Texas schools are standing on the edge of a fiscal cliff that could cause 176 districts to lose state aid if lawmakers do not find a fix.
The school funding crisis was created in 2006 when state legislators slashed school property taxes by one-third. Not wanting to cost districts teachers and programs, they devised a plan to fill the whole they created. The plan was centered on something called ASATR: Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction. It essentially guaranteed districts would not have to decrease funding per student.
But, in 2011, Texas was staring down a $27 Billion shortfall in the state budget. As a short-term fix, lawmakers went back and cut $5.4 Billion in classroom funding and agreed to repeal ASATR by September 2017. That means the money guaranteed to school districts will vanish, and they will still be without the tax revenue they relied on before 2006.
“We’re estimating to lose anywhere from a million dollars to one and a half million dollars,” Dr. George Kazanas, Superintendent at Midway ISD, said.
Dr. Kazanas said he has done everything possible to avoid laying off teachers. But, since 80 percent of his budget goes to staffing, there is only so much he can trim without the state’s help.
“The system has become archaic and is no longer, as a whole across Texas, meeting the needs of our kids,” Kazanas said.
Many refer to Texas’ school finance formula as a “Robin Hood” system because it redistributes money from wealthy districts to poorer ones. More than 600 districts sued the state to change the funding system. But, just this year, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the districts – deciding the funding system was constitutional. However, even in the court’s own 100-page opinion, Justice Don Willett wrote: “Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement.”
Belton ISD was one of the districts that sued.
“With losing that lawsuit, we certainly feel like our voices have continued to not be heard,” Belton Superintendent, Dr. Susan Kincannon, said.
Dr. Kincannon said if she had to give the state a letter grade for its funding, it would merit an “F” rating.
“While the state’s growing and thriving economically, there’s no commitment to taking care of schools,” Dr. Kincannon said.
One of the incoming lawmakers prepared to discuss school finance during the 2017 state legislative session is Hugh Shine, the unopposed Republican nominee for the state representative seat in District 55, which represents Bell County. He has promised to make school funding a priority and has met with every major school district in Bell County.
“I’ve even had a few school superintendents contact me that I don’t represent because they heard I was reaching out to my superintendents and that wasn’t happening in their house district, so they contacted me, so I met with them,” Mr. Shine said.
Last year, Texas ranked 38th out of 50 states when it came to funding per student, a slight improvement from the year before. But, the figure is still low, considering Texas has the second largest population in the U.S.
If no solution is found, some districts could be forced to cut certain extracurricular programs and increase classroom sizes, which could negatively impact student learning.