The Real Problem with Texas Education is Funding 

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A student at Stonewall Flanders Elementary walks by a large times table in the hallways. Principal Tracie Smith enlisted the help of parents to create the educational wall art.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Dee Howard Foundation is seeking nominations for excellence in STEM education.

Recent developments in San Antonio’s education landscape and subsequent commentary have pitted traditional public schools against charter schools, citing erosion of Texas’ public school system and unions fearing competition, depending on who you ask.

Largely missing from those opinions is the underlying issue: Texas’ school finance system.

In a recent op-ed Lionel Sosa suggests that charter schools are under attack from teachers unions because the unions are afraid of competition. He is very much mistaken about the role of teachers “unions” in Texas when he suggests that, “every time they lose a teacher to a charter school, they lose teachers dues.”

Texas teachers do not belong to labor unions; rather, they may choose to join one of several professional organizations such as the Association of Texas Professional Educators, Texas Classroom Teachers Association, and Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. These organizations are open to charter school teachers as well.

The difference between a traditional union and a professional organization is that unions can negotiate contracts for compensation and benefits – professional organizations cannot. Unions can go on strike for unfair working conditions – professional organizations cannot. The benefits of joining a professional teaching organization in Texas are that they provide legal advice and they advocate for education.

The sticking point between traditional public schools and charter schools is not a fear of competition, but rather the inadequate way in which Texas schools are funded. San Antonio’s traditional public schools have been “competing” since 1852 when the all-boys, private Central Catholic High School opened.

The real controversy in the debate surrounding traditional versus charter schools is the “undeniably imperfect” funding system the Texas Legislature put in place. Texas’ teachers organizations are afraid of charter schools taking away money from already underfunded public schools because that ultimately takes money away from the majority of the state’s school children.

Sosa laments that charter schools receive less state funding than traditional public schools, “but are expected to do more with it.” In fact, charter schools may do less with the funding they receive:

  • Charter schools are not required to provide transportation unless it is in a special education student’s needs;
  • They also are not required to provide meals unless 10 percent of their students qualify for free or reduced breakfast;
  • They do not have to employ certified teachers unless they teach special or bilingual education;
  • They do not have to provide planning periods for their teachers, or even offer the same courses as traditional public schools;
  • They are not required to hire a school nurse;
  • Charter schools do not have to have a licensed school psychologist who can perform special education testing. If a child in a public charter needs special education testing, their zoned traditional public school is required to do it.

You simply cannot compare charters to traditional public schools when they aren’t held to the same standards. But, for those of you who want to try, data collected by the Texas Education Agency from 2007-2011 showed that charter schools in Texas served fewer students with disabilities, had lower attendance and higher dropout rates, spent a larger percentage of their budget on administrators, paid teachers less, and received more funding from the State than traditional public schools because they cannot levy a local tax rate.

Consider the following:

Kipp Public Charter Schools, one of the larger charter districts in San Antonio, in 2017 published a budget of more than $37 million for 2,442 students, which came out to $15,232 per student.

Northside ISD, the largest public school district in San Antonio, in 2017 had a budget of $1.3 billion for 106,066 students, which comes out to $12,256 per student.

Traditional public educators aren’t afraid of competition. We’re afraid we can’t be as excellent as we want to be without proper funding. We want to “boldly … transform” public education, and we struggle every day to do so with limited resources. You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.

21 thoughts on “The Real Problem with Texas Education is Funding 

  1. Not true NISD gets every bond passed. Educators lack imagination, are unable to make connections with students. The world is changing and they are stagnant in their methods.

    • Tammy, while it’s true that NISD has been very lucky to have residents that support bonds, that money can not be used for instruction. Bond money is for new construction and other “brick and mortar” costs only. Currently it costs $8 an hour to educate NISD students. That is less than I pay teenagers to babysit my son. The funding issue is real and true. While it sounds like you have had some bad experiences with teachers, I can assure you the majority of educators I know work their butts off to try to bring innovation to their overcrowded classrooms. Sadly, any profession is going to have duds, but I promise if you volunteer at your local public school, you will see many passionate people who want to do what is best for kids. Best wishes and I hope you find a good fit for your children’s education. I wish you could bring them to my library where they would get to learn about physics by building marble runs and learn how to care for fish in our 75 gallon fish tank. Neither of those things were paid for with tax payer money. I bought the first out of pocket and someone generously donated the second.

  2. I hear stories of teachers having to dip into their own pockets just to do their job. That is appalling and in no other industry would it be acceptable. Imagine if paramedics had to buy their own band aids.
    This points to the core of the problem. The public school system is so broken that teachers are having to spend their own money to do their job properly. Let’s all take moment and let that reality sink in.
    Funding is an important consideration but just another lever of operation in the status quo. Increasing the amount isn’t a fix.
    Mr. Sosa was making a greater point about the need for competition to drive innovation. That’s why a change is desperately needed. And the change must come from outside of the system. The public school system has failed to address the changing needs of students and teachers and must be disrupted so that innovative solutions can emerge.
    Disruption is painful and life changing but the benefits are more than we could hope for. Think of the blacksmith industry in the early 1900’s as automobiles took over and horses became antiquated transportation. You could say that automobiles had a greater advantage because they didn’t rely on the same economic considerations as blacksmiths and livestock, but isn’t that exactly the point?
    Whether it’s homeschool, charter school or some other innovation, a revolution in education is sorely needed and you can be sure it is on the way.

    • If people really understood the legislative mess Texas is in with Public School finance they would be outraged. The complexity is too much to explain here. But let it be understood that every time a school district gets more money in tax revenue the state of Texas reduces what it puts into that district, and uses the additional revenue it gets from the ‘Robinhood ” tax plan on other legislative spending priorities. Do your own research if you really care, and then let you state legislator know what you want done with public education funding for all Texas children.

  3. Great article and really highlights the true problem. I hate it when people claim that public schools are broken without giving examples that show wide spread problems. One person’s bad experience is not a symptom of a nationwide problem. Just a point of clarification – it’s not true that the school psychologist from the zoned public school is required to provide special education evaluations to charter schools. That’s only true for private schools. Charters must either hire their own assessment staff or contract for the service.

  4. I personally know teachers and they are always taking out of their pocket for things. However, this summer I looked over my property appraisal. Most of the funds go to my local school district and every couple of years school bonds pass by a huge majority. I’d be interested in learning more about how top management is allocating money. What are considered needs and wants. As a mom, I’ve seen sometimes kids don’t need as many things as we think they need. Anyway, teaching is such a noble profession and we all owe it to the teachers and children to be honest and sensible when it comes to supporting them.

    • As Vanessa mentioned in a comment above, the bonds being passed by voters cannot be used on classroom instruction but rather on construction. What you pay in property taxes goes to the schools to pay for salaries, supplies, etc.

  5. It’s a political nightmare that has evolved over the years.. Austin and Washington need to stay out of the day to day of public education. Women now have more choices and choose to stay away from teaching. The quality of teachers has been watered down to be a default profession if your not qualified for another career path. The parents are not part of the system. They are not supporting the schools but choose to battle the teachers and administrators. Schools need a trade school path along with a college path. It’s not ALL about money.

    • Default career? I beg to differ with you on this. Education is my second career. I chose education as a calling because I saw that kids needed more supports from people who have varied backgrounds. I am highly qualified to do other things but I have chosen education to service our children. I often wonder why people in this country look down their noses at educators. In other countries teachers are respected and highly regarded. Things can use a shake up in education but that can’t happen when politicians have a strangle hold on it.

  6. public schools are funded at the highest levels in human history, but we see this tripe over and over. BS. Teachers are typically no experience, worthless BA having kids who take a first job, work it 5 years, and move on. There are some notable exceptions, but they are few.

    Here’s my idea: Fire 90% of all teachers, keep only the top 10%. Create an entirely online curriculum that anyone from any geographic or demographic area can use. The best teachers will teach EVERYONE. No excuses then, let the chips fall where they may. Hell, I’ll even allow for state funded internet connectivity for poor people. No excuses then. Deal?

    • No deal, Jose. Your broad brushstrokes of a profession and “idea” deserve no more of a response than that. Try again.

  7. If Texas truly appreciated public school educators, it would not have outlawed them from collective bargaining.
    In San Antonio we have 16 separate and unequal school districts. Why? I say it’s defacto segregation. No one wants to consider merging the districts as that is challenging an obsolete, racist concept.
    As to blaming teachers for the problems in our school system, is like blaming the nurses in hospitals for management misleadership.
    We need more accountability, but it starts at the top, not with teachers!

    • Yes to all of this.

      And having 16 distinct school districts in the SA area is definitely segregation – keep “those people” on their own side of town. If anyone is afraid to call it racism, then call is classism. SA needs ONE district with strong, learner-centric leadership. It needs more funding (I don’t even have children, nor will I ever have children, and I’m willing to pay more taxes for a better funded, better run school district).

      In my opinion, the city and county should combine all districts into one, then implement a local income tax – say, a half a percent – on everyone in the city/county who makes more than $80,000 per year, then use that $ to fund the school district. We also will all need to be involved – we citizens will need to hold the leadership of that district accountable for the money they are spending.

  8. Thank you for your thoughts, Vanessa, and thank you for rebutting Lionel Sosa.

    Without a solidly funded public education system, a democratic society will not properly train and educate its citizens. And without passionate teachers, fiscally responsible administrators, and involved parents, solidly funded taxpayer monies become sorely wasted.
    I’m a proud NISD resident who has happily supported all of our recent bonds; now to get our Lege onboard so that other districts like Edgewood can come closer to NISD’s per student spending.

  9. I disagree with the Rivard report writers on their negative views of unions.

    Teacher unions are not the problem. Teacher unions are a solution. One Rivard Report writer states that “every time they lose to a charter school, they lose teacher dues.”

    The Rivard Report writer for this report states “Texas teachers do not belong to labor unions; rather, they may choose to join one of several professional organizations such as the Association of Texas Professional Educators, Texas Classroom Teachers Association, and Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.”

    The Bexar County Appraisal District has doubled the property valuations during the past 15 years in most school districts in San Antonio. This means that tax revenue for direct and indirect education costs has doubled. Direct school costs are costs that increase or decrease significantly as student enrollment increases or decreases.

    School direct costs include teacher pay, student bus services, student food services, and direct classroom expenses. Indirect costs are overhead costs, such as administrative staff and buildings. School districts have not reported any tax revenue surplus. Teacher pay has not doubled over the past 15 years. Therefore, it is likely that the costs of the administration and buildings have doubled over the past 15 years.

    Teacher groups, such as unions and other professional organizations are needed to help answer why tax revenue for schools has doubled over the past 15 years, yet teacher pay and other direct classroom student benefits increases very little.

    Teacher union members should be applauded for risking getting fired for competing for fair teacher pay and other direct student benefits. Teachers should be applauded for helping to protect hard-earned tax revenue. The real problem in education my not be funding, but how efficiently the funds are used.

    • Rudy, Lionel Sosa does not work for us. He is an outside, unpaid contributor who submitted that op-ed to us for publication. Same is true for Luke Amphlett and Vanessa Eichler.

  10. “The Real Problem with Texas Education is Funding”

    I wholeheartedly agree that the crux of the problem is how education is funded, at the local, state, and federal level. However, your article seems to repeat a thesis that public schools are always at a disadvantage due to statute requirements and unequal funding, yet you neglect to point out any advantages a public ISD may have over charter schools and for that matter, any other schools in general.

    Yes, public schools do serve a broader base of children, but don’t publicly funded schools receive extra funding per capita for children who are learning English or have special needs?

    One should also refrain from comparing a school’s budget per capita to actually instructional funding received per capita. One of the advantages of being able to levy a significant local property tax is being able to fund construction of large campuses, and facilities for many extra-curricular activities. Many of those same facilities come with large ongoing maintenance and operational costs, and while they are very nice to have and see in a community, and they may at times serve seem to serve the broader community, one can also argue that they primarily serve a much smaller student base than a typical school building.

    Some other thoughts on your points:

    “Charter schools are not required to provide transportation unless it is in a special education student’s needs;”

    Well, they are already building a school without levying a property tax, and now they are supposed to buy buses, too? To do that, the state may have to give them more money, which might mean further erosion of funds to public schools. Yes, not having transportation infrastructure makes it more difficult for parents, but if I am not mistaken, in most districts, if you want to attend a magnet program or any other school outside the one in which you are zoned, you provide your own transportation as well.

    “They also are not required to provide meals unless 10 percent of their students qualify for free or reduced breakfast;”

    Again, major facility expenditure. Unless you are expected to receive major federal student lunch funding (in essence guaranteed funding), how can you assume that you can undertake such a requirement and expect to charge students, many of whom may prefer to bring their own lunches anyway. This also goes along with the first point in that if you cannot provide your own transportation, how likely are you going to go to even a magnet program in your own district? In the better charter schools, if you qualify for free meals, the school and/or parents work to meet that need.

    “They do not have to employ certified teachers unless they teach special or bilingual education;”

    A point such as charters having no teacher certification requirement could be viewed as more of an indictment of onerous requirements by the state for the profession. I have seen first hand certified teachers who lack basic technical competency in reading, writing, but most likely arithmetic. I have also seen non-certified teachers who can’t teach as well. The point is that certification requirements are often lacking and give a false sense of competency — talk to enough in the certification industry off the record and you may hear of districts asking for weakened requirements because they wouldn’t otherwise find enough qualified teachers, particularly in math. This may be more of an issue in rural areas.

    “They do not have to provide planning periods for their teachers, or even offer the same courses as traditional public schools;”

    How can this even be an argument? Yes, planning periods are important and many teachers probably spend much more time at home planning than any district may provide, but how is this on its own bad? As for the same courses point, the implication is that courses may be worse? Well, they may also be better.

    “They are not required to hire a school nurse;”

    Yes, this could scare some parents, particularly if they have a child who has some medical needs. But typically, there are administrative staff that are safety trained, and if they are not, then maybe the state can require that of other schools.

    “Charter schools do not have to have a licensed school psychologist who can perform special education testing. If a child in a public charter needs special education testing, their zoned traditional public school is required to do it.”

    Okay, maybe this one is true, but I would like to point out that for the vast majority of children and their parents, the choice to go to a charter is to seek a level of instruction that is lacking; if the district put up an earnest effort to meet their needs, like they are told to do for groups of kids, maybe this would not be an issue.

    It is the state, and really the people you send to Austin to represent you, are the true cause of the flawed funding system. To reframe it into a charter public debate is more of a political exercise that seeks to penalize some children and their parents at the expense of others, to create friction in the populace by taking the heat off the funding system and putting the brakes on children who only want to learn.

    • Call me a skeptic, but I think these charter corporations are more interested in making a profit than educating students. The parents of charter students have been “sold” on a better education. However, I don’t think the data is there yet to make the claim that charters provide a better education than public schools. In fact, some data I have heard about suggests the opposite.

  11. Good article and all good points. But a couple points of clarification.

    1) Not all teacher groups are the same, and we (Texas AFT) are a union. See:

    2) This piece buffers your arguments about the financial impacts of charters with a couple examples from Houston (and the recapture issue) while also showing that many of these charters are funded by folks like the Walton Foundation, which has a clear-cut agenda to privatize schools.

    3) As you note, unions are not opposed to charters because of losing members. (There isn’t usually a direct impact with new charters, although the takeover by Democracy Prep of an San Antonio ISD school is one example of actually losing union members.) However, contrary to what you state, we don’t represent charter teachers here in Texas (with a couple very rare exceptions from the distant past), and I don’t think the other organizations do either. Then again, AFT nationally has begun representing more charter school teachers in select cases…so it may be possible for the future, although probably with individual charters that aren’t chains out to take kids from existing public schools.

  12. Be careful San Antonio when it comes to providing more funds. Just because children and teachers are lacking does not mean the money will correct the situation. Where is the money being used? Is it spent to comply with rules & regulations as detailed in this article? I’d it spent on more administration than needed? Don’t become like Los Angeles which has one of the highest funding/ student and one of the lowest performance ratings. Teachers there also claim to pay for supplies and other things from their own pockets. Perhaps, unnecessary administration, rules & regulations are in order. Be careful!

  13. NISD wastes alot of money. The last bond paid for technology that will be obsolete in the next couple of years, you have “hunks of junk” sitting in JAR carts because they are too slow, kids break them, proper updates aren’t run, etc. I would rather spend all that “iPad” money on getting an aide back in every classroom, but hey I’m just one of the taxpayers footing the bill. IPADs are great and all, but mostly become the “aide” because most classes are too crowded to begin with. Let’s not even get started on security lobbies which was a big item advertised in the last bond, you would think it was a Top 3 item, nope, yet technology was. As a taxpayer, I would rather see sound infrastructure, more help in the classroom, more than one reading specialist and ALE in bigger schools, and more specialists so kids in bigger schools dont get PE or computer class just once every other month.

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