Funding public education in Texas has become a never-ending subject of debate and frustration. It has been the target of countless lawsuits for the past 40 years. It is always at the top of the list of issues to be addressed in every legislative session. The population in Texas continues to boom, the demographics continue to change, and the strategy for handling public education becomes only more muddled.
In the current legislative session, we are reading about budget shortfalls as high as $25 billion and all of the spending cuts that might have to be enacted. School districts are frantic and already preparing themselves for massive reductions in programs and personnel, including teachers. Local television stations are airing news stories every night on the potential impacts to area schools, with feature titles like “Crisis in the Classroom”. Dallas ISD just implemented a program to pay teachers an incentive bonus to retire now voluntarily, rather than risk being laid off later.
But here’s the really frustrating part: Cutting less, or not cutting at all, or even increasing funding to public education in Texas is not going to do anything to fix the fundamental problems in our current school funding system.
Repeated court cases challenging the constitutionality of past school-funding formulas resulted in what was supposed to be a temporary fix. We know it as “recapture” or “Robin Hood”, a system in which school districts considered “wealthy” are required to transfer a portion of their own local property tax revenue to other school districts considered “poor”. This temporary system has become permanent by default because the state legislature has not figured out a different system with which to replace it.
Since 1999, Richardson ISD has lost more than $420 million of its local property-tax revenue to other school districts. Thanks to some school property tax relief passed by the legislature in 2005, RISD does not currently expect to lose any additional money under Robin Hood, but this also is just a temporary condition. If nothing changes, RISD will start losing tax revenue again all too soon.
In response to this wrongheaded attempt to address the school-funding problem, so-called “wealthy” schools formed private foundations in an attempt to make up for the lost tax revenue in private donations. For example, Highland Park High School formed “Mad for Plaid”, and Lake Highlands High School formed “Wild for Cats”. Since its founding in 2005, Wild for Cats has raised more than $700,000. But even these organizations are suffering and cannot possibly replace all of the lost revenue. Unlike in past years, when Wild for Cats has raised $125,000 during a school year, so far this year, it has raised only $31,000. Donors, like taxpayers, are not limitless sources of revenue.
The answer to the school-funding dilemma lies ultimately with the legislature. There are actually only two duties the legislature is constitutionally obligated to perform: (1) balance the budget and (2) “make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” Because the legislature has continued to shirk its responsibility in defining what that language means, the Texas Supreme Court has had to define it for them. The problem is that the court’s definition is not workable and is unsustainable.
A good starting place for the legislature would be to determine what “provision” is “suitable” by the state. Pre-Robin Hood, people made decisions on where to live based on the quality of the school district. “School envy” by districts that weren’t the ones where people aspired to live led to the current Robin Hood system, in which your district is not allowed to have more than my district. So now the state has to referee and enforce what has evolved into an undeniably socialist system.
Instead, the legislature should define the content of a core education and commit to providing sufficient funding to deliver that to the public schools throughout the state. Everything beyond that core education — as in most, if not all, activities and courses that are considered extracurricular — should be the sole responsibility of each individual school district. Local property-tax revenue should be used exclusively to fund the programs that that community decides to support. Undoubtedly, some districts will end up having and doing more than others. But the legislature will be carrying out its constitutional obligation, and each local school district will have the flexibility and independence to decide the rest.
In the meantime, you can help Lake Highlands High School by donating to Wild for Cats at wildforcats.com.