School Finance: Where We Are and How We Got Here

The Supreme Court's ruling leaves a lot of blanks for the Lege to fill in

Word around the Capitol is that Speaker of the House Tom Craddick (right, with Reps. Steve Wolens and Norma Chavez) will push for a plain-vanilla school funding bill, minus the education reform and property tax relief demands that have been centerpieces of Republican ideology in the previous failed sessions.
Word around the Capitol is that Speaker of the House Tom Craddick (right, with Reps. Steve Wolens and Norma Chavez) will push for a plain-vanilla school funding bill, minus the education reform and property tax relief demands that have been centerpieces of Republican ideology in the previous failed sessions. (Photo By John Anderson)

It was panic time at the Capitol. Lawmakers, sinking under the weight of a Texas Supreme Court decision that declared the state's school finance system to be teetering on the brink of constitutionality, had begun to tinker with state maps that would consolidate the wealthiest school districts in the state with the poorest. Shift one line. Move another one. Maybe, just maybe, the state could dodge the bullet.

No, no, school districts cried. That won't work. County education districts, meant to collect and disburse school district taxes on a county-by-county basis, already had gone down at the polls. First, school districts floated the idea of consolidating tax bases. Then they talked about one district "buying" per-student tax credits from neighboring districts. And then, finally, they spoke of sending money to the state to be redistributed.

And, thus, Robin Hood was born – as a way to avoid school district consolidation.

So school district boards must be thinking, with some chagrin, that what goes around eventually comes around, indeed. Ten years after Robin Hood was created, every penny has been wrung from property-wealthy school districts for the state coffers, we're back where we started, pondering a tax structure the court has declared unconstitutional and a system that the court says is drifting toward inadequacy. What wasn't fixed in the system in 1993 remains broken in 2005. It's no wonder the House is eyeing consolidation again, even if it's only to keep rural Republicans in line.

Even those lawmakers who created Robin Hood – a school finance system that recaptures and redistributes property wealth so that it's evenly (more or less) disbursed across the state – called it a short-term fix to a long-term tax squeeze. As the crank has slowly turned, more and more money has been sucked from local taxpayers, with state dollars playing less and less of a role, especially in those school districts with moderate and high property wealth.

Don't expect the Supreme Court to come to the rescue. Unlike more prescriptive states like New York and New Jersey, the Republican-exclusive court has limited itself to telling lawmakers the tax system fails to meet constitutional muster and setting a deadline (June 1) for it to be fixed – leaving the details to the Lege.

Consider the court's comments in the West Orange-Cove opinion. The structure of the current tax system is unconstitutional, but recapture is not necessarily wrong. School districts lack meaningful discretion with their tax dollars, but that doesn't necessarily mean the system requires new money or that the state should pay more. The adequacy challenge – whether the state has kicked in enough money to pay for the standards it set for Texas schoolchildren – is still around the corner. And oh, by the way, consolidation might be a good idea, too. As if that wouldn't cause a statewide stampede of angry football coaches (and jock parents) on the Capitol.

With so much between the lines, people read what they want to in this ruling. At last week's House Public Education Committee meeting, Chair Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, found much to anoint his committee's conservative interim charges. He leapt on the benefits of "competition" and the need to study "choice," and touted a review of administrative costs and salaries. Where the court spoke of the wisest use of educational dollars, Grusendorf saw a case for legislation on merit pay for teachers – opposed by teacher organizations.

The question is whether those reforms might be part of the special session package next spring. The buzz around Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, R-Midland, these days is that, given the court-imposed June 1 deadline, the goal should be a plain vanilla tax bill, minus education reform and possibly minus property tax relief. That would be a departure from the GOP position of the recent sessions, that no new money for schools would come without additional accountability for school districts, and some guarantee that property tax relief would be a lasting, rather than fleeting, solution. That dictum was met with an equally resolute, if minority, push from Democrats that no new taxes would come without new money for the public schools.

And those jockeyings don't even touch the hot-button issues on specific taxes. Combined with the personal animosity between Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the conflicts produced a rather spectacular session meltdown for Gov. Rick Perry, who dared to call the first, and second, special sessions.

Education lobbyists, already soured on the last round of education bills, predict that it would be foolhardy to attempt education reform this spring, given how badly it failed last summer. They should know, since House Republicans blame them for the defeat of the school finance bill and currently are targeting "taxpayer-funded lobbying" as a menace to society.

So the spring session is Perry's to call, likely only after a Republican primary challenge from Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. A crop of almost two-dozen education advocates – presumably more moderate than their opponents – are ready to go head-to-head with GOP incumbents. Even Grusendorf, who carried the school finance bill, could have an opponent – former state board of education member Diane Patrick, a UT-Arlington professor in educational administration. Even a handful of electoral wins could easily change the dynamics of the frequently deadlocked House, giving Perry much to ponder as to what he might want to accomplish before the next regular session.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

school financeTexas Legislature, school finance, Tom Craddick, David Dewhurst, Rick Perry, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, West Orange-Cove, Robin Hood, Kent Grusendorf, Diane Patrick

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