A choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, the vote on HISD’s Proposition One – “authorizing the board of trustees of Houston Independent School District to purchase attendance credits from the state with local tax revenues” to the tune of $162 million – has been decided by the voters, 209,069 to 124,632, who have chosen to roll the dice and try to force the state legislature to take up the broken cause of school funding.
Because of the no vote, the state must get its funding somehow, and HISD will now be subject to the detachment of about $18 billion worth of commercial property within district borders next July – starting with the most valuable. The properties would be reassigned to other school districts in Texas, and will be taxed at those districts’ rates.
While HISD and a majority of its board members seemed to favor a no vote, it was stated in an HISD news blog that there is no going back and that “once the property is detached, it remains detached.” However, the tacit understanding is that Houston corporations would refuse to send the money and thus instigate litigation over the issue.
“We believe commercial property owners will challenge the state should they be moved to another taxing district,” said Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo. “We believe they would have good cause as such a move would expose this system for what it is – a defacto state property tax.”
“I have yet to see a group of businesses say they’re willing to sue,” said HISD Trustee District I Anna Eastman, who changed her mind about Proposition One in the past few months and publically advocated for a yes vote. “As trustees, we haven’t talked about suing either.”
Eastman points out that HISD implemented the largest bond in the history of the state to improve Houston’s high schools. At some point the same will need to be done to rebuild the elementary and middle schools that are in sorry shape.
“We need the most valuable properties to pay for new facilities and bonds,” she said.
Eastman thinks it’s unlikely that the no vote will give the legislature incentive to act. There have been numerous Supreme Court challenges in the past to the ways Texas schools are funded. And during the last session even when money wasn’t so tight, Chairman of the House Public Education Committee Jimmie Don Aycock, was unable to get a $3 billion bipartisan education bill passed because of Senate opposition. Aycock is a Republican who has repeatedly opposed school vouchers.
“We think in terms of black kids and brown kids and white kids,” Aycock told NPR in May of 2016. “We think of poor kids and rich kids, kids from small districts and kids from larger districts. And we each come here representing our subset of kids, and that’s how the process works. What will it take to fix school finance? It’ll take a common view of [the state’s] 5.2 million children.”
Eastman also sees the voucher system as something that would further syphon off money from public education. While not a voucher program, Houston’s charter schools do play a role in HISD’s recapture crisis as well.
Recapture is happening in Houston because the state now considers the district too property-wealthy and the “Robin Hood” rule requires property-wealthy districts to share with poor ones. Or poorer ones because 80 percent of HISD’s population is considered economically disadvantaged. The number of students in average daily attendance is also used as part of the formula and it’s this where Eastman sees a solution.
“We know that 35,000 kids live in HISD boundaries and go to public charters,” she said. “If they were in our schools we would not be in recapture. If there were a way to count them as our kids, we would not have to pay Austin. To me it’s a solution worth pursuing in this session.”
Eastman also thinks that updating the weights attributed to each student – or the dollar figure assigned to each student – would go a long way at establishing equity.
“One example is we’re not funding our English-language learners as we should,” she said.
Something Eastman thinks that the board and district can do at home is to really dive down to estimate how much money they need to adequately fund HISD schools.
“There are states that get $20,000 per kid and still do a terrible job,” she said. “We need to look at what we spend money on. Paying teachers a salary they can live comfortably on is one priority and also paying school leaders. Durham and Helms have struggled in the past to hold onto principals who leave, not for negative reasons, but for better compensation.”
Eastman thinks that partnerships with corporations and foundations is part of the answer for budget woes, but not all.
“I think it can help, but not with essential programming,” she said. “We need a robust budget.”
Above all, she said that anyone with a vested interest in public education needs to direct their attention to Austin.
“We all need to be up in the offices,” Eastman said. “They do listen.”