Monday, December 05, 2005

Texas Two-Step: The Band Plays On

When parents have to pay fees so that students may play school sports, one knows that something is very wrong deep in the heart of Texas:
Highland Park, a wealthy school district in Dallas, eliminated elementary school Spanish and fired teachers after the state's failure to revamp the education financing system left it with a $7 million budget deficit.

The district's shortfall resulted from its sharing revenue with other schools under a state program that has become known as Robin Hood. Highland Park must send $75 million, or 69 percent of its property taxes, to poorer areas this year, forcing it to use fund raisers and activity fees to meet expenses.

``We flat couldn't afford some of these programs anymore,'' Highland Park Superintendent Cathy Bryce said in an interview. ``We don't generate the money.''

Highland Park and Texas's 1,041 other districts may have to wait until the next school year for a solution after a state court last month extended until June 1 a deadline for when the state must fix the school-financing system. Texas has been unable to cut its reliance on property taxes to fund schools for more than a decade.

Advocates for schools said an income tax would be the best way to modernize the system and cut property taxes, though that is unlikely given the state's history of not taxing income. Income tax revenue would be used to fund all state programs including education.

Both Perry and tax commission head John Sharp, a former state comptroller, have said an income tax isn't an option. Even if an income tax won approval in the legislature, it would never pass a popular vote required under the state constitution, said Kathy Walt, Perry's spokeswoman. Texas is one of only seven U.S. states without an income tax.

The state adopted the so-called Robin Hood system in 1993 in response to a court order to eliminate funding disparities among districts. For most of the 1990s, the system worked as the state increased funding to school districts. After the economy faltered, school districts were forced to raise property taxes or cut programs as costs rose.

The Texas Supreme Court found the system unconstitutional because more than 800 districts have reached a cap set by Texas on property taxes.
According to the piece, Texas has the highest drop-out rate and is 49th in education spending across the states.

I can certainly sympathize with folk's reluctance to impose yet another tax. The pattern of tax increases that has been established in this country would seem to indicate that the tax rate would soon rise to ever-higher levels. I wonder if the Lone Star State has attempted to trim its administrative overhead as well as cut classroom programs?

That school district cutting its Spanish program really bothers me. Learning to speak another language fluently is one of the most marketable job skills that a student can learn in school.
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