AUSTIN (TIP): It would seem that Texas schools might be due for a sizable funding boost when the Legislature convenes in January, particularly after a state judge ruled last summer that Texas was severely under funding its education system. But local school officials aren’t counting on much relief.
- The lowest SAT scores in more than two decades.
- School funding that ranks Texas among the bottom five states.
- And oversized classes in nearly 1,300 elementary schools last year to save money.
“If you look at how much we spend per child, it is really sad that Texas is funding public education at a level that is significantly lower than the average for the country,” said David Anthony, former superintendent of the Cypress-Fairbanks school district and chief executive for Raise Your Hand Texas, a public education advocacy group. “Money is not the only answer. It takes more than that to improve schools. But it is certainly a significant part of the solution.”
And while legislative leaders have voiced willingness to consider some additional money for schools in the next two-year budget, they have also pointed to other state needs – and the desire of many Texans for lower taxes.
In fact, lawmakers have talked more about cutting taxes – including school property taxes – than providing a funding boost for schools. Lawmakers have already offered several tax reduction bills.
House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said he expects lawmakers to consider some changes in school funding. But he added that major revisions are unlikely while the state appeals the school finance decision to the Texas Supreme Court.
That order from state District Judge John Dietz found that the Legislature failed to meet its constitutional duty to adequately and fairly fund education for the state’s 5 million public school students. The decision came in a lawsuit filed by more than 600 school districts.
“We will do small fixes within the present system and possibly put some additional money in,” said Aycock, a former Killeen school board member. “Beyond that, any bigger decisions will wait until we see what the Supreme Court does.”
Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick, outgoing chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said this fall that he had an open mind on school funding. But he argued that it would be irresponsible to simply pump more money into schools without demanding results.
“We just can’t give them more money and let them keep doing the same things they’ve been doing,” Patrick said. “We need accountability. We need improvement.”
Patrick has also taken issue with claims that schools are still reeling from the unprecedented funding cuts of 2011. Those reductions, which prompted school districts to sue the state, were partially restored in 2013
“Our schools survived, and we did fine,” Patrick said.
While Republican leaders generally favor a wait-and-see approach depending on what the Supreme Court does, many Democrats contend it would be a mistake to do nothing in the upcoming session.
“There’s a lack of political will to do anything about our school finance system until we’re forced to do so by the court,” said Senate Democratic leader Kirk Watson of Austin. “Everybody knows our school finance system is broken, and continuing to do nothing about it is a disservice to the schoolchildren and taxpayers of Texas.”
Watson has filed a package of bills that would boost various funding sources for school districts, such as more help with transportation costs.
Representatives for school districts note that since the 2010-11 school year, funding per student in Texas has increased about half a percent a year, while school districts continue to enroll more low-income and limited-English students, who are more expensive to educate. They also insist there is now little waste in most districts.
“Nothing more can be cut from public education,” said Wayne Pierce, former superintendent of the Kaufman school district and current executive director of the Equity Center. The center represents nearly 700 low- and medium-wealth school districts.
Pierce said any effort to delay changes beyond the 2015-16 school year “will only hurt our schoolchildren.”
But conservative groups challenge the notion that student achievement will improve with additional funding.
“The current data does not show that increased resources lead to improvements in student performance,” argued former House Public Education Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, now a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
In a policy brief for the conservative think tank this fall, the former GOP lawmaker from Arlington said that after decades of investigation, “it is clear that how money is spent is much more important that how much is spent.”
Grusendorf noted that some prominent studies have found that class size and school funding – “a rallying cry of education reformers for decades” – are not significant indicators of student achievement.
But in Texas, results on the primary achievement test, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, have been stagnant in reading the past few years while school funding levels were down for many districts – and class sizes were up.
Many high school students have struggled on the five STAAR end-of-course exams. And that’s after lawmakers last year scrapped 10 course-exit tests – arguably the most difficult ones in the group.
SAT math scores for the Class of 2014 in Texas were the lowest in more than two decades. Reading scores were the second-lowest during that period on the college entrance exam.
State education officials attributed the drop to an increase in the number of minority students taking the exam. Minorities generally perform worse than white students on standardized achievement tests.
But in California, students outperformed Texas students by big margins – 15 points in math and 22 points in reading. Student demographics are similar in both states. And California had more low-income students take the SAT than Texas this year.
One difference, though, was that California spent about $800 more per student than Texas. The Lone Star State was in the bottom five among the 50 states and District of Columbia, according to figures compiled by the National Education Association, a teacher group that closely tracks spending.
Clay Robison of the Texas State Teachers Association said lawmakers should recognize that inadequate funding is having an impact. For one thing, he said, larger class sizes make teaching more difficult.
“Texas is enrolling more and more lower-income and limited-English students at the same time many of our elementary classrooms continue to exceed class size limits,” he said. “The problem is that those students need more attention. But that is hard to do when you have larger classes.”