Study: Re­gion dis­tricts fac­ing $86M loss Year 1

But SB 3 ad­vo­cate says con­cerns overblown, cites na­tional fig­ures.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Julie Chang jchang@states­man.com

Cen­tral Texas school dis­tricts could lose $86 mil­lion next year if law­mak­ers pass a con­tentious bill that would di­vert state money to pri­vate schools, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis by the lib­eral think tank Cen­ter for Pub­lic Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties.

The biggest blow would be to the Austin school dis­trict, which could lose $26 mil­lion if Se­nate Bill 3 passes, ac­cord­ing to the group.

Statewide, dis­tricts could lose a cu­mu­la­tive $2 bil­lion.

“If the cal­cu­la­tions of SB 3 are ac­cu­rate and Eanes ISD would lose $2.4 mil­lion in rev­enue, the dis­rup­tion to our pro­grams and ef­fect on our class sizes would be sig­nif­i­cant,” said Tom Leonard, su­per­in­ten­dent of the Eanes school dis­trict. “The re­sult would most likely re­sult in staff re­duc­tions that would cause class sizes to in­crease, as well as di­min­ish­ing our abil­ity to pro­vide raises or ben­e­fit in­creases for re­main­ing staff.”

SB 3, filed by state Sen. Larry Tay­lor, R-Friendswood, would cre­ate a sys­tem of so-called ed­u­ca­tion sav­ings ac­counts, us­ing state money, and tax credit schol­ar­ships, which op­po­nents have com­pared to pri­vate school voucher sys­tems.

Stu­dents leav­ing pub­lic school could use the sav­ings ac­counts to pay for a va­ri­ety of ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices, in­clud­ing tu­ition for pri­vate schools, on­line cour­ses and ed­u­ca­tional ther­a­pies.

For those stu­dents who leave pub­lic school, SB 3 would re­di­rect the per-stu­dent state money the school dis­trict re­ceives to the sav­ings ac­counts.

Low-in­come stu­dents could also qual­ify for tax credit schol­ar­ships to use to­ward pri­vate school tu­ition; busi­nesses that do­nate to the schol­ar­ship fund would re­ceive a tax credit from the state.

The pub­lic will have an op­por­tu­nity to give in­put on the bill dur­ing a Se­nate Ed­u­ca­tion Com-

mit­tee hear­ing Thurs­day.

A blow to dis­tricts?

Op­po­nents of SB 3 ar­gue that not only will money be stripped from school dis­tricts — which have had to shoul­der more of the state’s school fund­ing bur­den each year — but pri­vate school vouch­ers won’t im­prove the ed­u­ca­tion of poor and mi­nor­ity stu­dents, in large part be­cause pri­vate schools tend to be con­cen­trated in wealth­ier neigh­bor­hoods in ur­ban ar­eas. Even with money from the state, poorer fam­i­lies won’t be able to af­ford the high cost of pri­vate school tu­ition, op­po­nents say.

SB 3 has be­come a pri­or­ity for Gov. Greg Ab­bott and Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick, who pre­sides over the Se­nate. They have said it would ex­pand options for par­ents whose chil­dren are stuck in pub­lic schools that don’t meet their needs. But nei­ther House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San An­to­nio, nor House Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee chair­man Dan Hu­berty, R-Hous­ton, has said he would sup­port a sys­tem of pri­vate school vouch­ers.

“It’s part of a broader cam­paign to pri­va­tize core gov­ern­ment func­tion,” said Ann Bee­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Austin-based Cen­ter for Pub­lic Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties and au­thor of the re­port.

SB 3’s hit to dis­tricts’ pock­et­books was cal­cu­lated by as­sum­ing that 5 per­cent of stu­dents would leave to choose some of the options avail­able un­der SB 3 in the first year of im­ple­men­ta­tion. Bee­son said that the per­cent­age was based on how pri­vate school vouch­ers af­fected pub­lic schools in other states.

SB 3 would lessen the blow by al­low­ing pub­lic schools to keep some of the money they would lose when a stu- dent leaves and opts for an ed­u­ca­tion sav­ings ac­count. But Bee­son said that school dis­tricts have fixed costs, such as teach­ers’ salaries and main­te­nance of build­ings, and hav­ing fewer stu­dents won’t save them much money.

Ran­dan Stein­hauser, pol- icy ad­viser for Tex­ans for Ed­u­ca­tion Op­por­tu­nity, which helped craft the bill, said that the sys­tem will save the state money and that the con­cerns of pub­lic schools are overblown. She said that even if stu­dents trans­fer out, dis­tricts would still re­ceive money to cover fixed costs.

A re­port from EdChoice, an In­di­anapo­lis-based school or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates school choice, showed that 10 voucher sys­tems saved states $1.7 bil­lion be­tween 1990 and 2011. The sav­ings were re­al­ized by tap­ping into pri­vate school re­sources and cre­at­ing com­pe­ti­tion in the ed­u­ca­tion mar­ket space, the re­port con­cluded.

“Across the coun­try we have seen in the first few years of a school choice pro­gram a 1 per­cent en­roll­ment, and that is even an ex­treme case,” Stein­hauser said. “For ev­ery one stu­dent that may poten- tially par­tic­i­pate in a school choice pro­gram, we’re get­ting two new stu­dents into the sys­tem ev­ery sin­gle year, sim­ply based on pop­u­la­tion growth in the state. So I think this is ac­tu­ally one way to take pres­sure off of our neigh­bor- hood schools based on that pop­u­la­tion growth.”

Lo­cal im­pact

The Austin school dis­trict has lost a few thou­sand stu­dents over the past four years and is ex­pected to lose an­other 170 in 2017-18. The de­clines have come as en­roll- ments in neigh­bor­ing school dis­tricts and lo­cal char­ter schools have seen steady in­creases.

The stu­dent losses cost the school dis­trict mil- li­ons in state fund­ing. And be­cause the state’s com­plex school fi­nance sys­tem is tied in part to the at­ten­dance of stu­dents, hav­ing fewer stu­dents means the dis­trict must give more in re­cap­ture pay­ments, re­quired from prop­erty-wealthy dis­tricts to sub­si­dize prop­erty-poor dis­tricts.

More than half a bil­lion dol­lars of the dis­trict’s $1.3 bil­lion bud­get next school year is ex­pected to go to the state in a re­cap­ture pay­ment. That would leave the dis­trict $757.8 mil­lion for oper­at­ing ex­penses.

Of­fi­cials said they can’t see how los­ing stu­dents would save the dis­trict money.

“Ad­min­is­tra­tively, the dis­trict has to pay em­ploy­ees and ven­dors, staff all schools, pro­vide tech­nol­ogy, of­fer a range of ser­vices from pay­roll to com­mu­ni­ca­tions and com­mu­nity en­gage­ment, en­sure ac­count­abil­ity by re­port­ing data and test scores to the TEA and pro­vide a rig­or­ous cur­ricu­lum,” said David Edgar, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of fi­nance.

“If the dis­trict were to lose 5 per­cent of stu­dents, which is ap­prox­i­mately 4,150 stu­dents, many of the fixed costs re­main.”

RALPH BAR­RERA / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Tammy Reyes (cen­ter), a sixth-grade teacher from north­east Hous­ton, joins hun­dreds of pub­lic school teach­ers from across Texas as they rally Monday af­ter­noon on the south steps of the Capi­tol to bring aware­ness and more fund­ing to the pub­lic school sys­tem.

JAY JAN­NER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

El­iz­a­beth San­doval (from left), Tif­fany Jimenez and Edith Gon­za­lez, par­ents of stu­dents at KIPP Dream Prep in Hous­ton, cheer dur­ing the School Choice Week Rally on Jan. 24 at the Capi­tol. SB 3 has be­come a pri­or­ity for Gov. Greg Ab­bott.

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