“THERE’S NO COMPROMISE in Washington right now. But the good thing is, there’s compromise in Texas,” says Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District. On May 27th Texan legislators, who meet for 140 days every other year, concluded their session, having passed several bills with bipartisan support, including ones related to public education and property tax. It was the most productive legislative session in a decade.
Much of the credit for that should go to voters in the 2018 election, who introduced political competition into the legislature, with Democrats winning two state Senate seats and 12 seats in the House. (Republicans now control 55% of seats in the state House and 61% in the Senate.) This prodded Republicans to work on issues of consequence to voters and to broker consensus. Far-right proposals on social issues that had sparked battles during the 2017 legislative session, including regulations on which toilets transgender people could use, were less frequent this spring. “The major story is what this session wasn’t about, which is the conservative issues that have been bandied about for the last decade. There was a real effort to get substantive things done,” says Jason Sabo of Frontera Strategies, a lobbying firm.
The chief accomplishment in this legislative session was a school finance bill, which puts $6.5bn in new state funding towards public schools and $5.1bn towards reducing Texans’ property taxes. The additional school funding will have the biggest impact. Around 10% of American children are educated in Texas, but the parsimonious state has lagged behind for years in funding and exam results. The Republican-led legislature cut over $5bn in education funding in 2012-13. School districts have sued the state several times for underfunding education, and they have won.
In 2017 Texas ranked 46th in the country in fourth-grade reading proficiency, down five places since 2015, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures pupil achievement. A report by the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, released in December, concluded that the state was failing roughly four out of five Texas pupils every year, who were leaving school without the qualifications to earn a living wage. This, it said, was both a poor return on the $125,000 invested in each pupil’s education from pre-kindergarten and a missed opportunity “to capture the tremendous unrealised potential of our Texas youth”.
The new bill will increase most school districts’ funding by around 5-6%, but the “systemic reforms” will matter even more, says Todd Williams, who runs the Commit Partnership, an educational non-profit, and served on the commission. These include money for full-day pre-kindergarten for poor pupils and those learning English; funds for elementary schools that elect to extend the academic year by 30 days into the summer; and a merit-pay programme that rewards top-performing teachers and those willing to work in difficult schools.
Houston, we have a solution
The bill pays school districts more for each high-school graduate who goes on to earn a higher degree or certificate, or joins the armed forces within six months. It also requires school districts to set five-year goals for third-grade (eight-to-nine-year-olds’) reading and maths, broken down by race and income, and to publish results annually. “What gets measured gets fixed, and this bill will require all 1,100 school districts to hold themselves accountable to specific goals,” says Mr Williams.
In an effort to appease voters concerned not just about school quality but also their tax bills, the legislature also agreed to reduce property taxes. School districts will no longer be able to raise them above a certain threshold each year without holding a special election. Boosting education spending while thinning revenue streams is a delicate balancing act, but because the state has promised to step in and cover the cost of the tax cuts for homeowners, this should not deal a big blow to schools.
Where will the money to increase funding, while cutting taxes, come from? The Texan economy is booming, and so legislators were able to reshuffle money to fund education and tax cuts for the next two years without identifying a permanent new revenue source. “They have to count on this robust economy continuing,” says Mr Hinojosa of the Dallas school district, who says that “in the short term we’re better off. But I’m more worried about four or five years from now”.
Texas does not have an income tax, so the state and local governments rely disproportionately on sales and property taxes. In order to ensure sustainable funding for education, the state should do all it can to prevent small amounts of money from slipping away, says Dick Lavine of the Centre for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think-tank in Austin. But a couple of other tax cuts made it through this legislative session, including a bill that caps the sales tax that can be collected on purchases of boats and yachts up to 115 feet long, which will cost the state $6.4m in forgone revenue from 2020 to 2024.
Governor Greg Abbott, lieutenant-governor Dan Patrick and the House Speaker, Dennis Bonnen, known as the state’s “big three”, have enjoyed mostly smooth sailing. They faced only two setbacks this session. First, although the three of them supported a proposal to increase the sales-tax rate to fund property-tax cuts, the legislature killed the idea, because it would disproportionately hurt the poor. Second, Mr Abbott’s nominee for secretary of state, David Whitley, was ensnared in a scandal. Earlier this year Mr Whitley compiled a list of 100,000 people the state suspected were not citizens and encouraged local election officials to purge them from the rolls, even though some were recently naturalised. The incident prompted a federal inquiry and court battle, and Texas agreed to settle. Mr Whitley resigned after the legislature did not vote to confirm him.
Is this focus on bread-and-butter issues in the Texas legislature the new normal? That will not be clear until 2021, when the legislature next convenes. In the interim there will be another election that could further alter the state’s political alignment, as more young, urban and Hispanic voters go to the polls in 2020. If this session is any guide this may make Texas politics comparatively boring—in a good way.