It’s Time to Remodel Our School Finance System

The Texas Supreme Court is expected to hand down its decision in the pending school finance lawsuit in the coming months, so get out your hard hat. The court’s decision will likely direct the Legislature to remodel the state’s public school finance system. For lawmakers, the message should be clear: Our children deserve a quality education regardless of where they live or their background.
One of the most important goals for our education system is to enhance each child’s talents, so that a diverse set of skills is available to our community. In a complex modern society, we have many important roles to fill and must develop the potential of all children.
As we set out to improve the structure of our school system, we should be developing students who can be part of an agile and adaptable workforce. By 2020, 62 percent of all jobs in Texas will require some form of postsecondary education. For today’s students to be ready for higher education and capable of performing the jobs of the future, they need a well-funded school system that instills problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
But we will not be prepared for tomorrow if we depend on the system we have today. More than 600 Texas school districts understood that when they filed suit to challenge the current school finance system. Texas judges have repeatedly decided that our school finance system violates the Texas Constitution. The system is not keeping pace with the state’s increasingly difficult educational standards and the growing student population. Different kids need different support and resources to reach their full potential.
Just as a house needs ongoing maintenance, our school system needs patching from time to time. But it’s time to do more than patch up the system; it’s time to take on the challenge of a full remodel that keeps the basic structure but expands opportunity for a new generation of students with diverse needs.
There were some funding increases to public education in the 2015 legislative session, but crowded classrooms and 60 percent of third-graders not reading at the recommended grade level tell us we are far from where we need to be.
As we make changes, it’s critical to keep what’s valuable and working well, and to update or change what’s not. All good remodels have plans and goals, but Texas does not have a plan to fix our broken school finance system.
Regardless of the court’s ruling, we need a plan to modernize our school finance system for today’s needs. First, we need to strengthen the foundation of the system. This means increasing the per-student funding levels so that every district can effectively provide a quality education for each student. And it means updating the funding elements — many of which haven’t been updated for over 30 years — for special student populations, like English language learners and gifted students. We need to do more than tear out the old 1980’s wallpaper and spackle the drywall.
But most importantly, we need to prevent our house from falling further into disrepair. To keep our school finance system working smoothly, we should begin with a study to determine the appropriate levels of funding required to meet the high educational standards we put in place, then adjust the school finance formulas for inflation and build in periodic reviews of the formulas into law.
A substantial renovation to the school finance system is important for our continued progress as today’s students are tomorrow’s drivers of the Texas economy.
Remodels can be messy, but the frame of the Texas school finance system is strong. It’s time to modernize our approach to funding our education system and to make meaningful investments in our children’s future.
A version of this post originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

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