The right to a free public education is enshrined in Texas’ constitution to “promote the general diffusion of knowledge,” which is “essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people.” The earliest Texans knew that the state needed well-educated people who could ensure Texas’ growth and prosperity, benefiting the state as a whole.
Adequately funding Texas’ public schools is the most effective and efficient way to develop a strong workforce. Better-funded schools mean smaller classes, which give teachers more quality time with students, and lead to better development of social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Better-funded schools also mean more opportunities for hands-on learning, and encourage effective problem-solving skills. Better-funded schools mean children will graduate high school ready for college or career.
But today, Texas is falling down on that promise.
The state is about to start the next phase in the most recent school finance lawsuit, the latest in a 30-year cycle of litigation that has left the system riddled with Band-aids and layers of exemptions for certain districts. As a result, not every child has an equal opportunity to learn in Texas.
Last year a Texas district court found the school finance system to be unconstitutional because it fails to take into account the increasing standards, population growth in the state, or the educational needs of our students. In particular, the court found that the system is not directing enough resources toward economically disadvantaged and English-language learners to close the consistence performance gap. The result is that the Legislature has failed to provide each student with the resources he or she needs to graduate high school ready for college or a career.
A system that is unconstitutional for some students is unconstitutional for all.
Families of economically disadvantaged students lack the resources to supplement their educational experience with outside tutors, visits to museums and other cultural institutions, travel, technology, and other resources their more well-off peers may have. Low-income families often lack the stability that kids need to thrive – they tend to move frequently, and parents have irregular work schedules, meaning they may not be available to help their kids with homework after school.
The good news is that that the structure of our school finance system is strong, but the patchwork fixes over the years have left it unable to meet the needs of an ever-growing population. Some key parts of the school funding formula are frozen in time, and fail to adequately keep pace with population or economic growth. As a result, nearly every district in the state struggles to provide a basic level of education.
Our school finance system is reliant on local property taxes. Local property taxes are inherently unequal because some districts are property wealthy and some are property poor. The state is not doing a good enough job of balancing out the differences, so property wealthy districts tend to receive more funding than property poor districts—even though property poor districts tend to have greater need.
Poorer districts are opting to raise taxes on themselves to generate more funding. However, many districts have reached the cap on local property taxes mandated by the school finance system, yet still struggle to provide a basic level of education, and have no options for raising additional funds.
If we want to close the achievement gap we have to equitably fund our schools, and the Legislature must appropriate enough funding for schools to have the resources they need to meet the increasingly complex and demanding state education standards. A comprehensive review of the system would include updating the system of weights that directs more resources to certain student populations, and ensuring that funding for education grows with inflation. Continuous, periodic reviews are needed to ensure that in a couple years we do not end up back where we are today.
Education – like highways and other state needs – costs money, but ignorance costs more. The children in our classrooms today are the workforce of tomorrow, and the solutions get more expensive the longer we wait. Every year that passes, another class of students falls further behind in being prepared for college or career.
Read our latest fact sheet School Finance at the Texas Supreme Court: Adequacy, Meaningful Discretion, and Equity by the Numbers for an in-depth look at the challenges facing Texas public schools.