FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – Despite having similar enrollment and economic demographics, the Austin Independent School District receives about $1,000 more per child from the state than Fort Worth ISD.
“Why do you have this inequity between two districts that are so similar?” asked Larry Shaw, head of the Fort Worth United Educators Association.
Both districts have about 80,000 students. They are each predominantly Hispanic districts, and both have more than 60 percent of their students listed as economically disadvantaged. Austin ISD, however, receives $5,700 per student from the state while Fort Worth ISD gets about $4,700.
“From the get-go, Austin, which is basically the same school district as Fort Worth is, gets a thousand dollars more per child,” Shaw said about the annual expenditures per student allowed under state economic formulas.
Every year, the state gives districts money called ‘targeted revenues.’ If Fort Worth got the same amount as Austin, it would make up roughly $80 million in its budget. This, coincidentally, is what educators expect the district will have to slice to overcome a shortfall.
“The legislative committee sat down and made deals and that’s what it came to be,” Shaw said.
How much money a district receives is based on a complex formula of cost of living, district wealth, tax rates, the types of students, class attendance and many other factors.
Rep. Mark Strama (D – Austin) has pored over education reform since he was a legislative aide in the 1990s. He now sits on the education committee creating policies. He said political dealing is to blame for the difference in what the two districts receive.
“The school funding formulas are an accumulated assortment of inequitable deals that have been cut over the years, some of which penalize districts like Fort Worth,” Strama said.
But many of the lawmakers who complain about how unfair and convoluted spending formulas are say now may not be the time to tackle this issue. They say the bigger problem is found in the myriad memos and documents drawn out to battle the state’s $9.3 billion shortfall in funding for public education.
However, Fort Worth ISD does have the option to file a lawsuit that shows disparities in the hopes of changing the apportioned amount.
The law also allows Fort Worth an opportunity to ask taxpayers for a large tax hike first – a move officials say the city would almost certainly have to make before taking it to court – which would likely create an unpopular reaction and a political mine field for any elected school officials.
“We’ve never done that,” Shaw said. “If we go to court right now, the court would say, ‘Why didn’t you go for a tax ratification election? You didn’t even give it a chance.’”
Strama said the same rules hurt his Austin district when the cost of living soared there. He said the rules need changing – some day.
“Maybe, when we come out of this, when we do what’s right on the revenue side of the equation, we start allocating the money when it’s the right amount of money, we can put the money where it’s most needed and fairly,” Strama said.
Until then, Fort Worth ISD feels the impact of those rules every day it struggles to balance the budget.
“$80 million? I can’t begin to tell you what we could do with $80 million,” Shaw said.
When asked if it would balance the budget for the next two years, he countered with “Probably the next four years.”