It’s apparently official. Enough citizens have signed a petition to call for an election this November to determine whether Erath County becomes part of the Ranger College District.
Although significant public campaigning has not yet begun—and probably won’t heat up until October—it’s already easy to see what arguments will be presented by each side. Those who favor our annexation by the district will argue that Ranger College can thereby offer more programs to area students while charging less tuition per student. No doubt this argument will appeal to current and prospective Ranger College students. It should also be noted that entry into the district will entitle voters to help elect members to the district’s Board of Trustees, its governing body.
Opponents, however, will note that the Ranger College District is, like a city or ISD, a taxing authority, and that entry into the district will allow it to impose an initial property tax of 11 cents per $100.00 assessed evaluation. The owner of property valued at $100,000 will be billed an additional $110.00 a year. Someone with a house and property worth $180,000—about average in Erath County—will have to pay an additional $198.00. And there’s no guarantee that the property tax won’t go up in the future.
The respective stands likely to be taken in the election reflect two different theories of public education financing. We can infer that those who support annexation of Erath County by the Ranger College District, whether despite or because annexation will lead to a higher property tax for county residents, believe that producing more educated people will benefit everyone. Therefore, everyone—including those who have never attended Ranger College or have no relatives attending it–should support the district through taxation. This is the view underlying our system of universal, mandatory, and “free” public k-12 education—free in the sense that students are not charged tuition for attendance; not in the sense that education costs nothing.
This view that more educated citizens helps all of society and therefore everyone should pay for it is also the theory on which public colleges and universities used to be based. It used to be the case that students at the University of Texas, Texas A&M, and their counterparts in other states paid only nominal tuition, with state taxes, oil and mineral royalties, funds from public land sales, etc., supplying the bulk of the financing. As recently as 1987, when I came to Tarleton, I was told by senior faculty that the fees and tuition paid by the typical student still only covered between 5% and 10% of the cost of his education.
But that has all changed, at least at the college and university level. As the costs of higher education have grown, state legislatures—especially the Texas legislature—have more and more been shifting the costs of higher education onto the students themselves. Today, a student’s fees and tuition may cover 65% to 80% of the costs of his education, with the publicly financed share of educational costs shrinking as a percentage of the whole.
Whether this trend is good or bad is debatable. Those who see education as the best, if not only, route for students from impoverished backgrounds to better their lot in life lament it. But those who say that since students themselves will benefit the most from their greater education, they should pay the most, no doubt approve this trend.
And this outlook no doubt shapes the opponents of annexation. Why, they ask, should they be slapped with a higher tax bill to support a new governing entity whose services they will not use themselves, and whose benefits they will not directly enjoy? Let those who’ll actually enroll in the programs and take the classes pay for them themselves. After all, they’ll earn higher salaries when they graduate, so even if they’re shouldering a bigger financial burden by going to school now, they can soon look forward to more financial relief in the near future as well.
So which view will prevail? Which side will win? One would think that the anti-annexation side would win, given public hostility to tax increases. But the election is about three months away and a lot can happen between now and then. Next week we’ll explore some of the strategies and tactics each side may use, as well as the peculiar circumstances in which this election will be conducted. Stay tuned.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.