Abbott’s school finance fix may just be a Trojan Horse for the tax caps he’s been after all along

Abbott’s school finance fix may just be a Trojan Horse for the tax caps he’s been after all along

Taken from Gov. Abbott’s leaked school finance presentation.

Now that the election is over, we return back to our reality. Things at the state house remain functionally the same—tax-averse Republicans everywhere. Our schools also remain, according to almost any educator you ask, underfunded.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s commission on public school finance may have been little more than a discussion of how to season a prix fixe menu. Chaired by Judge Scott Brister, it would be hard to argue that it was open to all eventualities, or that the testimony was being received with open hands. Still, even Brister, by the end, did seem invested in the idea of producing recommendations for the legislature. People like to have something to show for their hours of hard work.

Any recommendations made by the commission still would have been subject to the political tomfoolery of the Texas lege, dampening most hope for serious reform.

Still, a presentation leaked to the Texas Tribune seems to indicate that even the faintest hopes—for intellectual honesty and earnest governance— may have been misplaced. Abbott being Abbott, he’s proposing his own plan, or, sticking with the prix fixe metaphor, a single helping of flame-grilled tax cap, garnished with random bits of data and graphics from the commission hearings.

The presentation, pithily entitled “Improving Student Outcomes and Maintaining Affordability through Comprehensive Education and Tax Reforms” is 86 slides long, and the Texas Tribune reports that it was presented to educators and the business community. In summary, the governor proposes performance pay for teachers, outcome-based funding for schools, the removal of outdated elements, and easing the system’s reliance on property taxes.

This sounds straight forward enough, but there are some nuances and political whispers within the presentation that are not to be missed.

What follows is a breakdown of the presentation.

Part One: Tell Me What I Already Know

The first section of the report tells us what we already know: Texas schools need help. Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce. By failing to prepare them today, we cost ourselves billions tomorrow.

Part Two: Get My Hopes Up

The presentation then takes a promising turn, explaining that without reforming the structure, the State share of school finance—drawn of a variety of money pots— will continue to decrease as local property values climb and yield more money from property tax. Legislators and policy advocates alike have called attention to this linked crisis.

That section ends with the conclusion that “a comprehensive redesign of the entire school finance system is needed.” 

Part Three: Highlight Reel

Then come the education reform ideas. This section essentially reads like a highlight montage of testimony given to the commission.

Among the governor’s proposed renovations are Dallas ISD’s teacher compensation models tied to classroom effectiveness, the foundation for the ACE schools. ACE schools do indeed use strategic staffing to allocate teachers to high need schools. But they also staff those schools with counselors, strategic administrative support, train the staff in restorative justice, and renovate the buildings.

Abbott’s presentation made almost no mention of those other elements of the ACE model, all of which come with a price tag, and a pay off for students. Rep. Diego Bernal plans to file a more comprehensive bill based on the comprehensive ACE model.

Funding districts based on performance essentially equates to bonus pay for the district. When third graders and high schoolers meet academic goals, the district gets more money. This takes the stick of standardized testing and turns it into a carrot.

To simplify the formula, the governor’s presentation proposes doing away with the cost of education index, and folding that money into the basic allotment. Instead of the quirky, outdated CEI adjustment, additional funds should be distributed through a more nuanced understanding of student need, aka poverty.

Mohammed Choudhury’s block analysis makes an uncredited cameo as well. I have to say, this is possibly the most encouraging part of the proposal. Getting the commission members to unequivocally acknowledge that poverty affects education outcomes was harder than it should have been, but Commissioner Mike Morath cut through the hemming and hawing on that on day one, and left them pretty much no excuse but to nod along.

Part Four: What We’re Really Here to Talk About

The rest of the presentation is all about the governor’s proposed local tax cap. Without access to analysis, it’s hard to get at the details of the tax cap, but given the detail in the presentation, it appears to be the ultimate goal of the governor’s plan.

It’s not coming out of left field, for those familiar with the governor. He has been pitching some form of local tax cap in various shapes and forms for years. County judges, mayors, and superintendents have all spoken against it in various ways, some suggesting that the caps are retribution on the cities for being too liberal. That may or may not be true. It’s definitely true that it would hurt big cities, and that it’s weirdly out of line with the Republican belief in the government closes to the people.

Nevertheless, most people like the idea of lower taxes, or at least taxes that don’t skyrocket as their neighborhood gentrifies. Or whatever other mysterious forces lead to shocking letters from the tax assessor.

The problem, of course, is that I’m just not seeing anything in the presentation that alludes to how the State intends to increase it’s share of the funding.

Will we take more from the Permanent School Fund? Can’t, it’s governed by the Constitution.

Increase taxes on businesses? Ha. What state are YOU living in?

Recapture? Nope, plans to ease that as well.

I plan to watch Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s revenue working group meeting meeting on Tuesday to see if there’s more to the plan. To see if maybe there’s some audio that goes along with the slide show, and answers the question posed (but not yet answered) by the power point:

“What does this mean for Texas Education?”

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