Poll: State Should Increase School Funding

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AUSTIN (AP) -- Eighty percent of Texans surveyed in a recent poll said lawmakers should provide more money for public schools, but most respondents opposed increasing the state sales tax to pay for it.

A majority - 56 percent - of the 1,000 Texans surveyed in the Scripps Howard Texas Poll reported being against a state sales tax increase, up from 46 percent who opposed the increase last fall.

House Speaker Tom Craddick said he wasn't surprised. He said people usually say 'yes' if asked whether they want the state to devote more money to education, "but if you ask if you want more taxes to pay for it, they'll say 'no.'"

The poll also found that while 54 percent said property taxes are too high, 58 percent supported the state's share-the-weath school finance system, which relies heavily on local property taxes.

That marks the highest level of support for the so-called "Robin Hood" system since the fall of 2002.

"I think people began to realize that Robin Hood benefited the vast majority of Texas children," said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, which represents mid- to low-wealth districts.

The state is under court order to overhaul the $30 billion-a-year school finance system by October after a judge declared it unconstitutional last fall. More than 300 school districts have sued the state over the system, which requires wealthy school districts to subsidize the education of students in poorer districts.

Lawmakers are considering a variety of ways to make up for cutting property taxes, including new business taxes, higher sales taxes, a cigarette tax hike and video slot machines.

Sixty-eight percent of those polled said they would support legalizing video lottery terminals at horse and dog tracks to help fund schools. Twenty-eight percent were opposed, and 4 percent had no answer.

Sixty-five percent favored raising the cigarette tax by $1 per pack, and 33 percent opposed.

The school finance lawsuit was launched three years ago by the property wealthy West Orange-Cove Consolidated Independent School District.

Many of the districts that joined the suit say Texas schools don't have enough money to educate the state's 4.3 million students. The plaintiffs included both wealthy districts and property-poor districts.

State District Judge John Dietz in September ruled that the state-imposed cap on local property taxes amounts to a statewide tax, which is unconstitutional in Texas. Many districts are taxing at the legal limit and have no room to raise additional money. The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to hear the state's appeal of Dietz's ruling.

A school finance proposal by Republican Rep. Kent Grusendorf, the chairman of the House Public Education Committee, would lower the tax cap by a third and increase the state share of funding to schools.

Critics of the proposal say it unfairly allows a handful of wealthy districts to keep more of their local tax revenue, rather than give it back to the state for redistribution.

The random telephone survey of 1,000 adults, conducted by the Scripps Research Center from Jan. 27 to Feb. 14, has an error margin of 3 percentage points.