Chandra Villanueva, a respected school finance and education policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin published a viewpoint last week about Houston ISD Proposition 1 and the “several HISD board members and other Houston community leaders [who] are urging residents to vote No on Prop 1 and [who] are running a huge misinformation campaign in hopes that the legislature will swoop in and save the day.”
It was an informative piece correcting a great deal of misinformation put out by the district itself and the Vote No camp led by Mayor Sylvester Turner.
The day after Chandra posted her thoughts, Ashlea Graves, Houston ISD’s Government Relations Director, responded publicly with a lengthy statement.
As a parent who has spent a great deal of time these past few months researching the issue of recapture and the intricacies of HISD’s budget—speaking with trustees, district staff and education policy wonks as I went—I was appalled at both the misrepresentation of facts and the blatant, illegal attempt of a district employee to sway this election. I began rattling off corrections to her errors and have collected them here with her post for those interested.
Let’s take them one by one.
Ms. Graves: "When a district pays recapture, they have to cut their budget – that means people. HISD had to cut staff and services this school year to prepare for the looming payment."
First, when districts pay recapture, they do not always have to cut their budget—because recapture doesn't always create deficits.
A little known fact: HISD was actually in recapture last year to the tune of $3.7 million. All but $1,304 was able to be offset by a credit the district had with the state and the small amount left was able to be deducted from state aid without any public input. Most of the public is just hearing about recapture now, because the payment is higher than the district’s state aid and therefore has to be paid partially with local funds—requiring voter approval.
Furthermore, the $100 million deficit driven by this year’s combination of owing recapture and declining state aid is a short term phenomena effecting the district mostly in the first two years. The deficit drops in half next year (even as recapture increases) before it disappears altogether in year three of recapture as the deficit turns into a surplus.
HISD is fond of communicating the $1 billion of recapture it expects to pay over the next four years, but the district fails to present what the forecasted deficits will be as that recapture payment grows.
Initially through an open records request and then through extraordinarily helpful conversations with the head of HISD’s budget and finance, I obtained these exact forecasts that were missing from the official communications and put them into a single recapture impact projection.
80% of the budget deficits driven by that 4-year $1.1 billion recapture estimate have already happened this year.
Once someone can see the forecasted recapture payments alongside total revenue, it's obvious that recapture WILL NOT force the district to close schools or end early childhood education, but HISD public relations stands by while vote no campaigners paint a doomsday scenario in the minds of voters.
Finally, when a close to $2 billion a year district has to find $100M (5%) in cuts—it DOES NOT have to cut teacher and classroom funding to do it. HISD administration chose to spread the pain across the district, and its trustees chose not to look harder at the $1 billion dollars spent outside of campus funding when they approved a $179 per student cut to school-level budgets.
Saying otherwise is opinion—not fact.
Ms. Graves: "Equity is still a distant goal."
False. As Chandra aptly notes in a subsequent response, in the time between Edgewood I (the first Supreme Court decision that ruled Texas’ education system inequitable in the early 90s) and the last Supreme Court ruling, disparity among Texas students in rich and poor districts has almost vanished dropping from a ratio of 9:1 all the way to 1.3:1.
Robin Hood has been successful at what is was designed to do which is create educational resource equity among Texas children. What Robin Hood doesn't do (as it was never intended to do) is adequately fund education. That was never its purpose and therefore blaming it and attempting to get voters to reject it because one is angry for the lack of investment in education is a red herring.
Ms. Graves: "However, instead of adding general revenue to the public education budget, the state is relying on local taxpayers to foot more of the bill each biennium."
I would ask: Does HISD favor increasing taxes? And, if so, which ones? And if not, which alternative spending does it advocate decreasing to pay for increased education spending?
Does HISD want cuts to transportation or health and human services—CPS, border security? Lots of people are for increased education spending (me, too), but the only way to make that happen is to have a plan for how to fund it. Why would any education advocate attack a method of funding without proposing an alternative?
They wouldn’t—unless their real plan was only concerned about the well-being of a single district.
Ms. Graves: "Recapture was a temporary fix to equalize funding between districts in the 90's."
Laws that are temporary come with expirations. For instance, Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction or ASATR put into law 10 years ago and then 5 years ago was set it to expire this year. This is a temporary school finance law. Robin Hood was the last in a long line of laws created, struck down, re-created and finally held constitutional between the late 80s and mid 90s. No one ever considered it temporary except those who had to pay into it.
Ms. Graves: "recapture is a greasy, dirty Band-Aid that's been on top of a puncture wound with no stitches."
This is opinion, and in the context of responding to an editorial on HISD Proposition 1, it appears that it is part of a larger pattern of district administration attempting to defeat the referendum.
Ms. Graves: "Recapture is calculated with phantom numbers."
No. They're real numbers and can be found in HISD’s internal finance spreadsheets (careful: clicking downloads a large excel spreadsheet) created from templates designed by the TEA to conform with the calculations in state law.
But let's discuss each of these “phantom numbers” you list anyway…
Ms. Graves: "First, districts like HISD that offer the local homestead exemption are paying recapture on home values that aren't even taxable."
This isn't a phantom number. The state allows districts to set various exemption rates and also tells them some will and some won't be included in taxable property calculations for the purposes of school finance. Many districts don't allow these higher homestead exemptions.
Do you know why? Because they’re property poor and can't afford those exemptions while still funding their schools adequately. Allowing for this exemption in school finance calculations would simply create inequity among districts—the exact thing the law was put in place to fix.
Ms. Graves: "Second, many districts like HISD offer full-day Pre-K. However, the state only counts them as half-day students in its WADA calculations; therefore, our recapture payment is higher because the state sees a lower student count."
Again, not a phantom number, just one that is different than HISD would like it to be. We all want full-day Pre-K for every child. However the legislature hasn't chosen to fund it. They should, but the Lieutenant Governor doesn't like Pre-K, so that's that. We all applaud HISD for having it, but unless everyone has it and gets funding for it, its inequitable for one district to be compensated for it while another is not.
Ms. Graves: "In addition, recapture calculations do NOT consider a school district's demographics and percentage of economically disadvantaged students. The calculation is solely based on taxable values and the number of students."
OMG! This is patently false. How can our government relations director say something so incorrect?!?
HISD's 2016-2017 Enrollment (Average Daily Attendance) = 193,009
HISD's 2016-2017 WADA = 267,857
WADA stands for Weighted Average Daily Attendance which is exactly what Ms. Graves is saying they aren't doing—weighting student enrollment based on various special populations like English language learners and economically disadvantaged students.
I cannot fathom how this is a mistake, but if it is, Ms. Graves should not be in charge of representing HISD’s legislative agenda in Austin.
If it was intentional, this is one of the most egregious examples of a misinformation campaign by HISD intended to keep Prop 1 from passing.
Ms. Graves: "When did it become equitable to take money from poor kids in Houston and give it to poor kids in Brownsville or elsewhere?"
Answer: 1993—when Robin Hood was passed and signed by Governor Anne Richards.
And it still works today. How do we know?
Because just north of HISD is Aldine ISD (where Mayor Turner lives), where the district has a higher percentage of poor kids, a higher percentage of English language learners, and also 60% less taxable property to fund their schools.
Yet, Aldine has roughly the same amount of money to spend per student as Houston ISD (granted they still have tax rates 10% higher than HISD but they can get there).
Why? Because Robin Hood drives equity.
Does it drive adequacy in funding? No—but it wasn't designed to.
If we take recapture away without putting another revenue source in its place (meaning new taxes), all we’re going to get is a $4 billion cut to education spending in a state that’s already at the bottom of states in public education spending, and while we make those cuts, some kids will get far less than others—taking us back decades to a time when the quality of your education in Texas was determined by where you lived.
HISD, with all of its magnets and vanguard programs, is no position to lecture the rest of the state on equity in education.
Furthermore, HISD spends money on the wrong things—like unsuccessfully lobbying the legislature.
You know another statistical difference between HISD and Aldine ISD?
HISD spends 20% more of its budget on central administration. Being the largest district in the state, you would expect HISD to be demonstrably more efficient—but it’s not.
So, I'll end where I began which is that when Houston ISD was faced with recapture, it didn’t have to cut classroom budgets, it could have cut out a lot of wasted bureaucracy in the central office.
Maybe next year, it could start with cutting some lawyers and lobbyists before it cuts teachers and books.
Whether they cost us money or grant us money—good public policies which increase equity for Texas children should never be Houston ISD's enemy, and our public servants shouldn’t be paid to fight for their demise on our behalf. And when those public employees stretch the truth or keep the public in the dark about important facts, we need to look past this issue and ask what kind of leadership we expect from our senior administrators and of the trustees that set their agenda.
Only when we have our own house in order will we be truly effective at convincing the state and its voters that public education is deserving of greater investment.