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Education

How Texas' Education Funding System Encourages Artificial Turf

House_Park_Field_(AISD)_Artificial_Turf_by_Teresa_Vieira.jpg
Photo by Teresa Vieira
House Park Field is one of three major Austin ISD fields with artificial turf.

The Texas school finance system is notoriously complicated, which makes it difficult for average people to have informed debates about how a large portion of their property taxes are spent.

Here’s an example: School districts are funded through two separate property taxes. One is called M&O, for maintenance and operations. That tax rate pays for stuff like teacher salaries, water bills, electricity bills, textbooks and so on.

The second tax rate is called I&S, for interest and sinking. That money can only be used to pay down school district debt on school buildings, facilities, and other capital expenditures.

Now here is where it gets interesting. The tax you pay for M&O is subject to the state’s so-called Robin Hood law, a rule that takes money from wealthier districts and redistributes it to poorer districts in order to provide “substantially equal access” to education funding per student.

But the taxes you pay for I&O are not subject to those recapture rules. School districts - wealthy or poor - get to keep every penny of it.

One of the unintended consequences of that rule is wealthier districts are encouraged to raises taxes for capital expenditures instead of maintenance and operations. As we pointed out in our story during today’s Morning Edition, that makes artificial turf (a capital expenditure) a lot more attractive than natural grass (an annual maintenance expense.) You can listen to the story here:

http://kut.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/111027-Bernier-School-Districts-Artificial-Turf-MIX.mp3

“That’s just one of the odds and ends with school finance,” said school finance expert Dick Lavine with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a local think tank focused on issues related to poverty. “There’s no reason why the money you raise for annual expenses should be different than the money you raise to build new buildings.”

The rule might encourage a district to purchase new school busses, for example, instead of spending less money to restore an existing vehicle, he said.  “You tend to buy everything you can through the debt service,” he said.

Lavine says that makes the system to equalize per-student spending less effective.

“Even the wealthiest school districts in Texas that are subject to recapture are better off than the poorer districts who rely entirely on state aid,” he said. “We are responsible for doing the best we can for all the children in the state.”