Texas Commission on Public School Finance: the road to Byzantium

Texas Commission on Public School Finance: the road to Byzantium

On March 19, the Texas Commission on Public School Finance listened to ten hours of public testimony on…everything. The State’s school finance system is notoriously complicated and brimming with indices, adjustments, and designated funds. All were up for grabs as lobbyists, educators, unions, and parents offered ideas for how to cure what ails Texas school finance.

The testimony and ensuing discussion offered yet another peak at how we got here. Here being Byzantium, apparently.

“I feel like we were visited by the ghosts of sessions past” commission member Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) said after the hearings. Every time past legislatures decided to not fix the problems, or to provide tax breaks that cut into education funding, some prophet in the room (i.e. Joe Straus)  would speak up and warn of future where Texas couldn’t afford to educate its kids.

“Now we’re living in the reality,” Bernal said.

Simply making a simpler, more transparent system, is going to involve winners and losers, just like the current system has winners and losers. As the Texas Association of School Boards, the Equity Center, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the Reason Foundation, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the Intercultural Development Research Association, and others presented their proposed fixes to the formula, each faced a question: how much is it going to cost, and who is going to lose money?

In other words: is your idea politically viable? 

Take, for instance, the Cost of Education Index, one of the more esoteric elements of the funding formula, developed and last updated in 1991.

Former State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock spoke in favor of scrapping the outdated mechanism, or at least creating some sort of “auto-pilot” to keep it economically current and politically agnostic.

“If you’ve got to have it, get it out of the political realm,” Aycock said.

After Aycock finished his testimony, former State Rep. Paul Colbert offered testimony that the legislature absolutely should not scrap the Cost of Education Index, that it was essential for establishing equity among Texas districts.

And so it went for the Cost of Education Index, the small and medium sized district adjustment,  the new instructional facility allotment, transportation allotment, State grants, charter school facilities funding, and the various weights applied to per student funding for special education, English language learners, economically disadvantaged students, and children of active military members.

For every point there was a counter point. Every quirk and kink in the funding mechanism has a champion, a detractor, someone who would see it grow, and someone who would see it shrink.

“It’s a reminder of how diverse the state is,” Bernal said after the hearing.

In the second half of the day, the commission heard from many parents and educators, advocating for the real children attached to those funding “weights.” Real children who have likely been underserved due to the 75-percent-of-what-was-recommended-in-1984 way that Texas funds special populations. Special populations, by the way, are no longer so “special.” The percentage of Texas children living in poverty is growing (one in four), as are numbers of English language learners (24 percent of public school students). The special education population is about to explode, now that the Texas Education Agency’s artificial 8.5 percent special ed enrollment cap has been removed.

Education is, at the end of the day, a very human service being shaped by a very political process.

An education budget that must be changed by political process seems doomed to become “sclerotic,” as the Texas Supreme Court declared Texas’ to be. Every new fund or program requires a political compromise, and ends up tied to the demographics, accountability standards, and sometimes even the unadjusted dollar value of the year it was created. 

“Unless you can change that politically, it just gets locked in,” Aycock said. He was speaking of the Cost of Education Index, but the statement seems to apply to the entire system.

For all the disagreement, Bernal said, two “universal truths” have begun to emerge from the testimony.

First- current funding levels are not adequate.

Only one or two speakers (and one of two commission members) tried to drag out the ol’ “education is the largest line item in the Texas budget” argument. They offered suggestions for how Texas might do more with what it currently has.

Bernal and Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Humble) were having none of it.

When the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation recommended doing away with the minimum teacher salary schedule and going to a merit pay system as a cost saving measure, Huberty fired back with the evidence from previous hearing about the high cost (and high benefits) of merit pay schemes.

“If you want to compensate teachers, it’s going to cost money,” Huberty said. (I couldn’t see on the telecast if he rolled his eyes when he said this.)

When Aaron Smith of the Reason Foundation suggested untying funding from geography so that parents in low performing districts could send their kids to schools in other school districts, it was Bernal’s turn to boil over.

“I’m all for innovation, but if the models assume that there are some districts we can’t help in favor of others, that’s not really the bullseye we’re shooting for,” he said.

Even charter school advocates agreed that no formula fix will meet needs across the state unless the total budget increases. The current zero sum game, where adding money to one district means taking it from another, is creating unnecessary tension among districts and between districts and charters, Bernal said.

Past legislatures have created a scarcity situation around funding, which has grown increasingly hostile as schools look to politicians to champion their cause. By “look to” I mostly mean that they lawyer up, hire lobbyists, and devote days upon days to pestering legislators. Even the most conservative commission members would have to acknowledge that money does matter in hiring lawyers and lobbyists. Money also buys pestering time.  It should not be surprising then that one group has lost out consistently in this Darwinian scenario, and it has been children living in poverty.

Unfortunately, the other universal truth emerging from the hearings is that children in poverty actually need more, not less support from their schools.

“Poverty plays a significant role in not only education, but in the way that you approach education from a policy level,” Bernal said after the hearing.

The commission has been presented with several policy recommendations, district models, and ample testimony on how to get increased resources to children who need them most. They have heard testimony to support master teacher incentives on low-income campuses, blended learning to help overage students, expanded pre-k services, and more astute ways to measure poverty. They all require increased funding.

If the commission chooses to explain away this chorus of voices, if politics-as-usual cripples proposed reform before it sees the light of session, then these commission hearings will be another of Bernal’s legislative ghosts, another opportunity missed.

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