This election, Houston voters have to decide a major question on school funding: How to send more than $150 million in local property taxes back to the state.
In order to break down what a “yes” versus a “no” vote means, it helps to know why Proposition One is on the ballot in the Houston Independent School District in the first place. That’s recapture.
Think “Robin Hood.” Recapture spreads money from wealthy school districts to poor ones.
“When districts are deemed to be property wealthy, a portion of their revenue gets sent back to the state to fund public education in other ways,” said Chandra Villanueva, a policy analyst with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.
Now the state’s largest school district, Houston ISD, is considered property wealthy, even if the majority of students are poor. (The formula counts property taxes compared to the number of students – not how well-off the children are.)
Now that that’s settled, Villanueva wanted to set something else straight.
“What this vote is really about, it’s not actually authorizing recapture. It’s more about letting the voters approve of the method of recapture,” she said.
That method is whether or not to send money to the state.
“Which they call purchasing attendance credits,” said Trustee Harvin Moore, who is leaving his seat this year.
So, a “yes” vote means HISD will basically write a check to the state.
“That will not only send $162 million of their local tax dollars to the state. But it will mean they can continue to do that from now on,” Moore said.
HISD estimates that the measure will cost over a billion dollars over the next several years.
But the district could leave recapture if property values go down, or the number of students goes up or Texas increases basic funding for everyone.
So, that’s a “yes” vote. What about a “no” vote?
Former lawmaker Scott Hochberg said that the state still takes the money, just another way: “Would you tell the property tax collector you’ll send them a check or to take your garage?”
If voters say no, the Texas Education Commissioner will take valuable commercial property away from HISD. He’ll give it to another district, like Aldine or Alief. They get to tax it, probably at a higher rate. That’s called “detachment.”
“If a no vote wins this proposition, then the board will have no other option other than to say, ‘Take my garage in payment,’ and you’re never going to get the garage back,” Hochberg explained.
It also means HISD loses money that helps pay off bonds for school construction. So, a “no” vote costs taxpayers more.
Every other Texas school district facing recapture has avoided that scenario.
But in a surprising and risky campaign, school and city leaders are pushing for an unprecedented “no” vote.
Even the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, has weighed in, saying it will harm kids in HISD.
“I’m against that. Join me in voting against HISD Proposition One,” Turner urged in a political ad.
Ben Becker, an HISD parent advocate, recently challenged Turner on the issue at City Hall. He’s done his own research on the proposition.
“Some of you have taken this vote as an opportunity to voice your displeasure with the state’s funding of education,” Becker told the council.
He later continued that the Texas Legislature doesn’t act unless it’s forced.
“That’s true and my hope is the Legislature will act even though the Texas Supreme Court didn’t provide them with the impetus, the reason, the rationale, the motivation to act,” the mayor and veteran lawmaker replied.
Turner and others believe that HISD can provide that pressure, in the vacuum of a strong court decision.
Their campaign plays a political bet: vote “no” and push lawmakers to reform school finance. The Legislature has never done that without a court mandate.
“There are no good options here,” Turner said at city council, adding he doesn’t believe detachment is legal.
Becker said that’s a risk he’s not willing to take.
“As a parent, why do you want me to gamble $231 million over the next four years for a political game you don’t have an answer to?”
Becker said that he also believes in sharing resources, so all kids can get a quality education, no matter where they live.