picture courtesy theartofchildhood.com
In or around 2007, leaders in my state attempted to respond to an unfavorable Supreme Court decision by revamping how they financed schools. Being a low-tax state with an politically-ambitious governor, the leaders decided they could address the unconstitutionality of our school funding system while also providing property tax relief.
That’s right: we were inadequately funding schools, and the answer was to reduce the amount of money being made available to schools.
Our leaders–while handing out this tax break to homeowners, which I got because I was one–told schools not to worry. They weren’t just lowering property taxes by one-third; they would be increasing the revenue coming in from a business franchise tax. It would be a wash. Schools would feel no pain; homeowners would get relief. It was a win-win.
But there was this one thing: the state comptroller ran the numbers and said they didn’t add up. The franchise tax wouldn’t cover the funding being lost due to the tax swap. She said it would result in a $25 billion dollar funding shortfall by 2011. Her concerns were dismissed by the governor, and the new system–we call it Target Revenue–was put into place.
One of the biggest concerns of the Supreme Court had to do with the funding inequity in the previous school funding system. Schools in areas with more valuable property were able to tax at a lower rate and raise substantially more revenue for their schools. This has been a problem forever in Texas, as schools have always been funded primarily with property taxes. In fact, the court case in 2006 was the sixth of its kind. The legal wrangling in Texas started with a Hispanic student walkout in Edgewood ISD in 1968: their decrepit school–where janitors had to remove bats in the mornings with broomsticks–sat uncomfortably close to the gleaming schools of another (majority white) district, where janitors had to concern themselves with keeping the proper levels of chlorine in the Olympic swimming pool. (That isn’t an exaggeration.)
Anyway, the Target Revenue locked every school into a set amount of state and local funding. If your local property value suddenly went up (or down), your Target Revenue level would stay the same. The aim was to prevent gaps in wealth from being exacerbated. However, to prevent riots in the suburbs–and, though they would never admit this, to protect the low property tax rates of businesses who chose to locate to the low-taxation areas of the state–the legislators “grandfathered” in some pretty significant gaps in the Target Revenue system. The lowest-funded school in the state was stuck at less than $4000 per student. The highest-funded school was allowed over $13,000 per student.
Despite this gap, these two schools were expected to get their students to achieve the same levels of success on Texas’s TAKS test. The state was happy to pretend–when it came to local accountability–that each school played on level playing field. This was, of course, cynical and hateful.
At any rate, the leaders reassured the Supreme Court that the grandfathered-in gaps were temporary and that they would “raise the bottom up,” i.e., increase the Target Revenues set for the lowest funded schools.
That never happened. Surprise, surprise.
The fact is, the low Target Revenue school districts were also the low Political Clout districts. It surprises and greatly offends me that to this day no one in the entire state of Texas has taken the effort to calculate the average Target Revenue of majority white schools and compare that to the average Target Revenue of majority minority schools. We ought to at least want to know if we have encoded passive fiscal racism into our statutes. If deliberate segregation of black kids into certain schools was wrong (and it was), then surely the deliberate channeling of extra funds toward majority white schools is no less sinful. Do we not want to make sure we are doing right?
It appears that we don’t want to know. Our heads are sunk firmly in the sand on this issue.
In fact, it wasn’t until last year–a good six years into this inequitable system (whose inequity was explained away by saying, “Well, we meant to equalize resourcing, but the economy tanked…”)–that a state representative took the incredibly easy step of saying, “Can we get the average Target Revenues of our school districts sorted by accountability label?”
Turned out–as many school leaders had been predicting for years–that the Exemplary schools, on average, were getting $1000 more per student than the Academically Unacceptable ones.
My abiding anger has always seethed around this cowardly fact: the state is so eager to put out a list of “failing” schools, but it keeps the Target Revenue list a big fat secret. The state actively conceals its own role, its own funding and equipping impact on schools’ performance, a big fat secret.
This is why over and over in my writing, speaking, and activism, I keep saying, “If you want accountability, it must be shared accountability.”
Accountability without equity is nothing but a setup. Schools are the fall guy for the state’s errors and sins. Accountability without equity is more about passing the buck and shifting blame from the state level to the local level than it is about improving schools or pursuing excellence. It is about the state not wanting to confront our toughest problems and our deepest hurts.
I feel badly for our legislators. They live in a very conservative state and they surely know that some liberal answers are the right answers. But they’ve been hemmed in to a very narrow way of acting–the answer to every problem is always, dogmatically–to lower taxes. Raising taxes is always, dogmatically, a socialist thing.
Our roads are falling apart in Texas. We don’t have a sufficient water infrastructure to support our growing population. And our schools took a $5.4 billion funding hit two years ago when we were already near the bottom of the list nationally in per-pupil spending.
We are living the low-tax dream in Texas. Our kids and our cars are sufferering, but stingy grown-ups like me are loving these tax bills. And businessmen are loving their tax havens, that our legislators have gone to the dirt to defend.
I wish someone would go to the dirt to defend the most helpless, most socially overlooked population in Texas: black and brown children who live in low property wealth neighborhoods. I don’t care how conservative we are: someone has to stick up for these kids, because they are the future of our state. Plus, we are in the Bible Belt, and in the Bible Belt, it ought to be really hard to justify being the Pharisee who walks past the hurting man on the street instead of the Samaritan who stops and spends a little of his hard-earned money to lift that man up and heal him.
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