Fixing Our Broken School Finance System

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By Kristian Lenderman

Every year, I ask my students to share ideas of what I should keep next year in my classroom and what needs to change. This past year was similar to others – my sixth graders wanted less homework, nap time, and maybe a Doritos machine in the corner wouldn’t be so bad. But one of my students had feedback that stuck with me. He wished we had performed dramas in our reading class so that he could practice his acting skills. Daniel’s theater class closed after his teacher left mid-year and wasn’t replaced. Instead, we hired a long-term substitute to help support students who needed extra help in reading. This meant that Daniel spent half the year missing out on his favorite class. As this new school year begins, Daniel will be missing out another year of theater because of difficult funding choices that our principal had to make. And the current funding system in the state of Texas isn't making these choices any easier.

Recently, I joined our district’s Bond Advisory Council so I could recommend both the amount and the content of the bond on the November ballot. We worked for months to select funding priorities among a range of options from roof upgrades to instructional needs. In the process, we learned more about the system that disincentivizes property-rich districts to raise property taxes for our general fund because of a state program known as recapture. Now, as the legislature considers the impact of Hurricane Harvey on the school system, we must also consider the needs that come from our broken school finance system.

Even though I and over 50% of teachers in my district work at low-income schools, our district is considered property-rich. This means that the property taxes we collect are higher than what the state deems average. In theory, this should benefit our low income students and English language learners because we are able to spend more money per student than the average Texas district. But there are still large equity gaps in access, performance, and graduation rates between students depending on their parents’ income.

As part of the recapture program (also known as Robin Hood), we have to send millions of dollars a year back to the state. This nominally makes sense to improve equity—the state takes a calculated amount of money from districts with high-property tax revenues. Then, it gives the money to districts that make less in property taxes. Technically under the program, all Texas districts get closer to the average amount of spending per student, thus increasing equity.

The problem is that property-rich districts don't always have homogenous populations. The per-student spending and Title 1 subsidies are not enough to create educational equity for students at our neediest schools. At my school, we had to replace a theater teacher with an intervention teacher to help us prepare our kids. But across the freeway in the same district, parent organizations are able to fundraise enough money to fund an entire salary for an extra teacher. Across the freeway, Daniel would get the support he needed and still be able to attend his theater class. The choices at schools where students come from high income families are different than the choices we make at our schools where most families are low income - even though we are in the same district.

Instead of improving equity, recapture erases low income students and English Language learners from property-rich districts. The way to achieve equity is for the state to change the way it calculates recapture amounts by increasing the cost measures for low income, gifted and talented, and English Language learners. This change would specifically help districts like mine because we will be sending less money back to the state to account for our diverse populations. Furthermore, the state should increase the amount of pennies that districts can tax before recapture kicks in. This would mean more districts would keep more of their tax dollars. With a new calculation system, my district wouldn't have to send $29 million—almost 10% of our budget— back to the state. Instead, we would be able to increase teacher pay (which was done after the recent re-calculation), provide after school programming in low income schools, or order more technology.

We could even fund electives for our students across the district. With money spent on our low-income students, we could offer more to students like Daniel who are missing out on educational opportunities. We know more has to be done to fix the Texas education system. Changing the way we do recapture can get us one step closer to creating a more equitable playing field for the students of Texas.

Kristian Lenderman teaches 6th grade English Language Arts at Northbrook Middle School in Spring Branch. She is a Teach Plus Texas Teaching Policy Fellow.

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