Escape the diminishing tide pools of Texas' public education funding

This article was originally published in the Texas School Business magazine and written by Austin ISD Technology Officer for Learning and Systems - Kevin Schwartz

I have been preoccupied with a metaphor recently. Many who know me wouldn’t be surprised to find that it connects schools and fishing. Picture a beautiful fish, swimming gracefully, frolicking in a school of its species. It feels healthy. Gills are working, heart is beating, and it has a good slime coating to help it slip through the waves. As an organism, it has what it needs to sustain itself. Now imagine that the same fish caught in a tide poll with the water.

Existential panic.

This is what recapture, (Texas’ massively flawed but technically legal process for taking money disproportionately from some school districts and sending it to the state’s General Fund), feels like. It’s not just a matter of, “Hey, you’ve got plenty of water, will you share?” it has become a suffocation.

Austin ISD will send more than $500 million of local property taxes to the state this year. Let that sink in. Five. Hundred. Million. That represents all by itself an effective tax rate of $.49 per $100 in Austin ISD. It isn’t even “recapture” anymore. Recapture has evolved from its origins so that we are now simply doing the dirty work for the state by providing a revenue stream to subsidize all funding priorities. We are then chastised and degraded for doing nothing more than pouring everything we have into servicer every student in our district.

Without a doubt, you’ve heard this before. My purpose in writing this is twofold. The first is to say, “Guess what? We are STILL suffocating!” But the second is to challenge our thinking about the fish. If you are the fish and you notice that water receding and the panic begins to set in, what do you do? A likely first reaction might be to quickly race through the water to see if there is some way out, like a little channel or submerged tunnel.

Texas schools have tried this before. Borrowing from the most recent opinion issued by the Texas Supreme Court, “Despite the imperfections of the current school funding regime, it meets minimum constitutional requirements.” (http://www.txcourts.gov/media/1371141/140776.pdf) There is no alternate passage out from this tide pool.

It’s the fish’s next choice that matters, though. All too often, the fish will settler into the lowest part of the tide pool, slow down it’s metabolism and hide, trusting that surely, one day, the tide will return. The goal is to hold on, scrimp, save, cut and live to fight another day.

Slowly the tide pool lowers and lowers. Soon, the water is so low that the sun begins to burn the fish’s back. Predators prowl nearby searching for a meal, and still the fish waits, energy sapped by the moment, believing the tide will return. Maybe every once in a while a little water washes back in, but each day the tide pool shrinks, and the oxygen is further depleted. Eventually, the inevitable occurs.

But maybe one fish has a different mindset. This fish recognized the predicament and says, “If I stay in this tide pool, I will die. My only chance is to get out of the pool.” It invests all of its resources into the one thing that can save it, which are its muscles. It curls tightly and unleashes, flipping itself up and out of the water. It can’t breathe. It lands on the sand, losing much of its slime coating. It’s heart races unsustainably. It flips again and again, and it finds…

Water. The ocean again. It can breathe, it can swim. It can compete ferociously. It’s not just alive now – it’s thriving.

The next part of that opinion from the Texas Supreme Court says, “They deserve transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid. They deserve a revamped, nonsclerotic system fit for the 21st century.”

My point is that it’s foolish to expect that change to be bestowed on us. We must be the change. We don’t need to simply cut back everywhere. We should alter our resource investments and solve for this problem as if your lives depend upon it. What is your district’s “muscle”? In Austin ISD, our muscle is our diversity, our fight for equity, our empowered teachers, and investments in technology that create the context for us to flip from our shrinking tide pool. Austin ISD is reinventing the urban education experience.