PolitiFact: How Austin school district fares in per-student spending

An activist made his case against voters approving a record $1 billion Austin school bond proposition in part by saying the school district tops other big Texas districts in per-student funding.

We wondered about that.

“Austin ISD has the highest taxable property value per student of all school districts in Texas,” Roger Falk of the Travis County Taxpayers Union wrote in a commentary published in the American-Statesman before the bond won voter approval. “It also has the lowest tax rate of all districts in our area.”

Falk then rebutted the school district’s complaints that it suffers under the state’s school-finance system of recapture, which essentially shifts money from districts with strong property tax bases (like Austin) to property-poor districts.

“A major part of its sales pitch is that recapture is killing the district and driving this bond,” Falk wrote. “Recapture, as an argument from the district, actually shows its incompetence, as Austin ISD enjoys the highest per-student funding of all large Texas districts after recapture.”

We’re not fact-checking all that Falk said there. But Falk told us he reached his conclusion about the Austin district having the highest per-student funding among large districts by checking on 2016-17 per-student budgeted spending in a dozen high-enrollment districts starting from a Texas Education Agency website.

From the TEA, we confirmed figures posted for the Austin district showing that the district budgeted $10,949 per student — an amount reached by dividing $906,180,314 shown in Austin Independent School District state, local and federal receipts by its 82,766 students. That disregards $406 million in local taxes recaptured by the state.

Falk said that from TEA-posted figures, he identified only one high-enrollment district with a greater per-student figure — the 157,787-student Dallas district, per the site, drew $11,377 in receipts per student. Falk told us he found from posted figures that 10 other districts — including Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth, El Paso and Corpus Christi — drew less in receipts per student.

“First or second, my central point remains true: AISD uses recapture to give the impression they have unfair and inadequate funding,” Falk said. “Based on their peers, many of whom don’t pay recapture, they have superior funding along with a low tax rate.”

We asked the state education agency and a couple of school funding experts who advocate for districts at the Capitol to assess Falk’s statement and methodology.

TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said Falk’s per-student figures, based on 2016-17 budgeted data submitted to the state, were accurate to a degree. Culbertson said, for instance, the posted data didn’t reflect final totals of federal funds fielded by each district. She sent us a spreadsheet showing that districts ultimately got far more, or less, federal aid than indicated in the reports Falk drew upon.

In response to our inquiry, agency experts reviewed audited actual spending data, including federal aid, for the latest available year, 2015-16. By this sort, Culbertson said, Austin fell to eighth among the dozen districts singled out by Falk with $10,805 in per-student spending.

Lobbyist Joe Wisnoski, a former education agency official expert in school finance, similarly said the TEA data cited by Falk was incomplete, leaving unconsidered “a lot of federal funds” spent by districts.

Like the education agency, Wisnoski turned to audited district revenues for 2015-16 showing Austin eighth in per-student revenue of all kinds among the districts analyzed by Falk, though his review indicated Austin was sixth if federal aid wasn’t considered.

For our part, we noticed that Falk’s sampling left out a few of the state’s 12 highest-enrollment districts. In 2016-17, the latest year of state-posted counts, these were the Northside and North East districts in Bexar County, the Conroe district in Montgomery County and the Fort Bend district in Fort Bend County. Folding in actual per-student financial data for Falk’s listed districts and for these other districts led us to compose a chart showing the Austin district in 2015-16 trailed eight of the state’s highest-enrollment districts in such spending.

Focusing on the 10 largest districts by enrollment puts Austin sixth in per-student revenue, with the Dallas district leading at $12,069 per student.

We shared the information provided by the agency and Wisnoski with Falk. He replied: “In my goal to provide accurate, thoughtful counterpoint, I defer to those I use for reference, like TEA,” which collects and analyzes data. “If they differ with the assessment, I accept their numbers and gladly stand corrected.” Falk followed up: “My point could have been made by simply saying ‘similar funding to other large districts’ or something to that effect.”

Our ruling:

Falk said the Austin district “enjoys the highest per-student funding of all large Texas districts” even after forwarding revenue to the state.

Considering all audited actual revenues for 2015-16, it looks to us like the Austin district trailed other high-enrollment districts in spending—ranking sixth or ninth among such districts depending on which ones you include.

We rate this claim False.

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