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Roger Falk
stated on November 3, 2017 in an oped commentary in the Austin American-Statesman:
Says the Austin school district "enjoys the highest per-student funding of all large Texas districts" even after forwarding tax revenue to the state.
true false
By W. Gardner Selby November 17, 2017

Taxpayer incorrectly says Austin school district tops other big districts in per-student spending

An activist made his case against voters approving a record $1 billion Austin school bond proposition in part by saying the school district tops other big Texas districts in per-student funding.

We wondered about that.

"Austin ISD has the highest taxable property value per student of all school districts in Texas," Roger Falk of the Travis County Taxpayers Union wrote in a November 2017 commentary published a few days before the bond won voter approval. "It also has the lowest tax rate of all districts in our area."

Falk then rebutted the school district’s complaints that it suffers under the state’s school-finance system of recapture, which essentially shifts money from districts with strong property tax bases (like Austin) to property-poor districts.

"A major part of its sales pitch is that recapture is killing the district and driving this bond," Falk wrote. "Recapture, as an argument from the district, actually shows its incompetence, as Austin ISD enjoys the highest per-student funding of all large Texas districts after recapture."

We’re not fact-checking all that Falk said there. But by email, Falk told us he reached his conclusion about the Austin district having the highest per-student funding among large districts by checking on 2016-17 per-student budgeted spending in a dozen high-enrollment districts starting from a Texas Education Agency website.

We confirmed from TEA figures posted for the Austin district that the district budgeted $10,949 per student--an amount reached by dividing $906,180,314 shown in AISD state, local and federal receipts by its 82,766 students. That disregards $406 million in local taxes recaptured by the state.

Falk said that from TEA-posted figures, he identified only one high-enrollment district with a greater per-student figure; the 157,787-student Dallas district, per the site, drew $11,377 in receipts per student. Falk told us he found from posted figures that 10 other districts--including Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth, El Paso and Corpus Christi--drew less in receipts per student.

"First or second, my central point remains true: AISD uses recapture to give the impression they have unfair and inadequate funding," Falk said. "Based on their peers, many of whom don't pay recapture, they have superior funding along with a low tax rate."

We confirmed that most of the districts Falk reviewed are classified by the state as "major urban" districts, although that classification doesn’t apply to all the districts in his comparison. The exceptions are the Katy, Cypress-Fairbanks, Aldine and Corpus Christi districts. We also learned more precision was possible.

Taking into account all funds

Next, we asked the state education agency and a couple of school funding experts who advocate for districts at the Capitol to assess Falk’s statement and methodology.

By email, TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said Falk’s per-student figures, based on 2016-17 budgeted data submitted to the state, were accurate to a degree. Culbertson said, for instance, the posted data didn’t reflect final totals of federal funds fielded by each district. She subsequently emailed us a spreadsheet showing that districts ultimately got far more, or less, federal aid than indicated in the reports Falk drew upon.

In response to our inquiry, agency experts reviewed audited actual spending data, including federal aid, for the latest available year, 2015-16. By this sort, Culbertson said, Austin fell to eighth among the dozen districts singled out by Falk with $10,805 in per-student spending.

Culbertson provided a chart indicating the San Antonio district topped the sampled districts with per-student spending of $12,430. At the low end, the Fort Worth ($10,507); Cypress-Fairbanks ($10,395); Corpus Christi ($10,216) and Arlington ($10,171) districts spent less per student than the Austin district.

Also to our inquiry, lobbyist Joe Wisnoski, a former education agency official expert in school finance, similarly said the TEA data cited by Falk was incomplete, leaving unconsidered "a lot of federal funds" spent by districts.

Like the education agency, Wisnoski turned to audited district revenues for 2015-16 showing  Austin eighth in per-student revenue of all kinds among the districts analyzed by Falk, though his review indicated Austin was sixth if federal aid wasn’t considered.

Wisnoski also advised: "Spending can vary from revenues in a given year and result in a different ranking." Wisnoski said too that the revenue amounts "would include money for both operations and debt service," a reference to what districts put into paying off bond debt rather than paying for day-to-day operations. Also, Wisnoski wrote, the "amounts per student are without regard to any variance in the educational needs of, or program participation of, the students in the listed districts."

By email, Tom Canby of the Texas Association of School Business Officials concurred with Wisnoski’s analysis.

Focusing on state’s highest-enrollment districts

For our part, we noticed that Falk’s sampling left out a few of the state’s 12 highest-enrollment districts: in 2016-17, the latest year of state-posted counts, these were the Northside and North East districts in Bexar County, the Conroe district in Montgomery County and the Fort Bend district in Fort Bend County. Folding in actual per-student financial data for Falk’s listed districts and for these other districts led us to compose a chart showing the Austin district in 2015-16 trailed eight of the state’s highest-enrollment districts in such spending. Within the sample, the San Antonio district had the greatest per-student figure, at $12,430, followed by the Dallas, Katy, Houston, Ysleta, North East, El Paso and Aldine districts--before the Austin district.

Focusing on the 10 largest districts by enrollment puts Austin sixth in per-student revenue, with the Dallas district leading at $12,069 per student.




Featured Fact-check

2015-16 All Funds Total Revenue/Student





















SOURCES: Email, DeEtta Culbertson, information specialist, Texas Education Agency, Nov. 13, 2017 and PolitiFact Texas research starting from a TEA website, "PEIMS District Financial Actual Reports, 2015-16," accessed Nov. 15, 2017

We shared the information provided by the agency and Wisnoski with Falk. He replied by email: "In my goal to provide accurate, thoughtful counterpoint, I defer to those I use for reference, like TEA," which collects and analyzes data. "If they differ with the assessment, I accept their numbers and gladly stand corrected." Falk followed up: "My point could have been made by simply saying ‘similar funding to other large districts’ or something to that effect."

Our ruling

Falk said the Austin district "enjoys the highest per-student funding of all large Texas districts" even after forwarding revenue to the state.

Considering all audited actual revenues for 2015-16, it looks to us like the Austin district trailed other high-enrollment districts in spending--ranking sixth or ninth among such districts depending on which ones you include.

We rate this claim False.

FALSE – The statement is not accurate. Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

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Says the Austin school district "enjoys the highest per-student funding of all large Texas districts" even after forwarding tax revenue to the state.
Austin, Texas
Friday, November 3, 2017

Our Sources

Emails, Roger Falk, volunteer, Travis County Taxpayers Union, Nov. 7 and 14, 2017

Emails, DeEtta Culbertson, information specialist, Texas Education Agency, Nov. 13 and 15, 2017

Email, Joe Wisnoski, associate, Moak, Casey & Associates, Nov. 13, 2017

Email, Tom Canby, associate executive director, Texas Association of School Business Officials, Nov. 13, 2017

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Taxpayer incorrectly says Austin school district tops other big districts in per-student spending

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