GOP assault on school funding fails

AUSTIN, Texas – The Texas Legislature adjourned its special session on public school finance May 19, two days early, as Republican lawmakers and the Republican governor failed to agree on a new funding structure for the state’s public schools.

The Texas Federation of Teachers and state AFL-CIO said that the lack of agreement was the best outcome that Texas workers could have expected from this ill-conceived and poorly executed special session.

It’s not that the state’s system for funding public education doesn’t need fixing – it does, in the worst way. But Republican proposals for fixing the system would have benefited a handful of wealthy school districts at the expense of nearly 90 percent of the other districts and capped the amount of money that the state could spend on health and human services.

The teachers union warned that while Republican efforts had suffered a major setback, the state GOP had not given up trying to turn back the clock on the state’s 20-year effort to make public schools in Texas more equitable.

In 1984, the Edgewood Independent School District, a working-class, Latino district in San Antonio, filed suit in state court, challenging the way Texas funded public education. At the time, most public education funding came from local property taxes. Property-rich districts could afford to provide a first-rate education, but most of Texas’ school districts couldn’t.

After years of litigation, the state Supreme Court found merit in Edgewood’s challenge and instructed the Legislature to make education funding more equitable. The Legislature eventually enacted a system that took some money from rich districts and redistributed it to others. Eighty-eight percent of all of Texas school districts benefited, but residents of the wealthy districts called the system unfair and labeled it “Robin Hood.”

When Republicans took control of state government in 2003, they made plans to eliminate the more equitable system. However, congressional redistricting took higher priority and they decided to put it off until a special session in 2004.

House Republicans introduced HJR 1, a constitutional amendment that would take one-third of all projected state revenue increases and use it to lower property taxes without adding new revenue to the state’s education system. But the House leadership couldn’t muster the votes it needed. It did, however, pass a bill containing substantial property tax cuts but failed to provide the revenue to implement them, which enraged and flabbergasted senators. Senators met as a committee of the whole and heard testimony but gave up on trying to enact legislation two days before the scheduled end of the special session. The Senate and House both established working groups to draft new plans and it’s possible Perry will call another special session as early as July.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.