Good Enough for Your Kid

State adequacy study discovers (surprise!) good schools cost money

You'll be delighted to know that the Austin ISD has all the money it needs to educate your child – "adequately."

At least that was the story this week at the Joint Select Committee on Public Education, where members heard the results of the "adequacy" study performed by researchers from the University of Kansas and Texas A&M. According to the report's "key findings," the current statewide average expenditure level per student is $6,503, slightly higher than the amount of money – approximately $6,200 – the researchers estimate it should take to educate students to the level of proficiency currently prevalent in Texas schools. According to its own budget analysis, AISD is currently spending $6,554 per student, a princely $51 more than the state average (and that's after recapture, aka "Robin Hood"). Multiply that by roughly 78,000 students, and you get $4 million in walking-around money, or at least a six-pack for every taxpayer.

Of course, it's hardly as simple as that. The report was heavily couched in careful presumptions, and the researchers spent much more time justifying their methodology than in applying it. The most important qualification is the level of "adequacy" represented by that $6,200. Researchers had to base their findings on the best available data – statewide passing rates for the already obsolete TAAS tests. Converting the TAAS rate to the new and more difficult Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills produced a passing rate of 55% of all students. In other words, if we want just over half of our students to pass the TAKS test – itself a dubious measure of real student achievement – we need spend no more than $6,200 per student. At that rate, we could cut another billion or so from the state's $27.6 billion public school budget and never miss it.

Even the conservative chairs of the committee – Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington – grudgingly acknowledged that this standard would not be high enough. Shapiro, who has been the loudest advocate for an adequacy benchmark, described the report's findings as merely a "baseline," and Grusendorf noted that the researchers could only "look in the rearview mirror" without determining where we go from here. A couple of members tried to seize on the study's 7% district "inefficiency" average as a target for rooting out waste, but were stymied when told that category might include extra spending on such luxuries as music, art, and athletics – fripperies beloved of parents (and voters) but not necessarily reflected in standardized tests.

Money Changes Everything

It's hard to tell if the adequacy study was a step forward, a step back, or (most likely) simply more running in place. Anti-tax zealots were quick to seize on the report as confirming Gov. Rick Perry's mantra – regularly amplified by Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business – that "we don't need more tax dollars for education, we need more education for our tax dollars." But public education advocates pointed out that the report explicitly acknowledges that better educational outcomes would require more spending. AISD's Dave Duty, who is monitoring the legislative hearings for the district, said he was gratified by the report's conclusion that "money can make a difference" and its implication that if the state intends to raise standards – to include not only test scores but graduation and advanced-study rates – it will have to supply the resources to underwrite those improvements.

Despite Perry's insistence that he'll support only a "revenue-neutral" school finance plan, last week both the Dallas Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Houston Partnership endorsed both property tax cuts and additional money for schools. Indeed, a few days before Shapiro received the adequacy report, the former schoolteacher was telling the Plano chamber, "If I were guessing, we probably need 10 to 11 billion new dollars a year." The chamber's response was not terribly enthusiastic, but perhaps Shapiro knows something they don't – even under "Robin Hood," Plano kids get a better deal than most other Texas students. According to Wayne Pierce of the Equity Center, even after recapture the 12% of districts designated as Chapter 41 ("wealthy") have about $450,000 extra to spend per campus.

Think those precious darlings could get by on just $6,200 a year?

A Consensus of One

In truth, the argument over school finance has always been less about the amount of money in itself than about an equitable distribution of that money. Certainly the Planos and the Park Cities want lower taxes, but they also want to be free to spend "their" tax dollars at will on their own children, and the recapture system – as the Texas Constitution requires – allows them to do that only within certain limits. With more than half the state's districts now straining the $1.50 tax cap, the elastic band keeping the poorest districts economically tied to the richest is nearly at a breaking point. And since the majority of Texas districts, and Texas students, benefit from recapture, it is unlikely the wealthiest districts will get all the flexibility they want without some statewide mechanism to maintain reasonable equity for all those poorer districts that have no other recourse.

Despite Perry's intransigence, some of the state's business leaders are apparently recognizing that the state cannot continue to push statewide costs downward onto local jurisdictions while simultaneously demanding higher – and more expensive – standards. The governor says he won't call a special session unless there's a "consensus" on how to solve the problem. If he keeps dragging his heels, he may soon be the last holdout preventing that consensus from taking place. The current speculation is that Perry will get some face-saving form of the "incentives" system he's flogging – basically a reward system for the already blessed – in return for some combination of cuts to property taxes and hikes to sales and business-activity taxes. That could ostensibly be sufficient to pump enough money into the system to keep the courts at bay for another decade.

That is, of course, if Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick are willing to do the heavy legislative lifting, and if this whole cabal isn't so hamstrung by its own anti-tax rhetoric to make even a patchwork solution impossible. It's sorely tempting to call down a pox on all their houses – but it's the state's schoolchildren who will pay most dearly for their elders' lack of vision. end story

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public school finance, Austin ISD, TAAS, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, TAKS, Kent Grusendorf, Florence Shapiro, Rick Perry, Bill Hammond, Dave Duty, Dallas Chamber of Commerce, Greater Houston Partnership, Wayne Pierce, Equity Center

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