Sunday, January 23, 2005

First Things First on School Funding

By Kent Grusendorf
Special to the Star-Telegram

Once again, the Texas school finance system has been found unconstitutional.

Mark Yudof, chancellor of the University of Texas System, said in the early 1990s that school finance is "like a Russian novel -- it takes a long time, is very dull and boring, and everyone dies in the end."

Harvey Kronberg, editor of the online Quorum Report, recently said of school finance, "There really isn't any solution that's risk-free, or even low-risk."

There are no easy answers to school finance -- just tough choices.

I know we can do it right in 2005. Virtually every state leader has acknowledged the importance of the issue, and it is at the top of the legislative agenda.

We have thousands of dedicated, hard-working educators in Texas. They have made tremendous strides in recent years. We must give them the support and freedom necessary to do what is best for all Texas students.

I believe that we will put more money into public education. I believe that legislators will make the tough decisions necessary to solve the problem. Nothing we do is more important than the education of youth.

However, we owe it to the public to do first things first.

During the past 18 months, we have heard from hundreds of state and national experts on this subject. We have taken endless hours of testimony.

Most of the discussions have been about money: How much is enough? What is adequate funding? The focus has been on money rather than results and the tough choices necessary to attain the best results.

Before we decide how much new money we will put into education, we must first examine how the $30 billion we are currently spending is being allocated.

Are we getting maximum benefit from each dollar spent? Are we receiving $30 billion worth of results? Until we answer such questions, it is inappropriate to calculate how much additional money is needed.

School superintendents statewide are fairly unanimous in voicing the need for additional funding. A minority of educators, however, tell me that we need to spend our current resources more wisely and that more money should not be allocated until greater efficiency is attained. Business leaders tend to send a similar message.

All three groups are right.

How much is enough? During the past decade, we have increased educational spending in Texas significantly. In fact, when the first Edgewood decision came down, we were spending an average of about $3,800 per student. Today we spend well over $8,000 per child.

The truth is that there will never be enough. Regardless of how much we increase spending, there will always be a demand for more. There will always be another good program, another wonderful vendor, another potential employee or consultant, always something else to do or try.

Individuals and institutions must make tough choices in order to allocate scarce resources in the most effective manner to achieve the best possible results. Allocate scarce resources effectively, and you will find success. Allocate them poorly, and you will suffer failure.

Our school finance study has found that some schools are doing a much better job of resource allocation than others. Some are spending most of their education dollars wisely to produce classroom results; others are wasting too much on administrative expenses or just making poor decisions.

In a statewide study of school efficiency last year, Lori Taylor of Texas A&M University found that, if all school districts were as efficient as the most efficient district in Texas, we would save approximately $1.5 billion statewide. If all were as efficient as the Arlington district, we would save about $400 million statewide.

Conversely, if all districts were as inefficient as West Orange-Cove (one of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit for more money), we would be required to spend another $4 billion statewide.

Recently, an Austin judge ruled that certain parts of the school finance system have created a de facto statewide property tax. I believe this is a valid argument that probably will be upheld by the Texas Supreme Court.

However, the remainder of his ruling was significantly more activist in nature. He defied all historical data and ruled that the Legislature should appropriate more money for education.

I believe that we will put additional money into our schools, but I do not believe that this is a decision for a Travis County judge to make.

During the past few years, some school districts have spent millions of dollars -- money intended for the education of kids -- on legal fees to sue the state. In effect, the districts in the recent school case are using taxpayer dollars to sue the taxpayers for more money. In the opinion of many, those millions should have been spent on classroom efforts, not courtroom efforts.

In addition to waste at the local level, we have some built-in inefficiencies driven by the state. For example, the Wilmer-Hutchins district superintendent was sent home on Nov. 1 after being indicted the previous week. However, he was sent home on paid leave.

State law requires that an educator remain on the payroll until all due process is afforded. Districts can waste thousands of classroom dollars and spend months trying to get someone off the payroll.

Keeping an ineffective educator on the payroll -- administrator or teacher -- is an injustice to students and is a built-in statewide inefficiency.

We grossly underpay our best teachers. However, there will never be enough money to pay every teacher what the best teacher is worth. Great teachers are frustrated when they receive the same money and respect as someone across the hall who is not doing as good a job.

We lose many of our best teachers to the private sector or to school administration because we treat them all the same. Few other professions are treated this way, with the best and the worst all receiving an annual step increase. We must find a fair and equitable way to reward those who are doing a great job.

During a hearing in Austin, one panel of experts told us that it would be wiser to put $1 billion of new money into performance incentives than to put an additional $10 billion into the status quo. Spending more money to buy the same thing that we are currently purchasing may go a long way to purchase votes, but it is not at all beneficial for our students.

We must revamp the system and empower local educators to make common-sense decisions that will benefit their students.

We must have greater transparency and financial accountability to ensure that taxpayer money is spent wisely to benefit Texas students.

We must establish clear consequences for failing schools to ensure that every Texas student has a fair opportunity for success.

And we must make the tough choices necessary to reward success.

We must focus on the results that we want to achieve and spend our scarce resources in a manner that will achieve those results.

That requires tough choices by the Legislature, and it also will require tough choices by school administrators statewide. Texas students are just too important for us to accept anything less.
Kent Grusendorf is chairman of the House Public Education Committee.
Republican Kent Grusendorf has been an Arlington state representative since 1987.

© 2005 Star-Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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