School tax inequities vex Texas. Vastly divergent educational expenditures across Texas result from a public school finance system that relies on local property taxes for nearly half its funding in a state with more than 1,000 school districts
IN east Austin, the Del Valle Independent School District has an 80-cent tax rate and spends $3,476 per student. Across town, in the moneyed surroundings of trees and hills and lakes, the Lago Vista district has a $1.22 tax rate and spends $6,500 per student. In southeast San Antonio, the Edgewood Independent School District spends just over $3,100 per student, while a few miles to the northwest, the wealthy and established Alamo Heights district spends about $1,300 more per student, despite a local property tax rate that is about a dime lower.Skip to next paragraph
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Such vastly divergent educational expenditures are repeated hundreds of times across Texas, the result of a public school finance system that relies on local property taxes for nearly half its funding in a state with more than 1,000 school districts.
Critics of the system say it is a ``fatal flaw'' that builds in unequal educations and unequal access to opportunities for Texas children and ultimately darkens the state's economic prospects.
Ruled unconstitutional last year by a state district judge, Texas's school finance system will receive more attention in the coming year as the Legislature labors to meet a deadline set by the court to fashion a more equitable system.
Many school finance officials, educators, and representatives of both wealthy and poor districts say a new finance scheme can be worked out over the next year. Virtually everyone from Gov. Bill Clements on down agrees that the state must provide more assistance to its poor districts.
``There's unanimous agreement in Texas that the property-poor districts need more money to operate,'' says Don Rogers, superintendent of the wealthy and high-spending Eanes district in Austin.
But a number of road mines remain in that path, since any plan is likely to deliver less state aid to wealthy districts. In addition, public discussion will unavoidably raise such volatile issues as local control of schools, district consolidation, and limitations on expenditures of wealthy districts.
``There's room for compromise, but ... I can see it all falling apart, too,'' says Mark Yudof, dean of the University of Texas Law School here and an authority on school finance. ``One side labels this as one more intrusion by the judiciary, while the other says the education issue will quite simply determine the future of the state. Each side has been very good at amplifying the right association to further its cause.''
Says Texas Comptroller Bob Bullock, who has come up with his own plan to raise state aid to poor districts, ``We've been snake bit, but that shouldn't scare us into thinking we don't have an antidote.''
Texas is not the only state now tackling the need to equalize school financing.
In Kentucky, a state judge struck down that state's school finance system last May, calling it ``one of the most severely deficient in the nation.'' Stating that ``Kentucky's children ... are suffering from an extreme case of educational malnutrition,'' Judge Ray Corns ordered a select committee he appointed to produce a finance master plan to serve as a guide for the governor and state General Assembly.
In Oregon, what Gov. Neil Goldschmidt has termed a ``creaky school finance structure'' has moved several small steps toward reform after earlier attempts at large-scale overhauls failed to gain voter approval. Last year, state aid to schools was boosted, and voters approved a ``safety net'' to help pull poor districts through short-term financial crises. (Such crises had in recent years resulted in school closings of a month or more, bringing Oregon some unwanted negative national attention.)
Now Governor Goldschmidt is awaiting the report this month of a school finance reform commission that should recommend further steps in what he calls an ``evolutionary'' process.
The battles such emotion-laden issues as local schools, local control, and taxes elicit have been waged across the country for decades. The conflict was intrinsic to educational systems that coupled state responsibility for ensuring efficiency with largely local funding based on property values.
After World War II, Dean Yudof notes, a number of states attempted to provide a certain minimum assistance to districts, while leaving ``enrichment'' programs to local property taxes. But state aid did not keep up with costs, and by the late 1960s, national education experts were publishing studies - such as one titled ``Private Wealth and Public Education'' - that received as much attention as the federal government's ``A Nation at Risk'' has in this decade.