May 15, 2015

Why the Entirely Expected Death of Texas’s School Finance Overhaul Isn’t Entirely Bad News

By Bellwether

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If you felt a disruption in the force at 11:59 pm on May 14th, it was the sound of a million bills suddenly crying out in terror and then being suddenly silenced in Texas.  The Texas legislative session is in its waning days, and according to House rules, May 14th was effectively the last day that House-authored bills could move along without extraordinary measures (like super-majority votes and intricate parliamentary maneuvering). That means that any House bills that didn’t win approval by the majority before the clock struck  midnight died, struck down by a procedural Death Star. And one of the casualties of the day was the school finance overhaul proposed by House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock.
The plan had little chance of making it to the Governor’s desk for several reasons. For one, the state is on the losing end of a district court ruling finding the school finance system is both underfunded and unfairly funded; but the appeal is still pending with the Texas Supreme Court. With the suit unresolved, it’s not surprising to find little appetite in the legislature to make a bold move on school finance. Second, school finance isn’t the big policy priority for leadership this session, especially on the Senate side. It’s tax relief. Both chambers want it. They’ve built billions for it into their budget plans. But they haven’t reach agreement on which tax to cut. And that’s the premier political battle being waged as the session hurtles toward a close, not addressing a school finance system that isn’t under the gun.
In pulling his bill down, Mr. Aycock did the right thing for the chamber. He saw the writing on the wall and avoided a lengthy floor debate that would have doomed many of his colleagues’ bills to the harsh reality of the clock. So he bought some good will (or at least avoided some bad), and ultimately, it’s not all bad news for the school finance debate either.
Aycock’s bill opened the dialogue on several politically challenging features of the current system. And it laid the groundwork for some very technical, but important, fixes to the school finance formulas that would improve both their function and their transparency. Plus with significant turnover among legislators in recent years, the process of educating members on the technical aspects of the system to build comfort and support around a big overhaul is critical. Aycock’s bill provided a platform for that process.
Yes, it would have been great to see the legislature move ahead with a thoughtful school finance plan without being forced by the court to do so. The court process takes years. And meanwhile, millions of Texas children and thousands of Texas schools continue to operate under a system that the district court found fundamentally broken.
But given the distance between the district court’s ruling (finding a $10 billion annual shortfall in funding), and the “if you can’t squeeze blood from the turnip, squeeze harder” brand of fiscal conservatism that dominates the Texas legislature, it’s hard to see the political downside of waiting for a final ruling by the markedly more conservative Texas Supreme Court. That way, if they do end up having to spend a boatload of money to address the final ruling, members can blame the court and maintain their fiscal conservative cred with their constituents.
And they need that cover. Purity testing of conservative ideology is happening on a whole new level. In addition to primary battles focused on pandering to the extreme wings of the parties, now operatives are recording casual off-the-record conversations with legislators in an effort to catch them not walking the ideological walk.
Now the ball is firmly with the Texas Supreme Court, and we have to wait and hope for the best. What does the best look like? A court ruling that keeps the needs of all Texas children front and center and that gives the legislature a clear path and political courage. A state treasury that can bankroll what needs to be done would also be nice.

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