The Texas School Funding Massacre

By Will Fain Roby

@will_fain_roby 

It should come as no surprise to educators around the world that the state of Texas is in the middle of a school funding nightmare. A quick Google search reveals school funding fights in nearly every US state, a legislative battle over school funding still boiling over in the UK, and similar problems from South Africa to Japan.

The lesson? Getting the money which our schools need to operate at full capacity into the hands of the administrators that distribute it is a global problem.

Is this just a problem on paper? Won’t our resilient teachers and the grit of our students help the state float in choppy waters? The data indicates – no.

The Texas School Funding Massacre, as I like to call it, has teeth. The state of Texas has now fallen into the bottom half of all major annual reports on educational quality. One piece of research, Education Week’s Quality Counts report, ranked the state as low as  43rd. There is a growing gap in performance on standardized tests between white students and students of color.

The Lone Star State, the swaggeringly-huge territory full of braggadocio and bullets, boasts the tenth-largest economy in the world. Our GDP crushes that of traditional edu-darlings like South Korea and Finland. We have the money. Is it really that hard to distribute it equitably among the state’s 5 million students?

Problem #1: The State Plays Favorites (and it’s 100% legal!)

Without showing too much of my legislative wonk side, I must talk a little bit about state law. The state tends to spend more money on some districts and spend less on others. The cause? Something called the Target Revenue system, added to existing legislation in 2006. That year, local taxation was compressed, thanks to House Bill 1. The result? A funding floor assigned to each district, essentially legislating district spending in an inequitable way.

The problem? Target Revenue plays favorites, with its funding amounts tied to “historical factors” instead of contemporary numbers. In other words, the district’s purse is only as full as it needed to be in years past, and doesn’t have anything to do with current district-based spending.

Think of it another way: the districts which the state doesn’t favor pay more taxes to subsidize those better-funded districts, whose residents pay less in taxes. Students and parents in non-favored districts suffer to prop up their peers in the state’s favored areas. Example – the district in which I work (Houston ISD) has lost as much as $14.1 million, according to estimates by the Reason Foundation, thanks to the Target Revenue System.

Problem #2: The Purse Clamps Tight on Texas’ High-Need Students

Texas uses several factors when adjusting a district’s allotment. The state pays the bills based on a wide range of factors, many of which are buried so deep in legislative red tape that you’d be hard-pressed to find them. But I have a secret. Not one of those indices considers contemporary student need.

Go ahead, look it up. Texas’ Cost of Education Index, which considers demographics and factors like student need, is a huge factor in determining how much money each district gets. This Index has been stagnant since 1991, regardless of the fact that the state has changed a great deal in the past thirty years. This Index is responsible for the allotment of more than $2 billion of taxpayer funds, and it doesn’t reflect anything resembling the Texas that exists today.

Problem #3: Rich Kids Have More Quality Choices Than Poor Kids

We know that charter schools (especially public-charters, which carry the support of a school district) are effective at serving our state’s poorest kids. Stanford University’s Center on Research on Education Outcomes was hired by the state to consider the effectiveness of our charter schools. Their finding? Poor students who got into charter schools had a significant learning advantage in both reading and math. Why, then, do our state’s charter schools currently have more than 150,000 students on waitlists?

Our state lawmakers are partially to blame. Senate Bill 2, passed in 2013, raised the number of charter schools that can operate in the state to 305. This sounds like a good thing; however, the devil is in the details. Authority over all the state’s charters was moved from the Texas Board of Education over to a new office, the Commissioner of Education. That meant new application standards, new forms to fill out, and a huge nightmare in terms of student files and existing applications. The result? Application is increasingly difficult to access, especially for low-income students. Added bonus – fewer charter school systems are showing interest in Texas, thanks to the new mountain of paperwork and pile of hoops to jump through.

All this red tape stands directly in the way of low-income students’ access to quality schools. The demand from parents is strong – anecdotally, I get questions about Texas charter schools monthly from my students’ guardians. We know that the poor students of Texas are enrolled in failing schools at much higher rates than students with wealthy parents. More than ten percent of the state’s low-income schools are currently listed as “Improvement Required,” the lowest rank for a school in the state. Compare that to the number of higher-income schools listed as “Improvement Required” and you’ll see this problem clearly. Fewer than one percent of schools in middle or upper-class areas are listed with that low rating.

Texas is one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest country in the world. Our inability to figure this problem out has made a laughingstock out of our schools. It won’t surprise any teacher reading this that our schools are absolutely stuffed with talented teachers giving their all to expand the minds of our learners.

But what can be done? What can the parents of students in our districts do? When low-income students are ten times less likely to get a quality education than their wealthy peers, and when most of our students are classified as low-income? What in the world can be done?

We can continue to teach. We can continue to lead. We can continue to build curious, confident, capable human beings. We teachers in low-income areas will continue to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year for our learners. We will lecture, we will question, we will give feedback, we will laugh, we will cry. We’ll write referrals and call mamas and show up for choir concerts and dance team auditions and One-Act Play competitions. And we’ll do it all with significantly fewer resources than we need, and the biggest, realest smiles you’ve ever seen.