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Texas won't find a good school funding system this way | Editorials | Fort Worth, Arlington, ...

Texas won't find a good school funding system this way

Posted Tuesday, Mar. 29, 2011 /

The hunt for education spending cuts is not going well in Austin. House and Senate committees have put proposals on the table, but nothing that's acceptable so far.

The Senate, led by Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro of Plano, started out with $9.3 billion less money available for public schools than what would be required under current finance formulas.

The first step seemed easy enough. Budgeters told Shapiro and a finance subcommittee to lower spending by just $4 billion. The rest of the $9.3 billion presumably would come from the ever-elusive "somewhere."

Even at that, the plan offered up by Shapiro and the subcommittee is not good enough. While it achieves the $4 billion target for spending cuts, it doesn't fix the inequities that have bedeviled many school districts since the Legislature adopted the spending formula in 2006.

If changes must be made -- and, given the state's $27 billion budget shortfall, they must -- the first thing to do is to fix what's wrong with the system. School funding must provide a level playing field for all students.

Shapiro's reasoning for not doing so is disappointing: "This is not an equity bill," she told the Finance Committee. "This is a bill dealing with cuts in the system."

Some of the committee members disagreed. "When we talk about the provision of education to children," said Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, "equity is always an issue."

The 2006 school spending law froze school districts at per-student funding levels in effect at the time. Some more money has been added since then, notably a one-time $1.8 billion injection of federal stimulus money for teacher pay raises two years ago.

But the finance formula still holds some districts back while giving others significantly more money. For example, data given to the Finance Committee show that, before the planned cuts, the Northwest school district would enjoy a maintenance and operations funding advantage of $1,828 more per weighted student than the Arlington district and $1,748 more per weighted student than the Birdville district.

After the formula fixes and other changes pushed by Shapiro, Northwest would still be $1,380 per weighted student ahead. That's roughly $690,000 a year more for a typical elementary school -- enough, for example, to pay more to lure teachers away from Arlington or Birdville or almost any other district in Tarrant County.

But as Seliger said, "The aspiration that we have for children in the state of Texas is for equal access to education and the advantages it provides to young people."

On the House side, budget writers are still looking for $7.8 billion in education spending cuts or an equal amount of money from "somewhere."

At a March 9 Appropriations Committee meeting, Education Commissioner Robert Scott commented on the corner legislators seem to be backed into.

Pending cuts could leave school districts unable to reach the education goals -- increasingly rigorous standards and pressure to reduce dropout rates -- that the legislators have prescribed. Even higher property tax rates won't get them there, because state law would limit them to only about half the increase needed to maintain current spending levels.

That and the equity issues make the state's school finance system vulnerable to another lawsuit.

"I expected litigation last summer and haven't seen it yet," Scott said.

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