Into Darkness: The Texas Legislature Winds Down

Texas State Flag in Texas Shape
Texas State Flag in Texas Shape

Twenty four days to go. That's all the time left before Texas lawmakers blow town for another year and a half. Outside of a dust-up over the state's water policy, the 83rd Texas Legislature has been harmonious relative to our usual standards. That harmony is born of a direct effort to avoid controversy in the Texas House, typically our livelier chamber. Unfortunately, where education is concerned, the price of harmony is largely paralysis.

Barring major and surprising shakeups, this will be the second session in a row in which little significant reform comes to the Texas education system. That's too bad, because a lot of Texas students would benefit from the kinds of school choice reforms implemented in states like Indiana and Florida. The benefits of bringing competition to an education system have borne out repeatedly (here, here, and if you're in the mood for a long read, here), but the legislative appetite for as much remains limited in Texas.

The wrinkle at this point is the high likelihood of a special legislative session specifically for education. Our existing school finance system is in the process of being ruled unconstitutional (it already has been at the district level and is likely to be similarly ruled upon by the Texas Supreme Court). If that ruling happens by next winter, it is highly probable that our lawmakers will be called back to Austin to develop a new school finance formula.

School finance litigation is a decades-old tradition in Texas. We have never developed a system that satisfies all participating parties. Since we fund our public schools largely via property taxes, both property-wealthy and property-poor districts have sued the state over the years because they think, respectively, that they are bearing too much of the financial burden of school funding or not being adequately funded by the existing system.

The one thing this series of suits and finance formula rewrites has produced through the years is perpetual dissatisfaction in the education community. We have tinkered with, but never fundamentally altered, the way the Texas education system operates. If the Texas Legislature takes from the Supreme Court's ruling that more money for our public schools will fix all the problems in our schools, there is little reason to think we will not be facing another finance lawsuit in five to ten years. As much would be consistent with a 30 year-old pattern in our state.

Rather, if/when the Legislature returns for a special session on education, it should look hard at the benefits of school choice, not only because of the benefits it offers, but because Texas voters want it. A recent non-partisan poll conducted by the Friedman Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that 72 percent of Texas voters favor bringing education tax credits to Texas. Sixty-six percent favor a statewide scholarship program, and 66 percent view charter schools favorably. That Texans want options and competition within our education system is overwhelmingly clear.

The bottom line is that we do need changes in Texas education. That much everyone agrees on. What should also be recognized is that there is no silver bullet fix here. That competition will turn us into a paragon of academic success overnight is no more true than the idea that more money for our schools will. The difference is that where we have tried solving our problems with money in the past, we have not tried doing so by incorporating competition into our schools. It is unreasonable to expect meaningful change in Texas if we remain dedicated only to tinkering with our existing system. If we are not going to make those changes during the 83rd Texas Legislature, it is imperative that we examine as much when our lawmakers come back to redesign our school finance formula.

Education policy is a slow game in Texas. Summer is coming (which brings its own important matters -- Star Trek Into Darkness -- to the table), and the Texas Legislature is nearly finished. There are still some significant balls in the air (charter and virtual school reform, among others), but it now clear that bringing reforms to our education that introduce true competition and options for Texas parents will be a long process, and that's fine. Few things worth having are won easily, and reform will absolutely be worth the effort in Texas.