The Texas Legislature has an incredible opportunity to show its commitment to equity by ensuring the 3.2 million students living in poverty throughout the state can access critical supports they need to graduate college-and-career ready. The state could be an education leader by recalculating the school funding formula with equity in mind.
Across the country, governors and state legislators are actively considering both minor and comprehensive changes to K-12 funding formulas, the central lever that impacts every student’s ability to receive high-quality instruction. Yet, rarely do legislative or executive bodies implement school funding policies that promote both academic excellence and equity. Doing so would ensure all students can access services that prepare them for college and the workforce.
Yet, state legislatures and their constituencies are settling for regressive tax policies that result in continued disinvestment in children who need more resources, not less. According to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Education, the national per-pupil funding average was $12,460 in the 2013-14 school year. Two years later, this figure dropped nearly $620 to $11,841 overall. In Texas, per-pupil funding sits well below the national average at $9,350, making it almost impossible for every student to receive the college- and career-ready instruction they deserve.
According to a group of researchers and education funding experts from Rutgers University and the Education Law Center, high-poverty districts (those with 40 percent or more of students living in poverty) need $20,000 to $30,000 per student to have a chance at meeting national norms, which themselves are still below state proficiency standards. In some areas of truly concentrated poverty, the study recommends over $30,000 per-student in funding to meet minimum standards.
According to the latest figures from the Texas Education Agency, 60 percent of Texas students live in poverty today, emphasizing the fact that the needs ($20,000 to $30,000 per pupil) eclipse the level of investment under the current funding formula ($9,350 per pupil).
While researchers and policymakers often debate whether funding makes any substantive difference in receiving a quality K-12 education, it is unequivocal that money improves student achievement, particularly for low-income students. According to Bruce Baker from the Learning Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, adequate funding spent effectively leads to improved student performance and overall lifetime outcomes (higher graduation rates, increased wages, and lower poverty rates). Low investment in public education deprives students of highly effective teachers, additional instructional support, early childhood education, and other programs students should receive to be successful in school.
Education is the civil rights issue of this generation, but it is also an economic engine creating better outcomes for all Texas citizens. Data published by the Alliance for Excellent Education shows that merely increasing the graduation rate by a single percentage point would yield 250 new jobs, add $390,000 in state and local tax revenue and save $450 million in health care costs among other financial metrics. Yet we see general assemblies throughout the country fail to fully fund or update K-12 funding formulas to reflect what it costs today to educate a college-and-career-ready student.
Texas is no exception, but it doesn’t have to be. After 30 years of minor changes, the state applies a school finance formula inconsistent with the current cost of educating students.
The Texas Legislature is considering an overhaul of its K-12 funding formula. The Texas-based Center for Public Policy Priorities makes it clear that Texas should do the following: update base funding levels and the student weights to prioritize low-income and English language learners and update the cost of education index, adjusting for regional differences throughout the state.
I ask the Texas Legislature and its constituents to consider: How much do you value education for every student in the state? What does it truly cost to educate all students despite their family background? What must change to meet the needs of every child? How will the Texas economy fare if 6 out of 10 of its children don’t receive a high-quality education?
Questions like these will reveal the education priorities of the state and whether legislators are truly considerate of its diverse constituency. We encourage Texas lawmakers to engage in policymaking rooted in the evidence of what works for the benefit of all. The future of the next generation (and our own) hinges on your answers to these questions.
Fred Jones is director of government affairs for the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for high-quality education for students of color and low-income students in the South. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.