Overhaul or another ‘Band-Aid’? Texas tries new approach to funding public schools

KXAN File photo
KXAN File photo

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After failed temporary fixes to the state’s public school finance system, lawmakers are attempting a new approach.

The Commission on Public School Finance held its first meeting on Tuesday. The panel of 13, made up of educators and current and former lawmakers, is tasked with crafting recommendations for how the state can successfully pay to teach the 5.3 million students in Texas. Those guidelines will be delivered to the Capitol, with the idea that lawmakers use it to create legislation in 2019 that sets the state on a long-term plan.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, discuss funding at a meeting of the Commission on Public School Finance, on Jan. 23, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)
Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, discuss funding at a meeting of the Commission on Public School Finance, on Jan. 23, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

“I am excited for the first time in a long time as it relates to public school finance,” Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas said. “Will we solve all the problems? No we won’t. But I just want to let you know that it won’t be the same old soup warmed over again.”

Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said the commission has a “daunting task” ahead, hoping that the members will come out on the other side with a new school finance system: Taylor wants “one that is simple, one that uses 21st century capabilities and frankly gets our kids a better education.”

One of the presenters at this first meeting was Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who provided data about Texas schools and students. He said $60 billion are spent each year on education in Texas, with that money coming from various sources.

Taylor said he hoped the commission would work to “find efficiencies” in order to continue to provide students the education they currently receive, and provide a “better education for the future.”

“We’re spending a lot of money, and we need to make sure they every dollar we spend gets the most bang for the buck out of it,” Taylor said.

Several issues shroud the state’s education system, including impacts on property taxes, the ability for families to choose alternatives to public school, as well as temporary fixes that have faltered.

“You can’t have property tax relief until you get school finance fixed,” Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston said.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath presents to the Commission on Public School Finance on Jan. 23, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)
Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath presents to the Commission on Public School Finance on Jan. 23, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

West suggested a possible over-saturation of charter schools should be a point the commission addresses.

“Not saying that charter schools are not good, but having them located in proximity to schools that are doing a great job is a waste of money,” West explained. He says the group should also look at using updated statistics to calculate demographics and costs, rather than figures based nearly three decades ago.

“We have a cost of education index that hasn’t been adjusted since the 1990s,” West said. “You know as well as I that the demographics have changed in the state of Texas, but yet still we are using static numbers that were promulgated back in 1990 in order to develop or process a formula in 2018.”

So who pays to teach Texas kids? Ultimately, taxpayers, through a few different means. One of the challenges the commission faces is to determine who pays for what. Huberty said the state funds 38 percent of the cost of education, which is down from 50 percent 10 years ago.

“What we’re trying to do now is get real statistical information that’s going to say where should we put those dollars,” Huberty said.

Taylor said the group needs to look at the overall picture to figure out how to share the load, saying, “We have to make sure we keep an equitable opportunity for all of our kids no matter where they’re located.”

Using a “rusty car” metaphor from the special legislative session when lawmakers passed a “Band-Aid” version of a public education finance package, he asked, “Is it worth trading in the car or is time to buy a new car?” Taylor answered his own question: “It is time to move to the new car.”

The commission has scheduled two upcoming meetings for Feb. 8 and Feb. 22. The first half of the year will mostly be dedicated to hearing from experts and gathering information, while the second half will be primarily compiling a final report.

To watch the meeting in its entirety, click here.

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