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Say 'yes' to investing in Texas school funding

By BY CHRISTY ROME
April 5, 2013 at 7 p.m.
Updated April 4, 2013 at 11:05 p.m.

Christy Rome

A long history of economics went into State District Judge John Dietz's comment during the most recent school finance trial, "There is no free lunch."

According to new state comparisons by the National Education Association, Texas has dropped to 49th in per-pupil spending. This comes as no surprise in the wake of Judge Dietz's recent ruling that the Texas school finance system, with its high standards and low financial support, is unconstitutional. The court case, which positions local school districts against a state legislature that has increasingly limited local and state funding, is best summed up with the numbers: With the state's population ever increasing, total funding for grades pre-K through 12 in Texas is 7.5 percent less today than it was a decade ago. This is the fiscal reality of the state of education in Texas and the starting point for any discussion of school finance today.

During the last legislative session, public education funding was cut by $5.4 billion. The argument whether or not the Texas Legislature made the right move two years ago by cutting state funding has now come and gone. Now, we as a state must decide whether we should restore, protect and invest funding for Texas schools in the future. The answer: yes.

Ahead of any special session to address a much-needed overhaul of the public education system, school districts need to be protected from any further cuts.

For example, school districts that receive Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction (ASATR) have endured an additional 7.65 percent reduction this school year. ASATR was established as a guarantee by the Legislature in 2006 that when property tax rates were reduced, no school district would receive any less funding as a result. Decisions like this when the Legislature reneges on promises to area constituents stand as reminders that while we push to restore funding and invest in Texas schools, we must keep a watchful and protective eye over current funding.

Simply put, area taxpayers don't have the capacity to replace the loss of state funding that has already been cut. Even if concerned Texas taxpayers voted to invest more area tax dollars in their area schools, tax caps implemented by the Legislature would restrict the rates districts are able to access. Furthermore, school districts subject to "Robin Hood" recapture face the dilemma of asking voters to raise local tax rates that ultimately send 50 percent or more of the new tax revenue out of their communities and to the state.

Without an increased investment by state lawmakers, schools will continue to face further reductions to funding levels that are already well below what districts were entitled to prior to 2006. Budget cuts force deferrals to upgrades in technology, basic maintenance of facilities and staff development. These investments in the human capital and infrastructure of our education system produce stronger, better educated Texans. Deciding whether the state should invest in preparing the young Texans of today for the advanced economy of the future should be an easy answer: yes.

Rather than waiting for a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court before addressing school funding, Texas legislators should restore adequate funding of our educational system without delay. Additionally, we as taxpayers must stay vigilant and protect our schools from any further cuts. Most importantly, constituents need to continually push legislators to invest in the future of our state - the students in our public schools.

If the education of our children is not our top priority, then what should be?

Christy Rome serves as Executive Director of the Texas School Coalition. The coalition represents school districts that return tax dollars raised from their area homeowners and businesses to the state. Since 1993, these revenue-contributing districts have given more than $15 billion to the statewide system, and they are now contributing more than $1 billion annually.

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