Written by Dr. Edwin Flores, President of the Board of Trustees, Dallas Independent School District
Texas educates one out of every ten kids in America, but ranks 43rd in the nation in education spending. Since the 80’s, the state has been sued numerous times over the education finance system, with plaintiffs arguing that the state does not spend enough on its students. Texas law directs the state to contribute a ‘substantial’ share of funding toward public education, and yet the state’s portion of public education funding currently amounts to only 38% and is decreasing. The state’s share of funding decreases because, as local property values increase, the state lowers its contribution and caps the total amount of dollars invested relatively stagnant, thus, local municipalities carry more and more of the responsibility for funding local public education.
It is not enough to fund our system so that students receive an ‘adequate’ education, when we could and should insist that they receive an ‘excellent’ one.
As school finance reform takes center stage in the current Texas Legislature, it is important to note that the system is not completely ineffective. In fact, there are pieces of it that are well-intentioned and are designed to provide varying levels of resources to districts depending on their needs. Formulas are the system’s acknowledgement that education is not one-size-fits-all, and that different students need different supports to succeed. Overall, however, the funding system is antiquated and in need of a significant overhaul.
For example, the formulas that determine how much money is allocated to a district per student have not been updated since 1991. Any of the various “weights” meant to account for diverse student populations have not been updated since 1984, despite rapidly changing student demographics. Close to 20% of Texas public school students K-12 are now English Language Learners, and yet they currently receive less additional funding than a gifted and talented student. Additionally, children living in extreme poverty may need more additional support than is provided by the blanket ‘Free and Reduced Lunch’ measure typically employed to assess financial need.
Further, Texas does not currently adjust for inflation in its school funding formula, which means school funding is unable to keep pace with rising costs. A dollar from 2008 is worth $0.85 in 2018, meanwhile student enrollment jumped by almost a million students during this time period, and continues to rise. Taking action to update these formulas and provide a mechanism by which they might automatically be updated annually is an essential job for this legislature.
Along with updating the outdated pieces of the system, it is incumbent upon representatives to provide our schools with more funding, while balancing the ever-increasing burden on local taxpayers. New investments must be made to financially incentivize districts to implement systems, policies, and practices that have been proven to improve student outcomes.
For instance, we know that full-day quality pre-k helps ensure that our students are reading on grade level by third grade, a critical benchmark to future academic success. However, in 2017, the state chose to eliminate the $118 million grant for High Quality Pre-K and $30 million in supplemental Pre-K funding from the two-year budget. With the funding cut, the Legislature also required all districts to implement the quality standards that were previously tied to grant funding. Schools are now left trying to meet higher Pre-K standard mandates with extra cost burdens and no additional state assistance.
We also know that an excellent teacher is the number one factor in ensuring that students make academic gains. Therefore, we should have structures in place to identify and reward the highest performing teachers. Additionally, districts should be financially equipped to reward excellent teachers to go and teach at our lowest performing schools. This recommendation, modeled after the Accelerated Campus Excellence (ACE) initiative in Dallas ISD, allows district leadership to target campuses in need and act strategically so that those campuses have the highest possible potential for success. Financially equipping districts to implement proven inputs that lead to improved student outcomes is long overdue.
To be clear, this overhaul of the system will more than likely not be achieved in one session. Texas would need an influx of close to $22 billion dollars to even reach the national average. In the event that the Texas Legislature makes a new investment in education this session, our legislators ought to be praised but constantly reminded of how far we still have to go. It is not enough to fund our system so that students receive an ‘adequate’ education, when we could and should insist that they receive an ‘excellent’ one.
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