April 9, 2015

Wonky Texas School Finance Proposal has Merit, but is it Worth the Political Bloodletting?

By Bellwether

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The Texas legislature is wrangling with its school finance system again. For once, they are only sort of under the gun, having lost a law suit in a district court that found that the state was neither spending enough on education (to the tune of $10 billion) nor spreading funds equitably among school districts. But the appeals process has yet to play out, and it won’t finish until well after the legislature has tied the current session up with a bow. So, technically, they don’t have to do anything this session.
The fact that the legislature is considering taking up a major school finance bill in spite of the ultimate outcome of the law suit still pending is encouraging. Making school finance policy solely in lockstep with litigation is less than ideal. But in laying out the plan to colleagues, the bill’s sponsor, House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, made the disheartening statement that it isn’t intended as a “permanent fix,” rather a way simply to address “pressing concerns.”
Many of the provisions the bill aims to address are political hot buttons, and the price tag is steep- $3 billion over two years. So, if this is a “temporary” fix or a half-measure, I question whether it’s worth the fight. School finance debates are hugely expensive in both political capital and real dollars. Why not go all in? If you start off by saying you’re probably going to have to do it all over again in a couple of years, what’s the incentive to do the hard work now?
The proposal has some merit. It cleans some noise out of Texas’s formula made up of remnants of past efforts, mostly driven by attempts to change policy without any district coming out of the process with less funding per student. These “hold harmless” provisions tend to drive funding to districts inequitably and, frankly, weirdly. So if you’re a fan of fiscal equity or just a fan of having the statutory formulas “work” the way are written, this bill has some very good stuff.
But it doesn’t go far enough. It’s pretty lukewarm on overall equity (data wonks: check out the analysis by district wealth categories at the bottom of this). It drives the biggest increase in funding to the wealthiest school districts. And even at $3 billion, it falls well short of the district court’s price for adequacy. Though whether the district court’s ruling stands as written is an open question (and if history serves the Texas Supreme Court will at least reduce the cost).
Maybe the intent is to get the conversation started on some hyper-technical provisions to lay groundwork for a bigger effort in future sessions. The learning curve is steep on this for many legislators, and it takes time to build a sufficient comfort level to secure a vote. But why wait? There’s going to be blood on the carpet either way.

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