Gov. Abbott’s special session call made big news when it was released – the 20 items on the agenda dwarfs the number of topics a governor’s laid for a special session in recent memory. These items run the gamut from the mundane— construction permitting— to the highly controversial— the “bathroom bill.” But the future of public education in Texas is perhaps the most important thing up for debate in the upcoming special session.
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t realize it was happening. After all, it’s been very well disguised as “property tax reform.” What that’s not telling you is that property taxes are usually raised by school districts desperate for funding to stay afloat. But why are Texas’ school districts in such dire need of funds? Texas has been failing its public schools for years. In 2012, 46 percent of education funding came at the state level. By 2019, its share is projected to drop to just 38 percent.
Capping local property taxes will only hurt the ability of school districts to fund necessary programs. Fort Davis ISD Superintendent Graydon Hicks summed up the problem in a statement. “Fort Davis ISD has 226 students,” Hicks wrote. “It has no cafeteria ... has cut extra-curricular programs, has no debt, and has increased our local tax rate to the maximum allowed by the law … We have nothing left to cut.”
Abbott threw school finance reform onto the agenda in a vile attempt to revive school vouchers. Put simply, vouchers allow the government to subsidize private school education. Public school advocates criticize these programs for pulling funding from public schools. They’ve also received criticism because private schools lack public schools’ transparency; there's no way to be sure your tax dollars are being well spent at private schools. During the 85th regular session, the House of Representatives repeatedly voted down school vouchers, with Dan Huberty, Chairman of the House Public Education Commission, calling vouchers “dead” in the lower chamber. In addition, voucher programs have been shown to have a negative impact on student achievement. There is absolutely no reason to put public dollars into voucher programs unless your intent is to defund the public education system.
The only item with any potential to help public education is an initiative to raise teacher salaries by $1,000. The problem here is that the budget has already passed, making it near-impossible to have this money come from the state. Instead, this will likely come as an unfunded mandate, a term for a law that stipulates standards that must be met without providing any funding to make it so. To raise salaries, municipalities will likely resort to hiking up property taxes, something the legislature is actively trying to prevent them from doing.
It's not clear why Governor Abbott seems so hostile toward public schools. Perhaps he believes a less-educated electorate will help him get reelected. Maybe he's trying to capitulate to hardcore conservatives to stave off a primary from Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Or maybe he just firmly believes that capping funding for public schools and handing down unfunded mandates will somehow improve education in Texas. One thing's for sure, though: With the upcoming special session, Gov. Abbott is set to ruin our public schools.
Zachary Price is a sophomore government major from Austin. Follow him on Twitter @price_zach