Texas Public Schools Face Funding Crisis

By Bonnie Longnion, PhD, trustee, Humble ISD
and Michael Hinojosa, EdD, superintendent, Hays Consolidated ISD

Texas public schools, with the support of the Legislature and local school boards, have come a long way since 1993, when the current school finance and accountability systems were enacted:

•Texas now has one of the most equitable funding systems in the country, a fact that was confirmed by Steve Smith of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Spending per student has increased substantially in the last 10 years.

•Student performance has improved markedly. In 1994, 55.6 percent of students passed all tests taken; in 2001, 82.1 percent passed all tests.

•Several independent observers have rated the Texas Accountability System the best in the nation.
It is the state/local district partnership that has gotten public schools to this level. Together we have done the right things for the schoolchildren of Texas.

But the local share of the partnership is tapped out. Local taxpayers have increasingly shouldered more of the burden. Now the state share of funding for public schools is at a 50-year low, and there is no place left to go for additional resources.
School districts across the state are facing a funding crisis. They are hitting the wall everywhere, and they’ve got nowhere else to turn.
Districts have already cut operational spending, administrative costs, and personnel. Now they are beginning to consider which educational programs can be eliminated.

A frequent allegation is that districts are bloated with administrators and frivolous expenditures. For the record, only 4.5 percent of all district expenditures are spent on central office administration; 30 percent of a district’s budget goes toward maintaining or building school facilities; 65 percent of the expenditures go directly to teacher salaries, classroom equipment, and pupil services, such as libraries and counseling programs.

Doing nothing is not an option. If the state does not contribute more, local school districts have no choice but to cut into educational programs.

Programs that will go on the chopping block first include:

•Fine arts programs, such as choir, band, orchestra, art, and drama.

•Student support systems, such as counselors, nurses, social workers, etc.

•Career and technology programs that prepare students for work.

•Continued improvements in technology such as classroom application, and student/data management programs.

•Other elective subjects, such as journalism. Co- and extra-curricular programs.

Since the Legislature rewrote the Education Code in 1995, more than 60 unfunded or only partially funded mandates have been placed on school districts, and that number doesn’t include agency rules that often result from legislation. These requirements drain districts of resources such as time, personnel, and, of course, money. The issue is not whether it is appropriate for the Legislature to pass mandates for school districts; the issue is the strain state mandates put on already over-extended school budgets.

School districts are facing financial crisis. Two examples illustrate the steps some districts have been forced to take:

•Because personnel-related expenses constitute 80-90 percent of districts’ budgets, some districts that have cut all other expenses and maximized all other efficiencies are going to lenders to secure loans to meet payroll expenses this year.

•Because districts do not have or cannot keep local resources sufficient to purchase $60,000 school buses, some have been forced to close down their transportation systems or to transport children on old, dilapidated school buses – an untenable choice.

Cutting programs and people, compromising the safety of children, and jeopardizing payrolls should not be the answer!

Student achievement in Texas is improving, but critical and challenging work remains before the public schools of Texas. This positive momentum and investment in our state’s future requires continued investment of local and state resources. There are a lot of options to tinker with the state’s complicated finance system, and there are pluses and minuses to the various delivery mechanisms; but the bottom line is this: The State of Texas must increase the fiscal capacity of the school finance system.

The financial crisis facing school districts is not due to the school finance formulas; it’s due to the system’s inability to expand its revenue-generating capacity.

Most school board members and educators are not tax experts, but we are voters. We will support revenue measures that generate additional capacity for real state dollars. Our school finance system is constitutional. With the correct amount of additional state funding, it can remain operational and practical.

The burden for providing relief rests with the Legislature.