March 3, 2005, 10:03PM
EDITORIAL BOARD, HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Education bills proposed in Austin would kill Robin Hood without providing adequate alternative funding to meet public schools' crying needs.
The Texas House Public Education Committee's party-line vote to approve an education bill made legislative leaders' priorities very clear: Property tax relief trumps adequate public school funding — a surefire formula for prolonging and worsening our state's poor academic record.
This week, education committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, pushed through his committee a bill that recycles aspects of failed funding schemes and invites another court challenge for failing to meet the constitutional requirement for adequate funding.
The legislation includes some progressive features. It would require spending for teacher pay incentives and bonuses for instructors who improve student performance at low-rated schools. It would also replace the high school TAKS tests with comprehensive end-of-course exams.
What it does not do is put Texas on the road to an equitable, adequately funded education system, the core issue that led state District Judge John Dietz to set an October deadline for lawmakers to fix the school finance system or face a court-ordered halt of state school funding. The state has appealed that judgment to the Texas Supreme Court.
Houston-area school superintendents told Chronicle editors that half or more of their students are poor and at risk of failing; some are homeless; many succumb to the temptation of the labor market before graduating; and they speak dozens of languages. Vital school employees — bus drivers, cafeteria staff, custodians and clerks — work for subsistence wages. The superintendents said they can't afford adequate pre-school programs. Consequently, some children enter school without being able to state their name and address.
HB 2's problem is that it would devote all revenue increases from a companion tax bill to property tax relief. Other revenues would increase public school funding a paltry $3 billion or so over the next two years, a figure critics say barely exceeds inflation.
The tax bill unveiled Wednesday would raise nearly $11 billion in additional revenue by broadening the state sales tax base and regressively hiking the rate; boosting the cigarette tax; increasing the motor vehicle tax; and replacing the franchise tax with a 1.1 percent payroll tax. Such a tax would dampen job growth and kill companies that have lots of workers but low profits or losses. The added taxes would allow a one-third reduction in the state's school property tax cap.
The bill does not address JudgeDietz's ruling that state property tax caps amount to an unconstitutional state property tax. If the judge found the $1.50 cap illegal, a lower cap would be equally illegal, making it a sitting duck for more litigation.
State Rep. Scott Hochberg was one of the three Democratic education committee members who voted against the bill. He says it targets almost no money to schools with high dropout rates, low-performing students from impoverished households or schools with bilingual populations.
At the same time, phasing out the Robin Hood interdistrict sharing would turn back the clock to the days when property-rich Texas school districts had more than enough money, while poor districts starved. HB 2 would produce a 52 percent increase in revenue for the state's richest big city district, Highland Park in Dallas, while the largest district, Houston, would realize only a 5.5 percent rise in state funding. The education committee attempted to soften the blow with a gradual phase-out of Robin Hood, but that amounts to nothing more than a slow-motion return to inequitable school finance.
No one likes paying high property taxes, but allowing Texas to stumble on with an inferior, underfunded public school system undermines the state's economic and social future. With an easing of the state budget crunch, now is the time for our elected officials to stop playing the easy game of tax cut politics. They must face up to the responsibility of providing all Texas children an opportunity for a good education, not just those lucky enough to reside in a rich school district.