Time has come again to study way we pay for our schools

Public education in Texas has been shaped by reform since birth. In fact, one of the cata1ysts that fueled the Texas Revolution was the charge that Mexico hadn’t done enough to provide Texans with public schools.

Today, we have grown from a young nation with 30,000 Texans into the second largest state with nearly 21 million people. Our population soared 23 percent in the last ten years alone, spurring demographers to point out that 3.9 million new Texans counted in the last census rival the 1990 populations of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio combined.

Growth amid changing dynamics mean the time has come again to look for new ways to pay for public education. Since many newcomers may not know what state leaders have gone through to find an equitable way to finance our schools, it is vitally important for everyone to understand the difficult job it has been.

The Texas Constitution, adopted in 1876, established public schools in state law and requires the Legislature to provide for “an efficient system of public education.” It is the word “efficient” that raised the issue of equity in school finance that lawmakers still struggle with today.

The first major overhaul of our school system came with the Gilmer-Aikin Act – passed in 1949 after a heated debate. The new law created a foundation program to help equalize state aid. Opponents called the proposals “communist” or “fascist,” and the House Education Committee held the first all-night committee hearing in state history to take public testimony. But perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Gilmer-Aikin Act are two concepts that remain at the core of equalization today – equity for students and equity for taxpayers.

School finance changed little until a federal district court declared the system unconstitutional in a 1971 landmark decision in Rodriguez v. San Antonio. Plaintiffs argued that children who lived in communities with low property wealth were treated unfairly because the highest tax rates couldn’t begin to approach the funding the wealthiest communities could raise with much lower tax rates.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision in 1973, ruling school finance was a state issue and not a federal matter. But the stage was set. The struggle for equity would continue for the next generation.

The mid-1980s, brought sweeping reform of the Texas public school system and the momentum for equity increased when a group of poor districts filed a lawsuit in state court – Edgewood v. Kirby. Plaintiffs cited discrimination and charged it violated the constitutional requirement for an “efficient and free public school system.”

In 1987, the court agreed and ordered the Legislature to create a more equitable funding mechanism. The case reached the Texas Supreme Court on appeal in 1989. It ruled with the plaintiffs and ordered a new plan for the next school year.
Four consecutive and contentious special sessions followed before lawmakers finally approved a bill that would increase school funding more than $500 million. But the plaintiffs weren’t satisfied. Three months later, the district court agreed and ordered another plan within the year.

Once again, the Texas Supreme Court heard the case on appeal. And once again, found the system unconstitutional. It gave the Legislature a little more than two months to come up with another idea. Under a tight deadline and serious threats to cut off state finances, lawmakers created County Education Districts to consolidate funding.

Within the year, the high court found that unconstitutional too, labeled the new districts unlawful taxing units, and demanded another plan. In short order, the Legislature hammered together a new multi-option school finance plan just three days shy of the court-ordered deadline that set a top tax rate and required high-wealth districts to share with low-wealth schools. A number of poor school districts appealed that plan too, But this time, the Texas Supreme Court ruled it constitutional.

Recently, a number of wealthy districts filed a new suit in state court arguing the current system is a state property tax and violates the law. The court disagreed – noting a majority of school districts would have to reach the top tax rate to support that argument. The court also said as long as districts were giving optional homestead exemptions and spending funds on activities other than academics, they were voluntarily taxing at the top rate – and not due to any state requirement.

Nonetheless, the challenge was clear. It is time once again to thoroughly reexamine the way Texas pays for public education and look at alternatives that will meet constitutional muster.

Speaker Pete Lancy and I have appointed a Joint Select Committee on Public School Finance for that very purpose. A skilled group of legislators and seasoned public members led by Sen. Teel Bivins of Amarillo and Rep. Paul Sadler of Henderson have been asked to consider all of the equity issues that govern school finance and revenue resources that fund it, including the property tax system. Public hearings will be held throughout the state and I hope all Texans will seriously consider taking part in the latest debate.

History has shown that just being dissatisfied with the way we find our schools isn’t going to change it. We must all work together now to make sure all children are getting the opportunities they need and deserve with a school funding system that is not only constitutional, but fair.