New panel launching effort to identify Texas school finance fix

6:57 p.m Monday, Jan. 22, 2018 Texas News & Politics
Ralph Barrera
Austin teacher Gabriela Jimenez looks over a mathematics poster as she organizes her classroom at Jaime Padron Elementary in August. Austin got no additional money in the school finance bill passed last year. RALPH BARRERA/2017 AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Two years after the Texas Supreme Court suggested sweeping reforms to the school finance system, a newly formed state commission will hold the first of several meetings Tuesday in an effort to find a fix to the system by the end of December.

The 13-member Texas Commission on Public School Finance, composed of school district officials, lawmakers and public finance experts, is tasked with recommending improvements to the system that address the changing demographics of the state, the local funding burden and the amount of taxes that should be collected to meet constitutional requirements.

Tuesday’s meeting, which will be at 10 a.m. at 1701 N. Congress Ave. in Austin, will begin with an overview, including the legal framework of the school finance system, demographics of the student population and educational outcomes in Texas. A report is due to Gov. Greg Abbott and the Legislature by Dec. 31.

“The opinions in the Texas Supreme Court’s most recent school finance lawsuit reflect a broad agreement that the current system is flawed, but also substantial disagreement as to what to do about it,” said Scott Brister, who served as a Texas Supreme Court justice between 2003 and 2009. “I believe the commission has an opportunity to challenge the status quo and look for ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the system’s funding, expenditures and outcomes.”

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The complicated way Texas public schools are funded has long been criticized as inadequate and outdated, no longer reflecting the expense of teaching large numbers of children who are learning English as a second language and who come from low-income families. School district officials have complained that they’re relying more on local property taxes for funding while the state has shirked its responsibility.

Despite more than a half-dozen lawsuits over the past 30 years, the system has remained essentially unchanged.

After the latest lawsuit was filed, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the school finance system was constitutional but barely held together by a complicated collection of patchwork fixes.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he’s optimistic the commission’s recommendations will lead to major changes because the state doesn’t have to comply with a court order. Taylor and state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who chairs the House Education Committee, are on the new commission.

“It’s just overly complicated. We’ve got a lot of inequities, and we’ve got a lot of perverse incentives in the current system,” Taylor said, adding that some small districts might need to be consolidated.

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The Legislature last year passed a modest school finance bill that included $351 million in school spending and more than $200 million to reduce health care costs for retired teachers. But urban school districts got little, and Austin got no additional money, even though it is projected to send $534 million to the state this year in so-called recapture dollars.

Property-wealthy school districts must send back to the state recapture money, which is then supposed to be redistributed to property-poor school districts.

Instead of overhauling the school finance system, the Legislature during last summer’s special session opted to create a commission to make recommendations on fixes. All members, including Pflugerville district Superintendent Doug Killian and the Austin school district’s Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson, were appointed by Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Joe Straus or the State Board of Education.

Brister said that future meetings are tentatively set for Feb. 8, Feb. 22 and March 7. Although the public will be invited to testify at a meeting, a date has not been set.