by Dave Moore, Staff Writer
Buoyed by signs of growing public support and increased voter turnout, more than 100 education advocates in Texas gathered recently to build a strategy to bolster public education.
Taking part in the March 21 Dallas Regional Chamber’s Texas Public School Finance Convening, the group agreed that the State of Texas’ share of funding for public education has continued to shrink – down 7 percentage points since 2008 – and that the trend should be reversed.
Among those speaking was former Texas State House Public Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock, who described the ongoing predicament facing Texas’ public schools; they are ranked toward the middle of the pack academically, but public-school funding ranks 47th or 48th.
“Are we willing to stay average, with low-income jobs, or do you want Texas to do better?” he asked. “[The education finance problem] is not simple, or they would have solved it in 1836.”
Two recent metrics are giving education and business leaders hope for a solution:
- Polling data shows that 54 percent of Texans support increasing the state’s share of funding for public schools; and
- Voter turnout has grown substantially in Texas, indicating an increased interest in public participation in the election process.
Fellow speaker Jennifer Esterline, Executive Director of Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium (TEGAC), said key to achieving public education finance reform will be strengthening the coalition of business and education leaders, and sending a clear signal to legislators.
“Let’s get focused around a couple key messages that everyone can agree upon,” Esterline said. “Because one of the hardest things about school finance, is that… people start getting back into their silos.”
Key will be finding a solution that elevates all public schools students, rather than resolving singular issues, such as recapturing revenue from districts with rapidly rising land values, or increasing spending for rural districts, she said.
Along those lines, the group agreed, an important task will be informing voters that Texas’ public schools haven’t reaped the full benefit of Texas’ rapidly growing property tax base.
Statewide, taxable real estate values have increased substantially and, consequently, school district tax collections have been increasing $1 to $2 billion annually over the past five years, according to an analysis by Taxparency Texas. Yet while the State of Texas’ budget has benefited decidedly, public school districts have seen modest funding increases, said Missy Bender, President of Plano ISD’s Board of Trustees and leader of Taxparency Texas. The state has redirected the majority of these collections to other general fund items and also provided franchise tax relief for Texas businesses.
Aside from informing voters, another key will be efforts in increasing their participation, Fidelity Vice President of Government Relations and Public Affairs Scott Orr said to attendees of the convening.
“One of my passions right now is getting our employees out to vote,” said Orr, a Board Member with the Dallas Regional Chamber. “One of the things that businesses need to be doing now is stressing the importance of voting to our employees. We’ve seen some significant success.”
One analysis shows that voter turnout increased by nearly 20 percent statewide, comparing the March 2010 primary participation with the same period this year.
“That’s huge,” Orr said. “How much of that is due to efforts to get more people out there? It’s hard to say. But I do know it’s important for our legislators to know our community is voting. Even though we’re not telling them how to vote… At Fidelity, I say, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re hard right or hard left, no matter where you are, you should be out voting.’”
The Dallas Regional Chamber and other major chambers, the North Texas Commission and numerous employers – such as Fidelity – began more intensive efforts to build voter turnout and awareness since the summer of 2017.
Orr said the work is paying off.
“I think we’re being heard,” he said. “I’ve been approached by legislators saying, ‘Hey, this is a problem. We want to work toward a solution.’ If we get this message out, on this problem of how we finance our public schools, there could be some folks out there who may have some ideas that could be new ideas.”
DRC Senior Vice President of Public Policy Priscilla Camacho stressed the sense of urgency in both the business and educational communities.
“There is a business case to be made for school finance reform, and we need to do it this year,” she said. “We don’t need to wait another two years, four years, or six years. We need to do it this session. And we can. If we put all of our heads together… we can come up with the solution to this problem.”
To learn more about the Dallas Regional Chamber’s public policy advocacy, click here.