state fully understand the funding formulas that weigh students with special needs as deserving of additional education dollars, that assumes various funding levels for districts based on their urban to rural settings, and a multitude of additional factors complicating the final calculations. It is far more complex than writing a check to give each school the same amount of money per student.

The majority of dollars that finds its way into the classrooms, school buses and libraries of Texas’ schools largely comes from a mix of local property taxes and state revenues, and is the touchiest issue of all.

The state’s wealthiest areas benefit from robust property tax collections from housing or commercial property, injecting millions of dollars into their local school systems while poorer districts, often with a greater number of challenging students, struggle to make ends meet.

“So long as you use a Band-Aid approach to solving the problem, I think you’ll have continued litigation,” Grusendorf says. “They’ve been various size Band-Aids, but they’ve all been Band-Aids.”

Applying bandages to a layer of existing bandages has failed to fix the flawed system, experts say. One such repair, coined “Robin Hood,” requires the wealthiest districts to hand money back to the state to give to poorer school systems, a fix that shifts pressure off the state and onto financially healthy districts clamoring to keep locally-raised money in-house.

Take the Houston Independent School District, which could for the first time give the state an estimated $165 million because it is considered property wealthy despite the fact that three-quarters of its students are considered economically disadvantaged.

This year, it will cost $47 billion to fund Texas’ public schools, far more than it takes to finance entire state governments elsewhere in the country. Add nearly $5.8 billion in construction projects like football stadiums or additional classrooms and $3.2 billion in interest payments on bonded debt, Texans are footing the bill for $56.6 billion this school year in state and local property tax funding.

Meanwhile, the state’s student population is growing by more than 70,000 per year, according to the Texas Education Agency, akin to adding a new Fort Worth school district every year and demanding the state keep pace while lawsuits from school districts clamor for more money.

The governor and those in the Texas Legislature have the power to break the cycle, but the political realities look dim as financially conservative lawmakers strive to keep promises to keep taxes low and watchdog government spending, says Clay Robinson, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association and a longtime political observer who has watched the lawsuits over the years. The result is smaller patchwork solutions, he said.

“Even under Democrats, the Legislature has always needed a nudge. Under the Republican majority, they needed a shove,” he says.

In many cases, school districts are an impediment to solving funding problems because they do not trust the system or are afraid to lose the upper hand, says Scott Hochberg, a former southwest Houston state representative who left the Legislature a respected expert on education funding.

“No wealthy district wants to give up an advantage that it has,” he says. Legislators, school board members and other leaders often are unwilling to force wealthy districts of influential people willing to contribute to their political campaigns to give up ground, nor are they willing to commit sufficient state funds to bring the rest of Texas to the same playing field, says Hochberg who lectures on the topic.

“It’s similar to the question of why certain sports leagues have salary caps when others don’t,” he said. “The ones that don’t, the owners that can spend more want to continue to have that advantage.”

The Texas Supreme Court may have ruled the state’s education funding system is constitutionally sound, but 30 years later, the once novice superintendent Pierce struggles to see an end to the fight.

“I’m not green, I’m brittle,” he says. “I’m not scared anymore. It’s a battle that needs to be fought.”


Texas Supreme Court Upholds School Funding System

The Texas Tribune - May 13, 2016 - Access Story Online

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday issued a ruling upholding the state’s public school funding system as constitutional, while also urging state lawmakers to implement "transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid."

But without a court order directing the Legislature to fix specific provisions in the system, school groups worry that lawmakers will either do nothing or something outside the box.

“Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements,” Justice Don Willett wrote in the court’s 100-page opinion, which asserts that the court’s “lenient standard of review in this policy-laden area counsels modesty.”

There were no dissenting opinions; Justices Eva Guzman and Jeff Boyd delivered concurring ones.

"Good enough now ... does not mean that the system is good or that it will continue to be enough," Guzman wrote. "Shortfalls in both resources and performance persist in innumerable respects, and a perilously large number of students is in danger of falling further behind."

Friday’s ruling is the second time the state’s highest civil court has upheld the state’s school finance system. Since the 1980s, school districts have repeatedly sued the state in an attempt to increase public education funding, and have often prevailed. The latest case, brought by more than two-thirds of Texas school districts, is the seventh time such a case has reached the state Supreme Court.

“This is an historic ruling by the Texas Supreme Court, and a major victory for the people of Texas, who have faced an endless parade of lawsuits following any attempt to finance schools in the state,” Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement Friday. "We have said all along that school financing must be debated and shaped by the Texas Legislature, not through decades’ worth of ongoing litigation in the court system, and I’m pleased the court unanimously agrees."

Houston lawyer Mark Trachtenberg, who represented 88 property-wealthy school districts in the case, said the ruling "represents a dark day for Texas school children, especially given the Legislature’s repeated failure to adequately fund our schools.”

A recent study by the National Education Association found that Texas ranks 38th in the country in per-pupil public-education spending.

Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, which represented more than 440 low- and medium-wealth school districts in the case, said the high court has “pretty well given a blank check to the Legislature and the only question now is if Legislature steps up and does the right thing or if they take this as an opportunity to further hurt the system.”

“I think they’re going to have to do something, but will it be enough? I doubt it,” said Pierce, asked about whether he thinks lawmakers will increase funding.

“Will this [court decision] be used to not fix public education but go out on some tangential rabbit trail? I think that’s probably more likely,” he said. “If this decision has a silver lining, it’s around a huge, black cloud.”

But some Democratic and Republican state lawmakers on Friday called for action on the issue.

"While I applaud and agree with the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling, make no mistake: This is not the end of this journey, but the beginning,” said state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano. "The duly elected Texas Legislature – not the courts – has the immense responsibility to work to reform, improve and strengthen education in Texas."

"For far too long, the state has been neglecting its responsibilities, failing to pick up its fair share of the school finance tab, and pushing the costs down to overburdened local taxpayers,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin.

More than 600 Texas school districts sued the state after the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from the public education budget in 2011.

Their lawyers argued the state's method of funding public schools was unconstitutional on a variety of grounds — that the Legislature had failed to provide districts with sufficient funding to ensure students meet the state's increasingly difficult academic standards; that big disparities had emerged between property-wealthy and property-poor school districts; and that many school districts were having to tax at the maximum rate just to provide a basic education, meaning they lacked "meaningful discretion" to set rates. That amounts to a violation of a constitutional ban on a statewide property tax.

In a 2014 ruling, Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz — a Democrat — upheld all of those claims, siding with the plaintiff school districts.

He also ruled against two other parties in the lawsuit that did not represent traditional school districts, directing them to seek relief from the state Legislature.

After a trial that lasted more than three months, Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz ruled in February 2014 that the state's school finance system is unconstitutional.
In early 2012, a group representing parents, school choice advocates and the business community — Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education — filed a suit alleging that the current school finance system is inefficient and over-regulated. The Texas Charter Schools Association also sued the state, arguing that a cap on charter school contracts and charters' lack of access to facilities funding was unconstitutional.

In Friday's ruling, the state Supreme Court upheld Dietz’s ruling relating to the fairness coalition and charter schools association but struck down the rest, meaning that all plaintiffs essentially lost out on any injunctive relief.

But Robert Henneke, general counsel for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that backed the so-called efficiency intervenors, painted an optimistic picture of the ruling.

“The court thoroughly rejected the notion that the amount of funding into the system is what is constitutionally required,” he said. “While the court defers to the Legislature to make policy, I think the court’s opinion made clear that there is need for reform and, globally, much broader than mere funding and finance.”

During oral arguments Sept. 1, state lawyers asked the court to dismiss or remand the case to a lower court so it may consider changes lawmakers recently have enacted to the state's school finance system. Last year, the Legislature increased public education funding by $1.5 billion — snubbing a $3 billion House proposal — and authorized another $118 million for a high-quality pre-kindergarten grant program that Gov. Greg Abbott championed.

Before issuing his ruling, Dietz reopened evidence for a four-week period so that he could consider changes made by the 2013 Legislature, which restored about $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion in public education cuts made in 2011 and changed graduation and testing requirements.

Abbott, who was serving as attorney general at the time, appealed Dietz's ruling directly to the all-Republican state Supreme Court.

On Friday, Abbott called the ruling "a victory for Texas taxpayers and the Texas Constitution." He added that the decision "ends years of wasteful litigation by correctly recognizing that courts do not have the authority to micromanage the State's school finance system."

Meanwhile, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, called on the Legislature to “make meaningful investments in our schools so that all Texans have the chance to live up to their full potential.”

And teacher groups bemoaned the decision.

“It is a sad day when the state’s highest court decides that doing the least the state can do to educate our children is enough,” said Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria.

Sheryl Pace, a school finance expert at the business-backed Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, said the court decision surprised her given the sheer number of school districts suing. She stressed that the decision does not preclude state lawmakers from making changes to the school finance system, which the court described as deeply flawed.

“I do think this frees up the Legislature so that they can address school finance if they want to,” she said. “There won’t be an injunctive deadline being held over their heads.”

Whether state lawmakers will actually do so is another question, though, she said. Last year, an effort to overhaul the school finance system failed, with opponents arguing the Legislature should wait for the state Supreme Court ruling.


Humble ISD prepares for population growth

Community Impact - May 4, 2016 - Access Story Online

Student enrollment at Humble ISD is projected to increase by more than 10,000 students in the next six to 10 years, prompting district officials to make plans for building new campuses.

Six new campuses are needed in HISD by 2022—three elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school—primarily in the southeast quadrant of the district near Atascocita, HISD Superintendent Guy Sconzo said.

“My first year here was in 2001, and there has not been a year since that we haven’t grown,” Sconzo said. “Accelerated would be an understatement. It was like an explosion occurred, and it lasted through the [Great Recession]. For the past couple of years our growth has been around 1,200 to 1,300 students per year, and it’s starting to pick up again.”

‘The last frontier’

HISD’s population is expected to rise from 40,500 to about 52,000 students by 2025, according to a study by demographic firm Population & Survey Analysts. Residents are moving to the area to take advantage of access to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, undeveloped land and jobs in downtown Houston or the Port of Houston, Sconzo said.

“I’ve heard [Northeast Houston] referred to as the last frontier in Houston,” he said. “It’s a very attractive quadrant of the city.”

Humble ISD prepares for population growthHowever, the projected influx of new students does require district officials to stay on their toes. HISD board President Robert Sitton said there are already temporary buildings and overcrowding problems at several campuses in the district.

“If we don’t build another high school, specifically in the Atascocita area, then Atascocita High School and Summer Creek High School will have 4,500 students [each] when they’re built for 3,200 students,” he said.

Much of the future growth is expected to take place along West Lake Houston Parkway between Beltway 8 and Will Clayton Parkway, where several of the campuses will be built, Sconzo said.

High School No. 7, projected to open in 2022, will be built on the border of the Lakeshore community off West Lake Houston Parkway. Two other campuses—Elementary No. 28 and Middle School No. 9—will be built nearby in The Groves, a master-planned community near West Lake Houston and Madera Run parkways. The schools will open in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

“We’ve heard from the market researchers who are saying the east side of town is the new west side,” said Nicole Zimmerman, project manager for Crescent Communities, the development company that built The Groves. “I don’t know if I’d go that far, but with changing market dynamics and the price of oil going down, the northeast side [of Houston] is poised for a lot of growth.”

Financing new schools

Before the district’s board of trustees calls for another bond election, it has $155 million in authorized bond funds from an election in 2008 to purchase property for the six new campuses, build three schools and have money remaining toward the construction of a fourth school, Sconzo said.

Beginning in August 2017, one new school is slated to open each fall for six years, pending a future bond election that needs to be called by the board. Legally, a district cannot start that process until there is money in the bank, Sconzo said.

“We have to have a successful bond referendum in 2018 in order to open the doors on Elementary 30 in 2021 and High School 7 in 2022,” he said. “I say that definitively, but the board will make the ultimate decision, and the community.”

The future bond referendum is also expected to address aging facilities.

“This year we hired PBK Architects to do a full facility study from the rooftops to the flowerbeds of every facility in our district,” Sitton said. “We’ve asked them to give us a playbook for the future to see if we need to do any renovations on schools, wing additions or possible rebuilds because we know we have some aging facilities. That’s going to be a huge part of the next bond election.”

Funding challenges

After new schools are constructed, the additional operating costs put more strain on the district’s annual budget. Start-up operating costs for new campuses are  roughly $1.7 million for a new elementary school, $3 million for a new middle school and $7 million for a new high school, Sconzo said.

Humble ISD prepares for population growth“The operating cost of new facilities, on top of the ever-escalating cost of building facilities, really causes financial challenges for school districts primarily because of the way the funding system is established in this state,” he said.

More than 600 school districts in Texas, including HISD, joined a school finance lawsuit in 2012 in hopes the system would be overturned and ruled inequitable and inadequate.

“[Sheldon ISD is] funded at a level approximately $1,500 more per student per year,” Sconzo said. “Tell me what’s the difference between educating a child in Sheldon and Humble?’”

If the state Supreme Court rules in favor of the districts, the state legislature will be charged with fixing the school finance system, said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the research and advocacy nonprofit Texas Equity Center. A decision is imminent.

“There are several things [in the finance system] that aren’t cost-based and deliver money at whim and mostly favors wealthier districts,” Pierce said. “In Harris County, there are two districts at the maximum tax rate of $1.17: Humble ISD and Sheldon ISD. If Humble ISD were funded at the same level Sheldon is, they would have $18 million [more].” 

Regardless of financial challenges, district officials plan to diligently execute future campus openings, Sconzo said, with campuses needing to be at 140 percent capacity before another opens.

“If you open a new campus earlier than that, you open the new campus with such a small student population, it really is inefficient,” he said. “As you respond to growth, what’s really important is who are the teachers working with the children.”


Unfunded mandates costing Texas school districts

Community Impact - February 10, 2016 - Access Story Online

School districts across the state, including Conroe ISD, have begun planning for a legislative mandate that could cost millions of dollars.

The mandate, which goes into effect for the 2016-17 school year, requires districts to install cameras in special education classrooms if a parent requests them. It is just one of many unfunded mandates over the last few legislative sessions that are putting a strain on local school districts.

The state Legislature has been requiring districts to pay for unfunded mandates for decades, said Amy Beneski, director of governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Administrators.

“We get asked a lot, ‘Well, y’all got additional funding from the Legislature—why is that not enough?’” Beneski said. “It’s [not enough] because we have to implement a lot of things they do that they don’t provide funding for.”

Perhaps the most substantial unfunded mandate passed by the Legislature this summer was Senate Bill 507. The bill, authored by state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, requires school districts to provide cameras in special education classrooms for any parent of a special needs child who requests them. Districts must also store and record audio and video for up to six months.

Conroe ISD, which has 60 campuses, believes the mandate could cost the district more than $1 million simply because of requirements for storage and keeping the information secure, said Chris Hines, deputy superintendent of operations for CISD.

“I understand the intent, but it has a lot of ramifications and complications in terms of the cost and technology to make it work,” he said. “I don’t think any organization is exempt from that—you make a decision for a good reason and find out later on there is a cost for implementation.”

State Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, said the Legislature has tried to be more cognizant of the costs to districts in recent years.

Harless said she has voted against bills that required unfunded mandates of districts and even carried bills to alleviate unfunded mandates, such as legislation to increase the gas mileage reimbursement for school buses and reimburse election costs when districts were required to have a uniform election date.

“I hope we continue to go down the path that we don’t pass those along to school districts,” Harless said. “I do think it is shortsighted of us when we do [that] when we don’t understand the cost.”

The state’s instructional materials allotment, which went into effect in 2011 after it was approved by the Legislature, also has effects on CISD. Several years ago, the state moved to a system in which each district received money per pupil for textbooks versus purchasing books and shipping them to districts based on what they ordered.

“When I think of unfunded mandates, [the IMA] is not so much an unfunded mandate, but something that’s not adequately funded,” Hines said. “The reality is, even though we receive quite a bit of money, it doesn’t go far enough. Previously, I might have purchased a $75 math book and the state sent it to me and it lasted eight years,” he said. “Now to get that book I pay $15 a year.”

Hines said CISD designs its budgets based on what the district anticipates its real costs to be every year.

“When we know something comes into place we plan ahead, but sometimes it is hard to put a number to it,” he said. “That’s where you’re at a disadvantage because you don’t know the real cost until you do it.”

Although unfunded mandates from the Legislature cost districts millions of dollars every year, they might be dealing with a more significant issue in terms of the overall state funding formula.

“Unfunded mandates are a small part of a much larger problem,” said Wayne Pierce, executive director for Austin-based education nonprofit Texas Equity Center. “It’s a very significant part, but the problem is much broader than just unfunded mandates.”

Rather than funding each mandate, Pierce said Texas needs to do a complete overhaul of education funding to make it more equitable and adequate for school districts across the state.

“It would be a huge mistake—when the state does some mandate—for [the state to] calculate it out for districts and send everybody that amount because [the funding would be] outside the system,” he said. “It needs to be systematic. It needs to go through the system.”


Unfunded state mandates costing Spring, Klein ISDs

Community Impact - December 9, 2015 - Access Story Online

While hundreds of school districts across the state await the results of a state Supreme Court case that could change Texas education financing forever, Spring and Klein ISDs have begun planning for a legislative mandate that could cost the districts millions of dollars this school year.

The mandate, which requires districts to install cameras in special education classrooms, is just one of many over the last few legislative sessions that are putting a strain on local school districts.

The state Legislature has been requiring districts to pay for unfunded mandates for decades, said Amy Beneski, director of governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Administrators.

“We get asked a lot, ‘Well, y’all got additional funding from the Legislature—why is that not enough?’” Beneski said. “It’s [not enough] because we have to implement a lot of things they do that they don’t provide funding for.”

Strain on the schools

Prior to beginning of the 84th legislative session this year, KISD was already budgeting for about $11.6 million in costs related to unfunded legislative mandates. The costs range from $2.6 million for dyslexia support staff and materials to $800,000 for energy-efficient light bulbs.

Although only about 2 percent of the district’s overall budget, the $11.6 million is equivalent to the salaries of about 200 teachers, said Thomas Petrek, associate superintendent of finances for KISD. Petrek said the district explains the strain of the mandates to legislators every session.

“In our position statement, we say that, ‘If you’re going to require us to do something and we don’t have the money for it, well then you need to provide the revenue stream to pay for these mandates,’” Petrek said.

SISD Chief Financial Officer Ann Westbrooks said the mandates can be difficult to fund, especially during a recession. A mandate from the Legislature that requires the district to keep elementary schools at a 22-1 student-to-teacher ratio was a challenge for the district in 2011-12 after the state cut more than $5 billion in education funding.

The district filed waivers in the 2011-12 school year to keep elementary school classes at a 23-1 ratio, which saved the district $2.4 million that year.

Westbrook said the district will have to find $2.5 million in its budget this year to fund another recent mandate. Legislation passed in 2013 required districts to contribute an added 1.5 percent to the salaries of employees for whom the district does not provide Social Security benefits.

“That [is] $2.5 million that comes right off the top of our budget, which means that cannot go toward things, such as updating our technology, infrastructure or making maintenance and renovation improvements,” Westbrooks said.

Beneski said the unfunded costs to the district do not always come from mandates. In some cases, the state fails to keep up with its funding formulas—such as the transportation allotment, which has not increased since 1984.

State Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, said the Legislature has tried to be more cognizant of the costs to districts in recent years.

Harless said she has voted against bills that required unfunded mandates of districts and even carried bills to alleviate unfunded mandates, such as legislation to increase the gas mileage reimbursement for school buses and reimburse election costs when districts were required to have a uniform election date.

“I hope we continue to go down the path that we don’t pass those along to school districts,” Harless said. “I do think it shortsighted of us when we do [that] when we don’t understand the cost.”

Classroom cameras

Perhaps the most substantial unfunded mandate passed by the Legislature this summer was Senate Bill 507. The bill, authored by state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, requires school districts to provide cameras in special education classrooms for any parent of a special needs child who requests them.

“I will tell you from friends I know  [who] have kids in some of  these special needs classes: They are beat up on a daily basis,” said Harless, who voted for the bill. “[The] cameras would be beneficial in that classroom for the teacher, for the student and for the school for protection.”

Although SISD and KISD officials said the bill’s requirements will not kick in until the 2016-17 school year, the costs could be significant. KISD officials said if every special needs classroom in the district added cameras, it could cost the district more than $1.6 million a year.

Beneski said school districts understood the need for the bill to help protect students and teachers, but they also requested money to pay for the requirement.

Unfunded state mandates costing Spring, Klein ISDs

The bigger issue?

While unfunded mandates from the Legislature cost Spring and Klein ISDs millions of dollars every year, the districts might be dealing with a more significant issue in terms of the overall state funding formula.

“Unfunded mandates are a small part of a much larger problem,” said Wayne Pierce, executive director for Austin-based education nonprofit Texas Equity Center. “It’s a very significant part, but the problem is much broader than just unfunded mandates.”

Pierce said both Spring and Klein ISDs are underfunded compared to the top half of the state’s school districts. Rather than funding each mandate, Pierce said Texas needs to do a complete overhaul of education funding to make it more equitable and adequate for school districts across the state.

“It would be a huge mistake for—when the state does some mandate—[the state to] calculate it out for districts and send everybody that amount because [the funding would be] outside the system,” he said. “It needs to be systematic. It needs to go through the system.”

SISD and KISD are two of 600-plus school districts involved in the ongoing state education financing lawsuit against the state at the Texas Supreme Court.

KISD Superintendent Jim Cain said the districts believe the state’s education financing system does not provide equitable or adequate funding to every school district. Cain said placing unfunded mandates on top of the state’s funding shortage places a strain on the districts.

“If that continues year after year, that places a tremendous burden on the local school district,” he said. “I respect that you have people in Austin who are trying to make it all work, but maybe the best thing to do—instead of continuing to put Band-Aids on the system—is to really take a look at starting from scratch and building the system to reflect 21st century circumstances.”


STATE EDUCATION FINANCE LAWSUIT UNDER REVIEW BY TEXAS SUPREME COURT

COMMUNITY IMPACT - OCTOBER 14, 2015 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

More than four years after the Texas Legislature cut state education funding by $5.4 billion during the 82nd legislative session, hundreds of school districts fighting the state’s education funding formula began to have their cases heard by the state Supreme Court on Sept. 1.

The lawsuit features six different plaintiff groups with more than 600 school districts represented across the state. Cy-Fair ISD is among more than 80 districts represented by attorney David Thompson.

Wayne Pierce, executive director for Austin-based education nonprofit Texas Equity Center, said the Legislature added $1.2 billion to the base allotment for education funding for the next biennium in the 2015 legislative session. However, education has yet to reach funding levels prior to the 2011 cuts.

Despite the drop in state funding, Pierce said overall revenue for Texas school districts has risen 1.5 percent per year as a result of rising property taxes since the cuts in 2011.

The state has not come back to the [funding] levels it was at back in 2010-11, and when you add inflation and the enhanced economy we have, they’re really getting by on the cheap compared to even what it was [then],” Pierce said.

State Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, said the state was facing a roughly $27 billion deficit during the 82nd legislative session. The education cuts were among many tough choices the Legislature made in addressing the deficit.

“You never want to cut education, but it was a time where we had to cut everything,” Harless said. “I think we’ve worked hard to make up the cuts that we’ve done in the past.”

Depending on the court’s ruling, Pierce said Gov. Greg Abbott could call a special session next year to address the issue, which would likely come some time after the March primaries in mid-May or June.

Harless said she does not know how the equity problem between school districts could be fixed as high-growth school districts like CFISD get $5,600 per student from the state while small districts can receive between $12,000 and $20,000 per student.

Meanwhile, 1,000 people continue to move to Texas daily, putting more students in classrooms.

“The only way to solve it is to consolidate the smaller school districts,” Harless said. “It’s hard to get a state representative to say, ‘Let’s go consolidate two rural schools in my district.’ Because those school districts are the largest employers in those little towns. I don’t know how you ever solve the equity part of the finance system when you have situations like that.”


TEXAS EDUCATION COSTS MOSTLY PERSONNEL, LITTLE ROOM FOR DISCRETION

CALLER TIMES - SEPTEMBER 8, 2015 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

AUSTIN — The school finance case started up again this past week, going before the highest civil court in the state. Hundreds of school districts are suing Texas, alleging that the way schools are funded is inadequate and inequitable. They're not getting enough money, and it's not well spread around, they say.

School districts have to contend with rising costs like any other sector of business. Most of the state money, experts in the field said, is going to teachers and campus costs — and much is lost to an outdated way of figuring out costs.

Chandra Villanueva, with the Austin progressive think tank called the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said that there are three issues increasing costs.

"The three main cost drivers for education are: the quality of teachers, the standards in place and the type of student you're educating," she said.

The higher the quality the teacher, the higher the pay, she said. By standards she means the amount of testing and curriculum that is put in place. Getting tests together to find out how well students are doing is a costly process. And the type of student being educated has to do with the children who may have special needs or need extra attention because of their background.

Wayne Pierce, the executive director of Equity Center, another think tank that specializes in school finance, noted that 80 percent of basic educational costs goes to salaries and benefits. According to 2012-13 data, supplies and materials accounted for 9 percent.

That proposal to buy new computers or iPads for the classroom holds barely a candle to the cost of paying your educators.

"The vast majority of it goes to campus based" costs, Pierce said. "People talk about administration, but a nickel on the dollar goes to administration."

Schools are paying teachers, and teachers are seeing only modest raises, around 2 to 3 percent. And a lot of times health insurance costs that teachers share eats up any new money, Pierce said.

A superintendent recently told him "Used to, when you figured your state and local funding you would have a little room for special projects … now it takes all the money just for the basics," Pierce said.

Michael Barba, with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, agreed that labor costs take up the vast majority of school expenditure.

Barba highlighted that formulas for funding are in part based on the Cost of Education Index, sort of like the Cost of Living Index. The education index is responsible for distributing about $2.5 billion every school year, he said.

The formula hasn't been updated since the late '80s, he said. Some districts don't get the adjustment they would get if the formula were updated.

"If it's an inefficient cost driver, that's something that we're really opposed to," Barba said. "We can't say we just need more money."

Barba also highlighted labor laws and told an anecdote about a superintendent coming from a Midwestern state with plenty of unions, and even though Texas isn't unionized, the super said plenty of requirements that would be union requirements are already baked into law.

Each dismissal process thus ends up adding $80,000 to the cost, Barba said.

People aren't sure what might happen with the current school finance trial.

Some suggested the justices might wait until after the primaries so that their decision doesn't become political fodder. Others thought a ruling might come in the next few months.

The judges could say the state is doing fine, or say it needs more funding, or rework the way schools are funded altogether. In the last case, the Legislature could have a massive job ahead of it.


SCHOOL DISTRICTS IN EAST TEXAS DEALING WITH CUTS

LONGVIEW NEWS-JOURNAL - SEPTEMBER 3, 2015 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

Local school districts weathered their share of $5.4 billion in cuts statewide by lawmakers in 2011, but they still face residual effects even as some 600 of them had their day in court Tuesday.

"Where we're still feeling the hit is going to be with personnel," Gladewater ISD Superintendent J. P. Richardson said, explaining the cuts fell on teachers who provided intervention for students in lower grades who were struggling with math or reading. "This year, we've been able to add back the reading part of it. But, again, we still don't have the math."

Gladewater is one of 443 school districts forming the biggest of six sets of plaintiffs suing the state over the 2011 school funding cuts.

In August 2014, District Judge John Dietz ruled the funding system unconstitutional in the lawsuit. The judge determined that schools don't have enough money to properly educate all students. He said funding is distributed unfairly, and districts are improperly restrained from raising the revenue they need.

Gov. Greg Abbott, then attorney general, appealed the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.

Justices heard arguments Tuesday and aren't expected to rule until possibly next year.

Richardson estimates that the 2011 cuts translated to a $2.4 million loss in Gladewater ISD.

The district had about 380 employees.

"Now, we're down to around 310 employees," he said. "It's been hard on districts. I know it's been hard on Gladewater."

Per-student spending in Texas school districts averages $9,559, according to The Equity Center, which organized the 443 districts as the Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition.

That's the 38th lowest per-student investment among all states.

In White Oak ISD, another member of the Equity Center's coalition, Superintendent Mike Gilbert reported that per-student spending in the coming school year is $8,500.

White Oak has handled the 2011 cuts by focusing, during the ensuing three school years, on cuts in materials, including software and curriculum support packages, Gilbert said.

"As far as actual dollar amounts of the cuts, it is hard to say," he said. "It was more of a trade: salaries for materials. We did not have any layoffs or reduction in force."

Neither White Oak, Gladewater nor Harleton — all plaintiffs in the lawsuit — have had to request waivers in the state mandate of a teacher for every 22 students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

Officials at Pine Tree ISD, which is not a plaintiff, also have not requested waivers to the ratio. The district did not report its per-student spending or the amount of cuts it faced in 2011.

The Texas Tribune reported the number of classrooms that exceed the limit grew from about 2,200 to about 8,600 in the school year after the 2011 legislative session that enacted the cuts.

"Our class-size waivers have come in the spring of the year when class sizes grew and there was less than half a semester remaining in the year," Gilbert said. "Two years ago, we were prompted to hire an additional teacher in the primary building due to increases in enrollment early in the fall."

Wayne Pierce, who directs the Equity Center, said Wednesday that the number of districts seeking a waiver from the 22:1 ratio spiked immediately after the cuts but fell in subsequent school years.

"But now, they are going back up," he said.

Pierce said local residents should care how the Texas Supreme Court eventually rules on the school funding issue because it directly affects their wallets.

"It's not just a student issue," he said. "When the state doesn't do its job, they just put it back on the taxpayers to fund it."

Pierce was in Kilgore on Wednesday updating superintendents at the Region VII Education Service Center on Tuesday's hearing in Austin.

He said the nine justices on the Texas Supreme Court gave little indication which way they might be leaning.

"They were hard to read because they were so even with questions," he said. "But, the questions indicate they do have a good insight into what the problems are."

Pierce said conventional wisdom among observers predicts a ruling from the state's highest civil court sometime after the March 1 party primaries.

Harleton ISD Superintendent Craig Coleman was among superintendents meeting with Pierce in Kilgore. He said afterward that his district has dipped into its fund balance each year since the 2011 cuts.

"It was around $900,000 for our district," Coleman said of the 2011 hit. "It was over 15 percent of our budget. ... We've had a deficit budget for the past four or five years."

Coleman did not recall his district's per-student spending level, but he did know he calculated it to $3.66 an hour a few years ago.

"So, for less than you pay a babysitter, you're getting transportation, education, extracurricular (activities)," Coleman said. "We're not trying to waste the taxpayers' money. We're really trying to educate the kids as cost-effectively and as efficiently as possible."


DEBATE OVER SCHOOL FINANCE HEADS BACK TO TEXAS SUPREME COURT

TIME WARNER CABLE NEWS - AUGUST 31, 2015 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

Last week was back to the classroom. This week it's back to the courtroom. It's been four years since more than 600 school districts sued the state over how it funds public education. On Tuesday, attorneys for both sides square off again, but this time should be the decisive round because it's before the state's highest court. Our Karina Kling takes a look at how we got here and what the stakes are moving forward.

The first day of school is always an important day for students and parents, but this year, one week after the school year begins will mark the beginning of another critical time.

The Texas Supreme Court will start the process of trying to decide if enough money is spent on schools and if each district is getting its fair share. Justices will hear about two and a half hours of arguments from the state and various plaintiff groups Tuesday.

The groups that sued will argue the way the state currently funds schools is inadequate and unfair. They're hoping for relief from the justices after lawmakers decided not to make any major changes this past session.

"The system is massively inequitable and inadequate," said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Texas Equity Center.

That's what the attorneys for the more than 600 plaintiff school districts will argue. So far, they're 2-0 against the state in the current legal fight that began in 2011.

A state district judge has sided with the school districts twice, saying the way the state funds public education is unconstitutional.

"Our children will compete on a world stage -- a global stage -- and they must be educated at that level, and quality does take money," Pierce said.

But the state's Republican leaders have pointed to favorable test scores compared to other states and have repeatedly argued more money is not the end-all to improving public education.

"Our first goal has to be on creating an educational system that will advance students the best way possible and then funding that program," Gov. Greg Abbott said.

However, schools and public education advocates say the effects of the $5.4 billion lawmakers cut from public education in 2011 still linger today, despite some of that money being restored.

They point out another flaw: The unfair gap that exists between the top quarter of districts with high property wealth and poorer districts in the bottom quarter.

"At maximum tax rate, the higher funded districts have $50,000 more per typical elementary classroom of 22 children," said Pierce.

It's unclear when the high court might make a decision, but plaintiffs say it's a must-win situation for most districts.

"This isn't something we go back in a year or two. So, we're talking about an entire generation of students going through the system either funded adequately and given a true bite of the apple, or we're talking about another decade of mediocre," said Pierce.

This is the state's sixth school finance case since 1984.

When the Supreme Court does render its decision, the result could set up the potential for a special session of the Texas Legislature to overhaul school finance.


TEXAS SUPREME COURT TO AGAIN HEAR THAT STATE IS SHORTCHANGING SCHOOLS

THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS - AUGUST 31, 2015 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

AUSTIN — Shut out by lawmakers in their efforts to overhaul the state’s troubled education funding system, more than 600 school districts are now pinning their hopes for relief on the Texas Supreme Court.

The high court will hear arguments on the volatile issue of school finance Tuesday, once again taking up the question of whether the current funding system is unfair and inadequate.

It will be the seventh time in the last quarter-century that the court has been called on to settle a legal challenge over the way Texas funds the education of millions of children.

Gov. Greg Abbott weighed in on the issue last week, filing a brief that urges the justices to reverse the decision of now-retired state District Judge John Dietz of Travis County, who ruled for the districts last year. The governor argued that judges should not second-guess the Legislature’s decisions on education.

“Both as a matter of constitutional law and as a matter of responsible policymaking, the courts are not the appropriate forum for making decisions about statewide education policy,” Abbott said. “It’s time to stop fighting about school finance and start fixing our schools.”

The Republican governor argued that the Legislature “substantially increased” funding for public schools earlier this year. The plaintiff school districts note that the actual increases amount to about 1 percent a year for the past five years — less than the rate of inflation.

And those small hikes came after lawmakers enacted record funding cuts in 2011 to help offset a massive shortfall in state revenue without raising taxes.

Dallas and several other districts in North Texas are still at or below their funding levels from five years ago, and those districts that gained money didn’t get much extra.

“I don’t think attorneys for the state will spend a lot of time talking about [the small funding increases] at the hearing,” said David Thompson, attorney for the Dallas and Fort Worth school districts, as well as 82 other districts that make up one group of plaintiffs in the case. Other North Texas districts that are part of the group are Allen, Coppell, Denton, Duncanville and McKinney.

In his original ruling, Dietz suggested it could take an extra $2,000 per child to meet all state standards — representing a total price tag of $10 billion to $11 billion a year. State leaders have scoffed at that figure and earlier this year approved additional money for schools that amounts to about $750 million per year over the next two years.

Overall, the state is set to spend more than $54 billion on education in the two-year budget that takes effect Tuesday, a figure that includes federal money. School districts add billions more through local property taxes.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, Thompson said that inadequate funding along with state restrictions on school property tax rates “mean that the vast majority of districts cannot raise the revenue necessary” to meet increased academic standards imposed by the Legislature. That includes a more rigorous student testing program, and scores have remained relatively flat for four straight years.

Wayne Pierce, director of the Equity Center and former superintendent of the Kaufman school district in North Texas, said the hearing before the high court is a “must-win” situation for most districts. He said they’ve had to cope by making classes bigger, deferring building improvements and cutting staff.

The Equity Center represents 704 medium and small-sized districts. Two-thirds of those are plaintiffs in the school finance case.

In addition to insufficient funding, Pierce pointed to another big flaw in the state system: the inequity that exists between districts with high property wealth and poorer districts.

“The difference between the wealthiest districts in the top quarter of all districts and the poorest in the bottom quarter is a little over $50,000 per elementary classroom,” he said.

Pierce predicted it will be difficult for the nine Republican justices to ignore the gap.

Funds had House backing

The plaintiff school districts believe their case was bolstered in the legislative session earlier this year when House leaders launched an effort to fix the school funding system before the legal battle reached the high court.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, urged lawmakers to not wait on the Supreme Court and instead delve into the issue while lawmakers had billions of dollars in surplus revenues at their disposal.

“Do we want to do what’s right for the state of Texas and the children of Texas, or do we want to sit around trying to play lawyer and outguess the courts?” Aycock asked lawmakers.

His proposal to boost state aid and make key improvements in the system drew support in the House, but Senate leaders gave Aycock’s plan a cold shoulder, preferring to take their chances with the Supreme Court.

Attorney General Ken Paxton adopted a similar view and argued in a recent brief with the court that schools have enough money no matter what superintendents are saying.

“Most of them want more money,” the attorney general said, arguing that the Legislature has more than adequately addressed their financial needs. “Nothing about the current system’s structure, operation or funding is preventing [public schools] from achieving the Legislature’s goals for Texas students.”

Texas has moved up several spots in spending per pupil in the U.S. thanks to rising property values and more state funding, but its ranking in the bottom third of states in a study earlier this year still undercuts its position in the school finance case.

Texas ranked 38th in spending

Figures compiled by the National Education Association showed that Texas ranked 38th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the 2014-15 school year.

Dietz agreed with the plaintiffs that the system has particularly failed low-income and limited-English students, who have been “denied access to that education needed to participate fully in the social, economic and educational opportunities in Texas.”

The judge also highlighted the “large gaps” in funding between high-wealth and low-wealth districts, which he said violates a constitutional requirement that “children who live in poor districts and children who live in rich districts” be treated equally in paying for their education.

It’s unclear when the high court might rule after Tuesday’s hearing, but many lawmakers and education officials expect a decision this fall, setting up a potential special session of the Legislature next spring or summer to overhaul school finance.

KEY POINTS
Three major arguments school districts have against the Texas school finance system:

EFFICIENCY: Districts argue that the finance system distributes money to school districts inequitably, giving some districts thousands of dollars more per student than other districts despite having similar property tax rates.

ADEQUACY: School districts say they are not receiving enough money to pay for programs required by the state and to ensure students meet standards set by the Legislature.

STATE PROPERTY TAX: School districts complain they lack discretion to raise enough funds because they’ve maxed out what they can tax property owners under state law, making school property taxes a de facto statewide tax, which is unconstitutional.


SCHOOL FINANCE ON TRIAL - TEXAS SUPREMES TO HEAR ARGUMENTS SEPT. 1

THE AUSTIN CHRONICLE - AUGUST 28, 2015 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

On Sept. 1, the Attorney General's office will have 45 minutes before the Texas Supreme Court to undermine Judge John Dietz's 2014 ruling finding the current school finance system unconstitutional. Then intervenor groups, including the Texas Association of Business-backed Texans for Real Efficien­cy and Equity in Education, will get 10 minutes to make their case, followed by 10 minutes for the Texas Charter Schools Association. Finally come the original plaintiffs: the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fair­ness Coalition (representing 400 poorer school districts, and led by research and advocacy group theEquity Center); the Texas School Coalition (representing 60 wealthier districts); a further 81 districts headed by Fort Bend ISD; and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Their lawyers will get a grand total of 60 minutes to explain why Dietz was right. In all, that's barely over two hours. Equity Cen­ter director of public affairs Tedrah Rober­tson said, "They'll be done before lunch."

This massive challenge to the size and method of the state's investment in schools has been brewing since 2011, when lawmakers, acting on the basis of a dire revenue estimate from Comptroller Susan Combs, cut $4 billion out of the baseline school finance budget. With a failure to account for inflation, that left a $5.4 billion hole. Successive legislatures have put some cash back (see timeline) but Equity Center executive director Wayne Pierce said, "You're talking five or six years, and they're not even where they were then."

The lawsuit argues 1) that the state puts too little money into the system, and 2) that it is split up among school districts inequitably. Pierce's latest calculation is that the top 25% of schools receive $50,000 more per 22-student elementary classroom than the lowest-funded 25% – a number that does not take into account the fact that the poorest districts also often have the most complex and costly students to educate.

Pierce noted that Tuesday's hearing will deal with constitutional niceties about the state's responsibilities. However, he said, "Whether or not the system is inadequate and inequitable is a separate question to whether or not our school finance system should be improved." The fact the state has failed to reach even the 2011 numbers should be sign enough, and he is pessimistic that the Legislature will act without a Supreme Court ruling. Moreover, he voiced concern that this could be a repetition of the last time the courts tackled school funding: Back in 2006, the Supremes only ruled on part of a previous challenge. Rather than actually reform the system, Pierce said, lawmakers "just used that as an excuse to cut taxes."

A ruling could take months to be handed down. Pierce said the best result for the state's students would be a strongly worded decision against the state that forces them to act sooner rather than later, preferably in a special session. That would require Gov. Greg Abbott (who previously defended the state's position as attorney general) to call the Lege back. He has seemed resistant to calling for a special session during his first term as governor, but the court could force his hand. If that happens, Pierce expects the call would go out after the March primaries. He said, "That would give them room to have several [specials], and then they could implement changes in the 2016-17 school year." 


TEXAS' SCHOOL FUNDING LEVELS CALLED RED FLAG

THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS - JULY 20, 2015 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

AUSTIN — After five years of battling the state in court for more funding, the Lewisville school district will receive $133 less per student in the coming school year than it did when the dispute began in 2011.

The Frisco school district will get $168 less per student this fall than in the 2010-11 school year. And Dallas will receive $55 less per student.

At least six other districts in North Texas are still at or below their funding levels from five years ago, and those that gained money added little. Statewide, the average increase for the five-year period is just 5.3 percent — barely more than 1 percent a year.

The lingering effect of the cuts will be a key issue in the lawsuit appeal the Texas Supreme Court has agreed to hear Sept. 1. The state is counting on the funding hikes to bolster its case against a lower court ruling last year that found the school finance system unfair, inadequate and unconstitutional.

While the state maintains that school finance is complex, making it difficult to determine how much should be spent per student, districts suing the state said that funding levels for the past five years speak volumes.

“I don’t think attorneys for the state will spend a lot of time talking about [the small funding increases] at the Sept. 1 hearing,” said David Thompson, attorney for the Dallas and Fort Worth school districts, as well as 82 other districts that make up one group of plaintiffs in the case. Other North Texas districts that are part of the group are Allen, Coppell, Denton, Duncanville and McKinney.

Standards raised

State officials say that there’s enough money in the system.

“Once again, a small army of litigants, lawyers, experts and interest groups is asking the courts to close Texas schools in hopes of spurring the Legislature to craft a public education system more to their liking,” Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said in a recent brief to the Supreme Court. The remarks were aimed at more than 600 school districts — including Dallas and several others from North Texas — that are pitted against Paxton and the state in the case.

“Most of them want more money, many would prefer that money be raised and distributed differently,” the attorney general said, arguing that current funding approved by the Legislature is enough. “Nothing about the current system’s structure, operation or funding is preventing [public schools] from achieving the Legislature’s goals for Texas students.”

Thompson said that the annual increases haven’t even covered the cost of inflation and other expense factors. And he noted that while funding has been flat, “the state raised standards, imposed a new battery of student tests and emphasized college and career readiness for all students. They have continued to ask more of school districts while giving them less to work with.”

Wayne Pierce, director of the Equity Center and former superintendent of the Kaufman school district in North Texas, said larger class sizes, deferred building improvements and staff cutbacks are among the effects of inadequate funding from the state.

“We definitely have not kept pace with what parents expect their public schools to offer,” said Pierce, whose organization represents 704 medium-size and small school districts in Texas. Two-thirds of those districts are among the plaintiffs in the school finance case.

He said while lawmakers took some steps to decrease inequities between higher-wealth and lower-wealth school districts back in 2013, the funding gaps are again increasing.

Pierce predicted the average funding increase of around 1 percent over the past five years would be a red flag for the Supreme Court.

“I don’t see how the state can expect the court to be impressed with that number,” he said, adding that school superintendents and school boards across the state were discouraged that the Legislature did so little for public schools in the 2015 session.

Calls for change

Some lawmakers tried to address the suit.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, urged lawmakers earlier this year to step up and fix the troubled school finance system without being ordered to do so by the Supreme Court. His proposal to boost state aid and make key improvements in the system drew support in the House, but Senate leaders said they would take their chances with the high court.

“Do we want to do what’s right for the state of Texas and the children of Texas, or do we want to sit around trying to play lawyer and outguess the courts?” Aycock asked lawmakers. His comments have been cited by school districts as evidence that dramatic change is needed.

Other Republican leaders have contended that extra money is not the key to improving schools.

“We just can’t give them more money and let them keep doing the same things they’ve been doing,” Lt. Gov Dan Patrick said. Patrick has pointed to the $1.5 billion in new money that the Legislature approved for the coming two school years — an amount he says will provide “quality public education.”

During the session, the Republican was more interested in touting the modest school property tax cut lawmakers approved this year, which amounts to about $125 for the typical homeowner — about a 3.75 percent decrease on the average tax bill.

Patrick has also taken issue with claims that schools are still reeling from the unprecedented $5.4 billion in funding cuts enacted by the Legislature in 2011. Those reductions, which prompted school districts to sue the state, were partially restored in 2013.

“Our schools survived, and we did fine,” Patrick said.

Democratic leaders noted that the state is flush with cash, even after writing the next two-year budget.

“Our public schools will be no better off than they are today even as billions of available dollars were left untouched,” said Senate Democratic leader Kirk Watson of Austin, referring to funds that were left on the table by lawmakers.

Texas has moved up several spots in spending per pupil in the U.S. thanks to rising property values and more state funding, but its ranking in the bottom third of states in a study earlier this year still undercuts its position in the school finance case.

Figures compiled by the National Education Association showed that Texas ranked 38th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the 2014-15 school year.


THE EDUCATION SESSION - SCHOOL FINANCE BATTLE TAKES CAPITOL CENTER STAGE

THE AUSTIN CHRONICLE - MAY 1, 2015 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

If there's a poster child for what's best about Texas school kids, she could be Regan Lively. With a slight quaver in her voice, the high school senior from Flower Mound took to the podium at the April 18 Save Texas Schools Rally at the Capitol to tell her story. She has overcome profound dyslexia, and this year was accepted into Oklahoma Christian University, with a $16,000 scholarship. But unless she graduates, she can't go – and she won't graduate, because she has failed the U.S. History STAAR test. She told the assembled crowd of educators, administrators, trustees, parents, and kids, "As elementary students we are taught to shoot for the moon and reach for the stars, but when the challenge of a test comes across, our anxiety kicks in, and our dreams are shattered right before our eyes."

Students like Lively have also become walking, talking metaphors for what Texas education does wrong. The figures laid out at the rally were stunning, and well-established. Texas has a massive and expanding student population – it grows by 85,000 students annually, equal to adding the entire student body of Rhode Island to Texas schoolrooms in the last decade. Yet, even as Republican politicians boast about the "Texas economic miracle," per-student spending has dropped by roughly 25% since 2009. Specialist resources to help kids with extra needs, like dyslexia, or for the growing number of English language learners, are scarce to extinct. At the same time, the testing regimen has swallowed more and more of classroom time, and more and more of the operational budget. It's a minor miracle anyone graduates.

And the testing anxiety? That's what lawmakers seem to face, every time someone talks about school finance reform. It's too big, too complicated. Put money in one school, you have to take it from another. Yet the 84th Legislature has seen the most serious conversations yet about how – and how much – Texas should pay for its public schools. The question now is, are they doing enough?

A Perfect Storm

This was always going to be an education session, due to a confluence of three factors. First, a new governor: In his inaugural State of the State address, Gov. Greg Abbott declared education a top priority. Second, the 2013 passage of omnibus education reforms in House Bill 5, which brought sweeping changes to exams, graduation requirements, and how the state assesses schools and districts. With changes that broad, lawmakers knew they would be coming back to tweak the system after a couple of years of field testing.

Then there's the third factor: the 2014 ruling by state District Judge John Dietz that found that the whole Texas school finance system fails to meet its constitutional obligation to provide adequate and equitable funding. Texas' lousy track record on school finance had reached a new low in 2011, when then-Comptroller Susan Combs handed down a budget forecast of gloom and doom, and in a blind panic the Leg­is­lature went on a budget-slashing frenzy, cutting $4 billion out of public education funds for the 2012-13 biennium. However, because the state also failed to cover the increase in student enrollment or even inflation, schools were really $5.4 billion in the hole. In 2013, with a slightly rosier financial forecast, the state added $3.4 billion back. However, that barely covered enrollment growth or inflation, and did nothing to dent the hole they had dug two years earlier.

So 2015 is a perfect storm, a session when education holds center stage. And that's good news for lawmakers like House Public Education Committee Member Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood. On April 9, over the opposition of the Tea Party rump, the House passed his HB 4, establishing a $130 million fund for qualifying schools to help pay for half-day pre-K. Huberty is also sponsoring and shepherding SB 149 by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, setting up graduation committees that look at more than just test scores. That's exactly the kind of alternate path to graduation that students like Regan Lively – and 20,000 kids across the state just like her – need. "That's got to get done," he said, "so we can help these kids graduate."

Huberty admits the rollout of HB 5's testing reforms was "horrible," and most would agree with him. Yet while there are plenty of fixes to HB 5 still waiting in the wings, the real debate remains focused on money, and the center of attention is HB 1759 by House Public Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen. It's the first serious attempt to shift how the state distributes money in more than a decade. Rather than wait for the courts to force his hand, Aycock took the initiative, and many of his fellow reps have his back.

In the House, school finance is a bipartisan issue, and that reflects a larger change. Texans – well, apart from the Tea Party – seem sick of seeing their school districts used as a punching bag. Groups like Save Texas Schools are gaining traction, while the pro-public ed Texas Parent PAC has become one of the most effective endorsers in primaries on both sides of the aisle. Louis Malfaro, president of Texas AFT, noted the teachers' union is just about to charter its latest affiliate in Waco. "We're growing across the state," he said, arguing that that indicates a strengthening of resolve. Even lawmakers are turning the tide. Malfaro cited the speech by Clarksville Republican Rep. Gary VanDeaver at the Save Texas Schools rally: "He said, 'I was a teacher and a superintendent, and gosh, I didn't know how bad our schools were until I got to Austin.'"

So HB 1759 has powered through the House. But just because school finance is a bipartisan issue, that does not mean it's bicameral. Center for Public Policy Prior­i­ties policy analyst Chandra Kring Villa­nu­eva notes that while the House has shown real determination, "the Senate has shown no intention to deal with school finance. ... It's a one-sided arrangement."

House vs. Senate

The Legislature is a simple place, and historically there's good reason why they called the Senate the upper chamber. That was traditionally the place where bad ideas, many of which originated in the hurdy-gurdy madness of the House, went to die. Now, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in charge, and barn-burning radicals like New Braun­fels Republican Sen. Donna Campbell at his back, all that's gone out the wood-blinded windows of the Senate chamber. As Malfaro puts it, "The House is in touch with reality, and the Senate is in the USS Koch Brothers, orbiting planet ALEC" – referring to the American Legis­lative Exchange Council, the corporate-funded conservative bill-mill.

Not that the Republican-dominated House has morphed into tax-and-spend liberals. The House and the Senate are locked in a fight over tax cuts: The lower chamber wants a mix of business margins franchise and sales tax cuts, while their colleagues across the Dome are eyeing franchise and property tax cuts. How can they pay for this? By using part of a supposed $8 billion surplus – a surplus created by years of slashing school spending. House Approp­ri­a­tions Committee veteran Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, said, "Cost, growth, and inflation have historically been ignored in state budgets. We now see it is designed to provide cuts, not to properly consider the greater and ignored needs of Texas."

But at least the House leadership is trying. The Senate seems to have no interest in Aycock's structural reforms, or Huberty's pre-K investment, and instead is pushing hard on vouchers and tax breaks for businesses handing money to private schools.

Even their core education budgets diverge by billions. HB 1, the House draft budget, proposes an extra $2.2 billion for inflation and population growth, the Senate version a billion less. And then there's Aycock's bill, with an extra $800 million hidden up its sleeve.

Band-Aid on a Hemorrhage

If HB 1759 passes, few districts will see more benefit than AISD. Board President Gina Hinojosa explained: "There's no district in the state that exemplifies how broken the school finance system is than Austin." Like Villanueva at the CPPP, she praised Aycock for starting the debate. "I love his quote about, rather than pay the lawyers, let's do what's right for the children of Texas."

What HB 1759 changes is not just how much money there is, but how the money is distributed. The changes are limited: Aycock himself has said this is a two-year fix, and lawmakers need to come back in 2017 to tackle "weights" Texas uses to adjust the basic allotment for higher-needs students. For example, the bill would get rid of the Cost of Education Index, a fudge factor designed to reflect the comparative cost of educating in an expensive city. However, the equations haven't been updated since 1991. Edna Butts, the district's director of Inter­gov­ern­mental Relations & Policy Oversight, said, "AISD has the same CEI as Killeen, and we're less than Round Rock. If Austin was rated the same as Houston, we'd get $13 million more."

Among a slate of tweaks, Aycock's plan would simply kill the CEI and put the cash in the basic allotment, which benefits AISD. Similarly, the district would finally get state assistance on transportation costs. So in raw numbers, what would this mean for AISD? Butts explained, "We have three different scenarios out there. We have House Bill 1 passed by the House, we have the committee substitute to House Bill 1 passed by the Senate, and neither factor in Aycock's bill quite yet." If the House version passes, then AISD gets another $19 million a year in its basic allotment. If the Senate wins out, then it's $10 million. But if HB 1759 passes, that means $48 million a year over the biennium for AISD.

Not everyone is happy with that shift. The Equity Center is one of the core groups involved in the current litigation, and its executive director, Wayne Pierce, is among the growing crowd that applauds Aycock for starting the discussion. However, that doesn't mean that he's happy with HB 1759; he argues that it does more for wealthy districts than poor ones. That's why he's critical of steps like eliminating the CEI, which he claims needs fixing, not killing. Pierce said, "They're putting the money in the right place. On the other hand, they're taking it from the wrong place."

The biggest hidden benefit for wealthier districts would be in recapture, aka the notorious "Robin Hood" system, whereby property-rich districts like Austin send a portion of their taxes to the state to fund poorer districts. AISD is the biggest single contributor, paying 11% of the statewide total collected, and Travis is the biggest contributing county. HB 1759 doesn't change that status, but it would mean some relief. Rather than the $228 million recapture AISD forecasts for 2017, it would be closer to $180 million – still bad, but not crippling. However, with the Legislature known for its volatility, Butts isn't cutting checks yet. She said, "We haven't done new plans based on Aycock's bill yet. We don't want to jinx it."

This sounds promising, but then it also sounds horribly familiar. There's a cycle in Texas politics. Lawmakers create a system. They get sued over it. After years of appeals, they lose. They come up with another system, or at least some serious tweaks. They get sued over it, and so on, and so forth (see timeline below). It's a 40-year cycle – less trial-and-error than trial and trial date. Huberty said, "School finance has always been, we put a Band-Aid on it, to fix one problem and then, oh, geez, we've got another problem."

Even Austin Mayor Steve Adler has been in those trenches. In 1997, he was chief of staff to then-Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, fighting to get changes made to the weighting system. First set in 1982, after 15 years the weights were completely out of line with the actual costs of educating special needs kids and English language learners. But reformers failed to achieve any changes, and those same weights remain in place – that's 33 years of changes in educational theory, practice, and realities that Texas school finance ignores. As mayor, Adler sees school finance another way: The biggest chunk of local property taxes goes to school districts, so high ISD tax rates have a direct effect on affordability. Adler said, "There's only a shift in education funding when one of two things happens. The first is a court rules and mandates a change. The second is when the business community gets together and says that, for the economic well-being of their businesses in the state, things need to change."

This time, Texas has both factors working, with the Dietz ruling, and a broad coalition of industries, spearheaded by the normally anti-tax Texas Association of Busi­ness, calling on Gov. Abbott to abandon tax cuts in favor of education and infrastructure investment. That bodes well for Adler, who said, "We're only as strong as the court backing that we have, and our allies in the business community."

Another reality check: Any of this can change in an instant. While Huberty remains optimistic the Senate will play ball, Patrick has expressed little interest in filling the billion-dollar void between his and the House's plans. Aycock has even warned that, if HB 1759 passes without the $3 billion it needs to work, he will ask Abbott to veto it.

And there's a deeper question: Is this a real fix, or is this just another spin on the legislate/litigate merry-go-round? Aycock has been explicit that this is a two-year Band-Aid before the surgery begins. The CPPP's Villa­nueva argues that Aycock's $3 billion is a fraction of the $6 billion to $8 billion that public schools need right now, and then that the new basic allotment needs to become inflation- and poverty-linked. More­over, she notes, the problems with the franchise tax that the Legislature is trying to fox through cuts came about from a 2006 revision intended to put more money into – you guessed it – school finance. She said, "If we get rid of this revenue stream, we just have to replace it with another, and we become more dependent on sales tax or property tax."

Will HB 1759 even be enough to placate the courts? Pierce of the Equity Center thinks not. First, even if it passes, and the full $3 billion is injected, it will still barely touch the lowest definition of adequacy. Pierce said, "The Constitution is not what we need for public education. It's the least that we do for public education." But he's realistic about the size of the task, adding, "We have a severely inefficient funding system, and I don't think you can fix it all in one session." Until the state adds real money to replace property taxes, and tackles the weights, Pierce said, it's all triage. "It's like we have a dog who has mange, and we're trying to fix it by putting salve on the tail."


POWER, INFLUENCE MEAN PITFALLS IN SCHOOL FINANCE

FORT WORTH STAR TELEGRAM - APRIL 2, 2015 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

Jimmie Don Aycock, chairman of the Public Education Committee in the Texas House, sounded proud when he announced last week that he and his colleagues are determined to rewrite the state’s public school finance plan.

He should be proud. The question now is whether he can avoid the old traps that have led to failure and inequity in so many previous plans.

An Austin judge last year declared Texas school financing so badly flawed that it violates the state constitution, and the Texas Supreme Court will examine the issue later this year.

“The Legislature is faced with a decision to either act proactively and try to get something done about education funding or simply do nothing and sit back and wait and see what the courts say,” Aycock told reporters at a March 25 news conference.

The 2016-17 budget bill passed by the House this week would give him $4 billion in extra funding — beyond the $30 billion in general revenue funds needed to continue current programs and pay for annual enrollment growth — to use in a new school finance plan.

That’s important. In his ruling last year, State District Judge John Dietz said one of the flaws of the current system is that it does not deliver enough money to enough school districts to allow them to meet state-mandated education goals.

Aycock has stated some of his “big-picture objectives,” but he has not said how he intends to fix the system.

One of the important things to look for when he lays out his plan — he says he’ll do that in time for the Senate to consider it before the session ends on June 1 — is how much he’ll accomplish through formulas targeting specific educational goals. Formula funding treats all districts the same.

Contrast that with how much of the $4 billion he’ll simply shovel to specific school districts that would lose under a strictly formula-driven plan.

People who follow school finance maneuverings in Austin call the latter approach “hold-harmless” funding, although the term evokes so many bad memories that many try to avoid it.

Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, an Austin organization that has advocated funding for low-wealth school districts for more than three decades, estimated this week that as much as $4 billion out of each two-year state education budget gets spent through “random, haphazard, non-cost-based” hold-harmless provisions in current law.

Initially, those provisions are usually thought of as temporary work-arounds to ease the transition to new funding formulas. But Pierce says one of them has been in use for 23 years.

“If a district can’t find a way to transition in 23 years, we suggest it isn’t going to happen,” Pierce wrote in the Equity Center’s latest newsletter.

The subsidy must end sometime, he wrote. “It might as well be now.”

Another provision sets out “target revenue” for some school districts. It started in the 2006-07 school year, and in 2011 the Legislature said it would end with the 2016-17 school year.

Pierce says by its scheduled end date the target revenue provision will have sent almost $25 billion to some of the state’s 1,000-plus school districts.

Some powerful school districts will lose a lot of money if their target revenue checks no longer arrive. Aycock says Houston ISD is in that group, to the tune of about $101 million.

No surprise, Pierce says some districts want the subsidy continued.

“The Texas Legislature posted a clear warning sign in 2011 that this hold-harmless would end in six years,” Pierce wrote. “A six-year warning that an eleven-year-old temporary hold-harmless is ending is sufficient notice.”

Yes, but it is Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, in the state’s largest city. No fewer than 32 legislators, including some of the state’s most powerful, represent districts wholly or partly in Harris County. Many more are within its sphere of influence.

That puts a lot of pressure on Aycock, who is from San Angelo. But he volunteered for the job.


TEXAS MOVES UP IN SPENDING PER PUPIL, STILL RANKS IN BOTTOM THIRD

THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS - MARCH 18, 2015 - ACCESS STORY ONLINE

AUSTIN — Texas has moved up several spots in spending per pupil in the U.S. thanks to rising property values and more state funding, but its ranking in the bottom third of states in a new study still undercuts its position in the long-running school finance case.

Figures compiled by the National Education Association and released Wednesday show that Texas schools are spending an average $9,559 per student in the current school year. That is well under the national average of $12,040 and ranks Texas 38th among the 50 states and District of Columbia.

Last year, Texas was 46th in the comparisons, based on numbers furnished to the NEA by state education agencies.

Texas also is now spending just under $100 more per student than four years ago, when massive funding cuts were enacted by the Legislature. Compared with the national average, Texas is spending $54,582 less per elementary classroom, according to the NEA study.

“We are still in the bottom tier of states when it comes to the money we spend on our public school students,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the NEA-affiliated Texas State Teachers Association. “This is a step in the right direction, but the Legislature can’t claim credit because a lot of this money is coming from local property taxpayers.”

Robison noted that about 49 percent of funding for schools comes from local property taxes, while just over 40 percent is from the state — a percentage that has been declining in recent years. The rest comes from the federal government.

The Texas Supreme Court is now considering a lower court ruling that found the school finance system unfair and inadequate to educate the state’s 5.2 million schoolchildren.

The ruling by state District Judge John Dietz came in a lawsuit filed by more 600 school districts that contend the current funding system is unconstitutional. The districts argued the Legislature has consistently underfunded schools while imposing new and expensive academic requirements for students.

Preliminary NEA figures also show that per pupil spending in Texas — with increased property tax revenue and state aid — has now slightly surpassed what was spent in the 2010-11 school year. That was the year before the Legislature imposed unprecedented funding cuts for schools to help balance the state budget.

Texas spent $9,462 per student in 2010-11. Four years later, the state is spending $97 more per student in the current school year, according to the study.

Wayne Pierce, director of the Equity Center, said the increase amounts to a little over 1 percent for the four-year period, hardly an impressive number when inflation, rising costs and other factors are considered. The Equity Center represents hundreds of low and medium-wealth school districts, many of whom are plaintiffs in the school finance case.

“The arguments of school districts about the many problems in our school finance system are just as strong now as they have ever been,” Pierce said. “There is still lots of room for the state to increase its funding for public schools.”

Pierce noted that lawmakers cut $5.4 billion in education funding in 2011 and restored only a portion of that — $3.4 billion — two years ago. He said he is encouraged that House leaders have proposed a $2.2 billion funding increase on top of money for enrollment growth. The Senate has no similar provision in their proposed budget.

Meanwhile, many Republicans insist that there is an overemphasis on funding rather than the results schools are getting.

Former House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler said only two states — New Hampshire and New Jersey — allocate a greater percentage of their state and local taxes for education than Texas. Eissler chaired the education committee in 2011 and supported the funding cuts that year as necessary to offset revenue reductions.

He contends the state should be making sure its education dollars are spent wisely rather than constantly looking at how much additional money schools need.

“We need to look at spending and results, and look at what we get for our spending. It is not how much you spend, but how well you spend it,” he said.

While some conservative groups have argued that more funding for schools will not make a difference, a Texas Education Agency analysis two years ago found that schools with the highest student performance ratings were generally those that spent more on their students.

NEA figures released Wednesday also showed that the average teacher salary in Texas moved up in the rankings this year, from 35th to 29th. Teachers earned an average $50,576. That was up about $886 from a year ago. But Texas is still well below the national average of $57,379.


House education chairman proposes super taxing districts for Texas public schools

The Dallas Morning News - January 12, 2015 - Access Story Online

AUSTIN — School districts across Texas would be merged into super districts for tax purposes under legislation the chairman of the House Public Education Committee offered Monday.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said his bill was filed to address the complaints of a state judge. The judge declared the current school finance system unconstitutional, in part because of wide differences in spending per student among school districts.

Aycock’s bill calls for creation of at least 30 “school finance districts” across the state to even out funding levels among Texas’ 1,026 regular districts. Most of the super districts would include several small and midsize districts. The goal is to provide all districts funding per student that is within $300 of the statewide average.

“This basically narrows the difference in taxable wealth per weighted student by forcing consolidation for tax purposes only,” Aycock explained in a letter to House members.

Aycock called his proposal “very rough” and subject to change. And he isn’t even sure he will pursue it as the legislative session moves forward.

“This would be a major departure from present law and would require much thought and modification,” he said.

But it marked the starting point of discussion about how to respond to the court ruling, which the state has appealed.

The super finance districts would require approval from local voters and be managed by boards that include representatives from all districts contained in each super district. All of the school finance districts would have to be approved by the state education commissioner, who could force consolidation where local officials were unable to reach agreement on a merger.

An association that represents hundreds of low- and medium-property-wealth school districts applauded Aycock for drawing attention to the school finance issue as the legislative session begins Tuesday.

“It is a very innovative and interesting idea,” said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center. “We’re glad he filed the bill because it starts a discussion that very much needs to take place.”

Pierce said the maximum $600 spending gap per student that would be allowed under the plan is “a big step forward to restrict the current inequities in the funding system.”

During the school finance trial before state District Judge John Dietz last year, it was estimated that there is a $2,463 gap in basic education funding per pupil between the wealthiest 15 percent of districts and the poorest 15 percent.

A school district consolidation plan similar to Aycock’s was actually approved by the Legislature nearly 22 years ago in response to a court ruling that declared the state’s funding system unconstitutional. That bill authorized creation of county education districts — each comprising several districts within each county — to help equalize funding among districts.

However, the plan was subject to voter approval and was overwhelmingly rejected in a statewide election on May 1, 1993. Nearly 63 percent of voters in the election said no to the proposal.