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Is Robin Hood Still Right for Texas?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
January 11, 2019

Some educational experts say that the general shelf life of a school funding methodology is approximately ten years. In Texas, ours is approaching twenty-six years old. Many believe that this twenty-six-year-old child needs to stop living in our basement and leave the house. The current 86th Texas legislature is poised to help that process along.

According to 2016 data, Texas spends $9016 per pupil, the bulk of which covers salary and benefits. This places Texas in 41st place among state spending per pupil. If that sounds alarming to you, remember that education funding is a constant tug-of-war between states and communities – a perpetual tension and struggle for each party to pay as much as it can.

Texas currently satisfies its constitutional requirement for the “support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools” by dedicating .0025 of the state’s 6.25% sales tax, net proceeds from the state lottery, and earnings from the Permanent School Fund (PSF). The PSF receives money primarily from mineral royalties in the oil and gas industry, reinvests that money, and distributes only the earnings to school districts in accordance to weighted average daily attendance (WADA). The fund’s corpus remains untouched. It is estimated that the current value of the PSF is $41.4 billion, which could generate $2.5 billion for available school funding during the current legislative session.

The Robin Hood School Funding System

Texas’ current K-12 funding formula system dates to 1993. The 73rd Texas state legislature decided, at the urging of the Texas Supreme Court, to create a “Robin Hood” funding system in which property-rich districts would pay more into state coffers to be redistributed to poorer districts – a process known as “recapture.”  If the recaptured money is local money, then does it somehow become state money upon its transference? In this case, property taxes were collected by a legal taxing entity, the public-school district, sanctioned by the state to do so. I believe the determination as to whether recapture money is state or local money will eventually be adjudicated by the Texas Supreme Court. The court might consider establishing a general rule such as, money is deemed as either state or local according to either its collection origin or final disbursement. In any case, while the distinction is largely analytical, the impact is real. Texas Senator Royce West said that for years such money was deemed local: “I don’t see why we should re-characterize those funds to fit a particular narrative.” The Texas Supreme Court two years ago said while the state’s funding mechanism was “broken and led to uneven and discriminatory practices”, but that it was not unconstitutional.

The Robin Hood school funding system has created a state landscape of giving and receiving districts. The givers are referred to as Chapter 41 districts while the receivers are known as Chapter 42 districts. The receiving districts have, for the most part, applied the funds judiciously in their districts, and there are certain guidelines that they must follow. A notable exception occurred this past year when Hidalgo County’s La Joya Independent School District built a $20 million-dollar water park with recaptured funds. The superintendent claimed that the water park was essential to learning. In Houston last year, the district owed a $162 million recapture payment. Houston voters decided to not make the payment and to take $18 billion of property off its tax rolls, transferring it to other, school districts. An eventual compromise was achieved.

Recommendations

There are 1031 public school districts and 618 charter schools in Texas. They are not homogenous – they should be treated as distinct claimants for resources, like any other agency or public organization wanting state funding. Their budget hearings could be brokered and led by the 20 Education Service Centers (ESC), grouped by district size: large, medium, and small. This method would highlight the important factors that distinguish one district from another, such as class size, transportation requirements, administrative costs, demographics, cost of living, salaries and benefits.

Summary

The Texas system is leaning toward more local funding of schools. The trade-off with such a system is usually more disparity of educational quality among the state’s school districts. The state has attempted to avoid such disparity through the Robin Hood funding scheme. Because the quality of education is a community responsibility, I believe that each community should stand on its own. Therefore, the Robin Hood system should be dismantled.

All Texans want to do the right thing – to find a solution that provides the best impact to learning in our great state. We don’t want a solution that is proposed only to fit some political narrative. The ends are clear among the political parties; the means are murky. One thing is for sure: this is a challenge that must be solved by our current 86th Texas legislature. It’s time for the 86th legislature to “86” the Robin Hood school funding system. If the issue is too complex for a regular session as some have suggested, the dismantling and re-establishing process nevertheless needs to begin – the youth of Texas are in the balance.


Author: Dr. Robert Brescia serves as Founder & CEO of The Ethics House, a consulting firm designed to help cities and counties with their ethics programs. His latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. He also serves as Chairman of the Board at Basin PBS – West Texas public television and the Permian Basin American Red Cross. Please contact him at [email protected]  or Twitter: @Robert_Brescia.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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