Tuesday, February 08, 2005

School Finance Plan's Equity Hit


Jenny LaCoste-Caputo
Express-News Staff Writer

The school finance plan House Republican leaders unveiled last week would result in a windfall for a handful of Texas school districts while the majority of districts would have to settle for a modest boost in spending that barely keeps up with inflation.

The House Public Education committee begins debate today on the plan, which local school leaders have criticized, claiming it would widen the spending gap between rich and poor students.

"The question I have is, how equitable is this?" said John Folks, superintendent for Northside School District. "They're still not putting enough money into the system. The more money you put in, the more equity we might achieve."

In Bexar County, property-rich Alamo Heights School District would get the biggest spending increase.

Per-pupil spending would jump more than 8 percent there, while Bexar County's poorer districts, among them Edgewood and San Antonio, would see a 3 percent bump, according to legislative calculations attached to the bill.

Highland Park, an affluent Dallas enclave, would get a 52 percent funding increase, to $8,948 per student from $5,883, according to the proposal's funding formula.

The 35 top-ranked districts — those slated to receive the biggest spending boosts — fall into the state's property-wealthy category.

They include Seminole, near Midland, which would get a 21 percent increase in per-student spending, and Carthage in East Texas and Calhoun County on the coast near Corpus Christi, which both would see more than a 13 percent bump.

"It is very evident that (the plan) is very rich on property tax relief," said Richard Middleton, superintendent for North East School District. "I think it's a retreat from equity."

The bill, introduced by House Education Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, would reduce local property taxes by as much as a third and increase state education spending by $1.5 billion.

It also would sharply scale back the state's school finance system — dubbed "Robin Hood" by critics — in which property-rich districts send money back to the state to help fund property-poor districts.

When Grusendorf, R-Arlington, unveiled the plan Thursday, he called it the state's most equitable ever because the state would pay a greater share of the funding so districts would rely less on local property taxes.

But while every school district would see an increase in funding, the biggest boosts would go to wealthy districts.

"I know everybody complains about Robin Hood, but if you don't have a Robin Hood situation you have a Prince John and Sheriff of Nottingham situation," said John Walch, assistant superintendent for Edgewood School District. "Money should be based on student needs, not on how nice their neighborhoods are."

The proposal calls for reducing local property taxes that fund schools from a current cap of $1.50 per $100 property valuation to $1 per $100 valuation. School districts could raise an additional 10 cents for local use at a rate of 2 cents per year.

The $1.5 billion in state funding would provide increases ranging from 3 percent to 8 percent for most districts.

Alamo Heights Superintendent Jerry Christian said he likes the lawmakers' approach conceptually, because as local property taxes rise, the district would see some of the benefit from those taxes.

The challenge, Christian said, is to reach a reasonable standard of education equity across rich and poor districts.

"We want to make sure it helps not just us, but everyone," Christian said. "I'm encouraged to see the legislators are being creative."

Staff Writer Jeanne Russell contributed to this report.
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