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Equity in student funding sought at Longview summit

By Christina Lane
July 14, 2016 at 11:45 p.m.

Wayne Pierce with the Equity Center speaks Thursday to area educators at the Texas School Funding Public Education Summit at Longview High School.

Area educators and representatives from state agencies called upon lawmakers Thursday to retool Texas' public education funding system into one that is equitable for everyone.

"You can't cheat the children. ... You've got to fix the structure," said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, a statewide school finance research and advocacy organization in Austin.

State representatives and senators from East Texas, Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth and other areas met Thursday at Longview High School for the Texas School Funding Public Education Summit. The event was organized by Jay Dean, who recently was elected as the state representative for Gregg and Upshur counties, to give lawmakers an opportunity to learn more about the state's education funding system as they prepare for the legislative session that begins in January.

"Education funding is an issue that affects the entire state, but — as we heard today — funding varies by where you are," said Dean, who takes office in January.

On Thursday morning, Dan Casey of Moak, Casey and Associates presented an overview of the state's funding system. Schools are funded by local property taxes, state and federal revenues.

State and local funds are determined by the Foundation School Program, which is administered by the Texas Education Agency. The program provides school funding per student and has variables such as the Robin Hood formula, in which revenue from "property-wealthy" districts is redistributed to "property-poor" districts.

However, the state uses a complicated funding formula that places a higher value on some children than others when allocating funds to districts.

As Pierce said in an afternoon session, the funding formula has created a $3,264 difference in the value of a child between the highest- and lowest-paid schools in terms of state revenue per what is called "weighted average daily attendance."

Children in the top 5 percent of the state are valued at $9,021, while those in districts in the bottom 5 percent are valued at $5,757, based on the state's funding formula.

Pierce said that in finding the system to be constitutional earlier this year, the Texas Supreme Court determined that school districts have substantial equal access to "similar revenues" per pupil. However, Pierce said he didn't believe anyone else would say such funding disparities between school districts actually guaranteed access to "similar revenues per pupil" when the difference equates to tens of thousands of dollars a year.

"(The Texas Supreme Court) put 100 percent of the weight on our Legislature. The Texas Legislature has the toughest job. They have to fix this on their own with no support from the courts," he said.

Pierce advocated for a simpler funding formula that would equalize the wealth, noting that "you cannot say that one child is valued more than another."

Pierce said Texas has a good funding structure, but over time, the state has added to it to make it complicated. He advocated for eliminating hold-harmless clauses that "eat up available resources."

Catherine Clark with the Texas Association of School Boards also advocated for a simpler funding system that would replace the state's two-tiered funding formula with a single-tier system; however, TASB's proposal includes a hold-harmless clause to help ensure that districts do not lose revenue. TASB's single-tier formula allows for recapture above a designated amount.

Clark said she hoped lawmakers left Thursday's meeting with a sense of urgency that they might not have felt before.

"I hope they realize there really is a need to fix things," she said.

Dean said the state Legislature must tackle education funding either in its regular session in 2017 or in a special session, making it all the more important for lawmakers to get a basic understanding of the issue, as they did Thursday in Longview.

"This is a hot-button issue that we are going to be facing; at the same time, we have reduced revenues because of the oil and gas industry," he said.

Longview ISD Superintendent James Wilcox said he is not confident that education funding can be fixed in the 2017 session alone, but he said he was glad the school district could provide at least a starting point for lawmakers to learn about the system.

"I hope the experts we had here today gave them a better understanding so that when they get to Austin in January, they'll be better prepared when this topic comes up," Wilcox said.

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