Another session, another failure on school finance

Noah M. Horwitz

Gov. Greg Abbott proclaimed in his inauguration that he wanted Texas’s schools to be the envy of the nation. He has also been vocal about his desire to alleviate Texas’s high property tax burden.

Because of the broken system by which Texas funds its schools, these issues are interconnected. They are also fixable. But this session, Texas’s leaders, more concerned with school toilets than school finance, shamefully abdicated their moral responsibility to their constituents, specifically the children of Texas.

Texas finances schools through property taxes,  but the Texas Constitution forbids a statewide property tax. It also requires the state to provide an “efficient” system of free schools. This contradiction, that the state must allocate school dollars equitably but cannot levy a uniform tax, has caused some problems, to say the least.

The saga of Texas’s nebulous school finance system is long. It was 1987 when Judge Harvey Clark — perhaps better known for coining the phrase “Hook ‘em, Horns” when he was an undergraduate — first declared the system unconstitutionally inefficient.

After a few trips to the Texas Supreme Court, the Legislature crafted a solution, colloquially known as the “Robin Hood plan,” because it shifts money from so-called rich districts to poorer ones. But an issue has emerged in that the definition of district wealth rest on property values, meaning, for example, that the Houston Independent School District is considered rich even though 80 percent of HISD students are in or near poverty.

As a result, these school districts’ taxing authorities must compensate by raising property tax rates. The buck is passed to the ISDs. This is a key reason property taxes are so onerous especially in Texas’s big cities.

If Abbott was serious about fixing this debacle, he would fix the problem in the special session of the Legislature. That would likely require a constitutional amendment that abrogates the prohibition of a statewide property tax. (Abbott, after all, is a fan of concentrating more power in the hands of the state!) The Constitution allows for such sessions to be called on extraordinary circumstances.

The House did its best this session to craft a Band-Aid fix. Led by Reps. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and John Zerwas, R-Richmond, chairmen of the House Education Committee and House Appropriations Committee, respectively, the proposed change would have moved some money around more equitably. It was thoughtful. In Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate, it was dead on arrival.

Patrick tied any school finance solution to his crusade for the voucherization of public school, known in an Orwellian sense by its proponents as “school choice.” The Senate is Patrick’s autocratic fiefdom, composed overwhelmingly of Tea Party acolytes. The House, on the other hand, is “run by the members” and has a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans hostile to vouchers. A supermajority of members repeatedly voted against Patrick’s pipe dream.

One of Patrick’s sycophants, Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood of the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, ripped up Huberty’s bill and replaced it with Patrick’s voucher idea. And that was that; school finance reform didn’t survive the 85th Legislature.

Abbott, of course, could have called a special session on the topic. But he didn’t; rather, Abbott only discussed the possibility of creating a “commission” to further examine the matter. The special session instead will focus on the apparent emergency of transgender folks using the bathroom.

Perhaps we can fix our schools by levying a tax on using the toilet. I’m sure that would pass Patrick’s Senate.

Horwitz is a second-year law student from Houston. He is senior columnist.