It’s a typical summer day at Emily Herrington’s house in Northeast Austin. Her two daughters, Penly, 7, and Laurel, 3, are playing with their kittens and reading books in the living room.
Penly is going into second grade at Blanton Elementary in the fall. Over the past few years, Herrington has been thinking a lot about how Texas funds its schools. The issue really started to concern her when the Austin Independent School District posed a bond in November to upgrade schools. One of the projects the money would pay for at Blanton was a fire alarm upgrade.
“We had to pass a special bond to get that and to repair sidewalks,” Herrington says. “And then I walk around downtown and I see brand new beautiful bike lanes, fancy crosswalks and tourist signs. I’m like, 'What’s happening here?'"
So, she sent KUT a question as part of our Filling in the Blanks series.
I want to better understand the whole system, so I can understand where policy needs to be changed.
“I want to understand what’s going on, so I can make informed choices ... to elect the people who actually know how to make changes,” she says. “Real changes.”
Josh Sanderson, deputy executive director of the Equity Center, a nonprofit lobbying group focused on changing school finance laws, says there are some simple fixes that could be made to the funding system.
“The Legislature has a variety of existing practices, policies and laws that they can go in and amend or delete,” he says.
Sanderson's goal is to make school funding in Texas more equitable. A way to do that, he says, is to have less money earmarked and more of it in the general fund.
He points to the high school allotment program, which was initially intended to help curb dropout rates. Schools get this money based on enrollment, he says, which isn't efficient.
“A school with no or little dropout problem would receive more money than a school with a high dropout program,” he says.
In other words: The kids aren’t dropping out, so there are more of them, and the school is getting money to solve a problem it doesn't have.
Nowadays, this money can be used for other high school programs like career and technical education. Sanderson suggests just taking the money and putting it into the general education fund, where it can help more students rather than just high-schoolers.
Another thing Herrington could ask her state reps to do is adjust the weights in the school funding formula.
Here’s what that means: The state assigns every child a dollar amount based on their needs. Students living in poverty, or learning English, or who are gifted and talented get more money. But each of those classifications is weighted differently.
Nicole Conley Johnson, the chief financial officer for Austin ISD, says the equation is hurting Austin kids because it doesn't reflect modern education costs.
The weights were determined in the '80s, so the state is educating students based on what it cost a few decades ago. That's like getting an allowance for gas based on what gas prices were in 1993.
“It hasn’t kept pace," Conley Johnson says.
She says the formula used to determine the amount of money added for English-language learners, for example, is inadequate.
"We have a growing population of English-language learners [and] the weight on their school finance formula is ... second to the lowest weight in the nation,” she says.
Because 27 percent of AISD’s students are ELL, weighting them more would mean more money for the district. So updating the equation is something a lot of people, including Conley Johnson, are advocating for.
“If the weights were updated to reflect the cost of education today, if some of the indexes, some of the funding formula were adjusted," she says, "I think that everybody would be in a far greater place.”
One of Sanderson’s criticisms of the current funding system in Texas is that there are too many different branches, rather than one streamlined system.
After the state reduced property taxes in 2006, for example, it created the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction (ASATR) program to help school districts that were left scrambling for money.
Small, rural districts received this money, but so did areas like Highland Park and Austin, which have access to a lot of property tax money.
Whether a district got money depended on its enrollment and property taxes, so the list of districts receiving it changed every year. These kind of temporary fixes don’t create an equitable system, Sanderson says.
“The only way we’ll ever fund everyone fairly, is if everybody’s in the same boat,” Sanderson says. “If everybody has their little niche carved out, they’re going to fight to preserve that niche, rather than fight to increase revenue for all schools, for all children.”
The state is now phasing out the program.
Back in Northeast Austin, Herrington takes notes as these suggestions are outlined.
Herrington says she is going to reach out to people who work in the Legislature and have influence on the school funding system.
“You have to get in touch with the right people and be like, ‘Listen, I have connections with a lot of PTAs, the entire East Austin community is connected to these schools over here,'” she says. “'So if you want to have political support, you have to make some changes here.'”
Correction: We said school funding in Texas was confusing, and it confused us. A previous version of this story and the audio above described the ASATR system as giving districts a partial break from paying recapture. In fact, it's a separate program.