AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A pollster on Tuesday told Texas' school finance trial how the state's "Robin Hood" funding system makes voters in wealthy areas unlikely to support property tax increases.
Larry Harris, a founder of the Mason Dixon Polling & Research firm, testified before state District Judge John Dietz about three surveys conducted in July of voters in areas encompassing the Frisco, Calhoun and Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School Districts.
He said nearly 9 of 10 voters there opposed local tax increases when told that almost half of the added revenue would be distributed to districts in poorer areas.
"That is a tough nut to crack," Harris said. "That is nearly insurmountable." His poll surveyed 500 registered voters and includes a 4.5 percent error margin.
The Republican-led state Legislature cut funding for public schools by $5.4 billion last year, leading to larger class sizes, teacher layoffs and the elimination of full-day pre-kindergarten in some schools districts.
Schools districts that educate three-fourths of Texas students have sued the state over the funding cuts. Texas does not have a statewide income or property tax, and relies on local property taxes and other state revenue to fund schools.
Districts in rich and poor parts of the state are largely on the same side of the case. Texas' funding system relies heavily on a "Robin Hood" recapture scheme where districts with high property values or abundant tax revenue from oil or natural gas resources turn over part of the money they raise to the state for distribution to poorer districts.
Many "property wealthy" districts say that while they are in better shape than their poorer counterparts, the system still starves them of funding since local voters who might otherwise support property tax increases to bolster funding for their schools refuse to do so, knowing that most of the money would be sent somewhere else.
"These polls show that the element of recapture has a significant impact. There already is an anti-tax attitude, and this is an additional hurdle," Mark Trachtenberg, a lead lawyer for the Texas School Coalition, one of the case's plaintiffs, said during a court recess Tuesday.
"We have to ask voters to support a tax increase when a significant amount of money you would generate would be recaptured by the state," Trachtenberg said. "It really makes it a nonstarter."
During cross examination, assistant state Attorney General Angela Colmenero referenced a recent Texas Lyceum poll showing widespread support in Texas for a tax increase dedicated to public education.
"Everybody loves kids," Harris said, noting that reactions change for voters who know their district would have to give away many of the proceeds from a tax increase.
The trial is expected to last until January, after which Dietz will rule.
Whatever he decides is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court, which may direct the Legislature to reform the school finance system if it finds it unconstitutional.