Train wreck coming, engineers needed

Last month, a collection of school districts called the Texas School Coalition sued the state of Texas. They argued that the state, whose constitutional duty it is to provide for a “system of public free schools,” is not providing enough money to educate kids adequately.

The Coalition also argued that local districts don’t have the ability to collect enough local taxes to provide extra enrichment programs. The Texas Supreme Court has ruled previously that each district should have the capacity to put its own “stamp” on its children’s education.

This is not the only such lawsuit pending, nor is it the first time such districts vs. state lawsuits have appeared. The last 20 years of Texas public education history is peppered with them. It has mattered not which political party controls the Legislature.

In 2006, the Legislature responded to a batch of lawsuits by reforming the state business tax to provide more, non-property tax dollars for schools.

But like an evaporating inheritance, the revenue hasn’t materialized as planned. The economy tanked. The projections were off. A hole was left.

In 2009, the Legislature made ends meet with Obama bucks, Rainy Day (i.e. savings) funds and deferred payments. School districts raised taxes to the extent they could without requiring voter approval.

Districts also cut expenses and figured out ways to make do with less (never a worthless exercise, by the way).

But now districts cry out again to the courts for help. As they do, let’s take the chance to review the trends.

The Texas public school system is growing – to the tune of 80,000 students every year.

Expectations are increasing. The Legislature regularly adds “accountability” requirements. It rarely reduces them.

State revenues have declined due to the lackluster performance of the reformed business tax.

Federal funding was up with Obama stimulus dollars. Now it’s back down to pre-2009 levels.

Local funding is flat. Wealthy “Robin Hood” districts won’t raise local taxes only to have a chunk of the bounty shipped to Austin. Plus, districts across the board are reticent to ask the voters for a tax increase during the recent Tea Party surge.

Education dollars are increasingly spreading into the periphery. Pre-school, after-school, tutoring and mentoring, for examples. Luxuries on one hand, burdens on the other. Burdens once carried by parents, families and friends are now borne by the state.

The brain drain to private and home schools continues to siphon invested and engaged families from the system.

Finally, health and human services spending is increasing. Though the area carries no constitutional mandate, it now consumes more state budget dollars than public education.

These trends are like locomotives heading toward each other on the same track. The system needs brighter engineers to steer us safely to our destination: an educated workforce.

At minimum, we must shrink health care funding, even if it means leaving some federal “matching” dollars on the table. Washington, D.C.’s social democrats and their addictive funding mechanisms shouldn’t set our state’s policy priorities or budget.

With limited resources, it’s more important that we fund the education of children than the health care of adults, even impoverished adults. The Texas Constitution supports me on this.

 
 
Kevin Thompson writes weekly in The Boerne Star. Contact him at kevin@kwt.info.
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