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Government/Politics

Texas Democrat Tells Fellow Lawmakers To Act Now On School Finance Reform

Texas is the second most populous state in the country, with the nation’s second highest GDP, after California. It also holds the dubious honor of having the lowest percentage of people with a high school diploma (81.4% for fiscal year 2012), among U.S. states. And not surprisingly, perhaps, it has among the lowest spends nationally per student, per year, on education, where it is ninth from last.

Earlier this year, following on a pronouncement from last year, the Travis County District Judge, John Dietz, found Texas’ public school finance system to be unconstitutional. He said the system failed to provide an “adequate suitable education” to its children. “The lesson is this, education costs money, but ignorance costs more money,” he stated.

In 2011, the legislature had cut a massive $5.4 billion in school funds and returned only $3.4 billion of this in 2013, which, by any yardstick, was disappointing.  

For Austin State Sen. Kirk Watson, who is trying to change the system, the fact that many sections of the state’s funding formula for schools haven’t been revisited in years, makes little sense. He said some formulas, like the one that decides school district funding for student transportation, has been unchanged since 1984, when gas was $1.22/gallon.

“It’s silly that our state relies upon decades’ old information to pay for schools today,” said Watson, who has introduced a handful of bills in the legislature, to propose revisions in Texas’ funding formula for schools.    

Watson said he hoped this would kick off discussions on how to fix problematic areas of school finance, like updating the “Cost of Education” index. “It’s an index that is utilized to try to determine what it costs to provide education in certain localities, because, quite frankly, the cost of living and what it costs to hire a teacher will be different from place to place in Texas.” Much like any place else, but the last time the Texas legislature updated this funding formula was in 1991.

There is a case challenging the state’s school finance system, but the Texas Supreme Court isn’t likely to hear it till late 2015. Watson said the state and its students could not afford to wait and Texas needed to address these issues independent of a lawsuit. “If politicians want to act like politicians and just wait until they are ordered by a court, there’s still things that aren’t being done right, we don’t need a court to tell us things have changed,” he stated.

The session begins Jan. 13 and is expected to extend over the summer with a special session.