Texas Legislature 2019

Analysis: You can't fix Texas school finance until you agree on the meaning of "fix"

Changing the way public schools are funded is hard even when everyone agrees on the problem. But Texas lawmakers will first have to figure out if they're aiming to lower property taxes, increase spending on public education — or just change how the money is distributed.

Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister, chairman of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, listens to a commission member at the panel's second meeting on Feb. 8, 2018.

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other lawmakers have promised they will tackle “school finance” in the 2019 legislative session, but it’s already clear that not everyone is talking about the same thing. Those folks are all signaling an urgency, but their priorities differ:

Property tax relief?

Leveling the state and local shares of public education spending?

More money for schools?

Some want more than one of those answers. Some have other goals. This much is clear: They don’t have the money on hand to do much of anything with even one of those questions. That raises another question: How will they pay for whatever they decide to do?

The problems are immense, and the political stars aren’t yet aligned. They’ll have a couple of studies — maybe more — analyzing the problems. There’s a school finance commission studying the issues here; it’s set to vote out a draft this week and to have a final report ready when lawmakers come to town. And Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, whose office has the best and most legally enforceable numbers in this thorny financial puzzle, is also poised to make some recommendations.

School finance in Texas comes around every decade or two, as each set of reforms gradually slips out of balance. That said, two ingredients that have preceded the past big realignments don’t exist here.

First off, there isn’t a court ruling that says school finance is so out of whack that some of the state’s students are being cheated out of the education the state constitution guarantees them.

Threats of court interference in public schools have always been sufficient to force reforms, however temporary. That hasn’t happened this time around, however: In its latest ruling, a little more than two years ago, the Texas Supreme Court concluded the state’s school finance formulas were a complete mess, but not foul enough to be called unconstitutional.

The Legislature didn’t do anything to fix them.

The other common way to force big reforms through is to get a mandate from voters. George W. Bush’s 1994 campaign for governor provided an example. Bush’s push for reforms to education, juvenile justice, welfare and civil justice were repeated and repeated enough that his victory over Gov. Ann Richards was read by voters and lawmakers alike as a mandate, a set of marching orders.

His campaign agenda became the legislative agenda as soon as he took office.

That hasn’t really happened this year either, at least not in the same way. Bush’s win came as part of a Republican wave in then-President Bill Clinton’s first mid-term election. Abbott’s reelection was a mixed bag, overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s first mid-term. As usual, Republicans won all of the statewide offices, but by smaller margins than they had come to expect, and at a time when Democrats were picking up seats in the state’s congressional delegation and both houses of the Texas Legislature.

So state leaders will start 2019’s school finance effort with no court ruling to force their hand and no electoral mandate to guide it. That leaves those reports, and the governor’s ability to rally lawmakers around a politically prickly subject.

He’s going to have to figure out how those three questions get answered. His initial proposal favors property tax relief over school spending. It would raise the state’s share of public education spending, while leaving local property taxpayers with the larger burden.

Even if it’s possible to line up the priorities, the numbers are daunting. Local taxpayers will be on the hook for 55.5 percent of the cost of public education in 2019, according to estimates by the Legislative Budget Board. The state will be responsible for 35 percent, and the federal government will make up the rest.

Bringing the state and local numbers in line would cost the state around $5.7 billion annually at current spending levels. That would knock down two of the questions, but it would require a price-sensitive Legislature to raise taxes, create new taxes, remove some exemptions from current taxes or find some other magical new source of money. And simply bringing those numbers into balance wouldn’t satisfy the folks whose priority is to increase what Texas spends educating its kids.

It’s hard to sell tax bills or other “revenue enhancements” unless politicians and their voters feel like they’re getting something better in return. And it’s hard to do that unless you can get everyone to agree on the problem they’re trying to solve — through court orders, electoral mandates or persuasive leadership.

It might be about public education. It might be about property taxes. Maybe it’s about the state’s financial responsibilities.

At the moment, it depends on who you ask.

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