One of North Texas’ most conservative state senators declared his support for the repeal of Robin Hood and the expansion of parental choice in education.
During a recent townhall featuring Education Commissioner Mike Morath, State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) discussed reforming or repealing Texas’ controversial education finance system (Robin Hood) and expanding parental choice through Education Savings Accounts.
Huffines re-filed two bills he authored in 2015 that deal with school finance—SB 1186 and SB 1610. They would essentially reduce the amount of local property tax dollars the state recaptures from certain property rich districts, and then redistributes to others across the state.
It’s important to note the term “property rich” refers to a district’s tax base, not its student demographics. Houston ISD, for example, risked having to pay recapture penalties despite the fact that 76 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.
The Robin Hood scheme effectively allows lawmakers to over-tax property rich areas as a means of supplementing its own education budget. The system is not only complex, but has resulted in horrendous side effects.
Most notably, property taxpayers are getting gouged without more money necessarily flowing into education. After the measure became law in 1993, the burden of funding education dramatically shifted away from the state and onto local taxpayers.
Over the last ten years, local property burdens imposed by school districts have increased six times faster than state appropriations (44% vs. 7%). Lawmakers should be moving in the opposite direction, by permanently buying down property taxes with state funds. But doing so requires fiscal discipline and lawmakers dedicated to only spending state tax dollars on essential needs.
Although Huffines cast doubt school finance can be adequately addressed during regular session, he expressed his desire to stay in Austin for “as many special sessions as it takes” to reform the system. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has expressed the same willingness and has publicly asked Gov. Abbott to compel lawmakers to address the issue by calling a special session.
Huffines was equally enthusiastic about expanding parental choice with Education Savings Accounts, a reform successfully adopted in five other states.
ESAs are state-funded accounts that parents can use on a variety of state-approved education expenses. Although an ESA bill has yet to be drafted, these approved options may include private school tuition, testing, curriculum, transportation costs, and college tuition.
“It doesn’t matter why a school doesn’t work for a child,” Huffines told the audience. “It’s about giving that child – and that parent – a choice. Right now, we have school choice, but only if you’re rich. Why not open up that option for everyone?”
Huffines said it’s likely only students currently enrolled in public school would be eligible for ESAs, and the bill may specifically target students with special needs. In response to critics, he noted that public schools would not receive less funding per student as a result of those who left to participate in the program.
“An ESA student would not affect a local district’s funding any different than if a student moved to another district, enrolled in a private school, or decided to be homeschooled,” said Huffines.
Since only state dollars are being used to fund ESAs, local property taxes would stay inside the K-12 system, freeing up additional resources for students who remain in traditional public schools.
“We could also look at leaving some extra state dollars inside K-12 for each child that left, so that districts would actually get a per student boost in funding. But either way, ESAs are a financial win-win for everyone.”
With strong support from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Huffines was confident the Senate will pass a parental choice bill.
However, it’s unlikely the Texas House will cooperate without strong pressure from constituents. There, House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) leads a ruling coalition of liberal Republicans and Democrats who have ardently opposed any program designed to help students leave failing public schools.
The fact that many of the students who stand to benefit from school choice are low-income, ethnic minorities hasn’t swayed lawmakers beholden to teacher’s unions, and the public education establishment.