What do elections mean for the future of school finance in Texas?

By Eva-Marie Ayala and Nanette Light   -March 19, 2018 – THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS

Tired of waiting for a state fix, voters this month approved the Dallas, Richardson and Frisco districts’ pleas to funnel millions more a year into their local schools.

But now school leaders are worried about what’s next. They’re out of financial maneuvers after successful elections put them at the maximum property tax rate for operations.

The increase will only sustain them for so long, as costs continue to rise and the state’s share shrinks. So they’re counting on lawmakers to do something about it.

And the shift in the Legislature after last week’s elections could significantly affect the direction of school finance as Democrats flipped key seats held by Republicans.

Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa noted that many candidates were discussing public school needs during the election season. He hopes that means lawmakers will be responsive

“I’m more encouraged now after the election, especially because our delegation has shifted a lot,” Hinojosa said. “A lot of races statewide were closer than many thought they would be. … So I’m hoping that this presents more opportunity for dialogue.

But the future of school finance is anyone’s guess. And school leaders say they aren’t getting their hopes up.

The state’s share will drop by about $3.5 billion over the next two years unless funding changes are made. Local property taxes have been shouldering most of the cost and are expected to provide nearly 56 percent compared with the state’s 35 percent.

Monday was the first day to file bills for the session that starts in January, and a handful already filed tackle tweaks to funding. On Tuesday as part of a commission on school finance, a committee met to discuss where more money for schools might come from. Gov. Greg Abbott’s office has floated a proposal that includes finding ways to decrease property tax rates while finding more state money for schools.

Lawmakers have long said they want to fix school finance once and for all. But the current system is so complex that major overhauls by the Legislature have happened only after the courts force lawmakers to do so

Legislators came close to a solution in 2017. But a major school finance bill was derailed when the more conservative Senate attached legislation to it that would have allowed families to use taxpayer money to pay for private schools. The House refused to accept such a provision.

But two Dallas-area senators who supported the voucher-like effort lost their re-election bids last week to challengers opposed to funneling taxpayer money away from public schools for private school tuition. Their loss could mean such legislation is a non-starter this time.

And that gives hope to many, including Todd Williams, CEO of education-focused nonprofit Commit Partnership, whom Abbott appointed to the state’s school finance commission, which is charged with studying the issue and presenting options.

“I’d love to have a school finance bill that stands on its own and not tied to anything else,” Williams said. “We need new money put into the system. But what’s going to be the political will to make that number enough given the needs?”

Skeptical about whether changes will come

Area school leaders are making plans to meet with returning and newly elected lawmakers this month and next before the session starts. They want more money for educating children who need additional resources to learn — such as kids living in poverty, those with learning disabilities and those learning English.

And they especially want fixes to the state’s “Robin Hood” provision that recaptures money from property-rich districts — including Frisco, Dallas and Richardson — to equalize funding for use in property-poor districts.

Justin Bono, Richardson ISD’s school board president, said his and other districts’ increased tax rate is only a temporary fix. If lawmakers don’t make changes, the districts eventually will have to make cuts.

But Bono’s skeptical there will be significant changes anytime soon.

“Regardless of the rhetoric in Austin about doing something in school finance, my optimism is tempered based on who’s in the lieutenant governor’s office and the overall makeup of the Senate,” Bono said.

Under the Robin Hood provision, Richardson ISD estimates it will send about $6 million back to the state this school year. Frisco ISD plans to send about $14 million, while Dallas ISD’s recapture payment could be as high as $65 million.

Dax Gonzalez, who works on governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Boards, said the state has “taken advantage” of recapture to reduce its contribution to public schools.

“As the state has reduced its investment, we’re relying more and more on local taxpayers to fund the bulk of public education,” he said.

Texas is expected to spend about $20 billion on schools this year. That’s up from a few billion in 2008, but then, the state’s share accounted for 48.5 percent.

Some are optimistic there will be movement on school finance next session, but Gonzalez said any meaningful change will take a significant chunk of money. And he’s uncertain a majority of lawmakers will be willing to take that step.

“I have not seen the willingness to put in that kind of money into the system,” he said. “But you never know.”

While any reform likely would fall short of a “revolutionized” system, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, is optimistic that the Legislature will at least make some changes to Robin Hood.

West, who also serves on the school finance commission, said urban districts like Dallas and Houston — whose students largely come from low-income families — were never intended to fall into finance recapture.

For West, at least, the election has little to do with his outlook for this session.

“Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you recognize we have to do something about our public school finance system,” West said. “You saw this year we had a lot of [tax ratification elections] too, and that’s because schools need additional dollars to operate.”

Educators, Experts Call on Commission to Calculate True Cost of Educating Students

By Laura Isensee March 19, 2018 – HOUSTON PUBLIC MEDIA

State Sen. Larry Taylor (left) with Chairman Justice Scott Brister (right)

State Sen. Larry Taylor (left) with Chairman Justice Scott Brister (right)

In its first meeting open to public comment Monday, the Texas Commission on Public School Finance heard several themes echoed. One major one: Texas needs to figure out how much it actually costs to meet the state’s academic goals.
For example, Texas officials in higher education want the majority of young adults to have a college degree or another certificate beyond a high school diploma by 2030. And state lawmakers want all high school graduates to be prepared for either college or a career.
But Alief ISD Superintendent HD Chambers told the panel that those aren’t realistic expectations based on how Texas pays for public schools.
“I’m just asking that this commission, however you want to do it, somehow has to align what you expect out of us with the resources provided,” Chamber said. “Because right now the resources being provided are to meet a standard that’s right here, when the standards have been increased over the last five-six years exponentially.”
Chambers joined other administrators and experts asking the commission to study the cost of educating the state’s five million school children.
The panel is supposed to give state lawmakers recommendations to improve school funding. It was created after the Texas Supreme Court ruled in the state’s largest school finance lawsuit that the system was imperfect, but declined to mandate any fixes to the Texas Legislature.
The last time Texas had a commission on school finance reform in the 1980’s, it studied how much it cost to fund a high quality education. Since then academic standards and goals have changed.
“I urge this commission to really try to figure out what it takes to meet the outcomes that we desire and not to tie your hands prematurely and leave it up to the legislature to decide what’s feasible, what kind of shifting of budget priorities need to be made and if tax increases are what we need to fund our schools,” said Chandra Villanueva, an analyst with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities.
Other themes that the panel heard: money matters and the issue of equity.
Paul Colbert, a former state representative who chaired budget and oversight of public education on the House Appropriations Committee, said that for the top students, money doesn’t matter.
“Your bright kids are going to do well regardless of what you do. But if your goal is to educate all of your children, then how much money you put in and how equitably you distribute it will answer whether or not you’re going to really be able to educate all of the children,” Colbert said.
David Hinojosa with the Intercultural Development Research Association gave the panel a list of what he finds as roadblocks to equity in the funding system.
“When we talk about whether or not education is the great equalizer, I don’t even think we can ever get there, if the funding system is so unequal and inequitable,” Hinojosa said.

U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Case Over Whether Texas Congressional and House Maps Discriminate

By Alexa Urn January 12, 2018 – THE TEXAS TRIBUNE

The U.S. Supreme Court - Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court – Washington, D.C.

Further extending a drawn-out legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a case over whether Texas’ congressional and House district boundaries discriminate against voters of color.

The high court’s decision to take the case is a short-term win for Texas’ Republican leaders who, in an effort to preserve the maps in question, had appealed two lower court rulings that invalidated parts of the state’s maps. If the high court had declined to take the case, Texas would have been forced to redraw the maps to address several voting rights violations.

The Supreme Court’s decision to weigh the state’s appeal will further delay any redrawing efforts even after almost seven years of litigation between state attorneys and voting and minority rights groups that challenged the maps. It’s unclear when the court will schedule oral arguments in the case, which is formally known as Abbott v. Perez.

In ruling against the maps last year, a three-judge panel in San Antonio sided with the voting and minority rights groups who accused Republican lawmakers of discriminating against voters of color, who tend to vote for Democrats, in drawing the maps. The state has denied targeting voters by race and admitted instead to practicing partisan gerrymandering by overtly favoring Republicans in drawing the districts.

The panel specifically flagged two congressional districts and nine House districts in four counties as problematic. But the Supreme Court in September temporarily blocked the lower court rulings — and any efforts to redraw the maps — in two 5-4 decisions as it considered the appeal from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The San Antonio panel had ruled in August that Hispanic voters in Congressional District 27, represented by U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, were “intentionally deprived of their opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.” And Congressional District 35 — a Central Texas district represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett of Austin — was deemed “an impermissible racial gerrymander” because lawmakers illegally used race as the predominant factor in drawing it.

On the House side, the panel ruled that Texas needed to address violations in Dallas, Nueces, Bell and Tarrant counties where it said lawmakers diluted the strength of voters of color. In some cases, the judges found that lawmakers intentionally undercut minority voting power “to ensure Anglo control” of legislative districts.

Citing the need to provide election administrators with clarity on district boundaries, the state had argued in legal briefs that the Supreme Court risked throwing “the Texas election deadlines into chaos” if it allowed the redrawing of the state’s maps to move forward prior to the March primary vote.

The minority rights groups suing the state had formally asked the high court to dismiss the state’s appeal. They argued that “the right to legal districts prevails” when choosing between delaying electoral deadlines and addressing “voters’ ongoing harm” under the current maps.

The state’s currents maps, which have been in place for the past three election cycles, were adopted by the Legislature in 2013. They’re largely based on temporary maps drawn by the three-judge panel in San Antonio amid legal wrangling over the maps lawmakers drew in 2011.

The 2011 maps, which the San Antonio judges also ruled were drawn to weaken the strength of Hispanic and black voters, never took effect. But the panel ruled that the intentional discrimination behind the 2011 maps carried over into the 2013 maps in places where district boundaries were unchanged.

“After six years in litigation, we welcome swift action from the highest court in the land,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Democrat and chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which is a plaintiff in the case. “We are hopeful that the court will provide justice to voters and agree that discrimination will not be tolerated in our elections.”

In a Friday statement, Paxton applauded the Supreme Court’s decision and reiterated his outrage over the San Antonio panel’s decision to block the 2013 maps that had been drawn the lower court.

“The lower court’s decisions to invalidate parts of the maps it drew and adopted are inexplicable and indefensible,” Paxton said.

The high court did not act on the Texas Democratic Party’s request to revive a legal claim over partisan gerrymandering — a redistricting strategy that until recently was deemed acceptable. The high court last year heard arguments in a Wisconsin case over the limits of partisan gerrymandering and whether extreme practices can be deemed unconstitutional. A ruling in that case is pending. The court has also agreed to consider a partisan gerrymandering case out of Maryland.

Hanging over the Texas case is the possibility that the state will be placed back under federal oversight of its elections laws.

A barrage of court rulings last year — including the two redistricting rulings handed down last August — have forced Texas leaders to confront whether they strayed too far in enacting voting laws found to have disproportionately burdened people of color.

For decades under the Voting Rights Act, Texas was a on a list of states needing the federal government’s approval of election laws, a safeguard for minority voting rights called preclearance. The Supreme Court wiped clean that list in 2013, but it left open the possibility that future, intentional discrimination could lead to a return to preclearance.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • In separate orders issued Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked two lower court rulings that invalidated parts of the state’s congressional and House maps where lawmakers were found to have discriminated against voters of color, putting on hold efforts to redraw those maps. [Full story]
  • As part of a weeklong trial, the state’s legal foes are turning their attention to lawmakers’ actions in 2013 in an effort to finally resolve years-long litigation over Texas’ political maps. [Full story]
  • A barrage of court rulings has forced Texas leaders to confront whether they strayed too far in enacting voting laws found to have disproportionately burdened minorities. [Full story]

Rev. Charles F. Johnson speaks at Network for Public Education conference

2Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, the Executive Director of Pastors for Texas Children addressed attendees of the annual conference of the Network for Public Education in Oakland, California in October. Rev. Johnson spoke about the value of public education saying it is a “provision of God’s common good”.  According to Johnson, the local school and the local faith community are two pillars of society, saying to the crowd, “You are the vanguard, you’re holding the line and we can do this together.”

Rev. Johnson also spoke about attacks on public schools by those who want to privatize them for profit. “Your making commodities out of our kids and marketplaces out of our classrooms and we want it to stop right now!” Johnson said to enthusiastic applause.

Johnson finished by saying that educators are giving a message to children. That message is “You are somebody, you have a place. Go and claim that place!”

You can watch the entire speech by clicking here.

Statement from Rev. Charles F. Johnson: End of Special Session

August 15, 2017

As the special legislative session closes, we express our deep gratitude for the extraordinary leadership of Speaker Joe Straus, Chairman Dan Huberty, and the House of Representatives to advance fair and just policy for our 5.5 million schoolchildren.

Because of the intransigence of the Texas Senate toward public education, the House was not able to secure significant additional funding for our neighborhood schools in critical need. But, they did successfully and steadfastly hold the line against private school vouchers – the unjust policy of underwriting private education with public tax dollars.

The failed leadership we presently have in the Texas Senate with regard to our children’s constitutionally protected public education is unacceptable.

This special session has been a circus of stubborn wrangling and procedural manipulation. What we have just been through for the past 30 days is beneath the dignity of every respectable Texan. For our elected officials to treat teachers as threats rather than heroes is an astonishing affront to our civil society.

Teachers are now awake to the concerted attack on their profession and our neighborhood schools. Pastors and community leaders are joining them in defending public education as the foundation of our social order.

Our only recourse now is to focus our efforts in laser fashion toward electing a legislature in 2018 that believes in public education for all Texas children– a legislature our children deserve.

We will get through this strange and difficult season and, by God’s grace, find “the better angels of our nature,” as President Lincoln so memorably put it.

Thank you all for your tremendous advocacy on behalf of our children. We honor you, appreciate you, and hold you, our governor, lieutenant governor and all 181 legislators in our ongoing prayers.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proposes millions for teacher bonuses and retirement

TEXAS TRIBUNE – July 13, 2017

With less than a week before the start of a special session of the Texas Legislature, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick laid out a proposal Thursday to give teachers bonuses and increase their retirement benefits, with plans to pay for both long-term using money from the Texas lottery.

Patrick called a press conference to roll out his own priorities for the next 30 days and tear down the House’s plan for revamping a faulty school funding system as a “Ponzi scheme.”

Patrick’s plan, in part, would provide $600 to $1,000 bonuses to long-term and retired teachers, inject $200 million into the Teacher Retirement System, give $150 million to struggling small, rural districts, and provide $60 million for new facilities for fast-growth school districts and charter schools.

Over the next two years, Patrick said, $700 million to pay for the plan would come from a deferral of funds to managed care organizations. Over the long-term, $700 million would be directly allocated from the Texas Lottery if voters approved an amendment to the Texas Constitution to ensure that transfer of funds continues indefinitely.

Currently, about $1.3 billion annually, or 27 percent of lottery funds, goes to public schools. Patrick is currently proposing taking the $700 million from that $1.3 billion rather than reallocating additional lottery revenue.

Read the entire article here….

Gov. Abbott calls special session on bathrooms, abortion, school finance

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday called a special session of the Texas Legislature starting July 18 and promised to make it a sweeping one if lawmakers cooperate.

Abbott gave legislators an ambitious 19-item agenda to work on — including a “bathroom bill” — but only after they approve must-pass legislation that they failed to advance during the regular session. An overtime round, Abbott said, was “entirely avoidable.”

“Because of their inability or refusal to pass a simple law that would prevent the medical profession from shutting down, I’m announcing a special session to complete that unfinished business,” Abbott told reporters. “But if I’m going to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for a special session, I intend to make it count.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had been pushing Abbott to call a special session on the bathroom issue, as well as property taxes. Abbott also added the latter item to the call, reiterating his support for legislation that would create automatic rollback elections when a city or county wants to raise property taxes above a certain amount.

Read the entire article here…

House repudiates vouchers, Senate kills school funding bill

The Texas House of Representatives resoundingly repudiated private school vouchers t​his afternoon​ in two additional votes, both by 2/3 margins, adding to the overwhelming defeat of vouchers in general from earlier in the legislative session.

In a surprising procedural move, the Texas Senate last week attached a voucher amendment to HB 21, the much-needed school funding bill providing structural relief for our community and neighborhood schools.

But, thanks to your strong witness and that of countless thousands of others,  House Speaker Joe Straus, House Public Ed Committee Chair Dan Huberty, and other House leaders stood their ground against the Senate leadership’s cynical ploy, and returned HB 21 to a House/Senate conference committee with the instruction that no money whatsoever be diverted to private schools.  At that point, the Senate conceded the defeat of the bill.

It is crystal clear to us, from conducting 400 meetings around the great state of Texas over the past four years of our existence, that Texans love their public schools and do not wish to see them privatized through vouchers.  We have witnessed tremendous community support for public education, led in no small measure by the faithful service of pastors and congregational leaders.  We thank God for this consistent, steady servant leadership.

The work that lies before us will be substantial. We have much solidarity yet to show to our teachers and schoolchildren. And we have a profound moral charge to work in such a way that our elected officials in the legislature of the state of Texas understand that universal education for all children– regardless of race, economics, condition, and background–  is a basic human right before God, and provided by civil society everywhere.

Pastors for Texas Children Statement on Senate Passage of HB 21 With Vouchers Attached

May 22, 2017

In the dead of last night, the Texas Senate, for the second time this legislative session, passed a voucher policy that transfers public tax money to private schools.

Under Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership, House Bill 21 came to the Senate with a structural reform provision for school funding calling for $1.6 billion additional dollars for our schoolchildren.

But due to the legislative bullying of their leadership, the Senate stripped that provision by almost two-thirds—and attached a voucher amendment to the bill that would divert already strapped public education funds to private schools.

The bill now returns to the House of Representatives where that voucher amendment must be removed. The House has already repudiated voucher policy by a more than 2/3 thirds vote earlier this session.

It is simply wrong to underwrite private education with public funds, even if that voucher is for children with special needs.  90% of our Texas schoolchildren are educated through the public school system supported by the public trust.  Private school vouchers provide for the few at the expense of the many.  They are inherently unjust.

When the voucher supports a religious school with public dollars, whether Baptist, Catholic, Muslim or Wiccan, it is a government establishment of a religious cause.  In doing so, vouchers violate God’s principle of religious liberty for all people without interference from any government authority.

It is abundantly clear that the leadership of the Texas State Senate does not believe in public education for all children. For them to persist in saying so is a deception that we take no pleasure in confronting.  Such hypocrisy is morally unacceptable.

Our Texas schools serve 5.3 million children, the majority of whom are poor. To transfer and redistribute wealth away from them to private schools through vouchers is offensive to God and decent people everywhere.  We are grateful for a Texas House with the courage to say no to this corruption of our common good, and we pray for a Texas Senate that is willing to do the same.

Critical Action Alert

Dear PTC Friends,

What we feared all along this legislative session is now happening.

A special-needs voucher provision has been attached to the school funding bill by the Senate Education Committee.

In short, the pro-voucher Senate will not allow any increase in money for our neighborhood and community schools until and unless they get some kind of voucher policy in Texas.

The pro-voucher people are desperate.  Powerful monied interests far outside the state of Texas want to profit off our children. They won’t quit until they tap into this market.

We know how wrong it is to fund the private education of a few with money dedicated to the public education of the many.

We know how unjust it is to corrupt the public trust through a subsidy for private interests.

We know how unwise it is to promote yet another government entitlement and expansion program that intrudes into our private schools.

Most important, we know how unrighteous it is to violate God’s gift of religious liberty by using government money to promote religious causes.

So, as much as our children need the increased funding, we must say NO to the privatization of God’s gift of public education.

Please call your state senator and state representative NOW and urge their opposition to this bill, CSHB21 (Committee Substitute House Bill 21). Attached is all the information you need. You can find their Austin phone numbers here: http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/

Please pray for our Senate and House members. Please spread the word today to other pastoral and lay colleagues.

Do it for our children. ALL our children.

We thank God for you and your witness!

All best,

Rev. Charles Foster Johnson