More than 60 people gathered on Tuesday night at the Glade Cultural Arts Center in The Woodlands to hear a panel of public education experts discuss the problems and future of public school funding in Texas.
The event, billed as a community forum on public school funding and property tax reform, was organized by officials with Texans for Public Education, Kira Becker, a politically active resident of The Woodlands, and Lorena Perez McGill, who was the Democratic candidate for the District 15 seat in Texas House of Representatives.
Among the panelists in attendance were former Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Mike Collier; Jim Cain, the former superintendent of the Klein Independent School District; Chris Tackett, a political activist and founder of Project Educo; Troy Reynolds, the founder of Texans for Public Education; and Gaby Diaz, a teacher in the Humble Independent School District.
Much of the discussion centered around school funding, notably the recent legislation in Texas called Senate Bill 2, which would require voters to approve at the ballot any proposed property tax increase of 2.5 percent or higher. According to Houston Chronicle reports, if the bill is passed into law, it could result in an estimated $1.1 billion loss in revenue for counties across Texas and an additional $1.2 billion in lost revenue for cities. The bill has not yet been heard by the House of Representatives.
Reynolds told the assembled crowd that the biggest challenge to public school funding was SB 2, which he said amounts to politicians, “playing with the numbers” and the end result is that elected officials will, “disempower your local school boards.”
“They are going to pour a lot of money into the system,” Reynolds said. “But they are not going to make the structural fix necessary.”
Collier, who lost his bid for lieutenant governor to incumbent Dan Patrick, told the audience that the assault on public school funding has been going on for decades, and recited three pieces of legislation dating back to 1991 that he claims have led to the financial problems in funding public schools in Texas. One of the more onerous changes, Collier claimed, was a 1997 law that allowed for large industrial facilities to avoid paying property taxes.
“We have not balanced our books in decades. Even if the state says they will fund public education, they can’t and they won’t,” Collier claimed. “They are playing whack-a-mole with our money. We are treating the symptom and not the disease. We must reverse one or two of those decisions.”
As for Senate Bill 2, Collier said he was staunchly opposed to the proposed legislation, and he also advocated that large industrial facilities be required to pay property taxes, which in turn would add more revenue into the state’s coffers.
Former Klein ISD Superintendent Jim Cain may have been the most popular speaker on the night, drawing a round of applause from attendees when his turn to speak arrived. Cain said many school districts work hard to be efficient with revenue, and that he was proud of the fiscal responsibility that existed in Klein ISD. However, Cain noted, there are challenges to the system, namely the powerful political action committee called Empower Texans.
Cain detailed how in June of 2018, officials with Klein ISD attempted to raise revenue for teacher raises and benefits via a tax ratification election, but the effort was defeated by voters after what he described as a vigorous disinformation campaign coordinated by officials with Empower Texans.
“Empower Texans created misinformation and negativity. They defeated the tax ratification election,” Cain said, noting that thousands of employees of the district would not get raises due to the defeat at the ballot box. “That money will not be there, and what a shame it is. We cannot let groups like (Empower Texans) control our futures. We have to stand up and support public education and stop these negative voices.”
One of the more powerful speakers at the event was Gaby Diaz, a teacher in the Humble ISD who was recognized as a teacher of the year recipient and who earned some social media fame after meeting with Beto O’Rourke when he was challenging Ted Cruz for U.S. Senate. Diaz spoke out against what she said are unfair teacher performance assessments, teachers who are losing jobs and charter schools which she said have no oversight.
“I am tired of hearing about my fellow teachers losing their jobs,” Diaz said. “We should not give (public) money to charter or private schools that cannot be held accountable by taxpayers.”
Diaz also said there are other issues in the education system as a whole, specifically mentioning her view that current student achievement testing is flawed, and that because teacher performance assessments are tied to student test results, there is an unfair correlation that if a student does poorly on the tests, a teacher is blamed.
“It is all about shame,” Diaz said of the process.
Collier later discussed how many school districts are raising property tax rates, but are at the same time reducing per-pupil spending, claiming that from 2010-2017, residential property taxes increased by about 40 percent but business taxes only went up by about 10 percent. Collier said he is vehemently against the SB 2 proposal to cap property tax at 2.5 percent without a vote by residents.
“It won’t work. It will be an absolute disaster for public education,” he said.
Despite the focus on the current legislation, many on the panel kept returning to the actions of Empower Texans and described how the group is working against public education.
Telephone messages and emails to Empower Texans media office were not returned.
Cain told the audience to be wary of the group, especially in light of the proposed $807 million bond proposal being before the voters this year.
“Empower Texans has a playbook on how to defeat bond issues and tax ratification issues,” Cain said. “They are well funded, they are determined and they are simply anti-public education. They want to see education in our state privatized as much as possible.”