Low gas prices may be only good news for Texas public schools

Posted in Around The State, Commentary, Education, Election 2008, Public Schools at 4:02 pm by wcnews

A joint meeting was held yesterday between the Education and Finance Committees of the Texas Senate on the agenda was this interim charge:

Senate Interim Charge:
Review current property tax rates at school districts. Explore what mechanisms may exist to prevent any future constitutional funding challenges. Review any funding issues that are particular to certain types of school districts, such as fast growth districts.

It’s doubtful many are shocked that the great school finance fix of ’06 isn’t working as designed. This was a fix, created under duress, to insure schools would open on time. Almost as soon as it was signed state elected officials were already talking about how it would need to be tweaked. Although they didn’t tweak it during the 2007 session, the probably wanted to see just how well the new margins tax would work.

But the issue facing local school districts and the state has been the rising price of everything ever since the fix of ’06. That, along with stagnant state funding and local options dwindling, has put many school districts in a bind. From the Texas AFT:

Texas AFT told a Senate committee today that school districts have been placed in a budgetary bind. On the one hand, the state has not provided adequate funding to meet basic needs in our schools, having effectively frozen state funding at 2005-2006 levels. On the other, the state has made it more difficult for school districts to raise needed funds locally, by forcing a tax-rate ratification election for districts that raise their rates more than four cents above the $1.00 floor established in 2006.

Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi called on lawmakers to develop a short-term solution allowing school districts greater flexibility to meet basic needs for educational programs and employee pay and benefits by raising their rates without triggering a rate-rollback election. For the long run, she said, the solution is to provide stable, predictable funding to school districts to maximize planning and efficiency, through a substantial increase in the state’s share of school funding.

That along with the fact that school districts in the state are far from being equitable, the state could find itself back in court in the near future says Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan).

Another concern, experts said, is that districts are locked in at the same per-student funding levels they had in either 2006 or 2007 even as a district’s homeowners and businesses pay more because their property values increase. Lawmakers froze the levels as a short-term fix, but those levels now could remain in place until 2011, when another overhaul is expected.

“The Legislature has a duty to address the equity issue,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. “If we don’t start addressing the issue of equity, we’re headed back to the courthouse.”

That’s why the way things have been going, sinking gas prices are the best news Texas public schools have gotten in a long time. Obviously the way we pay for education will have to be taken seriously this time and we’re likely to get a much better result if Democrats are in charge of the Texas House in 2009.

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