Scott Ball / Rivard Report
When education experts start to talk about school finance – the formulas and weights, the legal challenges, revenue streams – the average person might feel the subject is hard to digest. This complexity is why education experts believe more people haven't pushed for increased state funding on behalf of Texas' 5.4 million students.
At a luncheon Thursday, 250 people gathered to hear business and education leaders prove that improving public school funding can be simple.
The meeting was the third in a series of regional forums arranged by the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium (TEGAC), an advocacy group that studies public school finance, to coalesce the efforts of the business community around a few simple solutions to public school finance problems, including altering the revenue stream.
In Texas, local property tax dollars and money allocated by the state fund public education. Historically, the state has contributed about 50 percent of the total cost of public education, but the state's portion has decreased over time as property values have increased locally. In 2019, education experts project that the state will contribute just 38 percent to public education costs.
"The business community is probably the only entity in Texas that can step in and say, 'Enough is enough,'" Holdsworth Center President Kate Rogers said at the forum held at The Pearl Stable.
The luncheon hosted by the San Antonio Area Foundation, San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and San Antonio Chamber of Commerce began with presentations by former House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock and David Thompson, a school finance expert and attorney.
Aycock explained the origins of school finance, starting in 1836 when Texas sought its independence, in part because of a struggling school system. In response, the Texas Constitution required the state Legislature to "establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools."
Each year, more bills are introduced in the Legislature related to public education than on any other topic, which Aycock said shows Texas' emphasis on educating its students.
"So why is it so doggone hard to fix school finance?" Aycock asked.
Answering his own question, he explained the variations and competing interests among districts – 49 school districts educate more than half of Texas students while about 790 districts educate less than 10 percent. Texas has rural and urban districts, some with rapid growth, others with declining enrollment.
Each school district has a unique funding formula of state versus local contribution, which often leads individual lawmakers to advocate on behalf of the children in their district, not for those statewide, Aycock said.
However, the former legislator said, all districts have seen the state's share of funding shrink as a greater portion of funding comes from local property taxes, Aycock said.
"At some point, we must have a discussion about revenue stream that is not just based on real estate," Aycock said.
Thompson laid out the common challenges that he said should frustrate all educators, business people, and Texans alike: out-of-date funding formulas, the state's dependence on local property taxes as a major revenue stream, and the state's use of local property tax dollars for purposes other than education.
In districts with high property values, revenue from property taxes exceeds a level set by the state, requiring the district to send money back to the state as part of a "recapture" payment. Thompson said there is no state requirement to use this money for education.
The school finance expert described this issue as just the "tip of the iceberg," with "much more damage" being done below the surface. He said the only way policy will change is if more people go to the polls with the aim of changing education and school finance policy.
TEGAC's founder and executive director Jennifer Esterline showed the audience that there is public will to support changing school finance. She cited a TEGAC survey indicating that 67 percent of Texans favor allocating more state money for education and that 81 percent favor requiring the state to use recapture payments for education.
The program concluded with a panel with Rogers; Thompson; Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside Independent School District; Jennifer Cantu, Bank of America's senior vice president and community engagement manager; and Celina Moreno, counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), that was moderated by Rivard Report publisher Robert Rivard.
Speakers emphasized the need for the business community's engagement in elections to elect public education friendly candidates and in the next legislative session to drive meaningful change in school finance.
"This is not an issue for [just] the school districts, this is not an issue just for the state Legislature, this is a business issue," Cantu said, imploring fellow members of the business community to work with school districts and chambers of commerce to lobby their legislators in the next session.
Woods emphasized that the business and education communities need to focus their efforts on tackling the revenue stream issue.