The Blah, Blah, Blah of School Finance and the Reality of Texas Trickle-Down

by Dr. Jerry R. Burkett
Originally Published: September 25, 2012

Texans have heard a lot since the last legislative session about school finance. We’ve heard about the economic stabilization (rainy day) fund and structural tax deficits. We’ve heard about enrollment growth. We’ve heard about weighted average daily attendance (WADA), funding formulas, and Chapter 41 and 42 (Robin Hood) districts. As the state prepares to defend itself in court next month in yet another school finance lawsuit, we’re going to hear lengthy explanations of adequacy, equity, and efficiency.

In the time since the 82nd legislature cut $5.4 billion in funding from Texas schools, these words and issues have started to drone on – kind of like white noise in the background. The uproar of the 82nd legislature has died down since 2011. In that year more than 10,000 concerned parents and educators marched on Austin and then came home.  The special session forced by Senator Wendy Davis’ (D-Fort Worth) bold filibuster came to a close. The part-time legislature adjourned and sent lawmakers back to their districts. Campaign season is upon us. Football season is here. Texans have moved on to other important things – like going about their daily lives. The uproar about education has quieted down to a whimper and many of us have tuned out the blah, blah, blah of school finance issues.

Despite the attempts by many, including educators, to put these issues behind us and move on with life, the impact of those cuts are still felt every day by students, parents, and educators alike. Interestingly, most don’t even realize it. Even I have fallen victim to this. So, now that we’re into the second year of cuts, what do they look like and feel like? And how have these cuts trickled down to impact the family pocketbook?

I recently attended a casual meeting between parents and administration at my son’s elementary school. I knew what was coming at this meeting. I’d heard my angry neighbors discussing the amount of money they’d spent on school supplies – for many it exceeded $100 for each of their elementary school students. I’d seen discussions on Facebook between parents irate at providing reams of paper for the school, materials for the art department, in addition to paying a $10 supply fee. Even my wife and I questioned why we had to purchase seven boxes of crayons for our one child. In addition to the $100+ school supply fees, parents were also hit in the first week of school with a student fundraiser and the announcement that our school district is seeking voter approval for a $255 million bond that will increase our tax rate by a potential $0.77 (approximately $155 per year for a house valued at $200,000).

The parents were angry and weary from the endless assault of increased costs. Many of these parents pay between $3,000 and $4,000 annually just in school property taxes. Why were they being nickeled and dimed at every turn? Was our school being fiscally irresponsible? What were these educrats doing? Despite my understanding of school finance, even I questioned some of these costs.

It wasn’t long before a concerned parent asked these questions. And with the principal’s simple answer, all of the blah, blah, blah of school finance we’d heard over the past year and a half came crashing to reality. The principal explained that the school had opened several years ago with an enrollment of 450 students. Today their enrollment has doubled to more than 900 students, but their funding remained the same.

The shock of her statement hung in that meeting room. Enrollment had doubled, but funding stayed the same.  Every parent in that room was living Chapter 42, unfunded enrollment growth, and budget cuts. The blah, blah, blah was impacting our children and our pocketbooks. We’d all become victims of Texas’ trickle-down – only with this version of trickle-down, instead of economic prosperity magically cascading down upon the middle class, parents are forced to dig deeper into their wallets to make up for the budget cuts imposed by the state. Essentially, families are picking up the slack for Austin’s actions.

Glancing around the room, you could see parents using kitchen-table budget logic in their heads. If my income stayed the same, they were thinking, but I doubled the number of children in my household, how would we make ends meet? Even the most fiscally conservative among us sighed at the thought. The wheels were turning and the parents came to understand the reasons behind the increased costs that had trickled down to them.

The reason we had to supply the art department was the school is educating approximately 450 more students without any additional money – with those deficient funding levels, there certainly isn’t money for the art department. The reason we had to kick off a fundraiser in the first week of school is the library was supplied for only 450 students. Since twice as many students require twice as many library books, this principal is working hard to raise funds to ensure all of her students have access to books. This wasn’t quite the overspending educrat story some of us were expecting.

I added to the conversation that part of the problem was the kindergarteners and first graders at the elementary school were not funded in the last legislative session. “What?” Several parents turned to look at me in shock. Some vaguely recalled the blah, blah, blah about Texas didn’t fund enrollment growth for the first time since World War 2. What many hadn’t realized was that the “enrollment growth” was actually their childrenWhen the last legislative session didn’t fund new students over the course of the two-year budget they passed in 2011, that meant that present-day kindergarteners, first graders, and students that transferred to Texas from other states were not funded. It’s estimated that there are 160,000 of these lost students across the state.

What does that look like at my son’s elementary school? The school has eight kindergarten classes and seven first grade glasses. That’s roughly 300+ of the school’s students that the 82nd legislature ignored and did NOT fund. How do you educate those lost students when the state didn’t provide money to fund their teachers, their supplies, or even their very existence in a school setting? There aren’t enough efficiencies that can be eked out of a growing school system driven by local, state, and federal mandates to make up for those unfunded students. Schools are forced to cut corners, expand class size, and impose additional fees and costs on parents. This is also why many classrooms are at the legal cap of 22 students or beyond.  (In fact, since funding cuts took place a record number of Texas school districts have requested waivers to increase class sizes beyond the legal limit.)

I think all of us parents learned a lesson at that get-together. We learned that things aren’t always what they seem. We learned that sometimes the anti-education pontificators don’t always know the rest of the story when they suggest that schools are “throwing money at the problem” or spending recklessly. (I would imagine even the most ardent fiscal responsibility drum beaters wouldn’t question the need for library books, right?). Most importantly, we learned that the blah, blah, blah of school finance actually has real-world implications to our neighborhood school, our children, and our household budgets.

As a principal, I learned that even though I regularly curse school finance when I lose a teacher or aide, when I don’t receive a raise for many years, and when I don’t have funding to replace the 1990s-era cassette recorders my students are using in their classrooms, I recognize that parents are reeling from the impact as well. It’s the nature of Texas’ education trickle down – the state cuts funding and the costs trickle down to parents in the form of increased supplies, urgent fundraisers, new fees for bussing and sports, and tax ratification and bond elections. In a fragile economic recovery, many Texans are forced to pay for the 82nd legislature’s cuts on the back-end.

Texas is working hard to be number one in growing business, breaking the national recession, and football, but is stumbling in per student funding. It will be increasingly impossible to compete as a state when we ignore the necessity of an educated populace. Our state lawmakers need to understand that the cost of education will become far more significant for our state if an investment in our future is not made today. In the end, our students with the most need are in danger of not receiving services that they deserve and are constitutionally required to receive.

The Texas trickle down families are experiencing is a hidden tax.  Since most of our lawmakers have signed pledges and sworn allegiance to unelected, agenda-driven lobbyists, raising taxes out in the open is taboo, despite the rapid growth of Texas’ population and the financial stress that places on our existing infrastructure. Finding new revenue to fund growth in schools (not to mention roads, public safety, and other basic government functions) is an apparent non-starter in today’s political climate. So a hidden tax system evolves. Lawmakers let school principals do their dirty work by holding their hands out to parents and requiring more money in the form of school supplies, fees, and fundraisers. Meanwhile, cowardly legislators hide behind local school districts – letting them raise taxes through local tax rate elections (TRE) or bond elections so politicians can remain true to their pledges and compacts.

How much longer can Austin lawmakers expect local school districts and taxpayers to clean up their messes? Is it realistic to expect the nation’s second most populous state and one of its fastest growing to educate their children in this manner?  Can Texas’ economic development continue in an environment that doesn’t value education? Hopefully as the blah, blah, blah of school finance is felt across Texas, lawmakers will see the pitchforks coming and make better decisions for the students of Texas when they meet again in January.

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