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State school funding can improve soon

July 21, 2018

Two different numbers came up on the topic of school financing this week, but the link between them will be obvious to all taxpayers. The Legislature should take note and resolve to make serious progress on this long-standing problem instead of doing what it usually does — talk about the challenge and pass the buck.

The first number was $2.5 billion, the amount of money that Texas has taken from public education over the past decade, according to a survey by the American Federation of Teachers. It’s the second-deepest cut in the country, exceeded only by Florida. The decrease seems particularly rough for Texas, which already has 5.4 million children in public schools and has added about 850,000 over that decade, the fastest growth rate in the nation.

Granted, this survey comes from an organization of teachers, which wants more school funding for a lot of reason, not the least of which is better salaries for educators. But the AFT isn’t the only group that has complained about school funding in Texas. It’s hard to find a parent who hasn’t.

The other number is more encouraging, because it can help address the first problem. That number is about the same — $2.8 billion, the additional money that the state comptroller estimates the Legislature will have to work with in the new session that begins in January. The state’s rainy day fund is also up to $12 billion, its highest total ever.

When the long decline is school funding is matched up with the availability of more state tax revenues, the solution should be obvious. The Legislature must commit more money to help local school districts, especially since its share of total educational spending has dropped from about half to less than 40 percent. Local taxpayers have been making up that difference — or school districts have been doing without. Neither option is ideal, and that can finally change.

School districts shouldn’t expect a windfall in the next two-year state budget cycle, and the Legislature shouldn’t just spend every dollar it finds because someone wants it. Fund requests always exceed the bottom line, and uncontrolled growth is almost as bad as continued underfunding. There are many other needs in the state budget too, from better highways to Harvey recovery.

But public school funding has lagged for at least the last three regular sessions, and it must be addressed. This doesn’t even count the additional needs for school security in the wake of the tragic shooting in Santa Fe earlier this year.

Texas lawmakers are proud of the state’s booming business climate that produced these revenues, and rightly so. But the Texas economy of the future will need educated workers to keep that momentum going. The school-funding bill that lands on the governor’s desk next June will have a big impact on that future.

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