By Dr. Jerry Burkett
October 21, 2014
A court has found the state of Texas’ school funding system unconstitutional.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced late last month that he will choose to appeal that ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.
Does this seem story seem familiar to you? It should, this dance between Texas’ public schools, its state legislature, and its judicial system has been going on since about 1972. Here’s how the Texas school funding tango works: schools find themselves inadequately and/or inequitably funded and sue the state of Texas; courts find the state’s school funding system unconstitutional or otherwise unacceptable; the Texas legislature slaps a bandage on the system to stop the bleeding, but in most cases makes the system even less effective and more cumbersome; the legislature then watches haplessly as school districts sue them.
An entire generation of Texas students has now been educated within a funding system that has been found ineffective and/or unconstitutional time and time again. And now it’s time to grab your partners, Texans, because we’re going back to the dance.
In August Judge John Dietz ruled that the current system of school funding is unconstitutional because it not only provides limited funding to schools, but the system also is flawed in how it distributes money to school districts. Further, the system creates a de facto statewide property tax whereby school districts are capped and cannot raise funds locally to offset the $5.4 billion budget cuts made by legislators in 2011 (and still not restored – most schools are operating at 2010 funding levels).
Meanwhile, these cuts came at a time when schools were being asked to meet new expectations and challenges, including:
- Increase rigor and instruction for students, including implementation of college and career-ready standards and programs
- Increase the number of standardized tests given (ultimately reduced in 2013) for a more challenging testing system (welcome, STAAR!)
- Implement technology
- Address increased language and cultural diversity
- Implement rigorous and national leading state standards,
- Give standardized tests to every Texas student from grades 3-11
- Increase the graduation rate
- Teach an increased number of students enrolled in public schools, adding an average of 80,000 students per year
- Teach students from a state where 1 in 4 children come from poverty
Clearly, the state of Texas has great plans for its schools; however, they don’t provide funding to meet those goals. They desire an admirable and progressive Waldorf-Astoria-public education system on a Motel 6 budget. But Texas can’t have it both ways.
Schools and educators were asked to meet these new challenges without an additional cent of funding; rather, they saw their funding cut. In fact, in that 2011 legislative session, for the first time since World War II, the state of Texas failed to fund student growth. Texas schools have consistently set new records for student enrollment in recent years, educating one in 11 U.S. students, but were funded at a per student rate that ranked 49th in the nation.
Despite these challenges and requirements, the state of Texas still operates public schools at 2007 funding levels (when adjusted to 2014 dollars). To make matters worse these funding levels are driven by Cost of Education formulas that were established in 1991 and never re-visited or updated.
This, apparently, is how Texas values and prioritizes public education.
Ideally, the Texas state legislature would recognize the issues facing its schools and address this problem – re-examine the decades-old Cost of Education Index, re-evaluate funding formulas and mechanisms, and do right by Texas students. The 84th Texas Legislature, convening in 2015, could step up to address the ruling laid out by Judge Dietz; avoid an appeal by the Attorney General saving taxpayer money; and help improve a public education system that is struggling against underfunding, over-testing, and other challenges.
Or they may choose to wait for the political cover of yet another judicial decision. I guess we’ll see in January whether we’ve elected real statesmen with the political will and a propensity to lead and serve the needs of Texans; or if we have again elected political hacks content to disregard their constitutional responsibilities to public education, doing their best to shortchange yet another generation of Texas students. Time will tell.
Assuming the latter, we’re going to have to wait some time to find out how this dance ends. Sorry for the tease, but you won’t know the rest of this story until 2018ish. Why? By the time Attorney General Abbott’s appeal is heard and decided likely in 2015, the state legislative session will be over. Because of the nature of Texas’ part-time legislature, in the absence of a special session, it would likely be 2017 before legislative change would be addressed. Based on this scenario, new school funding formulas or finance systems would be seen some time between 2018 and 2019 at the earliest.
Yes, that’s 2018-19? Will your child still be in school by then, by the way? By 2018-19, our schools will be nearly a full decade behind on the funding required to meet the federal, state, and local expectations for public schools. And we stand by to watch as yet another generation is educationally under-served by a system that is known to be broken, but continues to be ignored.
And Texas continues to dance…