Law & Courts

How Fair Is the Proposed Overhaul to Texas School Spending?

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 14, 2015 3 min read
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Texas would increase its state aid to public schools by roughly $225 on average over the next two years, but the state’s traditional cost-of-education index that tends to favor large urban districts would be eliminated, under a proposal released by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Republican and the lead K-12 budget writer in the Lone Star State’s House of Representatives.

An analysis of Aycock’s plan from the Legislative Budget Board also reveals interesting tidbits about which types of districts would see the biggest benefits.

When he introduced his plan, contained in House Bill 1759, Aycock said that legislators shouldn’t wait for an upcoming Texas Supreme Court decision to overhaul the state’s school funding system. That’s a reference to the lawsuit brought by the Texas Taxpayers & Student Fairness Coalition, a group of districts and others who claimed that the state’s $5.4 billion cut to K-12 in 2011 was unconstitutional. District Court Judge John Dietz ruled in favor of the plaintiffs last August, and the state’s attorney general at the time, Greg Abbott, who’s now the governor, appealed Dietz’s decision to the state’s top court.

The state restored $3.4 billion to public schools in 2013—the Texas Legislature only meets every other year, and therefore approves biennial budgets.

Here’s a key section of the budget board’s analysis that looks at how the Aycock proposal would impact various districts based on size, type, and wealth on a per-pupil basis:

There’s a “hold harmless” provision in the bill, meaning districts wouldn’t actually lose funds, and therefore everybody wins, so to speak. The biggest gap is between the states’ 30 districts that have 25,000 to 49,999 students enrolled, which would see a $174 per-student aid increase in fiscal 2017, and the state’s 244 districts with 500 to 999 students enrolled, which would enjoy a $314 aid increase in that same fiscal year. In case you’re keeping score, the latter increase is 80 percent larger than the former.

But then check out how districts fare based on their property wealth. The state’s 72 poorest districts by property wealth actually get the smallest increase, roughly $120 in increases per year over the next two years, while “districts subject to current law recapture,” a reference to the state’s wealthiest districts that must send a portion of their property taxes to the state, get the largest increases of roughly $330 per year over the next two years.

‘Not Horribly Bad’

I called up, Jennifer Schiess, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners who used to work on school finance in the Texas Legislature, to talk about Aycock’s plan. (She also wrote a blog post for Bellwether about the proposal.) The state’s cost-of-education index I mentioned before, the one that Aycock wants to get rid of, was created in the 1990s but hasn’t been updated since, she told me. Money traditionally earmarked for that index will go into overall state aid.

She gave the plan pretty lukewarm praise overall in terms of how it addressed the thorny problem of equitable funding for Texas schools—in his 2014 ruling, Dietz said the current system is not equitable by the standard of the Texas Constitution.

“This isn’t negative on equity. It just doesn’t move very far,” Schiess said, adding that the plan is “not horribly bad.”

And what about the politics? Schiess said that while “I don’t think the legislature is anticipating that Dietz’s ruling will be upheld in its entirety” by the state Supreme Court, it’s also unclear what pieces of Dietz’s ruling would be tossed out by the state’s top judges, even if the Supreme Court did overturn it. If you read her blog post, you’ll also see that Schiess is skeptical that Aycock’s plan is good enough to merit the political capital it would take to pass it.

One more thing: The “hold harmless” provision only lasts for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. After that, districts could see significant changes in their per-student funding.

Schiess added that, because of the way charter school funding in Texas works, it’s not surprising to see that charters see a particularly large increase in Aycock’s plan.

Photo: Casey Smith, center, holds a family Bible as his grandfather, Texas state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, takes the oath of office with his fellow legislators on Jan. 13 in Austin, Texas. Eric Gay/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.