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James Frank is swimming in dangerous waters — another way to say he’s talking about policy in a way that might seem politically risky.
Frank, a Republican state representative from Wichita Falls, wrote to his constituents last month about school finance and used these phrases along the way: statewide commercial property tax, consolidated funding districts, and statewide property tax.
He’s got two points to make. Frank says taxpayers in Texas spend about $10,750 per public school student in federal, state and local money. He thinks that’s probably enough, although he knows that is a point of contention in the Legislature. It’s an economic tug-of-war: Some think that’s too much per student, some think it’s not enough.
His questions about how the money for schools is raised are provocative, too. Like other current and past Texas lawmakers, Frank is frustrated by the rich-and-poor divisions in the state’s schools, and he thinks it could be simplified by distributing the money from one place.
He was prompted by the Texas Supreme Court’s recent decision on school finance that said, in short, that the state’s method of paying for public education is screwed up — but not unconstitutional. The court didn’t order lawmakers to fix it, which is what Frank and his colleagues were expecting.
Still, it set them to thinking.
Instead of raising money from local property taxes and from the state and federal governments, Frank has been pondering ways to have all of the money come through the state, distributed, as he puts it, “strictly based on the number of students that they are educating and the educational needs of those students.”
That’s where he gets into those three phrases — three alternatives for a new school finance system — that have been batted around in education circles for years.
Texas voters — prompted by their legislators — made a state property tax unconstitutional decades ago. Among other things, that means the state can’t set a single property tax rate that applies to everyone and that raises money for all of Texas’ public schools. With more than 1,000 school districts, there are more than 1,000 property tax rates.
The local tab varies, depending on the value of real estate, the number of kids in schools, their educational needs and so on.
The price and quality of public schools vary greatly in Texas, depending on where you live.
Easy remedies have eluded Texas lawmakers for a long, long time.
The statewide commercial property tax idea would leave local districts with residential properties in their tax bases and put everything else into a statewide group taxed at a statewide rate. Like the other options Frank mentioned, this one is full of pluses and minuses. It would be easy to understand, but many businesses don’t want to be put in a separate class from homeowners, for fear that it would be easier to raise taxes on them if all of those homes full of voters were pulled out of the mix.
They prefer the protection of an all-for-one, one-for-all approach.
The consolidated funding districts would redraw school district lines — for financial purposes only — to try to ease the fiscal differences between rich and poor districts. Past runs at consolidation prompted fights over local controls and local priorities, like whether and when to build school buildings and how much to pay teachers. It’s possible, but also runs the risk of trading an old set of political problems with a new set.
The statewide property tax would leave the districts intact while taking all of the real estate in Texas and taxing it to pay for public schools. It has the advantage of making the rate the same for everyone, and the political disadvantage of making state officials responsible for setting the tax rates that so reliably anger voters.
All of those ideas share one political shortcoming with the current one: Taxpayer money from places with a lot of valuable property gets used in places without that kind of wealth.
The current system requires the richer ones to send money to the state to share with the others; so do the various statewide taxes Frank, among others, is talking about.
“Do I think we’re going to do something?” he said in an interview. “No. But I think we’re going to talk about it.”
He’s working on it, he says, to make sense of the system in his own head. It’s complicated. “School finance is so complex, the schools have full-time people trying to maximize their revenues,” he says. “We have the school systems bobbing for dollars.”
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