The Texas Hammer: Public School Budget

Steal from the rich and give to the – well, not the kids

Robin Hood. That's the nice name for how Texas takes a big chunk of Austin's school district taxes and quietly funnels them away from education. Under current Texas school finance regulations, districts are classified as either property-wealthy or property-poor. Since their finances rely on local property taxes, districts with low property values don't raise the money they need, so the state skims a portion of the money property-wealthy districts raise to balance out property-poor bank balances. Currently, the Austin Inde­pend­ent School District is the biggest single contributor under this recapture system.

Said AISD Board President Kendall Pace: "People go, 'Oh, you're just complaining. You're property-wealthy. That's how Robin Hood is supposed to work.'" Maybe that would be true if it weren't for a thing called ASATR, known better as the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction. In 2006, the last time the Texas courts told the Legislature to fix school finance, lawmakers realized their proposal would leave many ISDs (coincidentally, uh, maybe, mostly in Republican-leaning areas) in a financial hole. So the state provided money to basically bail them out. Guess what? Not to Austin, which now sends over $400 million – a third of all property taxes raised – back to the state.

Moreover, AISD is hit much harder than the surrounding property-wealthy districts because, while property valuations are high, Austin also has a disproportionately high number of English language learners, poor kids, and others who cost more to educate. Ken Zarifis, president of teachers' union Education Austin, said, "The school finance system, what it does to Austin is that it unfairly punishes the very kids it claims to want to help."

Yet it's the kicker that would have left Robin Hood the folk hero fuming: The money taken from property-wealthy districts does not actually go to the property-poor districts. So, the $400 million getting taken from AISD taxpayers, as well as the money from surrounding districts like Eanes and Lake Travis, doesn't go directly to the districts the state claims to be helping. Rather, it goes to the state's general revenue fund, where it bounces around awhile, with some siphoned off for schools.

The nuances of the current system leave Pace pulling her hair out. Take for example, the cost of education index, which weights payments from the state dependent on the relative cost of living and educating in each district: Those measures haven't been reassessed since 1991. Pace said when she has to explain that the state contends that operational costs in fast-growing urban Austin are the same as in rural Killeen, "People say, 'What?'" She added, "Purposefully not updating those formulas is unfair."

“The school finance system, what it does to Austin is that it unfairly punishes the very kids it claims to want to help.”

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

School budget, Kendall Pace, Robin Hood, Ken Zarifis

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