How Much Does Texas Public Education Cost? Texas Has No Idea

By Dr. Jerry R. Burkett


It’s  1991 and the New York Giants win the Super Bowl 20-19 after a missed Buffalo Bills field goal. Seinfeld debuted on TV, “Dances with Wolves” won Best Picture, and the U.S. minimum wage goes from $3.80 to $4.25 per hour. Gas prices average $1.12, a new house will cost you $120,000, and the average person makes around $29,430 per year.

That was also the year the state of Texas updated its Cost of Education Index (CEI).

Today, gas averages $3.36, the New York Giants have won two more Super Bowls, and minimum wage is $7.25. The average home will cost you $152,000, Seinfeld has been off the air for 15 years and now rules syndication, the average salary in the United States is $46,326 and Kevin Costner hasn’t made a decent movie since (unless you actually liked Waterworld).

Yet the state of Texas still uses the same Cost of Education Index that was developed in 1991.The CEI is the complicated formula system that Texas uses as a basis to distribute education funding to the 1,024 school districts. That’s right – the education of Texas’ students is based on a 22-year old funding formula. The students taught in Texas schools were not even born when the CEI was last updated.

Aside from the obvious changes in costs that come over more than two decades, a lot has also changed in Texas schools since 1991.

  • There were 3,378,318 students enrolled in public schools in 1990-91. Today there are 4,978,120. A 47.35% increase.
  • In 1989, 24.3% of Texas children were living in poverty. In 2011, that number has risen to 30%.
  • As late as 1994, 46% of Texas students were on free or reduced lunch; that increased to 60.4% in 2011.
  • Students enrolled in bilingual/ESL programs have increased from 9.7% in 1992 to 16.2% in 2011.

Texas is not the same state as it was in 1991.  We have more students, more of them live in poverty, and even more of them are not native English speakers.

In addition, we are asking our schools to do far more that when did in 1991. We have progressed from TAAS to TAKS to STAAR during that time period. Technology and the Internet are widely used, 21st century education standards have developed, and we are sending more students to career/technical and college readiness programs. These factors and initiatives require a significant financial commitment from the state to meet student needs.

How much does that cost?  Texas doesn’t know.

While the CEI was developed in 1991, it was actually commissioned in 1984. It took the state seven years to develop the formula after passing the responsibility between the State Board of Education (SBOE), the Legislative Education Board (LEB), the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) and finally the Foundation School Fund Budget Committee in 1991. And even when they did finally determine the cost in that year, they never bothered to update it. This poses a fundamental flaw in Texas school finance.

Significant to the CEI are a series of allotments that fund various aspects of education in Texas public schools. These allotments include special education, transportation, bilingual education, career and technical education, gifted and talented education, and facilities funding. Lynn Moak of Moak, Casey and Associates, (a law firm that has long studied school finance) testified this spring in the latest round of school finance lawsuits, that extensive research shows these allotments are significantly out-of-date and underfunded. He showed evidence that school districts serving low-income students receive systematically less revenue per weighted average daily attendance (WADA) under the current school finance formulas. Further,  by multiple academic outcome measures, he showed that higher performing districts receive more revenue than lower performing districts.

While Texas legislators literally don’t know the cost of public education in the 21st century, that hasn’t stopped them from slashing school funding. In the 82nd legislative session, the Texas state legislature cut $5.4 billion for the state education budget.

When the 83rd legislature convened in January 2013 they met with a significant state revenue increase and an economic stabilization fund expected to reach $12 billion by the end of the current biennium.

So did they restore public education given the return of revenue and a solid economy? No. This legislature only restored $3.8 of the $5.4 billion in education cuts.  This has been touted as a victory in Austin with many of legislators patting themselves on the back for their efforts. However, what they fail to realize (or at least refuse to admit) is that this still does not even restore Texas to its 2010 funding levels that are based upon 22-year old cost indices.

So before legislators take another victory lap for “restoring” education funding, perhaps they should remember  the state is still funding districts s to fuel their school busses on the 1991 assumption that fuel costs $1.12 per gallon.

Before touting their “efforts,” the legislature needs to re-visit the true costs of education. The state of Texas has asked schools to perform at significantly higher academic levels and under heavily scrutinized accountability without the resources necessary to meet these challenges effectively. Schools have worked hard to meet the expectations because they have to do so under the law, however the ability to do it consistently at a high rate of return has and will continue to prove difficult.

Former Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff recently stated that even with the proposed “increase” to education this legislative session, “the appropriations for public education have fallen $8.4 billion below the level which would have been necessary just to keep up with inflation and enrollment growth. By comparison, we have been shorting schools close to $1.2 billion dollars each session just to meet the needs for inflation and enrollment growth.

According to Lynn Moak’s testimony during the school funding lawsuit, “Texas school districts are $6 billion per year behind where they need to be, and this is before the funding reductions of last session (82nd) are taken into account.”

Bottom line – the growing state of Texas has a serious school funding problem. If the state refuses to fix the mess it has made of school finance over the last three decades and continues to kicking that funding can down the road, they are going to need a bigger boot.

That isn’t a reason to celebrate.


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  • Donna Bateman

    You just want MORE of the money from “wealthy” districts to re-distribute. The years you mention rang a bell to me. After some checking—guess what? Those are the years the court battles went into high gear culminating with Robin Hood. That crappy plan hurts districts that are committed to taking care of their own. I live in Plano and I’m sick and tired of sending our money to districts who spend recklessly—yes, Edgewood, that is YOU! Our tax rates are at the highest allowed by the state and “poor” districts keep their rates intentionally low. Plano did not begin as a wealthy district—-just the opposite. We became one of the nation’s most enviable districts through hard work and the vision of incredible people such as H. Wayne Hendrick. So now parents have to work their butts off begging corporate donations and doing everything possible in order to keep educational excellence alive in Plano. I am involved in several booster clubs and while I love doing this work, it is RIDICULOUS that we have to privately fund sheet music for the choir yet turn around and send MILLIONS of dollars away. Plano taxpayers have ZERO oversight through elections on how that money is spent. And now this whining liberal wants MORE of someone else’s money. And it won’t be enough—they’ll just keep coming back for more and more and more. They always do.

  • Brent Shirley

    I have no children and I only think of school funding around tax time. As a, less than casual observer, it sure seems likely that someone is bending numbers to their suit their agenda.
    After reading your article I found and wow, sure seems contradictory to me. “In the last decade, total spending rose nearly five times as fast as enrollment (95.3 percent versus 19.7 percent) (Exhibit 4).” Additionally “These increases cannot be explained solely by inflation, as the growth in per-pupil spending has greatly exceeded the general inflation rate (Exhibit 6).”
    So what’s a casual observer/taxpayer to believe?

    • Jerry Burkett

      The reality is that Texas is 49th in per student funding according to data provided by the National Education Association. That figure comes to $8400 per child. When you add bond, which is primarily local debt accumulated by vote from constituents in local ISDs, that number will obviously increase. However, is should be noted that when a local ISD passes a bond or a tax rate increase, that money is retained locally. The state is still only sending the same per student rate to the school district as they did before (which ranges between $4800-$11,000 per student depending on where you live–another funding disparity). Also, bond debt CANNOT be spent on instruction, personnel, or supplies. You can only use that money to build building, buy equipment, or upgrade facilities. So, it is unfair to include that money in per student spending when the dollars are not directly related to instruction. In addition, and is the point of the article, the data that the state uses to fund local ISD is based information from 1991. The actual cost of education–which should include testing, cost of living, cost of personnel, supplies, transportation, technology, student growth–has not been updated. The state is dispersing funds on 22 year old data.

  • Sheila Hoza Cunningham, EdD

    Thank you for publishing this very true statement about the funding of education in Texas. Your points are true and accurate. In 1997-1997 there was a study done on the actual cost of each of the components of the school funding formula commissioned by the School Finance Working Group and I am sure studies have been since that time. One specific piece of the funding was that of transportation. Many do not realize that transportation allocations for regular education students to districts are based on a linear density chart that was developed in 1984. Linear Density is defined as the ratio of the average number of regular education students transported daily to the number of miles traveled daily for those students. LD allocates as little as $0.68 per mile for districts that have a low LD rate and maximum of $1.43 per mile for districts with the highest LD rate. These funds are to be utilized for all aspects of the district transportation program, including the purchase of school buses, salaries, maintenance, etc. It is time that Texas take a serious look at the actual cost of funding public education in this state and accept the responsibility that our forefathers mandated in the Texas Constitution which states that it is the states responsibility to provide “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

    • Jerry Burkett

      Thank you, Dr. Cunningham. I have been talking about Article 7, Section 1 continually. The reality is that the weights used in the funding formulas are quite out of date and need serious reconsideration. I am hopeful the results of the lawsuit will mandate an update to funding formulas, adequacy, and equity for all students in Texas.

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