Maybe one problem with our school finance system in Texas is how we talk about it. We express tax increases in terms of pennies on the tax rate; the reality is these are real dollars out of the pockets of hard-working Texans.
We talk about taxes for school funding in terms of local contributions and the state’s share. The reality is we’re talking about the very same taxpayers, who are putting more and more money into public education, only to see academic scores remain flat.
And we talk about school finance in terms of support for our kids; tax increases and bond elections are sold to voters as much-needed help for schoolchildren. Again, the reality is something different. Not all spending benefits students, and our duty isn’t to simply “support,” it’s to ensure that Texas children can read, write and do the math to succeed in life. Pouring tax money into a broken system helps no one.
When the Legislature meets in January, we can expect the calls for more funding for public education to increase. Some are already complaining that property tax relief could get in the way of needed school finance reform.
But both can be done; it’s simply a matter of getting our priorities right.
First, we spend too much on things that have little impact on children’s ability to read and do math. One example is in administrative salaries.
School superintendents are some of the highest paid public employees in the state; the top earner leads Cypress-Fairbanks ISD and was paid $406,484 for the 2017-2018 school year. In all, Texas has nearly 100 superintendents earning the equivalent of $250,000 or more, and about 800 who are paid $100,000 or more. About 350 earn more than the Texas governor (who earns $150,000). Meanwhile, highly effective teachers—who actually teach generations of children to read—earn an average of $59,660.
But you won’t find a single chart, graph or table that links large paychecks for the bureaucrats to educational improvements. In Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, for example, 45 percent, or 33,400 students, read below grade level.
Statewide, according to the Texas Education Agency, nearly 1,200 campuses received a D or F score in the TEA’s new A – F Accountability System. That equates to more than 606,000 students trapped in traditional poorly performing schools, in districts that could certainly find better uses for their money than high salaries, bonuses and perks for their superintendents.
Yet spending on these and similar items continues to grow—faster than student populations are growing. From 1993 to 2015, Texas’ student population grew by 48 percent while the number of teachers grew by 56 percent. And the number of nonteaching staff positions increased by 66 percent.
Our research suggests that if Texas had limited the growth of its nonteaching staff to the same level of growth as its student population over this period, then $2.2 billion could have been saved each year. And much of that money could have been redirected into the classroom.
There are even more egregious examples of spending that has no effect on student achievement; there are water parks and stadiums that cost tens of millions of dollars.
The point is that our priorities are out of whack. Want proof? Ask a teacher. One new study says that the average teacher is spending nearly $500 of her own money on classroom materials each year.
What should our priorities be?
First, as Gov. Greg Abbott contends, we should reward and retain our best teachers. Research shows that a good teacher is the best kind of education reform. Merit-based pay increases can make a real difference. In Dallas, the district’s merit-based salary system is credited with turning around the beleaguered urban district (despite all of its challenges, Dallas scored a solid B in the A-F system last August). Furthermore, Dallas ISD teachers support the merit pay program.
Without increasing taxes, school districts can afford a meaningful teacher merit pay program. To do this, school districts need to stop giving wasteful across-the-board pay raises that reward their ineffective teachers, do not incentivize improvement, and discourage high-performing teachers from staying in the classroom.
In Fort Worth ISD, Superintendent Kent Scribner and the School Board are doing many things right for kids. For example, they have set clear goals for student achievement (they aim to have 100 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025), and the number of “improvement required” campuses went from 14 to 11 this year. Great job!
Fixing our education finance system is going to create a lot of tough choices. But the decision to stop wasting critical resources on the bureaucracy and to put more money into the classrooms where it can actually help kids shouldn’t be a tough choice at all.