Open Letter to the Texas State Legislature

by Dr. Jerry R. Burkett
Originally Published: October 16, 2011

To the Honorable Members of the Texas Legislature:

I am sure that all of you are aware that the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, which represents more than 150 school districts, is suing the state of Texas for inequity and inadequacy of its school funding system. A school funding system that you promised to fix in 2003, but have instead ignored.  A school funding system that has grown more complicated and convoluted over time. A school funding system

State Seal of Texasthat has left school districts wondering how to manage the educational futures of millions of Texas children.

The plaintiffs in the case are the independent school districts of Hillsboro, Hutto, Nacogdoches, Pflugerville, San Antonio, Taylor and Van. These districts represent many regions of the state with various demographics, tax rates, and property values.This demonstrates the universal discontent with Texas’ school finance that is felt at all corners of the state. This is not an issue of an individual school district that has mismanaged funding – this is a statewide issue.

One of the main issues of the lawsuit addresses funding inequity. State contributions to local districts are based upon per student funding formulas. These formulas vary from school district to school district. Funding formulas in the state range from $3,500 to $10,000 per student. But, those funding formulas are erratic – one school district might receive nearly $2,000 less per student than its neighbor district. And tax rates, property values, and district size seem to have no impact on these formulas. One of the plaintiffs, Van ISD, indicates that their school district receives $2,500 less per student compared to other districts in the state. Thus, Van students receive about $7.3 million dollars a year less than other schools across the state. Is this fair? This law suit has been in the works for months as school districts have scrambled to make ends meet with the cuts inflicted by this year’s legislative session.

But, this isn’t unusual in Texas. Historically this is the way school finance reform is handled in this state. Why is it necessary for you to have your hand forced into action by the Texas State Supreme Court to do what is CONSTITUTIONALLY REQUIRED – to fund education adequately and equitably. Now is the time to step us and perform your duty without a required court order.

Consider this quote from one of your colleagues, Representative Mike Villerreal, who recently commented, “I agree that the school finance system is broken. Students from every community in Texas deserve an opportunity to attend world-class schools, but unfortunately that isn’t the case today. The Legislature’s decision to slash public education this year made a bad situation worse. It’s a shame that we need the courts to force the Legislature into action, but I’m hopeful the end result will be a school finance system that treats kids fairly and produces the future doctors, engineers and teachers that this state needs.”

With more than $4 billion in cuts to education, combined with program and grants cuts and an outdated and broken school funding formula system, isn’t it clear to you now that school districts have had enough. Isn’t it time to stand up and do your job and fix this broken funding system?

I realize as a school administrator and a property owner that  education requires funding.  However, in recent sessions, it seems that the source of these revenues is a sore subject with many of your colleagues, particularly those that have signed various “pledges” — the latest trend in some legislative circles. Instead of addressing revenue shortfalls, you were urged this session to use the Rainy Day Fund to help plug holes in education. You refused. When asked to search for alternative revenue sources, you chose to hold garage sales by selling state lands rather than long-term issues like broken tax systems or the business margins tax, that doesn’t fulfill promises.

In response, many school districts like Allen, Everman, Cedar Hill, Keller, Plugerville, and Canutillo have sought tax rate elections to raise local revenue to meet the needs of students in their districts.  These elections are called in response to your cuts to education, which are further exacerbated by record student growth. As you know, Texas adds 80,000 students per year, but school districts will not have additional funds to educate new students until budget issues are resolved. You have officially thrown up your hands, refused to address the broken funding system, refused to identify new sources of revenue, and left the school districts to their own devices to find ways to make ends meet. In essence, the state of Texas shirked its constitutional responsibility to fund education and has let it fall to the Texas property taxpayer.

This law suit represents school districts finally taking a stand and saying, “We want what is fair, equitable, and adequate for all our students. Fix the system and fix it in the next session.” Please understand, Texas school districts are not asking for more money. They are simply asking for what is owed and constitutionally required.  Nothing more, nothing less.

To fix this problem, I recommend the following be considered to fix school funding:

  1. An amendment to the state constitution that creates a standard state contribution to educational funding per year. This allotment must be adjusted for inflation or set by a percentage of the state budget.This funding must be kept in a proverbial “lock box” – free from the funding misappropriation and shell games that lawmakers like to play with our money.
  2. Creation of a flat funding rate per student that will be updated regularly to reflect the cost of education. The current numbers used by the state  are based on a 1991 study.
  3. Increased flexibility in the local property rate allowing school districts to raise or lower the property tax rate with voter approval.
  4. Consolidation and reallocation of smaller school districts into larger districts.
  5. Increased flexibility by individual school districts to make local decisions related to salaries, benefits, stipends, merit-based pay, and general operating decisions.
  6. A “pledge” from the state to support public education and public education initiatives instead of passing laws that are “anti-public school” prohibitive to the advancement of public education (i.e., private school vouchers and home schooling).

So lawmakers, will you wait while school districts use tax payer funding to sue you into doing the job you were elected to do? Or will the leaders of this state stand up and fix school finance once and for all? Will you admit that a system that says a child in one school district is worth thousands of dollars more than a child in a comparable district is a failure? Will you recognize that fixing this system might require you to admit that “pledges” to guys named Grover might not be what’s in the best interest of the state of Texas, its children, or its future?

As I recall, your lone pledge was to uphold the constitution of the state of Texas.

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