Texplainer

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Today’s Texplainer question was inspired by reader Jennifer Cross.

Hey, Texplainer: How much has the state contributed to education funding over the past several years, and how has that affected property taxes? 

This question is familiar to anyone involved in state politics these days. Texas leaders say property taxes are too high. School leaders say those taxes have gone up because the state isn't funding public education like it used to. Here are the facts:

During the 2008 fiscal year, the state covered roughly 48.5 percent of the cost of public education, according to the Legislative Budget Board. By the 2019 fiscal year, it will support closer to 38 percent. 

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Are local school districts raising taxes because the state isn’t picking up its share? The districts would say yes — but the state is not the only reason school property taxes are rising. 

“The state budget does not dictate the actual amounts that local taxable property values increase or decrease — or the tax rates,” said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “Those property values are determined by the local appraisal districts and the local ISDs set their tax rates based on those locally developed property values.”

But if the state's contribution to public education falls short, school districts looking for money most often look to property tax revenue to make up for it. 

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In 2008, state and local districts were contributing about $18 billion each to fund K-12 public education. By 2017, the Texas population had grown significantly, but the state’s share of education had only grown slightly — to a little more than $19 billion. Meanwhile, local school districts’ shares had grown to roughly $27 billion.

“As your property tax collections go up, you reduce the need for state aid. But it’s a policy choice for the Legislature," said Ellen Williams, an Austin-based consultant and attorney for several education associations. 

In the 2017 legislative session, the Texas House overwhelmingly passed a school finance measure aimed at addressing this issue. State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, one of the authors of House Bill 21, told The Texas Tribune that the measure would have increased the state’s share of the cost of education and eased the pressure on property taxes.

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The measure never became law, however. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick decried the plan as a "Ponzi scheme" and senators attempted to tack on provisions for a "private school choice" program that would have subsidized private school tuition and homeschooling for kids with disabilities. 

The issue of state versus local funding for public education doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Ahead of the March 6 primaries, Mike Collier, a Democrat running for lieutenant governor, blamed the Legislature for rising property taxes since “funding from the state for public education is going down.” This past weekend, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, a Republican, drew statewide attention for making similar claims — a declaration first reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that angered several Republican senators who represent the North Texas area.

“Let's set the record straight. Local property tax rates are set by locally elected officials. Period,” the Tarrant County state Senate delegation wrote in a letter responding to Whitley. “Local property tax collections dictate the state’s share of education funding – not vice versa.”

Those Senators do have a point: Overall spending in the current budget is up significantly — $5.8 billion more than it was in the previous two-year budget, according to the Legislative Budget Board. However, the student population is growing and districts have to contend with inflation. And the state’s share is definitely decreasing — sliding from 44 percent of the total Foundation School Program spending in 2016 to an estimated 38 percent in 2019. 

The bottom line: While it’s true that local school boards, county commissioners and city council members levy property taxes, one of the reasons you might see your tax rates increase is because the state is contributing a smaller share of funding for K-12 public education and local school districts.

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