State Senator José Menéndez (D-26)
State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) speaks at a San Antonio CityFest panel on public education finance. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Teachers and education officials are having the same debates now about how public schools are funded that their predecessors were having a half century ago.

“This isn’t a new phenomenon,” State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) said Saturday at a San Antonio CityFest panel discussion on public school finance at the Southwest School of Art. “We’ve been having this argument, this fight, since 1971 when Mr. Demetrio Rodriguez sued San Antonio Independent School District because he wanted his daughter to go to a better school district.”

Over time, various legal actions have taken aim at the way Texas funds schools, and most recently, in May 2016, the Texas Supreme Court decided that while the state’s public school funding scheme was “Byzantine” and in need of significant reform, it was constitutional.

As the 2017 legislative session approached, lawmakers stressed the need to improve public school finance. Yet on Aug. 15, both a regular and special legislative session had come to a close with no significant changes passed reflecting what legislators had discussed before the session.

One potential solution emerged in House Bill 21, which promised to infuse more than $1 billion back into the public school funding scheme. After going back and forth between the House and the Senate, lawmakers instead called for a commission to study solutions to the issue, something that has been done several times before.

“We have studied Texas school finance over and over and over again,” panelist Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods said. “The irony of replacing [House Bill] 21 with essentially, ‘Well, let’s look at it one more time for the 43rd time,’ … [is that] generally folks who study the issue pretty much agree with regard to what our situation is, [although] not necessarily how to fix it. …

“To have potential meaningful revenue be replaced with another study was incredibly exasperating.”

The panelists agreed on what the main problem with the current school finance structure is: There isn’t enough state money going to public schools.

A panel on the future of public school finance is moderated by Rivard Report Education Reporter Emily Donaldson.
A panel on the future of public school finance is moderated by Rivard Report Education Reporter Emily Donaldson. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Texas’ schools are funded primarily by revenue from local property taxes and state money. As local dollars increase, through higher property tax rates or appreciating property values, the state kicks in less.

Over time, the state has gone from funding half of all education costs to closer to 35 percent.

Unless the overall pot of funds going to education grows “at a meaningful level,” districts and schools will continue to see program cuts, said panelist Nicole Conley Johnson, chief financial officer of Austin ISD and member of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance.

That willingness to devote more money tends to come down to political will, panelists emphasized.

So will the legislative session beginning in January be any different? Some CityFest panelists expressed hope after midterm elections flipped some Republican seats and brought the topic of education into the spotlight.

“The House is closer in its bipartisan nature in terms of votes than it has been in a long time,” Menéndez said. “To have a general election where there was actual competitiveness, it sends a message, especially because it was a midterm.”

During the interim period between legislative sessions, Woods, a longtime Northside educator, said he has seen more conversation around school finance than before, which leaves him “cautiously optimistic.”

“I think Tuesday’s [election] results are incrementally positive if you look at it on a statewide basis for public schools,” Woods said. “That and the economy of the state all may be coming together at the same time.”

However, Woods noted, that one session can’t provide all the fixes needed for school finance.

“We didn’t get here overnight,” Conley Johnson said.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) agreed, saying having one big solution isn’t likely. But lawmakers can focus on what works and emphasize those potential solutions.

“If all we do this session is to put in the formulas for full-day, high-quality Pre-K, Texas will forever be different,” Bernal said. “I think we should lean into those things and get them done, because otherwise we are just having a quixotic conversation and will be here next year having the same conversation.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.