Texas’ school-finance system has been a hot mess for years: outdated, wackily convoluted, inefficient and unfair. And last legislative season only made matters worse: $5.4 billion in budget cuts slammed schools that were already scrambling to serve ever more students with ever greater needs.
How bad is the situation?
So bad that 600 school districts — about two-thirds of the districts in the state, including both rich ones and poor ones — have taken the state to court.
So bad that even school-finance experts have a hard time explaining how the system works.
And so bad that in court, the state was forced to argue that yeah, maybe the system has broken down — but it’s not yet a full-boil crisis that requires court intervention. “I would suggest that we might have an impending crisis,” said Assistant Attorney General Shelly Dahlberg, “but today it is not a crisis.”
We disagree with Dahlberg. This is already a full-boil crisis. Yes, it may be years before Texas feels the full brunt of the damage now being done. But that’s the nature of a long-term problem. You don’t let cancer spread until it reaches your brain.
Even now, we’re in bad shape. According to the Houston Endowment, only 20 percent of Texas eighth-graders go on to receive any kind of post-high school degree or training certification. For Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of our population, that percentage is even more abysmal: 11.6 percent.
Since education is the greatest predictor of future income, Texas is already heading for financial trouble. And with less money to educate ever more students, ever more of whom are in poverty, we’re barreling in the wrong direction.
Critics will argue that money alone can’t fix our education problems; we agree. And we agree, too, that educational efficiencies are worth pursuing.
But we also believe that the money matters, and that Texas schools are pitifully underfunded. Per-student spending in Texas, roughly $8,908 last year, was 45th in the nation for 2011-12 — a number that corresponds pretty well with our lousy rankings in most measures of student performance.
Inside Texas, from school district to school district, per-student expenditures also vary a lot; there’s roughly a $2,000 gap between the top districts and the bottom ones. And according to the Texas Education Agency, that difference shows up clearly in student achievement.
The average funding for students in school districts rated exemplary was about $1,000 greater than the funding in school districts rated unacceptable. The best school districts in Texas are the best-funded ones.
Across the state, our public school districts need more money. Texas needs to distribute that money fairly and transparently, in a way that taxpayers and parents can understand. And that system needs to start working now.
Even as you read this, low-income 4-year-olds without pre-kindergarten classes are growing into underprepared kindergartners who need expensive remedial work. And they grow up so fast! Soon they’ll be an undereducated work force; soon our state’s average income, education level and tax revenues will be dropping.
Unless, that is, Texas gets its act together now.