The fault lines that will define efforts to improve the state's system of funding education came into sharp focus Wednesday as a Senate panel began studying how to improve the "efficiency" of public schools in Texas.
The 11-member Senate Education Committee and a hearing room full of education professionals, lobbyists and school and minority advocates generally agreed that the Legislature should scrap the way it divvies up the more than $40 billion of state money now spent on public schools.
“You’ve basically gotta blow it up,” said Ray Freeman, deputy executive director of the Equity Center, which represents property-poor school districts.
There was little such agreement, however, on what to do instead.
Conservative lawmakers, expressing exasperation with suggestions that the state isn't spending enough on schools, have begun searching for a system of benchmarks that would tie state funds to how schools perform, not primarily how many students they enroll.
Educators and advocates from small schools and poor districts fear the stage is being set to sacrifice struggling schools on the altar of "efficiency" and argue lawmakers should close the wide gaps between districts before using money to reward or punish districts.
“Looking at the numbers, you know, 2015 was the most money that the state of Texas has ever spent in the history of the state on a per-student basis and we still have people coming and complaining we’re not spending enough, and it’s just so frustrating,” said state Sen. Van Taylor, a Plano Republican. “When’s enough enough?”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick instructed the panel to re-examine school finance before a May state Supreme Court decision that upheld the school finance system as constitutional but urged lawmakers to overhaul a process it described as flawed and byzantine.
In what could be the only hearing on the issue, Wednesday's meeting gravitated toward the points of friction that have long bedeviled such explorations.
School officials, Latino groups and some Democrats on the panel questioned the GOP focus on efficiency, saying ranking schools by academic and financial performance is fraught with inaccuracy and inequity unless the state first closes vast funding gaps among districts or increases funding for schools.
“I believe it would be very difficult to fairly and accurately create and maintain a system in which all districts would be adequately measured, compared and grouped, and I believe previous attempts to create these comparison groups have been unreliable at best,” said Johnny Hill, assistant superintendent for business, financial and auxiliary services for Lake Travis schools who testified on behalf of the Fast Growth Schools Coalition and the Texas Association of School Business Officials.
But the panel’s Republican members said finding a way to tie funding to performance needs to be explored now.
“It’s all about productivity,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, the Friendswood Republican who chairs the panel. “And I don’t think we’re looking at cutting any spending, but we’ve got to do as well as we can with the money we have.”
Officials from several companies, and one university researcher, testified about ranking systems they have developed to compare the money schools spend to student academic performance. They argued that public education overall would improve if lower-performing school districts were required to mimic the best practices of the most efficient school districts.
Some lawmakers and educators pushed back, saying it would be unfair to place the same expectations for academic and financial performance on smaller, poorer districts with needier students than larger, wealthier ones with less poverty.
State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said he wasn’t sure how lawmakers could feasibly require a tiny district like Fort Davis in West Texas to mimic the practices of a larger, better-funded district. It has had to cut its UIL program because of lack of funding, he said.
The education panel will publish official recommendations ahead of the 2017 legislative session.