From the Office of State Senator Royce West - District 23

Editorial for Immediate Release
August 12, 2002

Texas can't stand pat on public school financing

By Royce West
Texas Senate

For more than a decade, there has been a constant rumble of dialogue on the issue of public school financing. That debate is no longer in the background. It is now front and center and the rumble has become a roar.

In 1993, my first session in the Legislature, the current system of funding public education in Texas was approved by state lawmakers. But the system that was infamously dubbed the "Robin Hood Plan" by critics, has never gained universal acceptance.

After four court cases, all preceded by legislative attempts at finding a solution, Texas is - for all practical purposes - back at square one. Just as before, plaintiffs contend that Texas' plan of financing public education violates this state's constitution. A plan must be devised that both passes constitutional muster and fairly distributes funding in a way that will equitably close the chasm that now exists between property-rich and property-poor school districts.

Just as Texas does not presently have a state income tax, neither does our constitution allow the state to levy property taxes. Under Texas' current scheme of public school finance, state funding makes up around 44 percent of the monies that go for the maintenance and operation of schools. The majority comes from local property taxes with a small percentage obtained through federal dollars.

That's fine and dandy when local districts can support not only the state-required level of educational programming, but also provide enrichment opportunities. The problem arises when a smaller or property-poor school district that lacks the sufficient tax infrastructure struggles to meet Texas' more basic educational requirements, such as that of maximum class size.

Existing Texas law provides a three-tiered funding mechanism for public education. All schools are funded at the first tier level. These monies go towards maintenance and operation. At Tier 2, a district's per pupil revenues are taken into consideration. For those that do not reach the higher standard, a funding match is provided by the state. Those districts whose wealth exceeds the tier two cap are asked to reduce it's wealth by one of the plan's five recapture options. Many of the property-rich districts have chosen the option of paying monies back into the state's foundation school program. Others have opted to directly assist property-poor districts financially. School districts are not required to share the Tier 3 revenues that go to facilities and debt service.

The problem arises when many of the school districts - all now operating under the Texas Supreme Court's Edgewood I, II, III and IV decisions - have reached or are fast-approaching the maximum amount they can charge citizens in taxes in order to generate revenues. The situation is compounded by demographers projections that over the next five to 10 years, another 75,000 students per year are expected to be added to Texas' classroom rolls.

The picture is clear and the image is alarming. We, as a state, are running out of the resources necessary to provide a quality education to our most important asset, our next and future generations of Texans.

What can be done? What must be done? Right now, the Joint Select Committee on Public School Finance is immersed in the task of finding solutions to our funding dilemma. That panel, on which I serve, is comprised of lawmakers from the Texas House, the Senate and public members.

What must happen is that Texas must somehow generate a new revenue stream in order to adequately fund it's educational needs. To that end, several plans have been brought to the discussion table. One would create an optional state income tax where a person could voluntarily pay and subsequently receive some sort of rebate on the sales taxes that he or she pays.

Another plan accesses a tool that county governments may be eager to see honed for use. It involves empowering local appraisal districts to pursue a more up-to-date and accurate assessment of tax rolls. Information suggests that property that should be rendered for purposes of taxation has not made its way onto tax rolls. Municipalities, in some instances, also lack the ability to force payment.

Back in April, Texas Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff rolled out his plan for public school finance. It proposed the elimination of local property taxes in lieu of a statewide property tax assessment.

While many around the state pounced upon perceived shortcomings, I'll withhold judgement until all the plans are on the table and the merits of each can be determined.

And of course, there looms the specter of a state income tax. While I will say that I am not advocating this radical change in Texas' constitutional law, the subject can no longer simply be ignored. That discussion too, may well find its way to the halls of the Legislature.

I would be remiss in failing to mention the ramifications of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding school vouchers. It reignites an issue that was thought to have been successfully diffused in the aftermath of the 1999 Legislative Session; its major proponent no longer directly involved at the state level.

I will repeat now what I said then. With what we know about the nature of public school finance in Texas, the argument for vouchers is one that is best kept a distance from debate, greater than a trip from Dalhart to Brownsville. Texas should not engage the thought of diluting dollars away from public education when that entity in fact, is in need of a monetary lifeline.