Thursday, September 7, 2017

Local Property Taxes Carry More of the Load

School districts made a big pitch during the recent Texas legislative session for more state funding for public schools. The pitch's argument often went something like this: if homeowners don't like their property taxes always going up, it's because the amount the state chips in is always going down.
"More and more of the burden for financing our schools is ending up on the backs of our local taxpayers," said Richardson ISD School Board President Justin Bono. "They're finding other priorities for it. We wish and try to press that public education should be a priority." Bono says the state used to provide 50 percent of a district's funding just less than 10 years ago. By next year, the state's funding will only account for a mere 20 percent of the district's revenue.
Source: Fox 4 News.
On its face, that sounds like it should be an effective argument. Effective, meaning persuasive to reasonable politicians in Austin, who might not have been aware that more and more funding for schools is coming from local property taxes. Then I read something in Vox that opened my eyes.

What I read made me realize that the way that argument is being heard in Austin is upside down. There, the rising share of public school funding falling on local property taxes is considered a feature, not a bug. School districts' complaints tell them their plan is working.

What's the plan? That's where the Vox article comes in. It's a thorough description of how school segregation never completely went away in America. It just evolved. There is a lot there that might or might not apply in Texas, but one paragraph jumped out at me.
A huge chunk of school funding comes from local property taxes, instead of being a centralized pot of money at the state level. It creates this incentive for homeowners to band together with other better-to-do people, fence in that wealth, and use that money to improve only their schools.
Source: Vox.
The larger the share of the funding for local schools that comes from local dollars, the easier it is to have unequal funding between school districts. Rich districts get the goods. Poor districts go without.

The Vox story is national. Does it apply to Texas? The Texas Constitution says "it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools." Courts have interpreted that to mean poor districts are as equally deserving of good public schools as rich districts. Various forms of "Robin Hood" taxation plans have been designed over the years to attempt to achieve equality. Many politicians throughout Texas have never been reconciled to these plans. The courts have ruled that these taxation plans are failing to meet the Constitutional burden on the state legislature. But lately the courts have not forced the state legislature to fix it. So the state legislature hasn't fixed it. The latest stall involves creation of a state commission to study the issue of school finance for two more years and make recommendations to the 86th legislature in 2019. Meanwhile the state share of funding continues to drop.

Besides dodging its Constitutional requirement for adequate and equitable school funding, the state legislature also seems to be infatuated with charter schools and vouchers for private schools. Combined, this relentless evolution of public education is consistent with an end goal of freeing Texans from having to provide equal education for urban and suburban, rich and poor, white and black and brown. That's not an accident. It's all part of the plan. It's a plan that many of the politicians might not even be consciously aware of. But that's the way it's evolving nonetheless. It's not a bug. It's a feature.

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