A frequent concern I hear from community members is how much property taxes are rising, and they question how tax dollars are being used to support public schools. The tax bills go up every year, and it’s understandable that residents are confused when district officials like me talk about our schools being underfunded. ‘If we are paying more and more in taxes each year, why do our schools still lack funding to fully support a quality education for our students?’
Some of you may be wondering why we are renovating campuses if our schools need more money for basic educational resources. ‘Can’t that money be used to support educational activities instead?’ The answer is no. The funds used to improve our facilities and technology come from publicly voted-on bonds, and those funds can only be used for those specific purposes. The residents of SAISD have been incredibly supportive of SAISD’s bond proposals and it is exciting to see our facilities receive long overdue updates.
A fully funded public education system is key to a strong and resilient society. All our children deserve a high-quality education that will propel them to reach their full potential. As residents of SAISD, we are fulfilling our commitment to support public education. Now it’s time for our state and federal leaders to join us in fully supporting our schools.
School finance is complicated. It involves different funding streams, intricate formulas to determine how much money districts are entitled to receive based on the demographics of their student population, rules about how to set tax rates. and rules about how much money districts can collect from local property taxes. It’s enough to make the heads of all but the most determined policy wonks spin.
I am not going to try to explain the ins and outs of school finance in Texas. I will, however, provide a high-level and very basic overview of school finance and how schools are funded to explain why, in a district with rapidly rising property values, we continue to struggle to adequately fund our public schools. If you are interested in a deeper dive into public school finance in Texas, I suggest starting with this 2019 publication from the Texas State Controller: Texas School Finance: Doing the Math on the State’s Biggest Expenditure. The SAISD District Budget is another source of information about the funds our schools receive and how they are allocated.
Funding for public schools comes from three main sources:
Local property taxes
Local property taxes are the largest source of funding for our schools. Property taxes provide over 60 percent of funding for public schools in Texas. The state contributes less than 40 percent. The federal government provides a relatively small amount of funding, and those dollars are used mostly for school nutrition programs and support for economically disadvantaged and special education students.
The Texas state legislature determines how much money school districts will receive per student. The state has set a basic allotment of $6,160 per student. Districts receive additional allotments according to the demographics of the students in their district. For example, districts receive extra funding for low-income students, students receiving bilingual services, and students receiving special education services. On average, the State of Texas spends $9,613 per student. We rank 40 out of the 50 states in per student funding — that is, the average dollars per student allotted to us is lower than that of most other states in the country.
In the last 10 years, the share of state contributions to public education has declined, and the amount that localities spend to support public education has grown. From 1993 to roughly 2008, the state and local contributions to schools were relatively equal. As property values have grown in Texas, the state legislature has reduced the amount of state funds they allocate to schools. This means that as our communities have grown and we pay more in property taxes, we do not see a meaningful uptick in funds available to our schools. Instead, we are essentially subsidizing the state’s share of public education funding and allowing the state to use those funds for other things. The public education advocacy organization ‘Raise Your Hand Texas’ created a short and easy to understand video explaining how this works.
Federal funding plays a small but critical role in supporting our schools. The three major sources of federal funding are:
The Title 1 program
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
The National School Lunch Program
Title 1 provides funding for academic support and learning opportunities in schools that serve a significant number of low-income students. In SAISD, most of our students meet the definition of low-income. This is why you sometimes hear SAISD referred to as a Title 1 district.
IDEA funding provides support for early intervention and special education services. Educational equity advocates have long called for the federal government to increase the amount of funding for these important programs stating that current funding is not enough to ensure we can provide high quality educational opportunities for all our students.
The National School Lunch program provides free and reduced-price breakfast and lunches for students. In districts like SAISD that serve mostly low-income students, all students can receive free breakfast and lunch regardless of family income. The National School Lunch program has been credited with helping reduce food insecurity and improving health of students in low-income households.
Another temporary, but very important, source of federal funding for our schools is the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Grant Programs that I wrote about last month. These funds are meant to help districts get through and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have provided a vital source of revenue for our district. It also shows that, when pressed, our federal government can provide more for our students
Sarah Sorensen is our district's representative on the SAISD Board of Trustees
If we are paying more and more in taxes each year, why do our schools still lack funding?