The Local Burden?
By: Samantha Fillmore
Texas is the pinnacle of the low-service, low-tax model of government and it is commonplace to find Texans proudly boasting this fact. Maintaining this basic tenant on which the Texas State Constitution was written is of the upmost priority to Texas lawmakers and through the action of their voting, also a priority for large numbers of Texas constituents. Although, sometimes this model of government can pose substantial challenges to public systems, especially the funding of such entities. When polled, Texans rank their legislative priorities firstly drawing attention to the desired lowering of property taxes, followed by a desire to redesign school finance. Furthermore, when polled more specifically about public education, and the Legislature, the majority of Texans are overwhelmingly unsatisfied with the state’s handling of public education, calling for improvements. It is no secret that Texas ranks among the bottom of the 50 states in term of public education systems. More specifically, in recent data Texas is ranked 39th in the nation, weighing on the latter end of the quality of education students in the nation receive. Upon recognizing that voter’s legislative priorities are both lowering property taxes and bettering public education, it is clear to see that there is a firm juxtaposition between these two goals.
The public-school districts in Texas are funded both by the state and by local property taxes. On the part of the State, the State guarantees a certain dollar amount of funding for each Texas student, with lawmakers determining this base-line value per student. The current base-line value per student is $6,160 as of the passing of House Bill 3, which was passed at the end of the last legislative session earlier this year, and was an unforeseen 20% increase from the previous per-student value that remained stagnant for over a decade. The secondary source of public-school district funding is local property taxes. As of early 2019, roughly 64% of the bill for public school districts in Texas were picked up by local property taxes, according to the Office of the Comptroller. With this current formula of public-school funding it becomes evident that the two legislative priorities to Texans do not collectively work toward the same goal.
Since the system of public-school funding that Texas has been operating under has been uniquely reliant on local funding and the formulas for property tax allocation and collection vary from school district to school district, and county to county it is a correct assumption to assert that the quality of education students receive varies based on where they live. The current design of this system inherently disenfranchises certain groups of young Texans from a higher quality of education based simply on the district and county in which they live.
Using the data from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) given for the last six school years. Ten of the top performing school districts, along with ten of the bottommost performing school districts in the state were selected to be further analyzed with regards to their overall performance based on the Texas Annual Performance Reports administered and published by the TEA. The school districts were individually assessed based on their annual percentage of “Career and College Ready Graduates” as well as the annual STAAR Test Reports, specifically “All Grades, All Subjects: At Approaches Grade Level or Above”. By assessing school districts in these two distinct ways way not only is there a reliance on the results of the standardized testing of a district, but an emphasis on the percentage of graduates that would be overwhelmingly viewed as successful and prepared by their school district for the next step toward their future. Furthermore, in order to see if there, in fact, is a trend between performances and property taxes, the average property tax values for these 20 school districts have been collected.
Graphic by Samantha Fillmore. Top Performing Districts Career & College Ready Graduates. Data Source: TEA
Graphic by Samantha Fillmore. Top Performing Districts STAAR Results. Data Source: TEA
Graphic by Samantha Fillmore. Average Property Tax Value for Counties of Top School Districts
It is no surprise that ten of the best performing public school districts in Texas are geographically located in four of Texas’s most financially prominent counties. Collin County, Dallas County, Tarrant County, and Travis County. The four aforementioned counties, all fall in the larger metropolitan areas of Texas’s larger cities and these counties are notoriously well-known for being on the more affluent and upscale areas in which to live in Texas.
Graphic by Samantha Fillmore. Bottommost Performing Districts Career &College Ready Graduates. Data Source: TEA
Graphic by Samantha Fillmore. Bottommost Performing Districts STAAR Results. Data Source: TEA
Graphic by Samantha Fillmore. Average Property Tax Value for Counties of Bottommost School Districts
Comparatively, the bottommost performing school districts are geographically located in counties that represent more rural and marginalized communities. These are counties such as Uvalde County, Robertson County, and Falls County. Therefore, it is correct to assert that the current design of this system unintentionally disenfranchises certain groups of young Texans from a higher quality of education based on the inequalities in the values of property taxes across the state and the correspondence that has to overall school district performances.
The findings of this research suggest that there is a persuasive connection between property tax values and school district performance. While there is not yet data available for school performance under the new fiscal allocations from HB 3, the system of public school funding that was in place for this data implemented formulas that were supposed to allow for potential additions to the base-line value per-student, in order to attempt to account for those living in rural districts and small towns. Although, it is clear through the data that despite these formulas for additions, there is still an ample degree of inequality in the caliber of the education these children are receiving.
The graphs above show substantial differences in both data sets collected from TEA, but the differences are especially prevalent in the percentage of, “Career, and College Ready Graduates” category. This should be a point of concern for all Texans moving forward in that reforming of our public education to produce more career and college ready graduates can do nothing but bolster the economy and fashion Texas into a more competitive state in the nation in terms of potential economic progress. As of the passing of House Bill 3 with the conclusion of our previous legislative session, the state not only increased the base-line funding per student but also began to redesign the formulas for ways in which school districts can tax those that live in their districts. This legislation is a step in the right direction towards improving the quality of education for all Texas students. Although, it is important to note that this legislation is only to be in effect for two years before it is back to the drawing board with the next convening of the Legislature. This is the time to look forward to funding proposals for the next legislative session and to continue to tweak the formulas and keep Texas on a trajectory of increasing the quality of the Texas public education system. Hopefully, through this process of looking more closely at public school funding, there can be steps taken to continue to mitigate the inequity that is occurring between school districts. Every young Texan should have an equal opportunity to the same quality of education, regardless of the county in which they live.
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 Cameron County is the only outlier to this trend due to the fact that it is not located near a large metropolitan area. The large amount of Magnet Schools in Cameron County attribute to their peak levels of performance.
Ramsey, Ross. “Texans Think State Leaders Are Falling Short on Public Education, UT/TT Poll Finds.” The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune, 27 June 2018, www.texastribune.org/2018/06/27/public-school-property-taxes-texas-poll/.
Ramsey, Ross. “UT/TT Poll: How Texas Voters Rank the State Legislature's Priorities.” The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune, 23 Feb. 2017, www.texastribune.org/2017/02/23/uttt-poll-how-texas-voters-rank-state-legislatures-priorities/.
Swaby, Aliyya. “Texas' School Finance System Is Unpopular and Complex. Here's How It Works.” The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune, 15 Feb. 2019, www.texastribune.org/2019/02/15/texas-school-funding-how-it-works/.
Swaby, Aliyya. “Teacher Raises and All-Day Pre-K: Here's What's in the Texas Legislature's Landmark School Finance Bill.” The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune, 24 May 2019, www.texastribune.org/2019/05/24/texas-school-finance-bill-here-are-details/.
Texas Education Agency. “Texas Academic Performance Reports.” Texas Education Agency, Texas Education Agency, www.tea.texas.gov/Student_Testing_and_Accountability/Accountability/State_Accountability/Performance_Reporting/Texas_Academic_Performance_Reports.
21, Jan. “Most & Least Educated States in America.” WalletHub, 21 Jan. 2019, wallethub.com/edu/e/most-educated-states/31075/.