Texas School Coalition Executive Director Christy Rome offered testimony on behalf of the Coalition to the House Select Committee on Educational Opportunities & Enrichment:
If your air-conditioning unit broke down this summer in the Texas heat and you had to replace it with an equal quality product, you would not expect to pay the same amount that you would have paid in 2019. And you also might experience a difference in labor costs depending on your location in the state and your circumstances. The market determines these costs and you as the consumer must pay them, and you will pay even more if you want a higher-quality unit.
The same can be said for our schools if their AC unit goes down—and as they manage other costs of doing business. Over 80% of the expenditures for any district in the state are personnel. And the staff of the school district are facing higher prices to replace their AC units, or to pay their utility bills, or buy groceries or gas. That means that schools must pay their employees more so they do not lose staff to other school districts, industries, or states. We may not like it, but in order to provide high quality educational opportunities in all Texas schools, districts must have the ability to pay their staff more.
This committee was tasked with Ensuring all Texas youths enjoy equal educational opportunity and the freedom to obtain a quality education, regardless of circumstance. You can do just that by increasing the Basic Allotment in a meaningful way so that schools can provide those high-quality opportunities for students, even as they face higher costs and higher expectations.
In a large and diverse state, costs can vary greatly. Before 2019, a Cost of Education Index (CEI) existed in the school finance formulas. It was repealed to allow for a Study on Geographic Education Cost Variations, but those findings were not put in place.
Adjusting for these differences matters because each district has its own circumstances, and equal funding per student does not necessarily provide equal opportunities. As you might imagine, it costs much more for a teacher in Austin or Dallas to pay for housing than a teacher in many of our rural communities in east or west Texas
Likewise, school districts on the coast face astronomically high rates for windstorm insurance, an expense not incurred by many other Texas districts. Many of our rural communities face the challenge of paying staff enough to relocate to that rural area and keep them there and to overcome the diseconomies of scale.
The point is that every district has its own circumstances, and building those differences into our formulas in a meaningful way would help ensure quality opportunities statewide.
Funding reductions are not the way we get to a quality education for all students. You can certainly create equity by reducing funding for some, but educational quality will suffer. This is important to remember as we approach the expiration of the Formula Transition Grant after the 23-24 school year. That transitional grant was intended to ensure schools were not worse off due to the passage of HB 3 in 2019. It was meant to be transitional because schools would see additional funding over time, rendering that transitional grant unnecessary. However, about 85 districts still rely on that grant and face significant funding cuts after this school year, absent legislative action.
If the state school finance formulas provide the funding for a high-quality education across the state, then it is up to each community to figure out what that looks like—through locally-elected trustees, and input from local parents and taxpayers. Districts need flexibility to reflect those local community values. After all, that is the greatest kind of accountability you can have.
We recommend that the accountability system provide equal knowledge to taxpayers for the outcomes achieved by any school receiving public funding. This should include:
- Meaningful, multi-pronged assessments that are true reflections of student learning and achievement.
- Locally elected officials to oversee the finances of schools receiving taxpayer funds, and an opportunity for any taxpayer to have their voice heard by those officials.
- Open and public meetings to adopt the budget of any school that receives taxpayer funds.
- Open records that allow any taxpayer to examine how tax dollars are spent — including what percentage of the taxes paid to the school district stay in the local district, and what percentage the State removes through recapture.
In conclusion, if there is anything as important as keeping the AC on during this blistering summer, it is the education of our children. We respectfully ask that you recognize how much the cost of educating students has increased since 2019, and that you make the investments needed for the high-quality educational opportunities that all of us want across our state.