While the Republican re-redistricting marathon has dominated the Capitol headlines throughout the summer and now the fall, the Lege's interim hearings on public school finance -- a subject of rather more permanent significance to the entire state -- have passed largely below the radar. The House Select Committee on Public School Finance, chaired by Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, and including a brace of subcommittees, has been holding hearings since the adjournment of the regular session in May. The extent of the committee's progress is suggested by Gov. Rick Perry's increasingly lukewarm responses when asked if he still intends to call a special session on the subject. Last week he said royally, "I think we've always said that unless there was a consensus on this [school finance] issue, we're not going to call a session."
Critics note that consensus on redistricting did not seem to be essential for Perry to call not one, not two, but three special sessions on the subject. But considering the hash his Republican colleagues have now made of that issue, perhaps the governor has a point. Thus far the school finance hearings have served largely to confirm what attorney David Thompson told the Austin ISD board of trustees last week: "To solve the problem is going to require state revenue." The decision by both the Dallas and Austin ISDs to join litigation against the state, possibly to be followed by other districts throughout Texas, may mark a watershed moment in the decades-long struggle to reform Texas school finance.
The wealthy suburban districts that filed the initial lawsuit (West Orange-Cove v. Alanis) hoped to use it as a weapon against the recapture system (aka "Robin Hood") that requires them to share property taxes with less advantaged districts. But Dallas is not a "wealthy" district in those terms, and the Austin ISD board is to be applauded for insisting that in joining the suit, its target is not Robin Hood but the inadequacy of the current system to educate all the state's students.
Secondly, if Robin Hood is indeed to be eliminated, it is the Legislature that is going to have to design the adequate and equitable system that will replace it. They have yet to show much stomach for the job, for the simple reason that it cannot be done without more money, and all the committee hearings and official studies have yet to find a way around that ineluctable reality. "Until there is a will to put money into public education," says Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, "there is no solution to this problem." (McCown is also the former state district judge who presided over Edgewood v. Kirby, the Texas school finance system's last trip through the courts, to which Robin Hood was a supposedly temporary and imperfect response.)
All the Lege could manage this year was a shell game, taxing schoolteachers and staff and then reshuffling the same money as "new dollars." The interim committee members have thus far proved no better magicians. And finally, when the new suburban Republicans arrived on the wave of "ending Robin Hood," they quickly discovered that most other reps, including many GOP colleagues from less favored climes, represent the 80% of districts that benefit from school recapture funds. They were not especially eager to join a movement to slay the golden -- although woefully underfeathered -- goose.
That gridlock underlies Gov. Perry's growing reluctance to commit to a special session. He won't dismiss the notion outright, because GOP incumbents want to carry at least the possibility of action into the spring (or will it be summer?) primary season. But it looks increasingly likely that there will be no committee consensus and therefore no special session, and we can all wait until 2005, when the Texas school system will be even larger and more indigent, to hear much more of the same.
McCown argues that "the only real answer is a state income tax," and he declines to place all the blame for the impasse on the legislators. "They represent us," he says, "and until we give them the freedom to do what is necessary, they're not going to do it." The center's taxation studies have repeatedly shown that under a (federally deductible) income tax designed to replace much of the property-tax load, overall most Texans would pay less in taxes. But the Texans who have the ears of the legislators are, alas, not among that most.
Those of us with children in Austin schools are painfully aware of the price our students are paying for the shortsighted parsimony of their elders. Yet in comparison to much of the state, AISD remains, McCown emphasizes, "only the poorest rich kid on the block." Even after $158 million in recapture payments, elimination of more than 600 jobs, and slashing of important remedial programs, AISD still began its budget year in better shape than most of the districts in the state. "If Austin needs more money," McCown says, "every other district needs more money."
Killing Robin Hood won't change that.
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